And A Spy Makes Five by The Yank and The Brit
Summary: Lee and Amanda are planning their wedding, and Francine has some happy news of her own to share.   Of course, as always happens with our favorite spies, the world of espionage rears its ugly head once more, upsetting even the most steady of apple carts.
Categories: Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Stephanie Plum Characters: Amanda King, Francine Desmond, Grandma Mazur, Joe Morelli, Lee Stetson, Lula, Ranger, Stephanie Plum
Genres: Action, Comedy, Drama
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: The L'Amour Universe
Chapters: 14 Completed: Yes Word count: 114194 Read: 130583 Published: 07/06/08 Updated: 07/06/08
Story Notes:
Disclaimer: The characters from Scarecrow and Mrs. King are the property of Warner Brothers and Shoot the Moon Productions. We have borrowed the characters without the consent or knowledge of Warner Brothers or Shoot the Moon. The characters from the world of Stephanie Plum are the sole property of the very talented author: Janet Evanovich.  We only borrowed them to help enhance our story, and do not wish to make money off of them.  This story, however, is copyrighted to the mentioned authors. This story is for entertainment purposes ONLY. If you would like to add it to an archive, please just let us know.Authors’ Notes:  This story came about because of an interview that Jan saw on television, and the related article on the news website that she passed onto Amy to read. Additionally, this story is dedicated to Cheryl, who requested an SMK/Plum crossover, and the idea for this story seemed like the perfect way to make those two worlds fit together.  Also, since this is a crossover with the Stephanie Plum novel series, a quick note.  Ms. Evanovich writes the stories, which if you haven’t read you should because they are a terrific, in the first person, from Stephanie’s point-of-view.  Stephanie is a Jersey girl with Amanda’s knack for finding trouble and hates guns. Anyway, since the story is mostly written in the third person, it didn’t make sense to switch to first person when we got to the Plum portion of the story, therefore, our story does not follow Ms. Evanovich’s style of writing, and we hope we have done the characters justice.Additionally, according to research cellular phones became popular in the 1980s, but mostly as car phones.  The Plum stories seem to start in the early 90’s and Stephanie Plum uses her cell phone religiously. Therefore, we’re going to suspend reality and assume that whether true or not, cell phones became small enough and less cumbersome to be used quite frequently in 1989. The same suspension of reality goes for pagers, too, because most of the characters within the Plum world carry them.  Also, based on the information in “Three to Get Deadly” it is mentioned that the character, Uncle Mo, had opened his store in 1958, and had been running it for thirty-odd years, which puts the timeframe of the Plum series in the early 90s.  So we’re not that far off from the SMK timeframe.  Our story, takes place in April of 1989.And one final note, which is more of a tissue/fist-thrusting-in-the-air-warning:  we do kill off a minor character from the SMK world, one that is quite an integral part of the end of the second and all of the third and fourth seasons of the show, but we felt could be ‘gotten rid of’.  The reasons why will become evident by the end, but we apologize up front for anyone we may upset when one so beloved bites the dust.Possible spoiler alert: our story contains background information on the Plum characters, to provide those who aren’t familiar with the series enough information to feel comfortable with the characters.  With this in mind, if you plan on reading the Plum series, we tried not to give a way any major spoilers for anything that happened in the first five books of the series. Timeframe: This story takes place a few months after our story “l’Amour, Toujours l’Amour.”  Lee and Amanda are busy handling cases and hoping to make it to their public wedding on time.   Completed: April 30, 2007 

1. Chapter 1 by The Yank and The Brit

2. Chapter 2 by The Yank and The Brit

3. Chapter 3 by The Yank and The Brit

4. Chapter 4 by The Yank and The Brit

5. Chapter 5 by The Yank and The Brit

6. Chapter 6 by The Yank and The Brit

7. Chapter 7 by The Yank and The Brit

8. Chapter 8 by The Yank and The Brit

9. Chapter 9 by The Yank and The Brit

10. Chapter 10 by The Yank and The Brit

11. Chapter 11 by The Yank and The Brit

12. Chapter 12 by The Yank and The Brit

13. Chapter 13 by The Yank and The Brit

14. Epilogue by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 1 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 1

         Amanda leaned her head against the wall of the sauna and sighed contentedly. Whoever had coined the phrase, ‘good things come to those who wait’, had known what they were talking about. For the first time in a month her life seemed to be calming down. All the minute details for the wedding were finally starting to fall into place; something she didn’t think was ever going to happen, and their caseload at work was almost completely non-existent.  Ever since Lee had proposed at the Inaugural Ball almost four months ago, she he had begun to think that their original idea of eloping had been the right way to go all along.  For some reason she couldn’t remember having so much anxiety and problems planning her wedding to Joe.  Then again, when she was marrying Joe, she didn’t have two teenage boys with schedules rivaling that of the Queen of England, or a job that kept her extremely busy with assignments that lasted for days.  With the wedding now only two weeks away, she was glad that the chaos was finally dissipating and that things were actually falling into place.

         She glanced over at Francine, who seemed just as relaxed as she was feeling.   However, she didn’t think that finally finding both a wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses was the reason for her friend’s unusual calm demeanor.  Francine had been in an extremely good mood for a few weeks now and Amanda was determined to find out exactly what was going on with her friend, and today’s day at the spa was the perfect place to do it. 

         Amanda chuckled to herself as she realized that the good things phrase didn’t just mean wedding plans, but could also describe her friendship with the blonde on the bench just to her left.  It had taken almost six years for her to develop a real friendship with Francine.  She had known, as she had known with Lee, that with a little understanding, an insane amount of patience, and of course a very thick skin, that a true friend was lurking just under the surface of the blonde’s snide exterior.  And she had been right, because now she considered Francine one of her closest friends; a friend who happened to be the only one who knew that she and Lee were already secretly married and that the wedding they were planning for May 13th was really their second wedding.  They had chosen that day in May because it was a Saturday, and because it was around the time they had shared their very first, heart-stopping, breathtaking, start-of-their-relationship kiss, and also, because it was the same date they had gotten married in February.  Although a large part of her couldn’t wait to become Lee’s wife publicly, a small part of her was dreading the upcoming nuptials.  She was more than anxious for Lee to move in and become a full-time official member of the family, but at the same time, she was going to miss the secrecy of their private rendezvous, even if they were few and far between. 

         She glanced over at her friend again and smiled. It was hard to believe that they had been making monthly trips to the spa together for four months now.  Ever since the Agency had treated her and Francine to a day at the spa, she and Francine had decided to come back to the spa once a month, on their own dime.  It helped to relieve stress, and it was the perfect place to bond.  The one thing they had both agreed to however, was that they wouldn’t go back to the spa they had gone to that first time.  Even though it was probably the best spa in town, it brought up too many painful memories for her of the Peacock Dance she had had to do with Steven Richmond.  No matter how many times Lee or even Francine tried to reassure her that what she had done had stopped an assassination attempt, the memory of cheating on her husband was still very fresh in her mind.  Needing something to take her mind off of unpleasant thoughts, she turned her full attention to her friend.

         “Okay, Francine, I’ve been dying to ask you this, and since there’s only one door, and I’m sitting closest to it, there’s no way I’m letting you out of this room, no matter how wilted we get, until you give me a straight answer.” Amanda fixed her friend with a very determined stare. “Something’s up with you lately.  You seem extremely happy and I’m dying to know why.”

         Francine turned and looked over at the brunette.  “Oh, Amanda I’ve been dying to tell you, too, I just didn’t want to say something too soon, in case I ended up jinxing it.” Grinning like the Cheshire Cat, she scooted to the end of her bench, as Amanda moved to the end of hers.  “I met someone.”

         Amanda was so excited for Francine that she had to restrain herself from jumping off the bench and embracing the blonde. Knowing that no matter how close they had become, Francine wasn’t the hugging type, so she settled on a huge grin instead. “Oh, Francine, that’s wonderful.  How long have you two been together, I’m guessing it has to be a few weeks, because I’ve noticed a change in you for a while now? Oh and what’s his name, what does he do for a living and most importantly how did you meet?” She then glanced at her friend curiously, “and does he know what you really do for a living?”

         Francine shook her head and chuckled. “If they had a contest for the best rambler, you’d win, hands down. And I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course.”

         “Oh I know.” Amanda waved the comment away as she tilted her head to the side and shrugged. “And I am sorry, but you know how I get when I’m excited or nervous.”

         “Yes, I do.” Francine nodded. “No one can get a word in edgewise.”

         Amanda rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know…now, enough about me and my way with words, I want to hear all about this guy…so enough stalling.”

         “I wasn’t stalling, honest. I already told you I’ve been bursting to tell you.” Francine ignored the slightly frustrated look the brunette was giving her. “His name is Adam and he’s handsome.  Oh my God is he drop-dead gorgeous. He’s got pitch black hair, has the most amazing blue eyes, and dimples that turn my knees to jelly. He’s attentive, doesn’t mind my crazy hours, showers me with gifts and we have an absolutely wonderful time together.” Her expression became wistful as she thought about the man who had somehow captured her heart. “Oh, Amanda, I’ve never felt this connected to any man before, not even Jonathan.”

         Amanda smiled warmly at her friend. “He sounds perfect, Francine. I’m so happy for you, and I dare say it’s about time you found someone.  Now, tell me how you met.”

         “We met in the gym at my apartment building.  I usually like to head down there after an extremely trying day at work, because it helps me unwind…and also keeps me in shape.” Francine glanced over at the clock. “Oh, we better head over to the mud room, or we’re going to lose our spot.”

         Amanda nodded. “Yeah, and we will wilt if we stay in here any longer.” She rose and began heading for the door. “So you met in the gym?”

         Francine followed Amanda, and stepped through the door her friend was holding open for her. “Yes, about three weeks ago.  He had just moved into an apartment one floor below mine.  We struck up a conversation, nothing earth shattering, we just talked.  It was nice to find someone I could connect with, who didn’t seem to want to automatically jump into bed with me.  We ended up running into each other three more times in the gym before he finally asked me out.  We’ve been dating ever since.”

         Amanda walked alongside Francine as they turned the corner towards the mudroom. “It’s ironic how things work out isn’t it? You can spend your whole life trying to find something, or someone, and then fate just drops them into your lap.”

         Francine chuckled. “Isn’t that the truth.  I mean just look at you and Lee.” She entered the mudroom ahead of her friend and started walking towards the bathtub that had been reserved for them. “A divorced mom, with two boys and a live-in mother was not the type of woman I ever saw him ending up with, not in a million years.  Just look at me.” She lowered herself into the cool, dark liquid.

         Amanda sank down into the mud and, as she made herself comfortable, gave the blonde a quizzical look. “What do you mean? Is Adam a divorcee with children?”

         Francine laughed. “Goodness no, but he works with kids.  He was just hired as the assistant baseball coach over at Arlington High School.”

         “You mean Coach Clyde is your new man?” Amanda asked her eyes widening in astonishment. 

         “Yes, isn’t that perfect?” Francine nodded. “I know you and Lee go to Phillip’s games, so when I go, I’ll have someone to sit with.” She smiled sheepishly. “It’s another reason I’ve wanted to tell you.  The first game of the season is Saturday, and I figured I had to come clean before then, otherwise you’d never believe why I was there.  You might say something about work, and then I’d have a lot of explaining to do.”

         “Adam doesn’t know what you really do, does he?” Amanda glanced at her with a knowing expression.

         Francine shook her head. “He thinks I’m a producer for I.F.F. the usual spiel we tell everyone.  When I met him, I wasn’t ready to be totally honest with him.  After Jonathan, I realized I have to gain people’s trust completely before I tell them the truth.  Besides, I may be head over heels in love with Adam, but I don’t think I’m ready to walk down the aisle with him yet.  I figure I have a little time before I have to come clean.  But when I am ready to tell him, you’ll be the first to know,” she glanced at the brunette with a half pleading, half mocking expression, “because I’ll be coming to you for advice.”

         “Why me?” Amanda glanced at Francine.

         “Because you and Lee just did the whole coming clean bit with your family, so you’ve got experience in that field.” Francine leaned her head against the pillow at the edge of the tub and closed her eyes.

         “I don’t really know if I’m an expert in that field though, Francine.” Amanda mirrored her friend’s posture, and rested her head.  “Coming clean to my family wasn’t exactly a success.  I mean, sure my mother thought our jobs were extremely exciting.  She’d always believed the stories in her spy novels were true.  Especially after the incident with Professor Zernov.”

         “Yeah, I remember that affair.  The State Department had to do a lot of cleaning house after that whole mess.” Francine shook her head slightly.  “Better them then us.”

         “Well, anyway, my mother took the news well.  I think she’s even a little envious of me, to be honest.  But,” Amanda let out a small sigh, “Phillip and Jamie weren’t as understanding. They still have these worried expressions on their faces some mornings when they head off to school and Lee and I head into the office.  Usually when we’ve had a late stakeout the night before or one of us comes home with extra scrapes and bruises we didn’t have that morning.  I think they’re afraid that one of us, especially me, won’t come home one day.  A lot of that fear stems from the accident in California, even though we’ve assured them more times than I can count that that really wasn’t work related.  Lee’s looking into courses the boys might be able to take, you know Agency ones for family members.”

         Francine nodded. “Yeah, there are quite a few of them actually.  If Lee has any trouble getting them signed up, let me know, I happen to know quite a few pieces of dirt on the course administrator.  You wouldn’t believe the skeletons he has in his closet.” She opened her eyes and turned her head slightly in her friend’s direction. “Amanda, has Lee met Adam, yet?”

         “No, I only just met him when I picked up Phillip from practice the other day.” Amanda watched her friend curiously. “Are you anxious or afraid for Lee to meet him?”

         Francine shrugged her shoulders. “A little of both I guess.  This is going to sound strange, after all I do have a sordid past with your husband, which didn’t last very long, and we’re stronger as friends than anything else…”

         “Francine,” Amanda sat up a little straighter to look her friend in the eye, “I don’t feel threatened or jealous of your past with Lee, you know.”

         “Oh I know.” Francine shook her head slightly. “What I’m trying to say is that somewhere along the line, I think Lee assigned himself as my personal protector, almost like a brother.” She let out a small sigh, “And I guess I’m a little anxious for Lee to meet Adam…and even more afraid of what my ‘brother’ will do or say to embarrass me or even chase Adam off.”

         Amanda raised her hand out of the mud and placed it on her friend’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep Lee under control.” She let out a small chuckle. “Then again, I don’t think its Lee you should really be worried about.  I think, in all fairness, as your friend I should warn you, Francine.  I think it’d be wise for you to stake your claim at the game on Saturday,” the blonde shot a worried and quizzical glance in her direction, “there are a lot of single moms who show up at the games, and I can tell you with complete honesty that each and every one of them is going to be doing their best to get Coach Clyde’s attention.”  She looked at her friend with a slightly embarrassed expression. “I met him just the other day, and even I had to remind myself that I was a married woman, otherwise I might have found myself flirting shamelessly with him.”

         Francine chuckled and waved her hand above the mud. “Oh, I’m not worried.  I happen to know that Adam has eyes only for me.  Sure, he’s suave, debonair, charming, and have I mentioned drop dead gorgeous.” She grinned and laughed along with Amanda. “But he reminds me a lot of the man Lee’s become.  You know how Lee used to always have women flocking around him and then when he started dating you, he suddenly didn’t care about other women’s attentions, so much that he pretty much ignored them?” When the brunette nodded, Francine smiled. “Well Adam’s the same way.  When we go out, even to the store, women just flock to him and totally ignore me.  Adam’s polite, and always tells them he’s not interested and that he’s attached.  So, I’m not in the least bit worried about a few single mothers.”

         “Oh wow, you really do have it bad, don't you?” Amanda smiled warm-heartedly at her friend.  “I don't think I've ever seen you this serious over a guy.” Her smile turned into a teasing grin. “If I didn't know better, I'd expect to be getting a wedding invitation from you in the very near future.”

         Francine shrugged her shoulders and gave the brunette a tiny smile. “You know what, Amanda, I'm beginning to think that might not be such a bad thing.”

         Amanda’s eyebrows raised slightly. “Wow, this is a day for the record books.  Francine Desmond, talking about marriage with a guy she's known for less than a month.”

         “Okay maybe marriage is a bit premature, but I wouldn't mind having a long term relationship with Adam, and if it eventually turns into marriage...well,” Francine leaned her head back and closed her eyes again, “let's just say I wouldn't say no.”

         “Well, no matter what, I’m happy for you Francine. I can’t wait to tell Lee.”  Amanda leaned her head back against the headrest once more.

         “You can tell Lee, but you have to promise me one thing?” Francine turned her head back towards her friend and opened one eye.

         Amanda nodded hesitantly. “I suppose, what’s the one thing?”

         Francine opened her other eye and stared pointedly at Amanda. “Don’t tell Lee who he is. I want him to fall out of his seat at the game on Saturday.”

         “I think that’s one secret I don’t mind keeping.  Of course it’s going to be almost impossible not to give him any details.” Amanda turned her head and stared at the blonde. “He’s going to drive both of us crazy over the next two days.”

         Francine closed her eyes and turned her head forward. “Yeah, but it’s going to be worth it.”

         Amanda laughed. “I think you’re rubbing off on me, because I have to agree with you. It is fun to torture Lee…every now and then.”

         “Let’s just hope he doesn’t retaliate too badly.” Francine laughed along with her friend. “Suddenly, I can’t wait for Saturday to get here.”  She let out a contented sigh and relaxed in the mud bath while thoughts of Adam ran through her mind.

*****  *****

         Amanda put her hand on the doorknob and turned; it was locked, which meant Lee was either hiding from their co-workers, or he was downstairs somewhere.  Since she had only asked Mrs. Marsten if Lee was in and not if he was up in the Q-Bureau, she really didn’t have a clue which was the right answer.  Pulling out her key chain, she found the right key and put it into the lock.  Hearing the tumbler click, she removed her key.  Turning the knob again, she anxiously stepped into the office. A quick glance around the room told her that Lee was definitely not up in their office; in fact, it looked like he hadn’t been here all day.  The stack of files in her in box that he was supposed to be working on was as high as it had been when she had left three hours ago.  Rolling her eyes, she closed the door behind her and moved over to her desk.  As she put her purse in its usual spot, she scanned her desk for any sign of a note from her husband.  Not seeing one, she sighed and took half of the files off the pile and headed towards the vault. 

         “I was beginning to have second thoughts about stringing Lee along,” Amanda mumbled to herself as she stepped over to the first filing cabinet.  “However, seeing as how he seems to have shirked his responsibilities…again, especially after he promised me he’d take care of this so that I didn’t have to, well I don’t feel so bad anymore.” She laid the stack on top of the cabinet and then, taking the top file, she turned towards the correct drawer.  “I don’t care what his excuse is, he deserves a little punishment.”

         “Oh, and just what kind of punishment did you have in mind?” Lee asked as he wrapped his arms around his wife.

         Amanda jumped, only not as high as she would have had her husband not managed to find a way to ground her.  She turned around and glared at him. “I HATE when you do that.”

         “Yes, I know you do… but it’s so much fun.” Lee grinned and waggled his eyebrows as he leaned down and captured her lips with his.  He pulled her tightly to him and moved his hands down to her butt cheeks, giving them a little squeeze as he deepened the kiss.

         Amanda found herself getting wrapped up in the moment, until a little voice inside her head reminded her that despite the fact that everyone at work knew they were engaged, they were at work, not to mention the fact that she was extremely annoyed with him. She moved her hands between them and, placing them on his chest, pushed herself away from him, effectively breaking the kiss. “Nice try, Stetson.”

         Lee shrugged and smiled playfully at his wife. “Can’t blame a guy for trying. So,” he moved his hands back to her waist, “why am I in trouble this time?”

         Amanda gave him her best ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ look. When he shrugged again and gave her that innocent ‘I really have no clue’ look, she sighed.  She glanced at the stack of files on the cabinet next to her, then back at her husband. “Do you want to tell me what you’ve been doing for the last three hours, since it’s obvious you weren’t doing any of the filing you’d promised to do?”

         Lee removed his hands from his wife’s body and raised them in the air, palms forward. “I have a perfectly good answer to that.  Billy called me down to his office right after you left and gave me some information on a case that he wants us to work on.  Then, since it was almost lunchtime, he and I decided to go grab a bite to eat, since my usual lunch partner wasn’t available.   Somehow, after lunch we ended up over at the tuxedo shop down the street. Billy convinced me to buy a new one, rather than wearing one of my ‘work function tuxes’.” 

         Amanda looked at her husband with a mixture of shock, disbelief and a tiny bit of humor. “So basically you went to lunch and then shopping just to avoid doing the filing.”

         “Honest,” Lee put his hands back around Amanda’s waist and pulled her closer to him, “I wasn’t trying to get out of doing the filing. It was all Billy’s idea.  I swear.”  He raised his left hand and put his three fingers together, making the scout pledge of honor.

         Amanda rolled her eyes and swatted him playfully. “You were never a scout.”  She wiggled her way out of his embrace and, brushing past him, she headed out of the vault.  “Just to make sure you’re being honest, though… I’m calling Mr. Melrose.”

         Lee followed his wife into the other room and put a hand over his heart. “I’m hurt, Amanda. You don’t trust your husband.  I mean if you can’t trust me with something like this, what does that say about the type of marriage we have?”  He gave her his best little boy pout.

         Amanda turned and shaking her head, sighed.  “Why me?” She moved over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I love you and I do trust you, with matters of the heart and where our family is concerned, but when it comes to you trying to find ways to get out of having to do the paperwork or filing, face it Lee,” she placed a quick kiss on his lips, “you’re the king.”  She then removed her arms and turned back towards her desk.  “Now, I’m going to call Mr. Melrose and confirm your story. If you’re telling the truth, then I’ll reward you by telling you the very interesting gossip I found out today…and it concerns Francine.”

         Lee’s eyes grew wider. “I promise you, I’m telling the truth. But go ahead and call Billy so that I can get my reward.” He grinned devilishly. “In fact, I think that not only do you have to tell me what you found out, but that once you find out I’m telling the truth, you have to come back to my place after work and make it up to me for not believing me.”

         Amanda picked up the phone and started dialing the number for their boss. Doing her best to ignore the warm feelings coursing through her, she stepped to the side. “We’ll see about that.  Besides, you still have a lot of making up to me to do for not doing any of the filing, regardless of the reason why it didn’t get done.”  She stopped any other comment when her boss came on the line.  “Sir, it’s Amanda … No, Lee hasn’t filled me in on our case yet.  Actually I’m calling to find out whose idea it was to go shopping this afternoon, especially with the work that’s piling up in the Q-Bureau.  Really, okay … thank you.  Yes, I promise if I have any questions about the case, I’ll come see you.  Bye, sir.”  She put the receiver back on its base and shook her head. “Okay, so you were telling the truth.”

         Lee clapped his hands together and smiled conspiratorially at his wife. “Now, I think that not only do you owe me an apology, but I get to choose what my reward back at the apartment is going to be.” He took two long strides over towards Amanda. “In fact I think I already know what I want it to be. If I’m not mistaken there’s a brand new sexy number you’d bought for a romantic evening that you never got to try on.” He rubbed his hands together excitedly as he moved to stand behind his wife. “I can just picture you in it and me slowly,” he whispered seductively in her ear, “taking it off of you, inch by inch.”

         Amanda backed up and found herself up against her desk. She raised her hand in front of her. “Hold it right there, buster.  You still owe me for the filing.  I think I should be the one who receives some sort of reward, since I’m the one who’s going to end up doing all the work.”

         “How about we both do the filing so that we can get out of here sooner?  Besides, I think what I have in mind,” Lee lowered his voice into a husky whisper as he leaned closer to his wife’s lips, “will benefit both of us.”  He then pulled back and stepped away.  “But first, I think you need to tell me what you found out about Francine.”

         Amanda cleared her throat and tried to get her breathing under control.  She hoped the effect her husband had on her would remain as strong it was today until the day she died. Granted, it could be extremely distracting, especially when she wanted to be at least slightly annoyed with him, but she was thankful every day that his heart belonged to her.  Shaking her head slightly, she tried to focus back on the fact that they were at work and there were Agency related issues to discuss. “You still have to tell me about the case, Mr. Melrose has for us.”

         “I will,” Lee moved over and leaned back against his own desk, “but first, Francine.”

         Amanda nodded and gave in only because she’d been dying to tell him since she’d found out. “Francine’s got a boyfriend.”

         Lee let out a sigh of disappointment. “Is that all?” He uncrossed his arms and walked around to the other side of his desk. “She’s got a new man every week.” He sat down in his chair and propped his feet up on the desk.

         Amanda moved over and, pushing his feet over a little, sat down on the corner of the desk. “She doesn’t have boyfriends, like you had girlfriends, or flavors of the week as they were called. She goes out on a lot of dates, but never gets serious about any of them… this one’s different.  She’s really serious about him. I mean really serious.” She looked at her husband earnestly. “Think about it, haven’t you noticed how much nicer Francine’s been, lately.  She’s even been nice to Ephram, which is a rarity in itself.”

         Lee nodded his head slightly. “Now that you mention it, she has been a little nicer to everyone, including me.  Usually she has a retort to everything I say, but she’s been letting me get the last barb in.” He removed his feet from the desk and leaned forward, placing his hands on his wife’s legs. “Just how serious is serious?”

         Amanda rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You’re not going to get all Mr. Overprotective are you?  Francine’s a big girl and can take care of herself.”

         Lee crossed his arms and glared at his wife. “I do not get overprotective.”

         “Oh, yes you do.  You do it with me, and you do it with Francine.” Amanda took one of Lee’s hands in hers.  “And although it’s sweet, it’s also annoying and most of the time completely unnecessary.”

         Lee rose from his seat and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Can I help it that I worry about the women I care about.  I worry about you because I don’t want to lose you.” He placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I worry about Francine, because she has a habit of making bad choices when it comes to men.”

         “Francine’s more cautious with men, than you think she is. Why do you think she goes out on a lot of first dates and rarely goes out with someone a second time?” Amanda fixed her husband with a knowing look.

         “I guess you’re right.” Lee shrugged slightly. “So, Francine’s got a serious man in her life.  What’s his name? What does he do for a living?”

         “His name is Adam.” Amanda put a finger on his lips. “And no I’m not telling you his last name. The minute I do you’re going to run a background check on this guy.  And as for what he does, well, you’re going to have to wait until Saturday to find out that little piece of information.”  She wriggled out of his embrace and jumped off of the desk.  “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to work, so that we can get back to your apartment, and I can collect my payment for doing all of this filing by myself.” She turned and headed back towards the vault.

         “Hey, I said I’d help you.” Lee followed his wife into the small room. “And you’re not getting out of this one that easily.  What do you mean, I’ll find out on Saturday.”

         Amanda picked up a file from the stack she’d placed on the cabinet earlier, and began to put it away. “Just that. You’ll get to meet Adam on Saturday, but you have to promise to be on your best behavior and you have to promise not to go into agent mode the second you meet him, or I’m going to leave you behind.”

         “So we’re going to dinner with Francine and Adam?” Lee asked, moving a little closer to his wife.

         “Well that depends on your behavior when you meet him, but there’s a good chance we’ll go to dinner with them.” Amanda turned back to her pile and took another folder off the stack.

         Lee pulled the file from his wife’s hand, and clasped her hand in his. “Why are you being so cryptic?  What’s wrong with this guy?” His voice held a hint of fatherly concern.

         “There’s nothing wrong with him. You’ll get all your answers on Saturday.” Amanda tried to remove her hand from her husband’s. “Lee, I really want to get this work done.”

         “How do you know there’s nothing wrong with him, you haven’t met him, have you?”  Lee stepped between his wife and the filing cabinet.  When she averted her eyes, he knew that his wife had already met Francine’s mystery man, and for some reason that bothered him, just a little. “Amanda, when did you meet him?”

         Amanda smiled. “Okay, fine, I have met him…but that’s all I’m going to say on the matter.”  She tried to reach around her husband and get the folder he took from her, but he blocked her. 

         Lee moved his free hand along his wife’s side, until it had found her rib cage.  “Oh, I beg to differ.” He smiled playfully. “I have ways of making you talk.” He then found her ticklish spot and began his assault.

         “Lee…stop…” Amanda began laughing as she pushed at his hands, trying to get away. 

         As Lee continued his attack, he positioned himself so that he was in front of the doorway, effectively blocking her escape. “Tell me how you met Francine’s new man, and I’ll consider stopping.”

         Amanda continued to remove her husband’s hands from her waist as she started walking backwards.  Of course she wasn’t looking forward to be backed into a corner, but backwards was her only option at the moment. “I’m not telling you anything.” She said between giggles. “Lee… please…stop…” She decided the best way to get him to stop was to attack back.  Making a motion as if to push his hand away again, she instead changed direction and found her husband’s own ticklish spot.  When he jumped, she laughed even harder. “Two can play at this game.” She slipped her foot around his leg and, in a move she had learned in her defense class, tightened her grip and then pushed her husband away.  The result was what she had hoped for, and Lee toppled backwards, landing on his backside.

         Amanda quickly lowered herself on top of him and pinned his arms down. “Now, enough of this.” She leaned down and kissed him passionately. “We have work to do.” She commented after she broke the kiss. She gave him her best mother stare. “Promise to behave and accept the fact that you have to wait two more days to learn anything more about Adam.” 

         “A-man-da…” Lee pouted as he tried to get his hands out from under his wife’s grip.  Although he was enjoying having his wife on top of him, he couldn’t help but wonder when it was that she had gotten so strong. “Please…”

         Amanda shook her head. “No, now promise me.”

         “I think you’d better promise her, because it looks like she’s got the upper hand in this situation.” 

         Amanda and Lee both looked up to see Francine standing in the doorway of the vault.

         “Besides, Lee, I’m the one who made her promise not to tell you.” Francine winked at Amanda, “and a girl never goes back on a promise to a friend, especially one who knows one too many secrets about the other.”

         “You’re timing is impeccable as always, Francine.” Amanda smiled as she let go of her husband’s hands and, using one of the file drawer handles as leverage, rose to a standing position.  She then bent down and offered a helping hand to her husband. 

         Lee accepted his wife’s outstretched hand, and briefly thought about pulling her back down to the floor, but realized that probably wouldn’t be such a good idea, especially with an audience, even if that audience was Francine. So, instead, he allowed his wife to help him to his feet.  Once he was standing again, he headed out the vault, following the blonde who was now placing a stack of files on his desk. “I don’t get what the big deal with this guy is.  Why doesn’t anyone want to give me more details? Why is he such a big secret?” He snapped his fingers together as he stared at his friend. “I’ve got it, he’s a widower and has three kids or something, right?”  He turned towards his wife who had let out a small chuckle as she stepped out of the vault.

         “Interesting, Amanda asked a similar question.” Francine shook her head. “But no, he’s not a divorcee or a widower nor does he have any kids.”

         “So then what’s the big deal?” Lee crossed his arms in front of his chest as he raised his eyebrows questioningly at the blonde.

         Francine sighed. “Look, the truth is, I know how you can get and I just don’t want you making any judgments about the guy before you meet him. I know you, Lee.” She looked at him with a serious expression on her face. “If we give you more than just his name, come Saturday, you’ll have run a complete background check on him so you can discover how much he makes, where he went to school and what he ate for breakfast when he was three…and you’ll find some minute detail about him that will have you thinking there’s something criminal about him, and you’ll screw this up for me.”

         “Oh come on, I’m not that bad.” Lee looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. “Why do you both think I’m such a distrusting guy?” He lowered his gaze and fixed it on his wife.

         “We don’t think you’re distrusting, sweetheart,” Amanda moved over to her husband and placed a hand tenderly on his arm.

         “Speak for yourself.” Francine huffed.

         “You’re not helping, Francine.” Amanda glanced over at her friend.  “Lee, you’re a spy so you’re suspicious by nature.  Face it, when you thought the mailman in my neighborhood was stealing our mail, you did a background check on him.  Turned out he was innocent and that Mrs. Gilstrap who lives at 4277 Maplewood was accidentally getting some of our mail.”

         “Okay so I’m overly cautious.” Lee moved over to the black couch and sat down with a grunt. “So sue me.  I’m just looking out for my family.  And you can’t get on my case about the mailman thing,” he glared at his wife, “that happened right around the time of the Dolanz case, and you were being stalked.  So I thought maybe the mailman had ties to Dolanz, and was passing on your mail to the bad guy.” He then turned towards Francine. “Wait a minute, do you mean to tell me that you haven’t run a background check on this guy?”

         Francine rolled her eyes and laughed. “Oh please, like you ran a check on every girl you went out with.”

         Lee shook his head. “Well no, I only ran a check on the ones I was somewhat serious about.”

         Francine sighed and grinned. “So basically, no one.” Seeing his mouth start to open, she put a hand up to stop his protest. “And Amanda doesn’t count, because she had to have one done when she started working with the Agency, and you two weren’t an item back then. Besides, Adam is not a common criminal or a spy.”

         “How can you be sure if you haven’t run a check on him?” Lee rose to his feet and started walking back over towards Francine. “How did you two meet?”

         “Lee, he lives in her apartment building. He moved in there a few months ago.  There now you know as much as you need to know, and you can stop grilling Francine.” Amanda jumped to her friend’s defense. Granted, Francine hadn’t told her when Adam had moved into her apartment building, but it had to have been around the time he had been hired at the high school, and since Phillip had been talking about the wonderful Coach Clyde for two months, it stood to reason that he’d been living there at least that long. 

         “Let it go, Lee. You’ll meet him on Saturday.” Francine started walking towards the door. “Those are the files that Billy had research pull on Veranos.  He said you’d need them if you want to make any kind of headway on the case.”

         “That’s right, you still haven’t filled me in on the case that Mr. Melrose assigned to us.” Amanda walked over to Lee’s desk and picked up the top file. “Care to fill me in now?” She waved the folder in the air.

         “I’m not going to get anymore out of either you about this Adam guy, am I?” Lee glanced from the blonde, who now had one hand on the doorknob, back to his wife who was adamantly shaking her head. “Fine, I give up,” he turned back towards his wife and mouthed ‘for now’.

         “Good luck with the Veranos case. I understand it’s a real puzzler.” Francine opened the door and headed out into the hallway.  “You might want to lock this door behind me, just in case you two decide to roll around on the floor some more.” She winked and let out a chuckle as she shut the door.

         Lee took two quick steps and locked the door, just to be on the safe side.  Although it would be fun to try and pick up where they had left off before, he would rather get some work taken care of now, and have fun later when the chances of interruptions were slim to none.  He turned back around and found his wife sitting in the chair behind his desk, reading through the file she had picked up. “Billy said we didn’t have to start on that case till tomorrow.  So if you want, I can help you file, and we can get out of here sooner.”

         Amanda shook her head. “I don’t think so. I think I’d be safer locking myself in the vault…alone with the files to avoid any interruptions, no matter how enjoyable they might be, and you can start calling around to your contacts to find out information on this Carlos Veranos.”  She closed the folder and leaned back in the chair.  “But first, why don’t you give me the background on this case, so that I’ll have something to ponder while I’m busy filing.”

         “Are you sure I can’t help you file, so we can get out of here quicker?” Lee walked around his desk and put a hand on either side of his wife.  Leaning down, he was just about to place his lips on hers, when he felt her hands on his chest, pushing him away. “Spoil sport.”

         “Work now, play later.” Amanda crossed her arms in front of her and fixed him with her best motherly glare.

         Lee let out a frustrated sigh as he leaned against the corner of his desk. “Fine, but my idea was a lot more enjoyable. Okay,” he pointed towards the stack of files Francine had just deposited on his desk, “Billy received a call from Jerry Williams, the head of the Agency’s El Salvador bureau.  He’d been hearing rumors of arms being smuggled out of the U.S. and started digging around.  After months of dead-ends, he finally managed to chase down the source of the rumor.  Turns out the rumor isn’t a rumor, it’s true.  RPGs, M-16s and other small arms are indeed being brought into Central America illegally.  The only name he managed to get out of his source was the name Southern Star Import/Export.”

         Amanda tilted her head and looked at her husband. “I’ve heard that name before.” She pulled the chair closer to the desk and began sifting through the files. Finding one marked Southern Star I/E, she picked it up and opening it, did a quick scan of the contents. “I knew the name sounded familiar.  I had to do a research project for one of my Agency classes last year on all companies in the D.C. area that claimed to be Import/Export businesses.” She saw her husband raise his eyebrows in speculation. “Ever since Peter Bracken opened his own import/export business, the government’s trying to crack down on ex-spies trying to sell secrets and recruiting burn-outs.”

         “You’re kidding right?” Lee stared at her in disbelief.  The Bracken case still gave him nightmares.  It wasn’t the fact that he’d had to pretend to be burned out; it was how he’d behaved towards Amanda that kept haunting him.   Back then, he’d considered her his best friend, and maybe even had stronger feelings for her that he hadn’t been ready to admit to himself, but he’d never in a million years dream of hurting her.  Then not only had he slapped her, but he’d had to pretend to shoot her.  The image of her falling backwards and knowing that he couldn’t go check on her had nearly destroyed him.  He was a pretty good shot, and had prayed that he’d missed her, but what if he hadn’t.  He had come very close to blowing the whole thing, just because he’d had the overwhelming urge to make sure she was all right.  Thankfully, he hadn’t blown his cover, Bracken was in jail and everything had turned out okay, including the fact that Amanda had forgiven him almost instantly.  Still, he never wanted to hurt or betray her trust in him like that again.

         Amanda saw the haunted look in her husband’s eyes and knew exactly what was going on in his head.  No matter how many times she tried to get him to let the incident stay in the past, he still felt the need to apologize every now and then. “Hey,” she placed the folder on the desk and stood up. Moving in front of him, she wrapped her arms around his waist. “That’s all in the past.  I thought we decided to both share the blame for what happened.  I was being motherly and meddlesome as usual and you got carried away with pretending to be burned out.”  She placed a gentle kiss on his lips. “Okay?”

         Lee wrapped his arms around his wife and pulled her closer to him.  “I love you.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully let it go, but I’m okay, for now.” Clearing his throat, he loosened the embrace slightly. “So, what’s the deal with this Southern Star?”

         Amanda knew her husband had pushed his dark thoughts aside for the moment and was now in full agent mode. “Well, when I did my background check and investigation, the place seemed legitimate.” She stepped out of the embrace and reached over to pick up the file again. “Looks like they have a new owner, though, someone named Carlos Veranos.”

         Lee stood behind his wife and read the folder over her shoulder. “That’s the name Williams got out of his source.”

         “Guess the Agency needs to start doing more routine checks on these places.”  Amanda placed the folder back on the desk. “Veranos sounds Cuban, not that that really means anything, but if the guns are being smuggled into Central America…”

         Lee nodded. “It’s a pretty likely coincidence.”

         Amanda stepped around her husband and started walking around the desk. “Okay, so why don’t you start calling some of your family, see what they might know about stolen Army weapons and Carlos Veranos.  And while you’re doing that, I’ll get the filing done.  Then, unless you get something that we need to check out today, we can head home to the apartment.”

         “I figured we’d try and squeeze in a quick visit to Southern Star, before going to the apartment.” Lee sat down in his chair, enjoying the view of his wife’s backside as she made her way towards the vault.

         “It’s going to be close to dinnertime by the time we get done here, chances are they’ll have started closing down for the night.” Amanda turned around and looked at her husband. “No one’s going to be in a very talkative mood if all they’re thinking about is getting home.  I figured we could make Southern Star our first stop in the morning.”

         Lee smiled. “I love the way your mind works, Mrs. Stetson.”

         “Good to know you don’t just love me for my body.” Amanda grinned as she turned back towards the vault.  She entered and had one hand on the door, ready to pull it closed in order to cut down on temptation, but stopped. She turned and glanced back at her husband. “Oh, you might want to start with T.P.”

         “Why’s that?” Lee had his hand on the phone and looked at his wife curiously.

         “He helped me immensely with my research project.” Amanda stepped into the vault fully and pulling the door, left it open just a crack. “Or, if you don’t feel up to talking to T.P., although I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t,” she called out from inside the vault, “there’s always Auggie.” She poked her head back out, “after all, he always seems to be right in the middle of all the big arms deals.” She grinned jokingly at her husband and then slipped back into the vault, closing the door tightly behind her.

         “Ha ha, very funny.” Lee shook his head at the sight of the closed door.  He had hoped that his wife had only been kidding about locking herself into the little room, but apparently she hadn’t been.  It was probably a good thing that she wasn’t in his direct line of sight.  He was feeling particularly unmotivated today and wanted nothing more than to have some fun with his wife.  Amanda was right, howver, T.P. was the best person to start with, and even if his wife was right about Auggie, his infamous snitch was not someone he wanted to deal with today, especially since a conversation with Auggie usually turned into a fiasco, and he had more pleasurable things in mind for a night’s entertainment. Sighing, he picked up the receiver and dialed T.P.’s number.  Maybe with any luck his old friend would have information on both Southern Star and Carlos Veranos, and he wouldn’t have to make too many phone calls.  Somehow, he didn’t think his luck was going to be that good. 

 

Chapter 2 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 2

         Francine sighed as she fumbled in her purse for her apartment key.  Today had turned out so differently from what she had expected.   She had planned on enjoying the game and then maybe going out to dinner with Lee and Amanda, but life had once again thrown her a series of curve balls.  First, despite Amanda’s reassurance to the contrary, Lee had acted like an overprotective jerk, just as she had expected he would, and then the Agency had called her in at the last minute to interrogate Jimmy Cassels because he wouldn't talk.  Jimmy was a two-bit snitch who was withholding information regarding some shady dealings going on with a local drug dealer and Senator Mitchell’s teenage daughter.  What pissed her off the most was why the Agency felt that she was the only one who seemed to have the right cunning wiles to get these creeps to talk?  Didn’t they care that she had a life too? She let out a grunt at the answer to that rhetorical question, of course they didn’t, that’s why they called her at all hours of the day and night. Finding her key, a strange thought popped into her head as she placed it in the lock: would the Agency still call her on a moment’s notice to seduce creeps like Jimmy Cassels if she were married? 

         She shook her head and chuckled at the thought as she opened her door.  Who would ever have thought that she, after what had happened with Jonathan, would even be thinking about marriage again?  Well, she knew that despite how much she was falling for Adam, she didn’t think that marriage was in their immediate future; after all they hadn’t even been going out for a month yet. Stepping inside, she was immediately assaulted with the smells of beef and cooking wine, and the clattering of pots and dishes in her kitchen.   Closing and locking her door, she turned and smiled at the sight of Adam, who was wearing a pale blue jean apron, stepping out of the kitchen carrying two plates.

         “You have perfect timing.  Dinner’s just about ready. I was just putting the final touches on the table.” Adam walked over to her and placed a tender, but brief kiss on her lips. “You look exhausted. Did you have a lot of trouble getting that last minute editing issue taken care of?”

         Francine dropped her purse and keys on the table by the door and then followed Adam into the dining room. “Yes, but just barely.  Sometimes I’d like to just take a mallet and beat some of our producers’ heads to a pulp. They can be so stubborn… anyway, with a little handholding and a lot of finesse, we got the producer to cooperate.  So, I’m all yours for the rest of the weekend.”  Entering the small room off her kitchen, she stopped short at the sight in front of her.  Even though Adam had been making dinner for her every night this week, the table tonight was different.  He had covered her table with a white tablecloth and had lit two red candles.  “What’s the special occasion?”

         “Nothing special, except its Saturday night, and I wanted to make tonight’s dinner a little more romantic.”  Adam placed the plates on the table and then headed back towards the kitchen. 

         “You’re spoiling me something awful, Adam.” Francine followed him and stepping over to the counter, lifted the foil off of the pan on the stove and inhaled.  “Is this Beef Bourguignon with mushrooms and red wine sauce?”

         Adam nodded as he pulled some silverware out of the drawer.  “You told me, on our second date, that it was your favorite. And I believe in only providing the best for the woman who captured my heart.”  Placing the forks and steak knives on the counter, he moved over to Francine and pushed her towards the other room. “I know you’ve had a hard day, so I want you to go make yourself comfortable in the living room and let me wait on you.” Noticing that Francine didn’t seem to be moving, he smiled and shooed her towards the other room. “Now scoot, I have some potatoes to get out of the oven and some asparagus to sauté.  And, if you behave, and let me finish up in here, I’ve got fresh strawberries for dessert.”

         Francine’s eyes grew mischievously wide. “With whipped cream?” When Adam nodded in the affirmative, she grinned. “I must have done something right in a past life, because someone made sure you and I met in this one.  If I ever meet them,” she turned around and wrapped her arms around his strong shoulders, “I’m going to shower them with gifts.”  She leaned in and placed a very inviting kiss on his lips. “I think I’ll go get changed into something a lot more comfortable.”  Winking, she removed her arms from around him and turned to leave the room.

         “Just don’t get too comfortable, I put a lot of work into this dinner,” Adam called after her, “I’d hate for it to get cold.”

         Francine laughed as she entered her bedroom.  She moved over to her closet and pulled out a lacy cream camisole and her navy blue velvet sweat suit.  She’d show him comfortable and still be sexy at the same time.  She loved this camisole because it not only made her feel sexy, but it was slightly see-through and she had every intention of driving Adam wild tonight. Walking over to her bed, she laid both items on the mattress and quickly undressed.  She slipped the camisole over her head and then took the pants off the hanger.  She gingerly stepped into them, and then hung the top back in the closet.  She had no need for that tonight.  She then scooped up her clothes and deposited them into her hamper.  As she made her way back towards her bedroom door, she stopped and glanced at herself in the mirror.  Her outfit was perfect, however her hair and makeup could definitely use some freshening.  She turned around and made her way into her bathroom.

         Francine opened her makeup kit, pulled out a tube of red lip-gloss and traced the outline of her lips.  She then took her hair out of the clip and let it fall loosely down to her shoulders.  She ran her fingers through the strands and fluffed it out, just enough so that it looked tame, but not like she had done anything special to it.   Glancing once more at her reflection, she smiled.   For some reason she was feeling extremely aroused, perhaps it was all the pretending she’d had to do with Jimmy Cassels in order to get him to talk, or the fact that there was just a strong feeling of romance in the air; either way, she had every intention of getting lucky tonight.  Content with her appearance, she turned and headed out of her bedroom.

         Francine entered the dining room just as Adam had begun to fill the wine glasses he had set out earlier. She surveyed the food and her stomach grumbled. “Guess I’m more than ready to eat.”

         Adam put the wine bottle down and then picked up the two glasses.  As he passed one of the glasses over to Francine, he gave her an appreciative smile.  “You look good enough to eat…but I guess I’ll have to settle for beef bourguignon.  First a toast,” he raised his glass to hers, “to the most beautiful woman in D.C.”

         Francine smiled self-consciously as she felt her cheeks warm.  “I think I should be toasting you.  You’re like a dream come true.  Cooking me dinner, cleaning up my apartment…” She made a mental note of thanks that she kept all her personal Agency related material locked away in the deep recesses of her closet, including her spare bullets.  She may be falling hard for Adam, but she wasn’t ready for that part of her life to interfere with their relationship, at least not yet. “Letting me relax after a hard day of work, and just making me feel special…”

         Adam set his glass on the table and moved to stand next to Francine.  He gently took her glass out of her hand, and placed it on the white linen cloth.  Wrapping an arm around her waist, he tenderly slipped his other hand under her hair bringing it to rest on the nape of her neck and brought her lips to his.  Ending the kiss, he leaned his head against her forehead. “No, my love, you’re the reality to all my fantasies.  You deserve to be treated like the goddess that you are.  Nothing less will do for you.”  He let his hand slide down to her shoulder, and he nibbled her earlobe. “And as far as your job goes, I think you work too hard.  You know, there are more important things in life,” his tongue trailed a path to the sensitive spot on her neck just below her earlobe, “things that are way more fun.”

         Francine closed her eyes and tried to ward off the feelings of electricity running through her.  As much as she wouldn’t mind skipping dinner, she needed to make sure that Adam’s train of thought was simply a romantic notion and nothing else. Placing her hands on his chest, she pushed him back slightly so that she could look into his eyes. “Adam, I love my job, I hope that you’re only suggesting that we postpone dinner and aren’t implying anything else.”

         Adam let out a reluctant sigh and gazed longingly into her eyes. “I wasn’t trying to imply anything. Although, now that you mention it, I do worry about you, Francine.” His expression turned more serious. “This company you work for seems to have no regard for you as a person. They call you at all hours of the day…and night, and then you immediately run off, and sometimes I don’t hear from you for a whole day, sometimes more.  I don’t know much about producing films, but it seems to me that the stress and hours are overwhelming, and I see how you look after a particularly harrowing day.” His fingers caressed her shoulder enticingly. “Have you ever thought about changing careers?”

         Francine pushed him further away and narrowed her eyes. “Adam, I happen to love what I do. It may not sound glamorous, or even important to you…but my job is very important…”

         Adam immediately put a finger on her lip. “I’m sorry, I guess that came out wrong.  I was really only asking you if you were happy doing what you do.  I didn’t mean for it to come out the way it did.”

         Francine shrugged his hand off her shoulder and stepped fully out of his embrace. “I think I need to say something here and now, before our relationship goes any further.” She turned her back on him and made her way into the living room. “Adam, you have to realize something about me. I’ve been an independent woman since I said my first word.  I spent my life trying to please my father, and making something of myself in a world of male-dominated careers.” She walked over to the fireplace and stopped in front of a framed photo of her parents. “It took me a long time to get where I am, and I have no intention of changing for anyone. I may not always enjoy every aspect of my job, but I’m proud of what I do and all that I’ve achieved, and if you can’t accept that,” she turned around and stared at the man she was falling in love with, “then, as much as it pains me to say this, you can leave right now.” She swallowed the lump in her throat, silently praying that Adam wouldn’t say good-bye and walk out of her apartment…and her life forever.

         Adam quickly moved to stand behind Francine and placed his hands on her shoulders. “I wasn’t asking you to change.” He gently turned her around so that she was now facing him. “Honestly, I wasn’t. You have to believe me. And I have no intention of leaving, not now, nor ever…not as long as I have a say in the matter.  I meant what I said before, I’m just worried about you. I tend to worry about those I care deeply for, and…” he took a deep breath and gently caressed her cheek, “I care very deeply for you, Francine. I’m in love with you. I haven’t loved anyone the way I love you.”

         “Oh, Adam,” Francine hated to show weakness in front of anyone, but for some reason, she knew she could relax and just be herself in front of this man, so with extreme will-power, she resisted the urge to wipe away the single tear that had fallen down her cheek, “I love you, too.”

         Adam placed a hand on her arm and gently guided her over to the couch. “Maybe we should sit and talk, perhaps clear the air.  I know that you’ve had rocky relationships in the past, Francine, and maybe that’s because you were never able to be completely honest with those men.  I want you to know,” he sat down and pulled her down onto his lap, “that you can talk to me about anything, tell me anything and I promise I won’t run away.”

         Francine glanced towards the dining room. She was torn between letting her guard down and having a serious discussion with Adam, and in listening to the other voice in her head, the one that loved to construct those hidden barriers for her to hide behind. The little voice seemed to be winning and she started to push herself up from her lover’s lap. “What about dinner, it’s going to get cold and you’ve gone to an awful lot of trouble.”

         Adam tightened his hold on her, preventing her escape. “Dinner can be reheated.  Our relationship is more important.”

         Francine sighed and pushing the little voice further into the back of her mind, she allowed herself to relax in his arms and laid her head on his shoulder. “I’m not used to being this vulnerable in front of anyone.”

         “Really?” Adam glanced at her with a slightly doubtful expression. “I don’t know if I truly believe that statement.”

         Francine stared at him, perplexed. “I know I’ve told you about Jonathan, but I think that’s why our relationship never worked, I was never able to tell him exactly how I felt.  With you, it’s different. I want to share things with you.  I don’t know who else you could be referring to.”

         “I’m referring to your co-worker, the one who was at the game today…Lee Stetson.” Adam loosened his embrace and dared her to deny anything.

         Francine couldn’t help but laugh hysterically at Adam’s mention of Lee. “You can’t honestly tell me that you’re jealous of Lee.” She wiped away a few tears of joy that were escaping from her eyes and noticed the slightly annoyed expression on Adam’s face. “I’m sorry, it’s just so absurd that you’d be jealous of Lee.”

         “I didn’t say I was jealous, but by the way he was looking at me all day, I felt like I was being scrutinized by my high school prom date’s father.” Adam glared defiantly at Francine. “He may not be competition for your affections, but he’s definitely more than just your co-worker.”

         Francine cleared her throat and tried to keep the laughter to a minimum.  “Yes, Lee and are friends.  We’ve known each other for a long time, and you’re right, I have confided in him in the past, but I’ve never bared my soul to him.” She sighed and shrugged her shoulders slightly. “And perhaps his attitude towards you was a bit judgmental, but I don’t think his attitude today was entirely directed at you.  I have a feeling that it had more to do with the film he and Amanda are working on than you.  He gets wrapped up in his projects, and when he hits a bump in the road, he tends to take it out on everyone around him.”

         “What could possibly go that wrong that he makes everyone around him so uncomfortable?” Adam slipped his fingers into her hair and began twirling a few strands between his fingers.

         “You’d be surprised.” Francine closed her eyes, enjoying the warm feelings running through her at the intimate contact. “They were supposed to interview this businessman for an upcoming documentary on successful small businesses specializing in the same area, and the guy they were supposed to meet with yesterday seems to have just up and disappeared.  He closed down his shop and left no forwarding information.  The thing that got Lee so upset was that he was apparently the most successful of the whole bunch.”

         Adam moved his hand tantalizingly down her neck to her back and back up again. “That sounds very strange. Does that kind of thing happen to you guys a lot, I mean since you do these films for the government?”

         Francine chuckled. “You’d be surprised.”

         “Somehow,” he moved his other hand to her leg and began to slide it slowly back and forth, “I don’t think Lee’s attitude towards me was based solely on his bad mood.  I wasn’t joking when I said that every time I caught him looking at me, I felt like I was under the scrutiny of an overprotective father.”

         “Well,” Francine moved her hand to Adam’s chest and ran her fingernails in tiny circles, “the truth is that Lee has taken it upon himself to watch out for me, very much like an older brother. It’s very annoying, and kind of endearing at the same time.” She let out a small sigh as she gazed into Adam’s eyes. “Lee’s been there for me during some very difficult times, including when Jonathan left me at the altar.  Ever since then, he’s been a little overly suspicious of the guys I date, the ones that I introduce him to at any rate.” She sighed and leaned her head against Adam’s. “I won’t lie to you, we had a momentary fling, but it didn’t work out.  We weren’t meant to be together romantically. We work better as friends and besides, Amanda’s his soul mate, the two of them were destined for each other…but enough about them, I’d prefer to go back to talking about us.” She pulled back to gauge her love’s reaction as she traced his lips with her finger.

         “Well now his attitude makes a hell of a lot more sense.  I guess I’ll just have to do my best to make sure I’m worthy of your affections, at least as far as Lee’s concerned.” Adam placed a tender kiss on Francine’s lips as he pulled her tightly to him.

         Francine shook her head against his lips. “You don’t have to worry about Lee at all.  I’m a big girl. I can make my own decisions about the man I give my heart to.” 

         “And have you given me your heart, Francine?” Adam suspended all hand movements and gazed directly into her eyes.

         Francine nodded her head slowly. “Yes, I think I have…at least I know I don’t want to give it to anyone else. I love you like I have never loved any other man. I know I can be myself with you.” A pang of regret hit her as she realized that while she could be honest with him about her feelings, she wasn’t quite ready to tell him the truth about her job.  That would come in time; after all, it wasn’t like Adam had proposed.  They were just two people sharing their most intimate feelings for each other.

         Adam pulled her tightly to him and kissed her passionately. Then, before he lost himself in the moment, he pushed her away slightly.  He slipped his hands under her arms and gently lifted her off his lap and moved her to the cushion beside him. Taking a deep breath, he slid off the couch and kneeling down on one knee, took her hand in his. “Francine Desmond, I love you, and want to offer my heart and soul to you, to keep for your own, until the day we die.” He saw the look of utter surprise in his love’s eyes and smiled. “Will you marry me?”

         Francine stared wide-eyed at Adam. “What did you just say?”

         Adam looked down at the floor. “I’m sorry, I’m moving too fast, aren’t I?” He glanced back up at the woman, who had just professed her love for him.

         Francine shook her head. “No,” catching the hurt look on Adam’s face, she quickly amended her comment, “I meant about the moving too fast, and maybe it is too fast, but yes, I’d love to marry you.” She leaned down and placed a tender kiss on his lips. Adam responded by letting go of her hands and placing one on either side of her face, deepening the kiss. Suddenly, she realized what she had just promised to do, and her rational side took over.  She put her hands on his chest, and pushed Adam away, effectively breaking the intimate moment. “What am I saying? We can’t do this, not yet, can we?” She stared at him with an expression of doubt. She rose from her seat on the couch and walked back over to the fireplace. “I mean we’ve only known each other less than a month…I need some time to really think about it, before I give you a real, definite answer.”

         Adam used the couch for support and pushed himself up into a standing position.  He walked over and stood in front of Francine. “I just got caught up in the moment. Honest, this wasn’t what I had planned for tonight, heck I don’t even have a ring.  So I understand completely that you need to take some time to think about it.” He smiled at her with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Will twenty-four hours be enough?”

         Francine laughed.  “I’m sure that will be plenty. I’m not one who likes to dwell on things too long, anyway. I’m a go getter.” She took his hand in his. “How about we go out to dinner tomorrow night, and I’ll give you my answer over dessert?”

         Adam brought her hand up to his lips and placed a kiss on her palm. “I can hardly wait until dinner tomorrow.  But, in the meantime, how about we go eat tonight’s dinner, the one that’s probably already getting cold?”

         Francine nodded and, with her hand still clasped in Adam’s, began walking towards the dining room pondering the fact that life seemed to have a way of throwing curve balls at her at the most unexpected moments.  One minute, she was just getting used to the idea of having Adam around, and the next, she was seriously considering spending the rest of her life with him.  When they reached the table, she allowed Adam to pull her chair out for her and as she sat down she stared at her left hand, imagining the joys of having a diamond ring proudly displayed on her ring finger.  Shaking her head slightly, she took her gaze away from her hand and waited for her love to take his place at the table across from her before raising her glass. “To the unknown future.”

         “To a future with amazing promise.” Adam raised his glass and clanked it with hers.

         As Francine sipped her wine, she wondered if twenty-four hours really would be enough time to make the most important decision of her life.  She was also unsure of whether it was a decision she could make on her own or if she would need some advice from a friend.  Putting down her wine glass, she decided to enjoy tonight’s dinner and if nothing else, celebrate her and Adam’s newly declared love for each other.  She’d worry about how she was going to make the biggest decision of her life after a good night’s sleep. 

*****  *****

         Amanda opened her eyes and wondered what could possibly have caused her to awaken, effectively interrupting the wonderful dream she was having about Lee.  Hearing the echoing ring of the doorbell, she instantly knew what had disturbed her peaceful slumber.  Glancing at the clock on the nightstand, her expression grew wary.  Who could possibly be ringing her doorbell at seven a.m. on a Sunday morning?  Climbing out of bed, she walked over to the chair in the corner and picked up her robe.  As she put it on, she couldn’t help but wonder exactly who her early morning visitor could be.  She knew it wasn’t Lee.  Lee had a key, and if he’d forgotten his, he’d have used his lock picks on the back door.  Besides, it was too early for him to be sneaking into her house, especially since it was quite late when he’d left the night before.

         Tying her bathrobe around her waist, she quickly made her way out of her bedroom and downstairs.  She wanted to get to the door before the person on the other side woke her mother or the boys.  If this was work related, she’d rather deal with it alone, and give her family an abridged version later, if at all necessary.  Reaching the door, she unlocked it and hesitantly opened it a hair. She peered through the crack and was astonished to see Francine, sans makeup and looking extremely tired, standing on her doorstep. Without another moment’s hesitation, she opened the door all the way. “Francine, what’s wrong? Is this work related? Is Mr. Melrose okay?” It was then that she noticed the bakery box in her friend’s hand.

         Francine shook her head wearily. “No, it’s nothing work related. I um…well I went out to get breakfast for Adam and me, and I ended up driving over here.  Can I come in? I brought donuts.”

         “Of course, come on in.” Amanda stepped aside and let Francine enter, then, once her friend was inside, she closed the door and locked it.  “Let’s go into the kitchen, I’ll make a pot of coffee and you can tell me why you’re here so early on a Sunday morning.”

         “I’m sorry it’s so early,” Francine began, as shrugged her shoulders apologetically, “but I just had to talk to you and I didn’t want to take the chance that you had plans for the day and would be out later.”

         Amanda stifled a yawn as she made her way into the kitchen.  She moved over to the counter and pulled out the coffee maker. “You could have called me, I’d have put time aside for you, especially if it was important, which I’m guessing by the fact that you’re in my kitchen at seven a.m., it is.”

         Francine sat down on one of the stools at the counter. “I’m sorry, I guess I should have called, but I couldn’t sleep and decided to take a drive. I left a note for Adam, letting him know that I was going out to pick up some breakfast.” She watched her friend methodically pour the right amount of coffee grounds into the maker. “I stopped off at a really nice bakery near my place, but when I got back to my car, I realized I wasn’t ready to face him until I talked to someone, and you were the first person who came to mind.”

         Amanda stopped adding water to the coffee maker and turned to face her friend, a worried expression on her face. “Francine, did Adam do something…to you, I mean?”

         Francine let out a nervous laugh. “Oh God, no, it’s nothing bad, it’s just…oh hell, he proposed to me last night.”

         Amanda’s eyes grew wide and she quickly turned away, and turned the coffee pot on. “That’s, well…”

         “I know…extremely sudden, unexpected, surprising....” Francine let out a long sigh and focused her attention on the door of Amanda’s refrigerator. “Believe me, I’ve run down every possible adjective.  It’s just plain crazy.” She stared at the report cards and various other items clipped to the door with magnets.  She realized that it might actually be kind of fun to have family pictures, children’s drawings and things of personal importance to hang on her fridge.

         Amanda pulled two mugs out of the cabinet and placed them on the counter.  She then turned around and looked directly at her friend. “What did you say…when he asked you, that is?”

         Francine glanced over at her friend. “Well, I said yes, but then took it back and told him I had to think about it.  I told him that I’d give him an answer tonight.” She rested her head on her hand and lowered her gaze to the counter top.  “Oh, Amanda, I got so caught up in the moment, I didn’t realize what I was saying.  Then I felt bad taking it back.  Was I wrong in taking it back? I mean isn’t your first reaction usually the right one?”

         Amanda moved over to the island and sat down next to Francine. “That depends on the circumstances.  When you’re playing a board game or answering a question for a test, then most of the time, yes, your first thought is usually the one that ends up being right.  However, when it comes to matters of the heart, sometimes the heart has a habit of saying something before your mind has a chance to really process the answer.  Most of us like to think things through and then react, while others are a lot more impulsive and act without thinking.”

         Francine let out a small chuckle. “Are we talking about anyone in particular?”

         Amanda shrugged her shoulders and laughed. “Well not directly, but yes, I was referring to Lee.  Did I ever tell you how he proposed to me?”

         Francine stared at Amanda for a moment, trying to remember if the brunette had shared that information with her during their first trip to the spa so many months ago. Realizing that she didn’t know that tidbit of information, she shook her head. “No, actually, I don’t believe you did.”

         “Let’s just say, you don’t know the meaning of impulsive.  I know now, and in retrospect I realize that he was preparing to ask me in a more romantic setting, but when push came to shove, he opted for a very spur of the moment type proposal.  He asked me while we were being held captive by Birol.  I mean, I was pretty out of it when Lee arrived so I wasn’t entirely sure that he had asked me, until I asked him later, when I was more coherent, if I had dreamed it or if it was real.  He told me it hadn't been my imagination, that he really had asked me to marry him and then proceeded to repeat the proposal.  We talked about why he had asked me then, and he told me that because he had so very nearly lost me once and who knew what might have happened if Magda hadn’t been able to come through for us, and despite the fact that we were being held captive by a madman, he hadn’t wanted to waste another minute.” She smiled at that particular thought, even though the entire experience had been traumatic, that was one good thing that had come out of her kidnapping.  “I’m not complaining in the least, and he did make it up to me later.  We ended up celebrating properly the day he gave me the ring.”

         Francine shook her head.  “You know, I think that proposal is very typical of Lee.  He can be very sensitive and romantic when he wants to be, but with the most important, life-altering decisions, and especially where you’re concerned, he acts solely on impulse.”

         Amanda nodded.  “The first time he told me he loved me was during that whole Stemwinder fiasco.  In fact he told me over the phone, I guess he was afraid he wouldn’t get another chance.”

         “Was this before or after you guys tried to climb down the trellis outside your bedroom.” Francine laughed.

         “Before, actually.  It was right after I snuck out of the Agency and was followed by the motorcycle, the helicopter, the van…” Amanda gave Francine a knowing look, “all because I wanted some ice cream.”

         “Hey, we had to cover our bases.” Francine shrugged her shoulders apologetically. “We needed Lee to come in so we could figure out what was really going on, and don’t try the innocent act with me. Billy and I figured Lee had slipped some sort of message to you during that last phone call.  Now I know exactly what was missing from your debriefing.” She caught the slightly confused look on Amanda’s face and smiled. “I watched some of your debrief after Makarov’s capture. When you were talking about the phone conversation you had while you were with T.P., you paused and got this look on your face.  When Johnson had asked you if anything else was said, you were a little too quick to say no.  Now I know the truth.” 

         “Francine…” Amanda stared at the blonde with a serious expression, “I only told you this to let you know that I know how you feel.  If you repeat any of this to Lee, or try to use it against either one of us in some future blackmail scheme…”

         Francine put a hand on her friend’s arm. “Don’t worry, I promise not to say anything.  I’m guessing that no one else knows…” When Amanda shook her head, Francine smiled gently. “Well then I feel extremely honored that you shared it with me.”

         “Now, enough about Lee and me.  Let’s get back to you.” Amanda glanced briefly over at the coffee pot. Seeing that it was still percolating, she turned her attention back to her friend.  “Putting aside about the fact that you haven’t known Adam that long, how do you feel about him?”

          “I think I love him.  I actually told him that I loved him last night.” Francine sighed and looked down at the countertop.  Although she and Amanda had been having a girls’ day at the spa for three months now, she still wasn’t completely comfortable sharing her feelings with anyone.  Noticing a tiny knick in the countertop, she ran her finger over it. “I know I can be myself with him.  I’m not afraid to share my thoughts and dreams with him.” She looked back up at the brunette. “That’s something I never felt right doing with Jonathan.  The only difference is that Jonathan knew about the Agency, Adam doesn’t.”

         Amanda nodded her head in understanding. “Do you plan on telling Adam about the Agency? Or are you afraid that if he finds out the truth, it might scare him off or he’ll be really hurt that you didn’t trust him from the start to tell him the truth?”

         Francine shrugged her shoulders slightly. “That depends on what I decide. If I decide not to marry him, then I don’t have to worry about it. If I accept his proposal, then yes, I’ll tell him. I don’t want to have any secrets between us.  I’m not sure if he’s going to be hurt or not, after all, we’ve only known each other a short while and I can’t go around telling everyone I meet what I really do for a living. It kind of defeats the purpose of the Agency having a cover.” Hearing a floorboard creaking upstairs, she glanced nervously over at Amanda.

         Amanda immediately got off her stool and walked over to the stairs.  Poking her head around the corner, she glanced up into the hallway.  After a few moments and no sign of anyone moving around, she shrugged and walked back into the kitchen.  “Probably the house settling, it happens a lot. Or it could be that Jamie got up to get a book from the shelf and then went back to bed.  He sometimes does that, reads a book until he feels like coming down for breakfast.” She went over to the coffee pot and took it off its base. “Do you prefer cream or sugar?”

         “Actually, with the night I had, I’ll take it black.”  Francine glanced back towards the stairs. “You’re sure no one’s up?” 

         Amanda nodded. “Positive. If Mother were up, she’d be downstairs already, Phillip sleeps until at least nine…unless he has to get up, and Jamie really does prefer to lie in bed and read until he smells breakfast cooking.” She picked up the full cups of coffee and moved back to the stool at the island.  She handed a mug to Francine and took her seat. “Now, since you seemed to have given yourself a time limit, how about we start with a few basic questions.”  She watched her friend nod before taking a tentative sip from her cup. “Okay, how would you feel if Adam up and disappeared from your life tomorrow? And I mean, he was gone, never to return. He just told you ‘so long, I won’t be coming back’.”

         Francine pondered it for a moment, but knew without a doubt how she’d feel. “I’d feel lost and incomplete.” She glanced at Amanda with a slightly curious expression. “Is that normal, to feel that way about a man I haven’t known that long?”

         Amanda smiled warm-heartedly at her friend.  “Love doesn’t have a rule book, so no one can say what’s normal or right, you just have to go with what your heart says.”

         Francine glanced at the steaming coffee in her cup and closed her eyes.  Images of Adam’s loving and caring eyes stared back at her. She let out a defeated sigh and, opening her eyes, looked over at her friend. “Oh, Amanda, I am in love with him.” 

         “Admitting it to yourself is the first step.” Amanda placed her hand gently on the blonde’s arm. “So, tell me about the proposal.”

         Francine smiled. “It was totally spontaneous; I mean he didn’t even have a ring. We were just sharing our feelings and the next thing I know, he’s down on one knee.  Even Jonathan didn’t get down on one knee when he proposed to me.”

         Amanda sighed and shook her head. “First, you need to stop comparing him to Jonathan…”

         Francine glared defiantly at the brunette. “I don’t compare him…” she stopped when she saw the pointed stare Amanda was giving her, “okay, so maybe I do.”

         Amanda nodded her head and smiled knowingly at her friend. “It’s perfectly natural to do something like that, especially when you’ve been hurt before. For a long time I compared my relationships with other men with my marriage to Joe.  I was even a little hesitant to get involved with Lee. Not because of his track record with women, but because of his commitment to his job.  I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment again.  However, I quickly realized, especially when Joe returned, how different Lee and Joe are, and how much I’d grown. Lee and I share something special, a unique bond, we were friends first, but I think we’ve always been soul mates.  Lee knows all about me, he knows my darkest secrets and loves me despite my quirky, annoying habits. I came with baggage, a live-in mother, two teenage sons, and a mortgage, and he still wanted to marry me.”

         Francine nodded. “I think Adam could very well be my soul mate.  He’s seen me at my best and even my worst, especially after a particularly harrowing day at work. You know how catty I can get sometimes, and yet he still loves me, and apparently wants to marry me.”

         “Then the only remaining question you need to answer is do you want to spend the rest of your life with him?” Amanda glanced at the blonde over the top of her mug as she took a sip of her coffee.

         “I think I do. My heart already told him yes, but my brain needed to make sure it was the right decision.” Francine glanced briefly at Amanda’s left hand, and saw the tiniest impression of a wedding band.  If Lee Stetson could find true love and happiness, then it was way past time that she let herself do the same.

         “Only you can decide what you want, Francine.” Amanda saw where her friend’s gaze had fallen and was pretty sure her friend was wondering what it would be like to finally have a ring on her own finger. “Don’t rush your decision, make sure it’s what you really want, and that you don’t just say yes because you’re afraid of losing him. After all you have only known him a few weeks.”

         “I know I should agree with you, that things seem to be moving too fast,” Francine moved her gaze back up to her friend’s face, “but I think…no…I know that I really want to marry him, Amanda.”

         “Then there’s your answer.” Amanda pulled the box of donuts to her and opened the lid. “Now, what do you say we delve into these donuts?”

         Francine laughed. “Just leave me a few to take back to Adam.”

         “Yes, we wouldn’t want him to think you just plain forgot to pick something up.” Amanda laughed with her friend as she picked out a chocolate glazed donut.

         “Nope. Can’t have that.” Francine chose a chocolate coated one for herself and glanced briefly at the clock.  Suddenly she couldn’t wait till dinner tonight.  She knew what her answer was going to be, and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep it to herself in until then.  Then, as if the voice of reason itself was agreeing with her decision, it seemed to ask: who said she had to wait?  As soon as she’d finished her coffee and donut, she was going to go home, tell Adam the good news and get down to some serious celebrating.  Something they hadn’t done last night.  With such a huge decision hanging over her, and despite her best intentions, she had kind of lost the mood.  Now, however, she was more than in the mood.  Looking into her nearly empty cup, she knew that her early morning breakfast with Amanda was going to be over very quickly.

 

Chapter 3 by The Yank and The Brit

 Chapter 3 

         Amanda breezed in through the entrance of Chiporelli’s, a little Italian restaurant in the center of Baltimore’s Little Italy and made a quick scan of the waiting area.  It didn’t take her long to locate her mother, sitting on one of the cushioned benches, with an annoyed expression on her face. “I’m sorry, Mother.  I got stuck in traffic.  Monday lunchtime and the D.C. beltway are not a good combination.  Tell me again why we had to have lunch with Sally Thompson in Baltimore?”

         “Because Sally lives just outside of Baltimore and has a five year old who attends the afternoon kindergarten session. She had to drop him off first before meeting us for lunch.” Dotty narrowed her eyes slightly and shook her head. “You do remember what that was like, don’t you Amanda?”

         “Yes mother, I do and I’m not complaining. I was just apologizing for being late.” Amanda made a mental note that her mother was sitting alone. “I take it Sally’s not here yet, either?”

         Dotty shook her head. “No, but she should be along any moment.” She patted the seat next to her. “Have a seat, we can talk wedding plans while we wait.”

         “How did you meet Sally again? I know you don’t like to drive,” Amanda asked as she sat down on the cushion beside her mother, “and it seems extremely odd that you’d be so willing to drive all the way to Baltimore to meet someone for lunch, when you get a cold sweat whenever I ask you to just drive to the store.”

         Dotty sighed. “Are you trying to avoid the wedding conversation, is that what this sudden interest in how I met Sally is all about?”

         Amanda shook her head. “No, I’m not avoiding wedding talk.  It’s just that pretty much everything is taken care of.  There really isn’t much left to do.  I have my dress, Francine found a maid-of-honor dress and Lee and Mr. Melrose have their tuxes.  Is there something about Sally you don’t want me to know about?”

         Dotty looked at her daughter in shock. “Does everything with you have to be a game of twenty questions, just because of your job?” She let out an exasperated sigh. “I’ll have you know that Sally’s a really nice woman who I met at one of my book club meetings.  She has a sister who used to live in Arlington, who was also a member of our club and right before her sister moved, she had a going away party.  Sally didn’t know anyone else in the area so the girls and I convinced her to join the club.  I’ve never been to Little Italy before and so we arranged to have this lunch.  I thought it would be nice for her to meet someone else her age.  Most of the women in the book club are around my age.”

         Amanda sighed. “I’m sorry, Mother, I didn’t mean to get you all upset. I was just being curious.”

         Dotty patted her daughter’s arm. “That’s okay. Now that I know what you really do at I.F.F, I guess being curious is second nature to you. So,” she smiled at her daughter, “do you have your something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue yet?” She glanced towards the door and saw a familiar white Honda pull up to the curb. “Guess we’ll have to continue this at the table, Sally’s car just pulled up.” Then, realizing that her friend was getting dropped of, her eyes began to twinkle with delight. “It looks like her husband is dropping her off.  Sally said he’s quite handsome.  Come on, I want to get a peak at him.” She quickly rose from her seat and made her way over to the entrance area to get a better view. “Oh my, he is good looking.” She motioned with her arm in her daughter’s direction. “You have to see for yourself.”

         Amanda sighed and shook her head slightly as she reluctantly walked over to where her mother was standing. She glanced out the window and did a double take.  Sally’s husband could pass for Coach Clyde’s twin.  She looked over at her mother. “Do you happen to know what Sally’s husband’s name is?”

         “Clyde I believe.” Dotty noticed Sally leaning in to give her husband a kiss and not wanting to appear like she was gawking, turned away and looked at her daughter. “Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s Clyde. Why?”

         “Just curious.” Amanda moved away from the entrance and back towards the waiting area.  The man behind the wheel had been a little too far to tell for sure, but he really had looked like Adam, but her mother had said his name was Clyde.  Which also happened to be Francine’s most-likely-by-now fiancé’s last name.  The whole thing was just a little too coincidental and that little voice inside her head was telling her that something wasn’t quite right. She watched her mother open the door for her friend and put on a smile as the pair approached her.  She was going to have to handle this delicately. She didn’t want her mother to think she was grilling her friend, especially since she was only meeting Sally for the first time.  Perhaps a little Class C interrogation was in order.  She’d had enough practice doing those that she could slip certain questions into the conversation and hopefully her mother wouldn’t notice.

         Dotty reached her daughter’s side and smiled. “Amanda, this is Sally,” she pointed to the woman beside her, “and Sally, this is my daughter.  I’m going to let the Maitre d’ know that we’re all here now.”

         Amanda gave Sally a friendly smile. “It’s very nice to meet you. My mother mentioned that you have a five year old in kindergarten.  I have two boys.” She let out a small laugh as she watched Sally nod. “Oh, I guess you know that, seeing as how you know my mother. Was that your husband dropping you off?”

         Sally nodded again. “Yes. I had planned on driving myself, since I didn’t expect him home so soon.  I kind of felt bad that I’d made plans to have lunch with Dotty on one of the few days he’s actually in town this week.”

         “You could have cancelled,” Dotty commented as she approached them. “I would have understood completely.  Anyway, our table’s ready.” She turned and walked back over to the waiter who was waiting for them.

         “Does your husband travel a lot?” Amanda asked as they followed her mother towards their table.

         “Way too much if you ask me,” Sally sighed, “seems Johnny and I, that’s my son’s name, only get to see him a couple of nights a week and maybe one or two weekends a month.  I wasn’t expecting him home from his latest trip until tomorrow.  He was out in California for some big conference and must have gotten in really late last night.”  Reaching their table, Sally took a seat between Dotty and Amanda. “I know he wasn’t home when Johnny woke up at one a.m. looking for some water, but he was home and asleep next to me when I woke up this morning.  It was such a wonderful surprise.” She glanced over at Dotty, “I did offer to postpone our luncheon, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said he had to go into the office anyway, so he dropped me off on his way into work. Which reminds me, I sort of hate to impose, but could you possibly give me a ride home?  Clyde said he’d be home in time for dinner, which kind of leaves me stranded here.”

         “Not a problem at all,” Dotty smiled and picked up her menu.

         Sally smiled and sighed with relief. “Thank you so much. Johnny was so excited to see his dad that we had to promise him he could stay up late tonight just to get him to go to school today.”

         “I guess since Clyde travels so much, Johnny doesn’t get to see him very much, does he?” Amanda looked up from her menu and watched Sally shake her head. “I understand how that is.  My ex-husband, well at the time we were still married, took a job abroad and my sons didn’t get to see him a lot.  He would try and come home at least once every two months.  Then when we got divorced the boys only got to see him at Christmas, and the occasional Thanksgiving.”

         “You do know how hard it can be, then.” Sally nodded in understanding. “Johnny really misses him.  After his company transferred him down to their Virginia office, I tried telling Clyde that I could get a part-time job and he could find a job that didn’t make him travel so much and was closer to home, but he won’t hear of it.  He’s old fashioned. He wants to be the only bread winner in the family.”

         “What does your husband do, if you don’t mind me asking?” Amanda closed her menu and focused her attention on Sally.

         “He works for a luxury car dealer.  They import high-end foreign cars.  Mostly Lamborghinis and Ferraris,” Sally picked up her menu and scanned the items, “then they ship most of them across country to places like California and Florida. He has to fly to whatever city the cars are going to be delivered to,” she glanced over at Amanda, “you know to make sure they arrive safely and in good condition.  Sometimes he has to go from one city right to the next, and it’s days until he comes home again.  Then there are times when he’ll be scheduled to come home and then has to go to yet another city.  Johnny gets so disappointed.”

         Amanda was getting a very strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. Call it woman’s intuition, but she had a feeling that Clyde wasn’t selling cars, and she couldn’t help but wonder if Clyde Thompson was his real name.  “So he’s gone for long periods of time. I bet you have a pretty expensive phone bill.”

         Sally shook her head. “Actually he has a company cell phone. I just call him on that. It’s local for me, and the company picks up the bill.”

         Amanda nodded and then returned her focus on her menu.  The uneasy feeling in her stomach was growing.  She had a very sneaky suspicion that Clyde wasn’t working at a dealer in Virginia but was actually coaching a baseball team.  If that was the case, Sally’s husband was a very convincing liar to be able to fool a woman he’d been married to for five years, give or take.  Maybe she could find out during the course of the lunch if Clyde was into baseball, and if he had any experience coaching.   She prayed, for Francine’s sake, that she was wrong about Clyde Thompson, however, she had a feeling that she was right on the money.  Hopefully she could make this lunch fly by and even get a little more information on Sally’s husband, because she was suddenly quite eager to get back to the Agency.  She had a background check to run.

*****  *****

         Amanda opened the door to the Q-Bureau and as she stepped into the office, her eyes fell on the frustrated face of her husband. “I take it you haven’t had any luck tracking down any leads on Veranos?” She moved over to her desk and placed her purse in the bottom drawer.

         Lee shook his head and tossed the pen he was holding down onto his desk.  “No.  Your hunch that someone tipped him off seems to be right on the money. I spoke to Williams,” he smiled despite his bad mood when his wife came over and sat on the corner of his desk, “he said that his source turned up dead Saturday morning.  My guess is that someone Veranos works with, maybe even the head honcho, caught onto the fact that Williams’ guy was snitching.  They probably got him to talk about what he told the authorities and Veranos was ordered to pack up his operation here.”

         Amanda sighed. “So we’re basically back to square one.”

         “Actually,” Lee took one of his wife’s hands in his and began tracing lazy circles on her palm, “Billy pulled us off the case.  He said since Southern Star is no longer in business, and we have no other leads, he told me just to have my family keep their ears open. So, for the moment, unless something new turns up, the case from this end is closed.”  He pulled his wife down onto his lap. “So, how was lunch?”

         Amanda glanced at her husband. “Very interesting actually.”

         “Really?” Lee’s eyebrows raised, “How so?”

         “Lee,” Amanda eyed her husband seriously, “if I ask you a question, do you promise to give me an honest answer?”

         Lee’s body tensed slightly. “Amanda…what’s going on?”  At his wife’s ‘just answer the question’ glare, he sighed. “I promise.”

         Amanda got up off her husband’s lap and moved over to look out the window. “Did you by chance run a background check on Adam?”

         “No, I didn’t.  After the accusations that you and Francine threw at me last week, I decided I’d just let it lie. If she didn’t want to be concerned about it, then why should I?” Lee noticed the neutral look on his wife’s face when she turned to look at him.  He wasn’t sure if she was proud of him, or annoyed with him for not doing what everyone had expected him to do in the first place. “Should I have?”

         Amanda shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.  Maybe if you had we wouldn’t have a big mess on our hands.  If I’d known what I think I know now, then I wouldn’t have advised Francine to go with her heart and accept Adam’s proposal. I should learn to listen to the little voice in my head. Something told me to tell Francine to wait, to give it time. But she was so happy and I’ve never seen her this happy and excited, so I pushed the little voice aside.”

         “A-man-dah,” Lee rose from his chair and moved to stand next to his wife. “How about you take a few steps back and start from the beginning. What’s this about Adam proposing?”

         Amanda let out a deep sigh. “I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t sure if, after our conversation, Francine would say yes or not.  I told you how she stopped by yesterday morning, right?” When her husband nodded, she continued, “Well, what I didn’t tell you was that she wanted my advice. Adam proposed and she said yes, but then she took it back, needing time to really think about it.  You know the old saying: go with your first instinct. She couldn’t help but wonder if she really should just bite the bullet and say yes.  Anyway, when she left, I was pretty sure she was going to tell Adam ‘yes.’  Since Mr. Melrose said she took the morning off, I assumed that they went ring shopping or were just celebrating, but after what I saw and learned at lunch, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t with Adam this morning.”

         “So what happened at lunch?” Lee felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to stand up and knew that whatever it was, wasn’t going to be good.

         Amanda walked away from the window and began pacing between the couch and her desk. “Mother’s friend, Sally Thompson, who we were meeting for lunch, was dropped off by her husband.  I got a quick look at him, and you’re probably going to tell me that I’m crazy, because I didn’t get a really good look at him, but…he looked exactly like Adam.” She stopped pacing and put a hand up. “Now before you go saying that some people have twins out there or something, Sally’s husband’s name is Clyde Thompson.   Adam Clyde – Clyde Thompson, could be just a coincidence, I know…” she resumed her pacing, “but here’s the clincher that really got me wondering.  Sally said that Clyde works for a car dealership that imports very expensive cars and travels a lot.  She mentioned that his offices are in Virginia, and that he just got back last night from a big conference in California.”

         “So you’re intuition is telling you that he doesn’t work for a car dealership, but he currently works as an assistant coach, and that this big conference was really not in California, but rather he was just hanging out here in good old D.C., wooing our Francine?” Lee watched as his wife stopped her pacing again and nodded.  He moved over to his desk and sat down at the computer. “Coincidence or not, we owe it to Francine to put that little voice of yours to rest one way or another, especially since your intuitions are very rarely wrong. That being said, let’s pull old Coach Clyde up and see what we come up with.”

         Amanda walked back around the desk and stood behind her husband. “For Francine’s sake, I sure hope I’m wrong.”

         Lee punched a few keys on the keyboard and nodded. “I hope so, too.”  However, his brain was telling him that his wife was probably right on the money.  Her instincts almost always proved to be true.

***** *****

         Billy stared out his office window, waiting for Lee and Amanda to arrive.  Amanda had called down a few minutes ago, asking to speak to him privately.  She had said that she and Lee had something very important to discuss with him and wanted to make sure that Francine wasn’t around.  His first thought was that it had to do with their upcoming wedding, and he hoped beyond all hopes that they weren’t coming down to tell him the whole thing was being called off.  He had immediately dismissed that, because there was no reason that Francine couldn’t be in the room.  Catching sight of them entering the bullpen, he inwardly grimaced.  The strained expressions on both their faces had him extremely worried.  The last time he’d seen Lee look that worried was when Amanda had been kidnapped.  His thoughts immediately turned towards Phillip and Jamie.  As they approached, he caught Lee’s eye and waved them into the office.  Taking a closer look at Amanda’s face as she entered his office, he immediately dismissed any dark thoughts about her boys.  Amanda had gotten pretty good as an agent, but if her boys were in danger, even she wouldn’t be able to hide that kind of emotion. When Lee closed the door and then walked over to the window, closing the blinds, Billy’s original thoughts resurfaced. “Please tell me that you didn’t come down here to tell me the wedding’s off.”

         Amanda shook her head as she sat down in one of the chairs facing her boss. “No, sir.  We didn’t come down here because of something related to Lee or me.”

         Billy glanced from Amanda to Lee. “Okay, now I’m really curious, and I’m beginning to get a little worried.  You both look like you’ve lost your best friend.”

         Amanda looked at Lee, who was now leaning against the shuttered window and then glanced down at the folder in her lap. “What we’ve just uncovered may lose us a very good friend, sir.” She reluctantly looked at her boss, knowing that as soon as they shared this information with him, he would have to bring Francine in, and she wasn’t looking forward to that conversation at all.

         Billy leaned his head back against his chair and resisted the urge to go for his bottle of Tums. “Okay, I’m listening.”

         Amanda leaned forward slightly in her chair. “Well you see, sir, I was having lunch with my mother and a friend of hers, and her friend was dropped off by her husband.  Normally this isn’t a big deal, I realize that, but you see, the problem is, I recognized the husband.  According to my mother, his name is Clyde Thompson, only I know him as Coach Adam Clyde.  He’s the assistant baseball coach for Phillip’s Junior Varsity team.  I wasn’t sure he was the same guy, after all there’s a possibility he has a double out there, but just on the off chance I was right, I came back here and Lee and I ran a background check on Coach Clyde.”

         Billy shook his head and glanced over at Lee.  He had known Amanda for quite a few years now and no matter what, the fact that she had a unique way of making a point through a ramble would never cease to amaze him.  What amazed him even more was the fact that he had actually followed what she’d just said.  “I’m guessing that what you discovered was that this Clyde Thompson and Adam Clyde are the same person?”

         “I can see why they pay you the big bucks, nothing slips past you.” Lee gave a half-hearted nod. “What we found isn’t pretty.  First, his real name is Benjamin Adams and there’s an outstanding warrant for his arrest in Trenton, New Jersey.”

         Billy let out a deep sigh and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his desk. “What are the charges against him?”

         “Bigamy and possession of M-16s in the trunk of his car.  Army issue and all stolen.” Lee handed the folder over to Billy. “Apparently he was in police custody, but got bonded out and skipped.  My guess is he ran straight here to Sally’s, since the police only knew about his wives in New Jersey.  Then because he didn’t want to stay in one place too long, he took the job teaching baseball at the high school.”

         Billy skimmed the contents. “It says here that he left a wife and two kids behind in Paramus, another wife in Seaside Heights and another one in Trenton.”

         “And he’s got a different name attached to each wife, which I guess is his way of trying to get around the bigamy charges.  Apparently the wife in Trenton is the one who turned him in.  She got suspicious and followed him to the shore wife.” Lee shook his head and crossed his arms. “She had a friend on the Trenton police force, who, according to the record, did some investigating and found out he was married to the woman in Seaside Heights, as well as to his friend.  The cops were waiting for him at the Trenton house when he came back from a business trip and arrested him.”

         “I don’t understand how any judge could allow a man like that to walk away.” Amanda sighed.

         “If bond is posted and someone’s willing to put up bail money,” Billy shrugged, “the court doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”

         “The guy’s a real piece of work, Billy.” Lee pushed away from the window. “He got his grandmother to put up her house as collateral in order to bail him out and then he skipped.  According to what I know of bonds, if the suspect doesn’t appear for his appointed court date, the courts keep the bail money and the bonding agency collects the property that was used as collateral…in this case he put his poor grandmother out on the street and he’s carrying on without a care in the world.”

         Billy looked over at Amanda. “Do you think this Benjamin guy saw you when he dropped off his wife?”

         Amanda shook her head. “No, I’m pretty sure he didn’t. I didn’t lurk too long in plain sight, just long enough to get a quick look at him.”

         Billy glanced over at Lee. “I take it the reason you came to me with this is that you want to arrest this guy, before he has a chance to run and you want to do it soon,” he turned his attention back to Amanda, “because you fear for your son’s safety?”

         Amanda glanced briefly over at her husband, who gave her a small nod and she turned her attention back to her boss. “It’s a little more complicated than that, sir.  We have reason to believe that he’s already picked out wife number five.”

         Billy raised his eyebrows curiously, but somehow his gut was telling him he already knew who that unlucky woman was. “I know I’m going to regret asking this, but…do we have a name to go with this suspicion?”

         Lee caught Amanda’s gaze and knew that she was mentally reminding him that telling their boss was his responsibility.  They had had a small argument over this fact up in the Q-Bureau.  He had drawn Mr. Melrose; she had drawn Francine.  In his opinion, he had gotten the easy one.  Sighing, he moved over to sit in the empty chair beside his wife. “It’s Francine.”

         “I’m getting too old for this.  Jeannie pointed out a few new gray hairs this morning, and now I feel a dozen more dark hairs changing color.” Billy glanced at the drawer where he held his supply of Tums.  He was desperately trying to cut down on them, since his doctor told him they were known to raise his blood pressure.  His job did that enough; he didn’t need any assistance.  Sighing, he reluctantly pulled his gaze away and looked from Lee to Amanda. “I’m guessing that since an earthquake hasn’t swallowed up the Agency, no one’s told Francine yet.”

         Amanda shook her head. “We wanted to talk to you about it first, since this isn’t really Agency business, but since an agent is involved, we figured that somehow it becomes our business.”

         “How sure are you that Francine is involved with this Adams guy?” Billy rubbed his temple, trying to ward of the headache that was slowly growing in intensity.

         “She told me about him on Thursday, and we officially met him on Saturday as her boyfriend at Phillip’s first game.” Amanda swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat.  Francine was so happy, she thought she’d finally found her soul mate and now that was all going to come to a crashing halt. “This is so horrible and strange.  Not only is this going to kill Francine, but I don’t know if I can get used to calling him by anything other than Coach Clyde.” She tried to hide the small hint of panic that rose inside her at the thought of all they had uncovered about this man. “My father always said to be wary of someone with two first names.” At her boss and husband’s slightly confused glance she added, “he said they always end up being untrustworthy. I can’t believe this guy was anywhere near one of my boys.”

         Lee ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not crazy about that either, however that doesn’t compare to the other problem we have,” he glanced over towards his boss. “How do we go about telling Francine?”

         Amanda nodded her head slowly in agreement. “It’s going to kill her, sir.”

         Billy tilted his head slightly. “You'd be surprised - I sometimes think that woman's backbone is made of steel instead of bone.”

         “No sir,” Amanda shook her head and grimaced slightly, “you don't understand, Adam proposed on Saturday night and when she left my house yesterday morning she was going to accept.”

         Billy closed his eyes and reached over towards his desk drawer.  His blood pressure was going to have to take a back seat to his upset stomach. “That explains why she was in such a good mood when she got in this afternoon – she asked for the morning off, and came in beaming.  Now I guess I know why.”

         “Do you have any thoughts on how we go about doing this?” Lee asked his boss and glanced over at his wife.  She was the one with the gentle touch, the hand holding expertise, which was one of the reasons he was glad she had drawn the straw on telling Francine.

         Billy picked up the file Lee had handed him earlier. As he had suspected, the second page held a small photo of Adams. “It’s not ideal, but I think the best way is not to just blurt it out.  I’ll call her in and then tell her we need assistance bringing someone in.  Since all the data about him on the first page is just the basics of what you told me, we can wait until she reads the second page to realize who this guy really is.  That way, none of us actually has to be the one to tell her.”

         “That’s misleading, sir.” Amanda stared at her boss with a slightly shocked expression.

         “True, but brilliant at the same time.” Lee nodded and then took his wife’s hand in his. “Do you have a better suggestion?” He raised his eyebrows slightly, “remember, this is Francine we’re dealing with. Look on the bright side, it gets you out of having to be the one to tell her.”

         Amanda sighed. “I don’t like it, but I guess we don’t really have another choice, do we?”

         Billy shook his head. “Not if we all want to leave my office in one piece.” He sighed, popped a few Tums into his mouth and then reached for the phone.  He picked up the receiver and hit one of the speed dial numbers. “Francine, I have an apprehension I want you to assist Lee and Amanda on, can you come into my office … good.”  He hung up the phone and tried to keep his focus off of his office door.   A quick knock followed the turning of the handle, and his assistant entered the office.

         Francine caught Amanda’s eye and smiled as she raised her hand slightly, showing off the diamond ring on her finger. “So who’s the unlucky guy that needs three agents to catch him?” She asked as she approached her boss’ desk.

         Lee got up and, making his way over to the door, made a show of ensuring that it was completely closed.  He then moved over to stand against the window.  He didn’t want to be caught slacking should Francine decide to physically assault him, and he wanted to guard the door to keep her from running after Adams on her own.

         Billy picked up the folder and handed it to her.  “Name’s Benjamin Adams and he’s a bigamist who was found in possession of some Army hardware.”

         Francine opened the folder. “Geez, is this guy for real?  He’s got four wives and three kids.  I’ve heard of men cheating on their wives, but they don’t usually go for the getting married more than once bit.” She turned the page and read the names off, “Benjamin Adams, aka Adam White, Clyde Thompson, Thomas Benton and…” Her eyes grew wide and she lowered her gaze to the picture at the bottom of the page.  Her hands held the folder in a white-knuckle grip and she turned towards Lee, her eyes blazing. “HOW DARE YOU!!! You ran that background check after you promised you wouldn’t.  Are you trying to ruin my chance at happiness? Couldn’t you have just left well enough alone?”

         “Francine, don’t get mad at Lee.” Amanda rose from her seat and put a tentative hand on her friend’s shoulder. “The background check wasn’t his idea…it was mine.”

         Francine’s expression was still angry, but was now mixed with unbridled hurt.  Shaking Amanda’s hand off her shoulder, she took a few steps aside, putting some distance between them. “Why? Why would you do that? I thought we were friends.” She spun around and glared at the brunette.  “Oh I know…you were doing it out of the goodness off your heart…because you were concerned about me and were too afraid to tell me yesterday that I was making a big mistake.  So instead, you went behind my back.  If this is this how you watch out for all your friends, by destroying their lives,” she angrily waved the folder in front of Amanda’s face, “then you can stop considering me a friend.  I don’t need that kind of friendship.”

         Amanda fought back the tears that were threatening to surface.  She knew Francine was just reacting to the feeling of being betrayed, and once she knew all the facts, she’d calm down, but that didn’t stop the blonde’s words from hurting. Taking a deep breath, she took a step closer to her friend. “Francine, I didn’t do it because I wanted to destroy your chance at happiness.  I saw Adam dropping off his wife, Sally, this afternoon and I followed my instincts.  I didn’t want to believe that he was the same man who had just asked you to marry him, so I ran a background check, to prove myself wrong, but it didn’t turn out like I had hoped it would. I’m sorry Francine, more sorry than you could ever now.” She gazed at Francine with a soft, caring expression. “Would you rather have married Adam and then found out, that not only was he cheating on you, but he had four other wives?”

         “I need to sit down. This can’t be real.” Francine walked over to the couch and plopped herself down. She stared at the ring on her finger and then re-opened the folder.  She turned to the second page and clenched her teeth together as she stared at the picture.  She refused to cry, especially not in front of other people, regardless of who those people were. She threw the folder onto the floor and ripped the ring off her finger.  She looked up and saw the worry etched on Lee’s face.  His expression only made her angrier.  He looked so smug standing there with his arms crossed and his brow creased. If he’d really been concerned about her, he would have kept his nose out of her business.  She clenched the ring tightly in her fist and then threw it across the room, narrowly missing Lee’s head.  “You are so goddamn smug, Lee Stetson. You think that just because you've found happiness, that you've got the monopoly on it and have to go around ruining other people's happiness?  Amanda may have claimed it was her idea, but I know you,” she rose to her feet once more and glared at her co-worker, “you wanted to run that check the minute you found out I was serious about someone.”

         “Francine…” Lee’s voice held a touch of concern and a hint of a warning.  He knew his friend was upset, but he wasn’t going to let her use him or anyone else in this room as a whipping boy.  “You’d better watch what you say and who you’re throwing things at.” He glanced briefly down at the floor and then returned his gaze on the blonde. “We’re your friends, first and foremost, so don’t start getting on our cases for your bad judgment in men.”
         “Lee!” Amanda turned and shot a warning glance at her husband. “Francine,” she said in a softer tone, and turned towards the blonde, “no one did this for any reason other than to find out the truth.  I wanted desperately not to find out anything bad about Adam.  I want you to be happy.”

         “Well you don’t have to worry about that. I’m swearing off men from now on.  I’m never getting married.  In fact, I think I’ll become a nun.” She shook her head, “No, scratch that, I’d never be able to handle the celibacy. I take it back, I’m not swearing off men. I’ll just use them like they so obviously love to use me.” Francine closed her eyes and clenched her fist by her side.  She then turned towards her boss. “So, was this the real reason you called me in here; to tell me that my fiancé is a lying cheating bastard? Or did you call me in because you want to use me as bait to bring Adam in?”

         “That’s up to you Francine. You’re close to this guy. We could use that to our advantage, provided I get the okay from the FBI to take over and bring him in.” Billy reached for his phone.

         “Fat chance of that.” Lee rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. “When was the last time the FBI ever let the Agency handle one of their cases?”

         “We have the added benefit of knowing where Adams is.  Even if we don’t use Francine, both you and Amanda know him and can find way to bring him in.” Billy picked up the receiver and began dialing. “Besides I’m not a hundred percent sure that it’s even an FBI case.  We know that stolen guns were involved, but he was arrested by the local police, and they did issue the warrant, so maybe its state jurisdiction and I’ll end up calling the Arlington P.D.”

         Francine looked from Lee to Amanda and then back to Lee. “You two can be my backup. There is no way in hell that I’m not going to help bring the slime bucket in.”

         Lee focused on Francine. “Man, one minute you’re in love with the guy, and the next you’re out for blood. Guess the saying really is true,” he took his eyes off of Francine and glanced over at his boss, “hell really hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

         “You haven’t seen hell, yet, Stetson.” Francine narrowed her eyes and glared at Lee.  She then plopped herself back down on the couch and stared at the ceiling.  She was mentally berating herself for being so stupid.  Maybe Lee was right and she should have run a background check on Adam, but he seemed so perfect.  Jonathan may have been a little wimpy at times, but at least he had been honest with her.   Maybe she could try and work on not being so independent. She mentally shook her head.  She wasn’t going to change for anyone, and she was definitely done with serious relationships.

         Billy let out a long sigh and as he waited for his contact at the FBI to come on the line, he looked over at Lee, caught the agent’s eye, glanced at the door and then over to Francine.  He watched as Lee barely nodded, letting him know he wasn’t going to let Francine do anything rash.

         Amanda moved to sit on the couch next to Francine. “I really am sorry, Francine. I kept hoping I was wrong and that Adam just had a twin out there.” She tentatively reached out to touch her friend’s arm, only to have it yanked away.

         “What did this Sally look like?” Francine’s voice held a slightly jealous tone to it. “Is she blonde, tall?”

         Amanda sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “She had curly sandy-blonde hair, is about my height and she’s a housewife.  She stayed home mostly to take care of their five-year-old.”

         “So she was kind of like you.  That’s really flattering.” Francine glanced briefly down at where her engagement ring had been only a few minutes before. “Susie homemaker versus career woman.  No wonder he kept telling me I wouldn’t need to work.”

         Amanda opened her mouth to retort, but thought better of it.  Francine was blowing off steam, but her words still stung.  “At least she’s not a super model.”

         Billy hung up the phone and cleared his throat. “Well the case is ours.”

         Lee inched imperceptibly closer to the door, but stared at his boss with wide eyes. “The FBI just gave you the case? I’m not buying it. What did we have to promise them?”

         Billy shook his head. “Nothing.  They said since the stolen guns were part of an ongoing investigation they’re helping the Army with they’d normally snatch hit up. However, the bigamy charge clouds things a little.  Since the warrant was issued in New Jersey, that part falls under state jurisdiction.  They figure that since the Agency is a neutral third party, and we already have the advantage of being able to get someone close to him without raising any suspicion, we make the best choice to handle the apprehension.” He glanced over at Francine. “You know the guy and I hate to make you take point on this, but do you have any suggestion on how we go about bringing him in?”

         Francine closed her eyes and got her emotions under control.  When she opened them again, the agent mask was firmly in place and all her personal feelings were pushed behind the wall she had only just begun to dismantle.  “I want to get him to confess.  We have no proof other than what’s in this folder that he’s the man who was arrested in New Jersey.”

         Lee studied his friend carefully.  He recognized the all-business persona she was projecting.  It was the same one he wore when he was pushing all emotions aside.  The mask wasn’t something he used a lot these days, at least not around his wife.   She could read him like a book, no matter what mask he wore. “Francine, how exactly are you going to get him to confess without raising his suspicions and having him turn tail and run?  He knows he’s an FTA,” he caught the questioning glance his wife gave him, “sorry, Failure to Appear. Anyway,” he turned back towards Francine, “he thinks he’s comfortable here in the D.C. area. If he even gets a whiff that you suspect him of anything, he’s going to bolt the first chance he gets. Not to mention, there are stolen Army guns involved, so who knows what this guy is really capable of.”

         “I have my ways, after all, I’m the one everyone calls when they can’t get the toughest nut to crack.” Francine smirked in Lee’s direction. “And, I am a trained professional. I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

         “Yes, but this isn’t your average slime ball off the street.  This is a man, who thinks he’s your fiancé.” Lee crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows in challenge.

         Amanda got up off the couch and, stepping between the two agents, stood facing her husband. “Lee, Francine’s right.  She knows Adam, and she has her own way of getting a man to confess.” She turned towards the blonde. “Mr. Melrose said it’s going to be your show, so just let us know where you want us.”

         Francine gave Amanda a barely noticeable smile of thanks. “I doubt I’ll get him to actually admit to being married, but maybe I can get him to at least name a few of his other wives.  I’ll invite him over for dinner tonight.  My next-door neighbor is out of town and asked me to bring in her mail, I don’t think she’ll mind if you two set up camp in her apartment.  You’ll be close enough to jump in when its time to take him down.”

         “Okay, go down to Leatherneck and have him outfit you for a wire.” Billy glanced at the blonde agent. “Have him give you something to place somewhere in your apartment as well as on your person.” He held up a hand to stop her protest. “I know you’re very good at the Peacock Dance, Francine, and I also realize that you’re close to this guy, but I don’t want to have a repeat of the last dance that occurred and we missed about twenty minutes of dialogue.” He avoided looking over at Amanda.  The fact that the transmitter she had been wearing during the Richmond case had been hidden in a button on her shirt that she had been forced to leave in another room, wasn’t something he wanted to have repeated.  He didn’t blame her for what had happened, after all, they got their man, and maybe it had been better that Scarecrow hadn’t heard exactly what had gone on in that apartment; however, it was never good for any case to have undocumented time and dialogue.  “I want you monitored at all times.”

         “Billy…” Francine drew out her boss’ name.

         “This isn’t open for debate, Francine” Billy interrupted her, looking at her with an expression of authority, “either you and Leatherneck find a way to have you wired at all times, or I’ll let Lee and Amanda find a way to bring Adams in, without your help.”

         “Sir,” Amanda glanced over at their boss, “there’s one thing that’s been bothering me since Lee and I did the background check.  If we were able to run a check on him, and come up with all his aliases, how come the authorities in New Jersey weren’t able to do the same?  I mean, if they’d been able to find out about Sally Thompson, then he would have been taken into custody awhile ago.”

         Billy shook his head. “I don’t know. Perhaps their information only covered the New Jersey wives.  It’s possible that when you stumbled upon Sally Thompson, you managed to find the missing link that they were never able to uncover.” He shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “Once we hand him over to the proper authorities, I’m sure we can ask them.” He looked back over at Francine. “If there’s nothing else, you three should head down to Leatherneck and get everything you need for tonight.”

         “I need to call Adam first and set things up.” Francine glanced at Amanda. “Why don’t you and Lee head on down and I’ll meet you there?”

         “I have a better idea,” Lee moved towards the door, “how about Amanda and I hang around and wait until you confirm things with Adam, then we can all go down together.”

         Francine rolled her eyes. “Are you afraid I’m going to go track down Adam now…by myself?” She glanced briefly at Billy and then back to Lee. “I saw you guarding the door, Scarecrow.  I may be a ‘woman scorned’ as you so eloquently put it, but I’m not like you. I don’t go off half-cocked.  I plan on doing this right.  So, go on down to see Leatherneck and I promise I’ll be there as soon as I set up my date with Adam, for all I know he might be too busy with his wife to be able to do anything tonight.” Francine saw the slight indecision in her friend’s face. “Oh please. Fine, if it’ll make you feel better Billy can call up to Mrs. Marsten and instruct her not to let me leave the building.”

         “That won’t be necessary, Francine. I, for one, trust you.” Amanda glanced over at her husband. “Come on, Lee, let’s go see what toys we can borrow from Leatherneck.”  She opened the door and watched Lee glance briefly at Francine and then sigh as he began to follow her out of the office.  As she stepped into the busy bullpen, she suddenly felt a pang of sadness for Sally and Johnny Thompson.  If Francine was successful in getting Adam to join her tonight, a little boy in Baltimore was going to be extremely disappointed. Then again, once his daddy was carted off to jail, and the truth about him came out, more people than just Johnny were going to be hurt.

         Francine followed Lee and Amanda out of Billy’s office and started crossing the bullpen to her desk.  Watching her two friends approaching the double doors, she felt very remorseful for her earlier words towards Amanda, and, to some degree, Lee. “Wait up you two.” She called out and picked up her pace.

         Lee glanced briefly at Amanda, who shrugged her shoulders. “What’s up, Francine?  If you want to bring this guy in tonight, we need to catch Leatherneck before he goes home.”

         Francine ignored his tone and looked at Amanda. “I just wanted to apologize…you know…well I guess I said a few things…”

         Amanda shook her head and placed a hand on the blonde’s arm. “There’s no need, Francine.  You were hurt, and rightfully so.  We’re your friends and that’s why we did what we did. Now, you have enough on your mind, so don’t think twice about it, okay?”

         Francine smiled gratefully at Amanda, and if they hadn’t been in the middle of the bullpen, she might have hugged her.  However, they were, and she did have a reputation to uphold. “Thanks.”

         “Good.” Amanda smiled and turned towards her husband. “Now, I believe you and I have a date with a toy maker.”

         Francine laughed at Amanda’s description for Leatherneck, and watched as Lee led the brunette out of the bullpen, his hand falling to that familiar spot at the small of Amanda’s back.  She knew, from observing the couple over the years that that move had become habitual, and she wondered if she would ever find that kind of comfort in someone.  Looking down at the folder in her hand, she sighed disdainfully and began walking over to her desk.  As she sat down in her chair, she placed the folder on her desk and then glanced reluctantly at the phone.  She was not looking forward to this.  She had been so happy when she came in, and in an instant, all that joy had been whisked away.  She looked over at the folder and decided she needed a little more motivation before she picked up the phone and made the fateful call.  Opening the file, she rescanned the data.  She skipped the second page with his aliases and moved to the page that held his history.  As she began reading about his childhood, it suddenly struck her as odd that she had never really taken the opportunity to ask Adam about his past. 

         She let out a small sigh as she read.  Adam, or more precisely, Benjamin Adams, didn’t have a very loving childhood.  His mother had run off when he was only seven, and his father seemed to get divorced and then remarried every two years.  That was no way for any child to live.  No wonder he had four wives; although, she couldn’t help but wonder why Adam had never divorced the other women.  Maybe he wanted to discover what he’d missed growing up. A small part of her began to feel sorry for Adam, but she quickly pushed that aside.  Swallowing the last ounce of procrastination, she reached over and, picking up the receiver, dialed Adam’s cell phone.  

 

Chapter 4 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 4

         Francine glanced at her watch for the tenth time in the last fifteen minutes.  Adam was late, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he had changed his mind, and decided not to join her after all.  It had taken a lot of persuading, but Adam had finally agreed to join her for dinner.  She had told him that her boss, by way of congratulating her on her engagement, had given her the rest of the day off.  He had protested at first, claiming a prior engagement, which if Amanda was right about him, would have been dinner with his wife and son.  After some very forced seduction on her part, he had agreed to break his previous plans and would meet her at her place around six o’clock. With that set, she had stopped by the Blue Fox on her way home and picked up dinner which was now in the oven set to warm, and she was sitting on her living room couch in front of the fireplace, wearing her favorite blue dress.  It was simple, with a low waist and batwing sleeves, but she loved it because it brought out the blue of her eyes, although after tonight, she had a feeling that she wouldn’t be wearing it again for a very long time, if ever. 

         Francine moved her gaze from her watch to the engagement ring sitting on her finger to the roaring fire she’d started earlier.  She was using every ounce of determination not to rip it off her finger again, this time throwing it into the fire and watching it burn. Of course, she knew the fire wasn’t nearly hot enough to melt the ring, but it sure would feel good right about now.  No matter how much she hated having to put it back on her finger, Amanda had been right; Adam would surely notice if she didn’t have it on, so she had reluctantly returned to her boss’ office to retrieve the ring she’d angrily discarded earlier. However, she had waited until she was home and had put the dress on before forcing the diamond ring back on her ring finger, swallowing the bile that rose in her throat the whole time.

         Francine glared at the diamond-studded necklace she was wearing, a gift of sorts from Leatherneck.  The diamonds looked real, but that was only a ruse to hide the fact that one of them was actually a radio transmitter.  If the evening did end up in the bedroom, there would be no reason for the necklace to come off, and if Adam tried, she’d just tell him that she wanted to leave it on.  Of course she planned on pulling a page from Amanda’s book if things progressed too far in that direction and would use her bedside lamp to knock him out, because she really didn’t want Lee and Amanda to have to listen to her and Adam being more intimate than she had any desire to be. That was just a little too close and personal for friends to have to share, not to mention the fact that she had absolutely no desire to make love to a deceitful, lying, cheating low-life.  Once she’d gotten enough of a confession out of him, or knocked him out cold, they could then drag him down to the Agency and get him to talk.  She realized that they could do that before she tried getting some information out of him, all she’d have to do was cuff him and bring him in the minute he arrived, but the truth was, she wanted this one-on-one ‘interview’ with him.  She wanted to use her feminine wiles to get the truth out of him, maybe even do some minor bodily harm, after all, she was owed that much wasn’t she?

         “If he doesn’t get here soon, I’m going to end up losing my cool.” Francine said aloud. She knew Lee and Amanda were across the hall listening in, and also knew that they didn’t really have a way to communicate back to her, but still it felt better knowing that she wasn’t really talking to herself. “It’s a good thing you two are so close, because if I do lose it, I won’t be in any kind of mood to seduce anything out of him. I’m going to want to tie him up by his feet and hang him over the balcony instead, and you guys will have to come over and keep me from dropping him head first to the street.”

         The phone ringing ended her verbal tirade.  She half hoped that it would be Adam telling her why he was late, but in reality she knew it was her back up calling. She reached behind her and picked up the receiver. “Speak.”

         “Francine, take a few deep breaths and relax.” Amanda’s voice came over the phone. 

         “I’m crawling out of my skin waiting. I don’t want to relax.” Francine was fighting the urge to throw the phone against the wall.  She wasn’t in the mood for her friend’s trademark niceness.

         “I understand that, but if you don’t relax, you’re going to blow the whole operation.   Adam’s only a few minutes late.”

         “That’s the other issue, he’s always punctual. In fact he usually beats me everywhere.” Francine blew a hair out of her face in frustration.

         “I called home right before I called you. My mother said that this afternoon’s game ran over.  Phillip only got home half an hour ago, so my guess is that Adam should be arriving fairly soon.  In fact, Lee said he just saw Adam getting out of a blue Honda Civic.”

         “If you tell me to take a deep breath again,” Francine interrupted her friend, “I’m going to come over there and throttle you. I don’t care if Adam’s on his way up, it’ll be worth it just to let out some of this frustration.”

         “I wasn’t going to say that, actually. I was going to wish you luck, and to remind you, not that you need reminding, but Lee and I are here if you need us.”

         Francine took a deep breath when she heard a knock at her door and then the key turning in the lock. “Thanks, gotta go. It’s show time.” She whispered the last bit as she rose from her seat on the couch and hung up the phone.  She was halfway to the front door when it opened and Adam walked in.

         “I’m so sorry for being late, but the game ran long.” Adam entered and closed the door behind him, his facial expression apologetic. “I had planned to call you, but as luck would have it, an old friend called and I spent the entire drive over here on the phone with them. Forgive me?” He smiled endearingly as he looked her up and down. “Wow! Now I’m really sorry I’m late. You look good enough to eat. Although I should have known you’d be wearing something sexy when you promised me a night of passion.  I don’t suppose you have that sexy negligee I bought for you as an engagement present hiding underneath?”

         “Possibly,” Francine approached him, smiling beguilingly, “after all you should never judge a book by its cover.” She whispered seductively as she trailed her finger along the collar of his shirt. She then snaked her arm around his neck and kissed him passionately.  When his arms wrapped around her waist, and his hand began to wander down to her buttocks, she quickly ended the kiss. “Dinner’s in the oven, and we have all night, so what do you say we move over to the couch and get better acquainted?”

         “I really like the sound of that.” Adam placed his hand in hers and pulled her towards the couch. “How long until dinner’s ready?” He asked as he sat down on the cushion and pulled Francine down onto his lap.

         “Not long enough for us to have too much fun.” Francine smiled coyly and eased off of Adam’s lap.  She was pulling on all her strength not to wrap her hands around his neck and choke him to death.  “And I wasn’t referring to that kind of acquainted.”

         Adam looked at Francine with a slightly puzzled expression. “I thought we covered all of the getting to know you questions early on in our relationship.”

         Francine shook her head gently. “Actually, I realized when I was showing off my ring at work today, that I didn’t know as much about you and your past, as you know about mine.  The more I thought about our game of twenty questions, you did all the asking and I did all the answering.” As she finished her comment, she could have sworn that she had seen a glimmer of panic flash behind Adam’s eyes just before he gingerly shook his head.

         “I’m sure I answered just as many questions as you did.” Adam protested as he swallowed the lump forming in his throat.  He didn’t like answering questions about his past; there were things about himself that he preferred to keep hidden.  Why did women have to be so damn nosey? “What brought this about anyway?”

         “A couple of girls from the steno pool started asking me questions about you.  The ones about what you do for a living, I could answer.” Francine brought her hand up and began running her fingers through Adam’s hair.  When in doubt, go for sexual confusion. “But when one of the girls said she knew an Adam Clyde in college, she asked where you went to school, and I realized I didn’t know.  Then I realized that I really didn’t know a lot about your past.  I got so swept up in everything, I never thought to ask, and now that we’re getting married, these are things we should know about each other, don’t you agree?” While the fingers of her right hand continued to play with the tendrils of hair at the base of his neck, she moved the fingers of her left hand along his jaw line.  “After all, you know much more about me and my past, than I know about yours.” She traced a path over his Adam’s apple to the top button of his shirt. “It’s not like you have any reason to keep your past a secret, is it?” She let out a silvery laugh and then purred seductively, “Imagine you some international man of mystery.”

         Adam laughed with her as he took her left hand in his.  Francine was sexy and obviously knew how to make him weak in the knees, but he needed to think.  Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to answer some of the easier questions, after all where he grew up and went to school wasn’t a big deal, and it wasn’t like she would have any reason to double check his responses.  She worked in the film industry, and produced boring documentaries.  If he didn’t answer her, then she might get suspicious and he didn’t need that.  No, it was better to answer the basics and if he needed to, he could fudge a few answers.  “So,” he brought her hand up to his lips and kissed her palm, “what is it that you want to know?”

         “Well,” Francine purred, “how about we start with where you went to college?”

         Adam fought the surge of electricity running through him.  He didn’t just love Francine for her mind and body, but he loved the things she did to him with just a simple touch. Despite his desire to keep his past a secret, he really wanted to end this conversation and thought hard about kissing Francine until all thoughts of his past were wiped away, and make her think of nothing but making wild passionate love to him. However he had a sister once, not to mention four marriages under his belt and he knew that women, before he’d knocked their independence away, weren’t as easily distracted as the average male was.  Seeing the determination in his love’s gaze, he sighed and gave in. “I graduated with honors, from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And since I’m sure I know what you’re next question is going to be, I’ll save you the trouble, I majored in education. Not very exciting, I realize, but it did help me get this job.”

         “So I guess it was another Adam Clyde that Susie from the Steno pool knew in college. She went to Georgetown.” Francine smiled sweetly and, leaning over placed a tender kiss on Adam’s cheek. With one question answered, she rose from the couch, eager to move this conversation away from the current romantic setting. She could tell that she’d successfully gotten under Adam’s skin, and she still have a few more questions that she needed answered before he started thinking with his male anatomy.  “I’m going to go check on dinner, it should be almost done.  There’s a bottle of Chardonnay on the table, would you mind pouring out two glasses?”

         “Not at all.” Adam stood up and followed Francine into the other room.  He watched his fiancée enter the kitchen, before moving over to the table.  As he opened the bottle of wine, he prayed that he could somehow steer the conversation away from his past while they ate.  He was glad she had suggested dinner, because now, he’d be able to feign a headache and head home once the meal was over.  He had felt bad having to disappoint his son, but compared to Sally, Francine was a tiger in bed, which was the only reason he was here, in Francine’s apartment, instead of in his comfy Baltimore home.   Sometimes his libido had a bad habit of making decisions for him. “You know, you never asked me if we won or lost.”

         Francine opened the oven and pulled out a dish of fully cooked lasagna. “You’re right, I didn’t, but it wasn’t for lack of interest, I just figured that Amanda would be only too happy to tell me all about it tomorrow if her son’s team won, and wouldn’t say much to me if they lost.” She carried the dish into the dining room and smiled apologetically. “But it was very un-fiancée-ish of me not to ask you, after all you are the assistant coach.” She put the food on the table and walked over to Adam. She wrapped her hands around his waist and whispered in his ear. “How did the team do?”

         Adam gulped and tried to concentrate on the aroma of the food on the table. “We went into extra innings, but lost.”

         “I’m so sorry. As soon as we finish with dinner,” she unwrapped her arms and moved back towards the kitchen to retrieve the salad, “I promise to help you forget all about your loss.”  Opening the refrigerator, she pulled out the big bowl and made her way back into the dining room. “So, did you play a lot of sports in high school? Is that why you gravitated to teaching baseball to teenagers?”

         Adam mentally cursed.  Here he thought talking about his work would distract her, but he’d been wrong. He had been right earlier; she was a woman on a mission.  Maybe he’d rethink his earlier headache idea.  If he could get through dinner, then he’d be able to distract her physically. “Actually I did play on the baseball team in high school, and then managed to make the freshman baseball team at Rutgers, but I soon found that I couldn’t keep up my grades and play baseball, so I quit the team and concentrated on my studies.”

         “Since you told me you jumped at this coaching job, I’m guessing you took the job because you missed playing?” Francine sat down and spooned some salad into her bowl.

         Adam shrugged. “I guess a small part of me did.  The truth was, I was tired of traveling and I wanted to settle down in one place.”

         Francine had to fight back a bitter comment at that statement. She knew for a fact that he wasn’t settling down in one place, not unless he intended to divorce Sally Thompson. “I bet you were a heartbreaker in high school, with a new girlfriend every week.”

         Adam shook his head and sighed resolutely.  There was no way around this whole conversation.  “Nope, actually I only had one girlfriend, but we parted ways when we graduated.  We both went off to different colleges. I used to run into her every now and then when I’d go back home to visit my grandmother.”

         “Where did you grow up?” Francine stabbed at her salad with her fork, willing herself not to make direct eye contact with Adam.  She knew from his file where he grew up, and she sat in her chair with bated breath waiting to see if he would tell her the truth or lie.

         “No place you’d ever have heard of.  Just a small town in central Jersey,” Adam glanced up and was thankful that Francine was focused on her food, “not far from Trenton.”

         Francine managed to force herself to smile and glanced up at Adam. “Tell me about the first girl you fell in love with. After all, it’s only fair, since you know all about my first love.”

         “You really are very inquisitive tonight.  Are you sure that only one co-worker’s question prompted all this curiosity?” Adam raised his eyebrows slightly and watched Francine. “Or, have these questions been bugging you for a while?”
         Francine shrugged noncommittally. “I guess on some level I’ve always been curious, but her question did get me thinking.” She waived her fork in his direction, “And I think you’re trying to avoid my question.  Why don’t you want to tell me about your first love?”

         “It’s not like I have anything to hide,” Adam prayed that Francine didn’t know him well enough to know that he was, indeed lying. “Her name was Julie, we were engaged to be married and then one day, she up and disappeared. I guess, it’s sort of similar to you and Jonathan, only she didn’t leave me at the altar.”

         “I guess we really were fated to meet each other.” Francine forced herself not to gag on the food she’d already consumed.  She had a funny feeling that Julie was actually Adam’s first wife, or rather married to Adam’s real alias, and that she wasn’t the one that left, that it was Adam who’d left in the middle of the night and never returned.  She was in the middle of trying to come up with a way to ask him more about her when the phone rang. “Looks like you’re saved by the bell, for the moment anyway.” She smiled sweetly as she rose from her seat and headed over to the phone. “Hello?”

         “Francine, it’s Amanda. I called to give you some confirmations and see how you wanted to proceed.”

         Francine let out a fake gasp. “Oh my, that’s awful. I want to hear all about it, but I have company. Let me take this into the bedroom, so he can eat and I won’t disturb him. Hang on a minute.” She laid the receiver down and moved towards the bedroom. She gave Adam an apologetic smile. “That’s my mom. She just got some disturbing news about my aunt.  I promise not to be too long.”

         Adam nodded. “Hey family is important. Take your time. I’ll just go put the lasagna in the oven to keep it warm.”

         Francine watched Adam head into the kitchen and then hurried into her bedroom.  She closed the door and, sitting on her bed, picked up the receiver. “Okay, talk to me.”

         “I’ll make this quick, as I’m sure you don’t want to leave Adam alone for too long, but I just wanted to tell you that our records indicate that his first wife’s name was Julie, and that he married her using the alias Adam White. They were married about a year after he graduated college.  Be cautious Francine, he may be giving you a few real facts, but he’s not being completely truthful with you.”

         Francine nodded. “That’s what I figured.  I could tell he wasn’t being entirely honest, but he was pretty convincing. Perhaps he tells that story a lot.”  She glanced towards the bedroom door to make sure it was closed all the way.  The last thing she needed was for Adam to overhear her conversation.

         Adam re-entered the dining room and was about to sit down and finish his salad when he noticed that the receiver in the living room was off its base.  He moved into the other room and picked it up, intent on hanging it up for his fiancée. He was just about to place the receiver back on the base when he heard Amanda’s familiar voice coming over the line. Wondering why Francine would lie about who was on the phone, his curiosity got the better of him, and he brought the phone to his ear.

         “For what it’s worth he did graduate from Rutgers, and his grandmother lives in Chambersburg, New Jersey, which is right outside Trenton. Do you think you have enough basic information to bring him in, or do you want to delve a little more?

         “I want to see if I can get him to mention any of the other wives and their maiden names.” Adam heard Francine respond.  He fought back the wave of panic and quietly put the receiver back onto the table. If he hung it up now, it might make a click and Francine would be out here in a flash.  The fact that Amanda had called and was confirming information about him meant that Francine was somehow wired.  He quickly moved over to the foyer and collected his coat. Taking deep breaths, he realized that Francine had set him up, and he had played right into her hands.  He should have listened to the voice of reason and tried to seduce her on the couch the minute she started asking questions about his past. 

         As he passed the front table, Adam noticed Francine’s purse and curiosity once again got hold of him.  The blonde in the other room, who he had planned on marrying, didn’t seem the least bit nervous with her line of questioning; it was almost like she knew exactly what she was doing.  Throwing caution to the wind, he opened her bag and as he searched for her wallet, he came across a flat black leather holder. Opening it, he had to stifle the gasp that threatened to escape.  Francine was a government agent.  Had he been set up from the start? He mentally shook his head at that thought; after all he was the one who had approached her.  No, he realized, she must have run some sort of background check on him after they got engaged, making sure he wasn’t using her.  He gritted his teeth at his own dumb luck. He had to fall for a government operative.  As he put her ID back in her bag, he caught the glint of metal and realized it was her gun. Knowing that it could come in handy, he took it out of her bag, tucked it into the waistband of his pants, then grabbed his coat and quietly moved towards the door.  Without a second glance, he quietly turned the doorknob and slipped out of the apartment.

         “Adam?” Francine called as she stepped out of the bedroom and noticed that he wasn’t in the dining room.  She moved into the living room, noticed the phone still off the base and then turned towards the door.  She immediately realized that Adam’s coat was gone. “Oh shit! Adam’s gone.” She grabbed her purse and ran to the door. She threw it open just as her neighbor’s door flew open. She barely glanced at Lee as she ran out into the hall and over to the elevators. Reaching the set of double doors, she noticed the floor button lights indicated that the elevator was descending.  She quickly ran towards the door leading to the stairs, and hearing heavy footsteps behind her, knew that Lee was right behind her. As she bolted down the stairs, she began searching in her purse for her gun.  When her hands came up empty she let out another string of curses. “The jerk stole my gun.”

         “He did what!? How the hell did he get away from you, Francine?” Lee jumped down two steps and was now right behind the blonde.

         “I left the phone off the hook in the other room,” Francine managed to get out between breaths, “he must have picked it up and overheard some of the conversation.  Then he probably searched my purse for my ID and found my gun.” She kept her eyes focused on her descent. “And don’t blame all this on me.  You were supposed to be keeping a watch on the hall. What the devil were you doing while Amanda and I were on the phone?”

         “Don’t go turning this around on me, Francine. It was your idea to try and get him to confess to something.” Lee edged passed her and ran out the door. He let out a string of curses when he saw the blue Civic pull out of its parking space and tear down the road.  “Well he’s gone now.  We’ll have to go back up and regroup.” He turned around and glared at Francine. “How the hell did he get your gun?”

         Francine clenched her fists at her side, and fought the strong urge to sucker punch her friend. “He must have gotten suspicious and went digging in my purse.”

         “Why did you have your gun in your purse?” Lee asked, his voice full of frustration and anger.

         “Because, Scarecrow, that’s where I keep it when I’m home.  I have a spare in my bedroom, but I like to keep one in my purse, and I keep my purse on the hall table. You never know when you might have to make a fast getaway.” Francine turned around and headed back towards the entrance to the building.

         Lee took a few deep breaths and tried to calm his emotions.  He wasn’t really mad at Francine, he was mad at the situation and he wasn’t looking forward to the phone call to Billy.  With his temper partially in check, he made his way towards the entrance. He couldn’t believe that they had let a wanted man slip through their grasp, a man who had a number of recorded aliases, and ways of making himself disappear.  Not only was Billy not going to be happy, neither was the FBI or the Army.  Not that he really cared about pissing off the FBI, but he didn’t want to be the reason why interagency relations went to hell.  He entered the building just behind Francine and, with a few quick strides, was beside her before she’d had a chance to hit the elevator button.

         Francine punched the up button for the elevator and turned towards Lee. “And while you’re giving me the third degree, you never answered my question, why the hell weren’t you watching the hallway?”

         “Don’t go getting all pissed off at me Francine. The fact that you’re fiancé got away is no more my fault than it is yours.” Lee glared at the blonde.

         “Ah the classic Scarecrow rebuttal.” Francine replied sarcastically as she stepped through the now open elevator doors.

         Lee followed her into the waiting car and then, after angrily pushing the button for Francine’s floor, grabbed her arm and forced her to look at him. “What the hell does that mean?”

         “It means I know exactly what you were doing.  You were busy being the Lee Stetson we all know and love.” Francine’s eyes blazed with fury as she shook Lee’s hand off of her arm. “Alone, with your wife, and you were making the most of it.  Doesn’t matter if she was on the phone or not, you were thinking with the little brain down there.” Her glance shot to the area below Lee’s waist.

         “You’ve got to be kidding.” Lee let out a vicious laugh and shook his head. “I’ll have you know that although I have a very healthy sex drive, I am very capable of concentrating on work and not letting myself get distracted, especially when I’m providing back up for people I care about.” He let his features relax slightly.  “Besides, it’s not like we were in a hotel room, we were in someone else’s home, without their consent. Do you really have such a low opinion of me, Francine? Not to mention Amanda. Do you think, for one minute, that she’d let me get away with something like that?”

         Francine let out a frustrated sigh and shook her head. “You’re right. I’m sorry.  I guess I got carried away.” She turned a somewhat subdued and chagrined glance in her friend’s direction, as the elevator doors opened and she stepped into her hallway. “So what were you doing?”

         Lee followed the blonde out of the elevator. “I was plugging away at the laptop, trying to get more information on Julie Clemmons.  Looking back on it,” he took two quick strides and began walking next to his friend, “I suppose the research could have waited, and I should have been watching the hallway, however, I had no reason to think that he would get antsy and start snooping around your apartment.”

         Francine’s apartment door opened and Amanda poked her head out. “I was beginning to get worried.” She moved back inside and moved over to the couch, “while you two were running down the stairs, I ran to Francine’s balcony and was going to attempt to shoot out the tires of the Civic, but then a dog ran across the street and I was afraid I’d hit it, you know how lousy I am at long distance shooting.  Anyway, I saw the Civic tear away and realized that we lost Adam.” She caught the questioning look on her husband’s face as he looked at the laptop on the coffee table and then back to her. “Since both of you left your keys up here, I knew you weren’t going to attempt to chase him down, so I gathered up all our stuff, locked up the apartment across the way, and came back here.”

         Lee smiled lovingly at his wife and then let out a grunt. “I guess we need to call Billy and let him now that this whole thing was a bust.”

         Amanda shook her head. “I already called him. He said that the three of us should meet him in the Q-bureau in half an hour.”

         “Gee, Little Miss Perfect didn’t waste any time ratting my failure out to the boss.” Francine snapped at the brunette sarcastically. “I bet you just couldn’t wait to gloat.”

         Amanda stared blankly at the blonde, momentarily stunned by her friend's bitter comment. Since their friendship had begun to grow, Francine’s barbed comments had become almost non-existent, so this one had taken her by surprise. Seeing the hint of pain in Francine’s eyes, she realized that her friend was just trying to mask her own pain by verbally striking out at those around her. She mentally sighed and looked at the blonde with an expression of indifference. “For your information, Francine, I only told Mr. Melrose that things didn’t quite work out as we had hoped and Adam is now at large. I didn’t go into specifics because I figured we could do that together, as a team.” Then, knowing that they needed to get moving, she headed into the dining room and started gathering up the food and began bringing it into the kitchen.  Although she did this more out of habit, since she didn’t like the idea of food going bad, she had really removed herself from her friend’s presence before either one had a chance to say something that they might later regret.

         Lee moved over to the table and began gathering up their surveillance equipment. “I guess we might as well head into the office and get this over with.  The sooner we make our report, the sooner we can put this whole situation behind us.” He glanced over at Francine and gave her a sympathetic nod of his head. 

         Francine shrugged her shoulders and moved towards her bedroom to get her spare gun.  Looking around the room, she fought back the tears that threatened to flow.  Just twenty-four hours ago, she and Adam were celebrating their engagement, and now she realized that the last month of blissful happiness was all a lie.  She was never going to let herself be fooled again.  As she began pushing her pain behind her carefully constructed walls, she walked over to her closet and pulled out her hidden safe.  Unlocking the small metal box, she took the gun and some spare ammo out, placed them in her purse and then relocked the safe.  She then rose and headed back into the other room to see what else needed to be done before they headed into the Agency to face their boss.

*****  *****

         “So let me get this straight,” Billy stopped pacing in front of the large vault door and stared at his three agents, “you managed to get him talking and he told you the name of his first wife,” he glanced at Francine, “then you decided to call her to let her know that she was on the right track,” he looked over at Amanda and then back to the blonde, “and because you didn’t want to have the phone conversation in front of him, you left him alone, and now he’s disappeared with your gun.” When the two females nodded, he closed his eyes and let out a sigh. “Don’t you think the phone call could have waited,” he looked at Amanda, “and don’t you think it was unwise to leave him unattended.” Billy turned his attention over to Scarecrow, “and you know better than to leave an avenue of possible escape unobserved, what were you thinking?” He put up a hand to halt any comment that Lee might make, “That was a rhetorical question, Scarecrow, because obviously none of you were thinking.  This whole operation was sloppy and now I get to go call the FBI and tell them we screwed up.”

         “Billy, what if you hold off on telling them anything and let us try and track him down.” Francine looked at her boss with a serious expression.

         Billy shook his head. “Sorry, but no, I’ve already done too much as it is.  I had an APB put out on Adam’s car and that’s as far as I want to continue sticking my neck out on this one.  If anything comes back, I’m giving the information over to the FBI, it’s time we stepped away and let them get back to wasting their manpower and resources on tracking this guy down.” He took a deep breath and softened his tone, “I realize that you have a personal stake in this, Francine, but we have too much going on right now for me to even think of giving you permission to handle this one.  The FBI gave me this one as a favor, since we had a means of capturing Adams; we lost that when he ran.  He’s probably long gone by now and we don’t have the faintest idea of where to start looking for him.”

         “That’s not true, Billy.” Francine walked over to Amanda’s desk and picked up the folder of information on Adam. “According to this,” she opened the file and turned to the second page, “we can start by talking to the agency in Trenton that bonded Adam out in the first place.”

         “This is getting ridiculous.” Lee ignored the death glare Francine shot in his direction. “What I mean is, one minute we’re referring to him as Adams, the next as Adam.  I think we should pick a name and stick to it.”

         “How about Dick?” Francine smirked and nodded. “I think that suits him just perfectly.”

         “I’ll concede that the name does fit, but I think it would only confuse matters more.” Lee glanced over at Billy. “Any suggestions?”

         “Let’s just call him Benjamin, since that is his legal name.” Billy shook his head slightly. “Now that we have that taken care of…” 

         Francine nodded. “Yes, now that that is out of the way, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, the agency up in New Jersey would have had to have done a background check on Benjamin,” she stared at Lee as she emphasized her ex-fiance’s official name, “especially since he skipped and they would have tried to track him down. If we…”

         Billy shook his head again, more adamantly this time. “Did you not hear me tell you that I can’t justify keeping you on this, especially since it’s not even our case to begin with?”

         Francine tightened her grip on the folder in her hand. “Fine, then I’m putting in for time off, and I’ll work on this, alone. I’m not going to just let this…this scumbag get away with what he’s done to me, not to mention the other women he’s duped into marrying him.”  She moved towards the door, “and don’t even try and stop me,” she glanced briefly at Amanda and then Lee, before turning and looking straight ahead once more.

         “Francine, if you walk out that door, you won’t be using vacation time, I’ll suspend you…without pay.” Billy took a few steps to try and intercept his assistant.

         Francine paused briefly, but then continued her path towards the open door, “Fine, suspend me, standard two weeks I presume.” She waved her hand in the air, “I’ll see you at the wedding.” She kept her eyes straight ahead and headed out of the office.

         Billy brought his hand up and rubbed his temples with his fingers. Letting out a long sigh, he looked up at the two agents who were still in the room. “Why couldn’t I have gotten lucky enough to have people in my department who follow protocol? I’m getting too old to deal with hot-headed agents.” He looked pointedly at Lee, “I can’t justify what I’m about to do, but I can’t let her go off half-cocked like that and muddy up an ongoing FBI investigation.  Go with her, and make sure she stays out of trouble.”

         Amanda glanced briefly at her husband.  Her mother was going to go ballistic.  Less than two weeks before their wedding and they were being sent out of town.  She looked down at the folders on her desk and realized that Francine had left with the file on Adams.  She was about to say something to that affect when another folder caught her eye.  Picking up the illegal arms file, she opened it and quickly glanced at the bottom of the page. “Sir, this may not be a total waste.” Billy and Lee both glanced in her direction, with questioning expressions. “The case that Lee and I were working on that hit a dead end when Southern Star closed up shop and Veranos disappeared, indicated that the weapons appeared to be shipping out of Trenton.”

         Billy’s face brightened. “Brilliant, Amanda, absolutely brilliant.  I knew there had to have been a very good reason why I was so certain you’d be a perfect addition to this Agency all those years ago.” He smiled knowingly at the brunette. “I may not be able to justify sending you after Adams, but I can justify sending you to Trenton to investigate the stolen weapons. I take back my earlier comment, not all my agents are hot-headed.  I do have a few level-headed, cool thinkers.  Just don’t go picking up his bad habits,” he thrust a finger in Lee’s direction.

         “I’ll do my best, sir.” Amanda smiled at her boss and began gathering up the relevant case folders from her desk, purposely avoiding looking at her husband.

         Lee rolled his eyes. “If you two are done taking potshots at me, I think we need to get moving.  Francine’s got a head start on us,” he looked at his boss, “and if you want us to trail along after her, we don’t want to waste any more time.” He started moving towards his wife’s desk.

         “Go, but I want you to keep me updated.” Billy waved his hand in the air, dismissing them as he made his way out of the office.

         “That was pretty fast thinking, Mrs. Stetson,” Lee whispered when he was sure Billy was out of earshot. “However, I don’t think I’m the only hot-head, I have a feeling that if Billy hadn’t insisted we go, you would have followed Francine anyway.”

         Amanda shrugged as she threw her purse over her shoulder and walked over towards the office door. “I’m worried about her, and she needs as much support as she can get right now.”

         “For what it’s worth, I’m worried about her too, and I’d have insisted on chasing after her with or without Billy’s say-so.” Lee followed his wife into the hall and closed the Q-Bureau door behind him.  Locking the door, he placed his hand at the small of his wife’s back. “So do we head straight to Francine’s apartment or do we go to my place, gather our emergency bags and then try and catch up with her.

         “Francine’s first, she took the dossier on Adams, which happened to have the address for the bond agency.” Amanda opened the door at the end of the hallway and preceded her husband to the stairs. “So if we want to have any idea of where we’re going, we need to catch up with her, and I think we should also let her know that she’s not doing this alone, so that she doesn’t think we’re following her, but rather working with her. And she’d probably like to know that since Mr. Melrose is sending us to Trenton with a legitimate case, she’s no longer suspended, though he didn’t come out and say it, we both know he wasn’t really going to suspend her.”

         “I don’t know, if you get Billy mad enough, he’ll make good on his threats. I just hope she doesn’t expect to actually find Adams in New Jersey.  Men on the run don’t normally return to the scene of the crime.” Lee commented as he followed his wife down the stairs.

         “I’m sure she doesn’t, Lee.” Amanda turned and glanced at him as she reached the last step.  “But, it’s as good a place as any to start.  If the people at the bond agency can give us any clues as to where to start looking for him, so much the better.”

         Lee nodded. “And if we can track down a lead on the weapons going to El Salvador, I’ll be a very happy man.”  He reached the landing and put his hand back at the small of his wife’s back. “Did you want to try and stop by the house and give your mother the good news in person.”

         Amanda raised her eyebrows and stared at her husband. “I hope your joking.  I think I’ll wait till we’re safely on 95, heading north, before calling her.  She may not like to drive, but I have a feeling that if I don’t put a safe distance between us, she’ll jump in the car and try and drag me back home. She’s not going to be happy that we’re leaving town with so much still to do before the wedding.”

         “I have a feeling that your mother is actually going to have the opposite reaction.” Lee opened the door leading outside for his wife and caught her curious glance. “Your mother is going to absolutely love the idea of being able to make the final decisions about our wedding plans, without having to check with you.  Face it Amanda, your mother has been itching to take over since we announced our engagement.” He turned his head and placed a kiss on his wife’s cheek.

         Amanda let out a small sigh. “I never thought of that.”

         Lee chuckled. “Don’t worry, the only thing about our wedding that’s important is the fact that we’ll be exchanging vows in front of everyone we know, and everyone that matters will know just how much I love you.  Everything else is just show.”

         Amanda stopped and, turning, wrapped her arms around her husband. “I love you, Mr. Stetson.”

         Lee leaned down and captured his wife’s lips with his. “And I love you and, as much as I would love to take you home to the apartment and show you just how much I love you, we need to get moving if we have any hope of catching up with Francine at her place.”

         Amanda nodded and reluctantly broke the embrace.  Moving down the stairs she headed towards Lee’s car.  After her husband unlocked and opened her door she sank back into her seat as her thoughts wandered back to Francine. She knew her friend had said a lot of things in hurt and anger over the last day, but she said a silent prayer that when this was all over, that the blonde wouldn’t re-erect all her old barriers.  Amanda had grown to cherish Francine’s friendship and they had begun to really open up to each other.  She hated the thought of losing that, especially since, aside from Lee, she had no one else to talk to who knew all her secrets, and no one else to talk to when she and Lee were at odds.  Lee was her best friend, but sometimes she needed to be able to vent to someone, who wasn’t him and her mother was a wonderful confidante, but there was still a lot surrounding her job that she couldn’t share.  As the ’Vette pulled out into the night and headed towards Francine’s place, she looked up into the starry sky and said a silent prayer that one day true love would eventually find Francine.

 

Chapter 5 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 5

         Connie Roselli, office manager for the Vincent Plum Bonding Agency, looked up from filing her nails when she heard the door slam. “Uh oh, you’ve got that ‘I’m pissed off at the world’ look.  Who was it this time?  Morelli? Ranger?”

         Stephanie Plum, bail enforcement agent, or as most people preferred to call her, bounty hunter, shook her head. “Is he in?” She pointed at the office door behind Connie.                                                      

         “Yes, he’s in, but he’s with some people right now.  Ranger’s in there, too.” Connie resumed working on her nails. “I wouldn’t recommend going in there right now.” She added as she noticed Stephanie beginning to head for the office door, “his guests are feds.”

         “And not just any feds,” Lula, file clerk and one of Stephanie’s closest friends, said as she closed the file drawer she’d been working in, “they’re straight from D.C., you know the nation’s capital.  And the guy,” she fanned herself with the folder in her hand, “honey, if I was still turning tricks, rather than trying to make something of myself, well I’d do him for free.”

         “So what did your cousin do now?” Connie glanced up from her nails and stared at Stephanie with extreme curiosity. “Did he do something unspeakable with the neighbor’s cat or is it Miss hoity-toity ‘I’ll sleep with anyone, including your husband’, Barnhardt again?” 

         Stephanie shook her head and made a choking sound. It was no secret in the part of Trenton where she lived, and everyone referred to as the burg, that Joyce Barnhardt, who had been her rival all through school and most of her life, had slept with her husband, Dickie Orr.  Although she would never admit this to anyone, ever, and would take it to her grave, Stephanie was somewhat grateful to Joyce for having opened her eyes to how much of a sleaze her ex-husband had been.  However, Joyce had used sexual favors to get Vinnie to bring her on as bounty hunter, adding more stress and headache to Stephanie’s already complicated life. “No, it’s not about Joyce, actually I haven’t had to worry about her since Vinnie was forced to give her only insignificant cases after she was arrested for using that police strobe.” Joyce had muscled in on one of her FTAs, letting Stephanie do all the legwork, while Joyce just followed her around waiting to pounce.  Joyce had stopped the FTA from getting to the airport by using an illegal police strobe on her car.   When she and Lula had reached the scene, they had stun-gunned Joyce, taken back the FTA and left Joyce in her car, for the police to find.  Since half the police force knew and liked Stephanie, they had not only fined Joyce for the strobe, but made her spend a whole night in jail. Stephanie smiled at the memory.  “I must say, that it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person.”

         “So, then what did he do?” Lula was now perched on the edge of her desk, anxiously awaiting Stephanie’s answer. 

         “I was this close,” Stephanie pinched her thumb and forefinger together, “to bringing Tommy the Sleaze in and my damn cell phone starts ringing.  Ruined the element of surprise, not to mention my pants. Chased him three blocks, tripped over a raised sidewalk block and skinned my knee.” She motioned to the huge rip in her jeans. “I barely make enough to pay rent and I can’t afford to keep replacing clothes.  So now I’m gonna have to go back and retrace all my steps and pick up a lead on where Tommy’s hiding, all because my no-good cousin had to call me, telling me to get my ass down here on the double.”
         “Why didn’t you just shoot him in the knees?  That would have kept the sleaze from getting away.” Lula glanced down at Stephanie’s belt. “Oh, I see. You didn’t have no gun on you. Girl, when you gonna realize that you catch more baddies with a gun?”

         Stephanie rolled her eyes. “I hate using my gun. Besides, even when I do carry it, and attempt to use it, I always manage to fumble things.  Safer for everyone if I keep it hidden in my cookie jar.” She glanced back over at Connie. “So what’s going on? He never calls me.  Does it have to do with the feds in there?” She pointed towards the door.

         Connie shrugged. “Beats me.  I only run the office, I don’t claim to know what your cousin’s up to every second of the day, nor do I want to know, either.”

         “Well if they brought hunka hunka burnin’ love Ranger in, then it might have something to do with one of our still open cases.” Lula’s cornrowed black hair swished as she fanned herself. “Have I told you how lucky you are to have not one, but two studs chasing after your ass.” She looked directly at Stephanie. “If only I was that lucky.”  She looked over in Connie’s direction. “Isn’t that low-life with multiple wives, Benjamin Adams still at large?”

         Connie snapped her fingers. “You could be right, he’s our only long standing FTA at the moment.”

         “It’s not my fault the trail ran cold at the Delaware Bridge.  Vinnie doesn’t pay me enough to go chasing across the country for his FTA’s.” Stephanie began walking towards her cousin’s office door. “Only one way to find out.”  She turned the knob and unceremoniously pushed the door open.  It slammed against the inner wall, and four pairs of eyes turned in her direction.

         “Didn’t get Tommy the Sleaze, did you?” Vinnie stared accusingly at his cousin.

         “I would have if you hadn’t called me.” Stephanie stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

         “Hey, don’t go blaming me if you forgot to put your cell on vibrate.” Vinnie glared at Stephanie.

         Stephanie moved into the room and, aware of the audience listening in the other room, closed the door. She then turned back towards her cousin, her palms raised slightly and shrugged. “Hey, it’s your money. If I don’t catch him, you’re out the twenty thousand.”

         “Yeah and you don’t get your ten percent.” Vinnie turned his attention towards the other people in the room. “I apologize for her,” he motioned towards Stephanie with his thumb. “I regret the day I hired her.”

         “So what if I wasn’t exactly qualified and you didn’t want to hire me at first.” Stephanie fought the urge to jump onto her cousin’s desk and strangle him.  “You can’t deny the fact that I’ve made some damn good captures for you.”

         “No one’s saying you don’t get your man, but your methods leave a lot to be desired.” Vinnie scowled at his cousin. “How I ever let you talk me into hiring you…”

         “Connie was the one who suggested you give me a chance.” Stephanie shot a mock hurt pout at her Vinnie.

         Ranger let out a low rumble of a laugh as he rose from his seat. “It’s no secret you blackmailed Vinnie into hiring you, Babe.” He commented as he walked over to his protégé.

         “It wasn’t exactly blackmail,” Stephanie replied in a quieter voice, not wanting the three federal agents to get the wrong idea about her. “I needed a job,” she softened her expression as she looked at the feds sitting on the couch in her cousin’s office. Her gaze immediately fell on the agent in the middle.  Lula wasn’t kidding, the guy was a definite piece of eye candy.  Sandy brown hair, hazel eyes and features that, if she didn’t already have enough man problems of her own, she’d be drooling over.  Though, the fact that he reminded her of Joseph Morelli, when he was in cop mode, didn’t sit well with her.  His eyes held the same serious, get down to business glint, and the rest of his expression was neutral. However, she’d noticed that his features softened slightly whenever he glanced at the brunette beside him.  She’d seen that look before, usually on happily married men, a clear indication that the guy was clearly taken. In fact, she’d even seen that look on Joe Morelli when he looked at her, and she knew that Joe loved her, because he’d actually told her so. 

         Stephanie glanced to the hunk’s right side and noticed a blonde woman, who was wearing an expression that clearly said she was a woman scorned.  The blonde had the same look that she’d had after she had caught Joyce doing the nasty with her ex-husband on their brand new dining room table.  It was the look that said, ‘just give me a really good reason and I’ll rip your nuts off with my bare hands.’  Not wanting to dwell on scumbag men, she looked over at the brunette sitting on the hunk’s other side.  The first thing she noticed was the fact that aside from the brunette having brown eyes, to her blue ones, the brunette’s coloring wasn’t far off from her own, so much so, that she could almost pass for her sister. Not that she was looking for another sister, she already had one, the good daughter, with the perfect marriage and perfect kids, who was also the smart one – she lived in California. The brunette’s mannerisms were somehow softer than one would most likely find in the greater Trenton area, in fact they seemed quite friendly; she probably wouldn’t last a day in the burg, but then again, looks could be deceiving. After all, never in a million years would she have pictured herself carrying a gun, being shot at and having her cars destroyed by nut cases on a regular basis. 

         The brunette smiled as she swept a few strands of hair behind her ear, and Stephanie caught the glimpse of a diamond ring. She mentally grinned to herself; did she have them pegged or what?  Turning back towards Ranger, she shrugged her shoulders. “Okay, so I did sort of blackmail Vinnie. I know dirt on him that his wife and father-in-law would not want to know about.  So sue me, I was desperate, and then when he tried to fire me, I threatened to get my great-aunt, his grandma, on his case if he did.” She saw Vinnie shiver and smiled to herself. Only one other person in the burg was scarier than Vinnie’s grandma, and that was Joe Morelli’s Grandma Bella. Grandma Bella was as Italian as they come, crazy, and also known for putting the evil eye on anyone who crossed her. Whether she really had the gift or not didn’t really matter, what mattered was the fact that she was one scary woman.  Stephanie noticed the slightly befuddled looks on the three agents’ faces and shrugged apologetically. “It’s a family thing.”

         Amanda was a pretty good judge of character and she had immediately sensed that Stephanie was putting up a brave front, but on the inside, she really wanted to feel accepted. Rising from her seat, she approached the woman. “I’m Amanda King, and this,” she turned towards her husband, “is my partner, Lee Stetson.  The woman next to him is Francine Desmond, a fellow agent. We’re from the Agency in D.C.  We came to talk to your cousin about someone named Benjamin Adams.”

         Stephanie reached out her hand and when Amanda took it, she shook it gently. “Stephanie Plum.” Releasing the brunette’s hand, she turned her gaze on Ranger, who was still standing extremely close to her. “Adams resurfaced?”  She was trying very hard not to melt on the spot from the essence that was Ranger.  The hard, muscular bodied bounty hunter was one of her man problems.  He was Cuban-American, dark-skinned, but he looked more like he spent hours at the beach getting a tan, than he did Latino.  His silky black hair was pulled back in the usual ponytail, and aside from being a kick-ass bounty hunter, he was extremely secretive, always managed to have a very expensive, black vehicle at his disposal and was just about the sexiest man in Trenton, apart from Joseph Morelli. 

         “Down in Virginia.” Ranger nodded. “Vinnie called us in because we were the last ones on Adams’ trail.”

         “But that trail ran cold five months ago.” Stephanie looked from Ranger to the other agents. “You don’t think he’d show up back here do you?”

         Lee shook his head. “We don’t think so, but he does have family here, so it’s not something we wanted to rule out all together.” He rose from his seat and stood next to his wife. “The other reason we came here is because this was where he had been arrested and held before he jumped bail.  Mr. Plum informed us that you, Miss Plum, were given the task of tracking him down.  We understand that Ranger,” he nodded in the other man’s direction, “was assigned to assist you in the capture, so we figured we could talk to the two of you and get some background information.  Maybe even visit some of the places you visited before when you tracked him down the first time. You never know, perhaps someone’s seen him recently.”

         “I suppose we could do that.  I don’t really think I’m going to have much luck with Tommy the Sleaze today anyway.” Glancing around the room, she wondered exactly how she was going to fit in with all these professionals. She knew she was a joke of bounty hunter, she might even go so far as to agree with the description that she was a bumbling buffoon.  Not only did she end up in the stickiest of situations, but she could scarcely manage to hold onto a car, unless it was Big Blue.  Big Blue was a 1953 Buick that once belonged to her uncle Sandor. Lula had fondly dubbed it the pimp-mobile which wasn’t far off the mark, and aside from feeling embarrassed to be behind the wheel of it, Big Blue was the only car she seemed to be able to drive anymore that never managed to get a dent or scratch on it. Deciding not to dwell on things beyond her control any longer and just go with the flow, she turned and leaned her back against Vinnie’s desk. “Are you guys hungry? We could pop over to Pino’s and grab a bite to eat. It’s a local cop hang out, but they have the best pizza in all of Trenton, probably along the entire East Coast.  We could put a plan of action together over food and then maybe check out one or two places.  Or do you need to check in somewhere first, like a hotel?”

         “We didn’t actually arrange for a place to stay yet.  We were sort of in a rush and just jumped in our cars and drove straight here.” Amanda could feel Francine’s eyes boring into the back of her head.  She hadn’t meant her comment as a dig at her friend’s expense. She was merely speaking the truth.  Francine had been so angry and eager to track Adam, or rather Benjamin, down that she and Lee had to practically cuff her to one of them to keep her from bolting while they packed.

         “Well Trenton doesn’t have any hotels, and the one or two motels we have, aren’t really fit for the cockroaches.” A grin spread across Stephanie’s face as a perfect idea popped into her head. “You know what, I happen to know someone who has a house with a spare bedroom.  And I might be able to scrounge up a cot from someone, so you,” she turned to look at the blonde, “are more than welcome to stay with me.” She hoped the blonde wouldn’t object.  Ms. Desmond looked like she could hold her own, and it couldn’t hurt to have someone staying with her who didn’t mind shooting people.  Lately, the strangest characters had a habit of tracking her down and breaking into her apartment.  A federal agent would most definitely be welcome company.  “I know I wouldn’t mind the company, and it’d do Joe good to have a few out of town guests as well...just don’t try and steal the remote from him, he’s very territorial about it.”

         Ranger shot a knowing look in Stephanie’s direction. “The remote’s not the only thing he’s territorial about, Babe.”                                                            

         “Tell me about it,” Stephanie muttered as she rolled her eyes.  Then, as the perfect idea began to form, she snapped her fingers. “I bet Joe’ll be at Pinos,” she smiled conspiratorially, “we can tell him about his houseguests then.”

         “Miss Plum, we don’t want to impose on anyone.” Amanda glanced over at Stephanie. “Besides, you said that your friend only has one guestroom…”

         Stephanie waived her hand in the air, dismissing the whole thing. “First, please call me Stephanie and secondly, you’re not putting anyone out.” Truthfully, she was protecting her own virtue.  With Francine staying with her, and Lee and Amanda staying with Joe, she didn’t have to worry about fighting off her own lustful urges towards Joe Morelli. Joe was her other man problem.  He was Italian to the bone, with dark eyes and dark hair, an eagle tattoo on his chest, and the best ass in all of Trenton.  He was a well-respected vice cop now, but he had been a wild youth with a reputation for having very fast hands, who every girl dreamed of catching; herself included.  Twenty-some years later, and she had finally succeeded in that, although who had actually caught whom was still open for debate, as was the actual status of their relationship. One minute Joe could look at her and make her melt into a puddle of mush, turning her on and making her throw all good sense out the window, and the next, he could aggravate the hell out of her.  “Joe kind of owes me, anyway.” Of course, she realized, he’d somehow find a way to make her owe him when this whole case was wrapped up. “And third, I didn’t mean to be presumptuous, but I saw the engagement ring, and I assumed that you and Mr. Stetson were together.”

         “You’ve got a good eye.” Lee laughed and wrapped his arm around his wife’s waist. “And you weren’t assuming wrong.”

         “Well congratulations.” Stephanie gave the couple a genuinely happy smile. “When’s the happy day?”

         “Less than two weeks from today, Saturday the 13th, that is if we can track down Benjamin Adams by then.  And please, call us Lee and Amanda.” Amanda was anxious to change the subject back to the case at hand.  Knowing that Francine wasn’t really in the mood to talk about weddings, considering recent events, she felt they should move on to a safer topic. “Why don’t we go with your suggestion and get something to eat.  It’s been a long drive and I for one am quite hungry.”

         Stephanie turned to look at the blonde who hadn’t said anything since she walked in the room. “Is Italian okay with you Ms. Desmond?”

         Francine shrugged indifferently. “I don’t care where we go as long as we talk shop.” She was tired of waiting and wanted to get right down to business.  Her only care right now was to find a lead that would take her to Adam so she could tie him to the bumper of her car and drag his ass back to court, and watch while the man was tried and hanged.

         Amanda shot Francine a warning glance and then turned towards Stephanie. “Please excuse Francine, she tends to get a little too wrapped up in her cases sometimes.”

         “I know exactly what that’s like, well sort of.” Stephanie chuckled. “At least I enjoy trying to track my man down, I’m not always successful at the actual capture part, but I am pretty good at finding them.”

         Francine was about to comment further when her eyes caught sight of the black utility belt around Stephanie’s waist. “Is that a new fashion trend that you New Jerseyans are trying to get started?”

         Stephanie looked down at her waist and laughed. “Standard attire for bounty hunters who don’t want to get arrested for carrying concealed.  It’s one of the many tiny misdemeanors that can get you locked up for a night or two, and it makes it easier for me to find my ‘weapons’. You know pepper spray,” she pointed to the can in one of the loops, “stun gun…”

         “Don’t see your .38 on there, Babe.” Ranger raised his eyebrows ever so slightly.

         Stephanie sighed, knowing full well that she’d be getting some sort of reprimand from Ranger for not having her gun with her. “I forgot to grab it this morning.”

         “So it’s safe and sound in your cookie jar, rather than on your person, where it can better protect you.” Ranger tried unsuccessfully not to smile. “I’m sure Rex is doing a wonderful job of keeping watch over it.”

         “Rex is my hamster,” Stephanie explained to the rest of the group in the room.

         “How can you apprehend anyone without a gun?” Francine asked with an expression of shock mixed with confusion.

         “I hate guns, and whenever possible, I prefer not to use one.” Stephanie shrugged lightly. “The one time I actually used it, I killed someone, and I’m not proud of that.”

         Ranger put a hand on Stephanie’s shoulder. “It was in self-defense, Babe, and think about what could have happened if you didn’t have it.” He felt her shudder slightly under his touch. “They’re designed to keep you safe.”

         “Ha!” Vinnie hit his hand on the top of his desk in a gesture of humor. “The only way she’d be safe is if we locked her in her parents’ attic, or better yet, the basement, no doors and windows to sneak out of.  In fact, that’s not such a bad idea, my business wouldn’t get such bad press if I didn’t have to worry about the Bombshell Bounty Hunter from Hell.” Ranger shot him a look and he instantly recoiled and cleared his throat. “Weren’t you all just talking about getting something to eat?  Why don’t you go and do that and let me have my office back.  I do have work to attend to.”

         Stephanie opened her mouth to comment but stopped herself.  If Ranger were the only person in the room, she would have had no problem saying something about the fact that Vinnie didn’t do any work, Connie did it for him, and that he really wanted his office back so he could get back to making those 1-900 phone calls and renewing his relationship with his Johnson. Instead she smiled sweetly. “Aye aye boss, we’ll just clear out now and let you get back to your business.” She stressed the word ‘business’ and then turned.  Ranger was already one step ahead of her and had the door to the office open, shaking his head. 

         Lee put a hand at the small of Amanda’s back as he led her out of Vincent Plum’s office.  He mentally chuckled to himself as he thought about Stephanie’s comment about her gun.  He didn’t think he’d ever meet anyone else in law enforcement who had the same aversion to guns as his wife did.  He chanced a brief glance at the bubbly brunette’s utility belt and a thought occurred to him. Since his wife wasn’t big on carrying a gun, maybe a can of pepper spray wasn’t a bad idea, even if his wife could wield a mean can of hairspray, pepper spray was much more effective.  He’d have to look into the legalities of something like that when they got back home, and if everything checked out, he’d suggest it to Amanda. 

         “Party over already?” Lula asked, looking up from the magazine she was reading as Stephanie stepped out of Vinnie's office. 

         “Yeah, we’re heading over to Pino’s to talk shop and get some dinner.” Stephanie glanced at Connie’s desk and noticed it was empty. “Why didn’t you go home when Connie left?”

         Lula rose from her position on the couch and quickly moved to stand next to her friend. “She had to go home, some family thing, so I told her I’d stick around and find out the dirt on what went on in there.” She nodded with her head. “So, what’s the deal with the feds?”

          “You don’t have to whisper.” Stephanie smiled. “You were right, they’re trying to track down Benjamin Adams and want our help.”

         Lula’s eyes went wide. “Wonder what that that three-legged dog did now to warrant federal involvement.  He would have been a lot better off if he had just married one woman and kept the others as mistresses, but no he had to have his cake and eat it too.”

         Stephanie shrugged. “I suppose we’ll find out at dinner what the feds want with him. Want to come?”

         “Oh darnn, look at the time.” Lula made a show of looking at her watch. “Thanks but I forgot I gots me a date with a real hottie.” She moved over to what was technically her desk and retrieved her purse.  “You’ll have to call me later and fill me in.”

         Stephanie smiled as she watched her friend quickly move towards the exterior door before anyone else could ask her to join them. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” She called to her friend’s retreating form.

         “I have a feeling we make your friend nervous.” Amanda commented as she watched Lula jump into her red Firebird.

         Stephanie shook her head. “It wasn’t you. If we were going anywhere but Pino’s, she’d have jumped at the chance to come along.  Pino’s is a cop hangout, and cops make Lula nervous.  She used to be a hooker, and although she’s cleaning up her act now by working here for Vinnie, sometimes she gets flashbacks to times she was arrested in the past.”

         Amanda nodded in understanding. “Since you know the way, we’ll just follow you.” 

         Stephanie nodded. “It’s not that far really, but that’s probably a good idea.”  She headed for the door ready to lead the parade of cars to the best pizza joint in town.

         Francine trailed along behind Lee and Amanda feeling like she had just stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone.  She had grown to consider Amanda a true friend, even if her methods were somewhat quirky, and had even admitted that perhaps it was best that the brunette didn’t carry a gun; however, to find someone else who constantly found herself in danger, and refused to carry one, was just unfathomable.  Imagine an inner city bounty hunter who didn’t carry a gun; either she was very stupid, or like Amanda, extremely lucky. What made it even worse, was the fact that Miss Plum sort of resembled Amanda.  Sighing, she followed the rest of the party out of the office, wondering whatever had possessed her to take up this hunt in the first place, and chided herself for being so wrapped up in the pain of being jilted that she had never stopped to realize that she was lowering herself to ask for help from people who so obviously had no idea what the hell they were doing.  Well, she'd do what she did best; she’d gather intelligence and then use that information to find what she wanted.  She knew one thing for sure, though, Benjamin Adams was going to regret the day he came into her life.

*****     *****

         “Didn’t see Morelli when we came in, Babe.” Ranger looked directly at Stephanie after the waitress had finished taking their orders and left. “How did you plan on telling him about his houseguests?” He leaned forward and stared at her intently from his seat across the table. “You do plan on telling him before you escort them back to his house, don’t you?”

         Stephanie smiled. “Not to worry, he’ll be here soon.  As soon I walked in with you, I saw Bobby at the bar pick up the phone.”  She caught the curious expression on Amanda’s face and chuckled. “Since this is a cop hang out, nothing gets past them, especially where I’m concerned.  I just entered the restaurant with Ranger and three strangers,” she glanced back at Ranger with a knowing expression on her face, “trust me, he’ll be here.” She shrugged slightly and chuckled. “Nothing like having a girlfriend who can’t stay out of trouble.”

         Francine glanced over at the bounty hunter. “Where do we start looking for Adams?”

         “You feds really don’t beat around the bush, do you?” Stephanie looked over at Francine. “I have to tell you, it’s so refreshing to be aware of the fact that I’m working with you guys.  Normally you types like to try subterfuge, instead of good old honest truth.”  The last fed she’d met had tried to convince her that he was a bookie, when in reality he had only been tailing her because of something her uncle had stumbled upon and figured she was more likely to find out the answers and he’d just be able to sit back and watch.

         “We only use secrecy regarding our identity if we’re going in undercover.” Amanda took her focus away from the file on Adams that Stephanie had grabbed before leaving the bond agency office, and turned her head to look at the brunette beside her.  “There was no reason to do that here, especially since we need your help.”

         “And speaking of help,” Francine glanced impatiently at Amanda, before turning her attention back on Stephanie, “what is the plan for tracking Adams down?”

         The blonde’s acid and direct tone were beginning to make Stephanie regret offering up her apartment.  There was something about the blonde, however, that really reminded her of the way she’d carried herself during the whole Dickie affair. “So why are you guys so interested in finding this guy? Seems like this agency of yours sent a lot of muscle out here to track down one guy.”

         “Adams became involved with a friend of ours, and then when I discovered that he was already married to a woman my mother knows near Baltimore,” Amanda took a slice of bread from the basket in front of her and began to butter it, “we did a check on him and discovered the truth about him.  We attempted to apprehend him back in D.C., but he caught onto us and gave us the slip.”

         Francine glared as she angrily broke the breadstick she was holding in half. “He deserves to be caught, handcuffed by his hands and feet, tied the bumper of my car and dragged painfully back to court”

         Stephanie’s eyes grew slightly wider as realization dawned and she mentally slapped herself on the head for being so dense. “Oh boy. Let me guess, you’re wife number five?”

         Francine stabbed the breadstick with her knife. “I was almost number five. But never again,” she stabbed the defenseless piece of dough once more, “never, ever again will I let myself be duped by any man.” She glanced up and pointed her knife in Stephanie’s direction, “Let me give you some unsolicited advice.  Men are good for one thing, and one thing only…sex. Don’t bother getting emotionally involved with them. In the end, they’re all liars and cheats and will tear your heart to shreds.”

         Lee reached across the table and gently grabbed Francine’s wrist.  He then removed the knife from her grasp with his other hand. “I know you’re upset Francine, but being a guy, I’m taking a huge offense to everything you just said.  Benjamin may have hurt you, but lay off the rest of us, okay?

         Francine glanced once at his hand still on her wrist and then turned a cold hard stare in Lee’s direction. “Remove your hand…now, Scarecrow.” She said between clenched teeth.

         Lee removed his hand but kept his gaze on his friend. “Just because you don’t have a great track record with men, Francine, doesn’t give you the right to bash all of us. And remember, I wanted to run a security check on him from the start. But, no - you both,” he pointed towards his wife beside him, and then back to the blonde, “told me not to.”

         Francine fixed Lee with a glare, that if looks could kill, he would have stiffened and fallen dead to the floor immediately. “Oh, so this is all my fault then.  If I had let you run that check, then we would have what, used me as bait to catch the guy before he asked me to marry him? Before I made a complete fool of myself? Tell me how does that make me feel better?”

         Amanda noticed that Ranger’s face had gone devoid of emotion, as if he was planning on intervening. She placed a gentle hand on her husband’s arm and then gave Francine a motherly glance. “I think that’s enough.  Getting into a fight here isn’t going to help us track down Benjamin.  Stephanie said this is a cop hang out, and we won’t be able to do any investigating if the two of you land in jail. Now,” she turned back and glanced from Stephanie to Ranger, “this is your town, and you’ve dealt with Adams before, so what would be the best way to start?”

         Stephanie was glad that Amanda had intervened. She had a feeling that either Ranger, with his scary silent tactics would have done something or they would have had half a dozen cops surrounding them any moment. “The best place to start would probably be with his grandmother.  She put up her house as bond, and when Benjamin skipped, the bank was forced to foreclose.  I’m not sure where Mrs. Adams is living now, but my Grandma Mazur might.  We can stop by my parents’ house after we finish eating.” She glanced around and tried to catch Bobby’s eye. “What is keeping that waitress anyway? I’m starving.”

         “There’s more to life than food, Babe?” Ranger shook his head. “If you’re going to go talk to your grandma, you probably don’t need me to tag along.  I have to check in at Rangeman anyway.  Do you think you can handle things by yourself for awhile, keep out of trouble?”

         “What kind of trouble can I get into with three federal agents watching my back?” Stephanie rolled her eyes.  It was bad enough that she constantly felt like she was a walking disaster, and it only made matters more depressing when the men in her life kept reminding her of that same fact.  Then, as if sensing her thoughts were partially on him, she felt a familiar hand on her shoulder.  She looked over at Joe and smiled. “Took you long enough.  Bobby made the call to you, like ten minutes ago.”

         Joe cocked his eyebrow slightly. “I’m not sure I follow you, Cupcake. I called in an order for take out and when I came in to pick it up, I saw you here.”

         “Oh, thought you showed up ’cause one of your network of cop spies called you.” Stephanie motioned around the room with her hand. “You know the ones that tell you where I am, who I’m with…”

         Joe let out a small laugh. “What can I say,” he shrugged his shoulders slightly, “we took an oath to watch each other’s backs, and each other’s girls, when we took our oath of office. But seriously, I’m not here because Bobby or anyone else called me, I really did have an order to pickup.” He then turned and nodded cordially at Ranger. “Mañoso.”

         “Morelli.” Ranger leaned back slightly and put his hands behind his head.

         Stephanie watched as her Italian stud and the Cuban sex god stared at each other, having either a mental conversation or battle of wills. Whatever it was, it pissed her off to no end, since she could never make out what it was that they were doing with their silent communication, but she did know that it had something it had to do with her. Crossing her arms, she rolled her eyes. “Oh will you two cut that out. It gives me the creeps.” Both men turned to look at her.  “You’re having that silent conversation where you try and come up with some way to keep me out of harm’s way.  I’m a big girl and am more than capable of taking care of myself.” She watched as Morelli raised his eyebrow and didn’t have to look at Ranger to see an even more knowing look on his face. “I’m glad you’re here, though, Joe, I wanted to introduce you to your houseguests.”

         Joe narrowed his eyes slightly. “Houseguests?”

         Stephanie pointed to Amanda and then to Lee, who she noticed were both watching the banter between the three of them with quiet amusement. “These federal agents have come all the way from D.C. to track down Benjamin Adams.  They left in such a rush they didn’t have a chance to make arrangements to stay anywhere.  I told them you’d be more than happy for them to stay with you, after all you do have a spare room.”

         “How very thoughtful of you.” Joe glanced over at the blonde, and then looked back at Stephanie, a teasing grin on his face. “And since I only have one guest room, and there seem to be three out-of-towners, does that mean I’m moving in with you? Or am I sharing my bed with the blonde?”

         Stephanie narrowed her eyes and scrunched up her nose. “Francine is staying with me.  I need someone to protect my virtue.” She glanced over at the blonde, whose eyebrows were now aligned with her hairline.  She shrugged and smiled, before turning her attention back to Joe.

         Joe threw his head back and laughed. He then pulled up a chair from the neighboring table and sat down at the head of the table between Stephanie and Ranger.  He smiled at Lee and Amanda. “I’d be happy to let you stay with me, but I only have one spare room.  The couch is pretty comfortable if you,” he looked at Lee, “don’t mind sleeping on one.”

         Stephanie cleared her throat and leaned closer to Joe. “It's okay Joe. They're getting married in a couple of weeks. The guest room is all they need.” She noticed a hint of almost fear cross Joe’s face briefly and, even though she knew the idea of marriage scared the hell out of both of them, she decided to have a little fun at his expense. “It’s so nice to see people in love settling down to spend the rest of their lives together, isn’t it?”

         Joe noticed the hint of excitement for this couple in Stephanie’s voice and he wasn’t sure if he should be extra worried because it would mean she expected something from him, or if she was just toying with him.  He looked into her eyes and saw a hint of humor in them, and let his features relax.  Marriage was just not something he was ready for, nor did he think Stephanie was ready for it, either. Living together was one thing, but after awhile, they both yearned for a little bit of space. “So, you guys are here looking for Adams. Is this because of the guns that were found in his trunk?”

         “No, a background check run on him uncovered some very interesting facts and we tried to apprehend him in D.C…but he got a way.” Lee extended his hand towards Joe. “Lee Stetson, and this is my partner and fiancée, Amanda King,” he wrapped his free arm around his wife’s shoulder.  He knew it was silly to be territorial with his wife, but members of the opposite sex always seemed to enjoy flirting with her, and he wanted the men at this table to know that she was well spoken for.  Ignoring the slightly chastising look on his wife’s face, he turned his gaze to the blonde across from him.  “And this is Francine Desmond, a fellow agent.”  He grasped the other man’s extended hand and shook it firmly.  Even he hadn’t already known that Joe Morelli was a cop, he would have been able to tell from the strong grip and no-nonsense air about him.  He’d been around enough undercover and plain clothes cops to able to pick others out of a crowd, and though he might feel bad about imposing on a basic stranger, he felt better knowing that their host was a respected lawman. “Thanks for agreeing to put us up. We’ll try not to be in your way.”

         “I work vice, so my hours are kind of erratic. We’ll probably barely see each other.” Joe glanced over at the bar and nodding to Bobby, gestured towards the table.  He figured that since he wasn’t going to leave until he found out more about these agents and their interest in Stephanie, he might as well eat.  “I have to ask,” he turned and looked back towards Lee, “if you aren’t trying to track Adams down because of the guns, why are you interfering with state jurisdiction in trying to apprehend a known bigamist? Wouldn’t it just be easier to let the police stay on it?”

         Francine shook her head. “No, it wouldn’t, because when it becomes personal, I prefer to deal with the one who made me look like a fool, myself.”

         Joe cocked an eyebrow at Francine. “Revenge or not, you really don’t want to go interfering in police business.” He glanced sideways at Stephanie. Being around the bubbly brunette the past few years had given him a whole new insight into the fact that no matter what he said, stubborn women had a way of ignoring common sense and getting involved anyway.

         “She’s got a personal stake in this one Joe.  Besides, you work with feds all the time, what’s one more time?” Stephanie tilted her head and gave him a small, condescending smile.

         Joe shrugged. “Regardless of your reasons,” he looked from Francine to Amanda and let his gaze fall on Lee, “why didn’t you just come to the police station.  We would be more than happy to share our information with you.”

         “Our information showed that the Vincent Plum Bonding Agency was the one who posted Adam’s bond, and we figured that they had a bigger stake in wanting this guy found.” Lee leaned forward in his chair and focused his attention on Joe. “I know from experience that most police stations don’t have the kind of funding it takes to spend countless hours trying to track down one suspect.  Isn’t that one of the reasons bond agencies were started?”  He watched Joe reluctantly nod, and then turned his attention to Ranger. “There’s something that’s been bothering me,” he waved the file folder between him and his wife. “Your research on Adams is pretty thorough, but how come his marriage to Sally Thompson didn’t turn up in your records? After all she appears to be his second wife?”

         Ranger shrugged noncommittally. “Been puzzling over that one myself. Obviously if she had, I would have taken my men down there to apprehend him. That’s one of the things I want to do when I get back to my office. I’m going to have my research guy do another search and see how Adams managed to keep his Thompson alias hidden.”

         Amanda looked curiously at Ranger. “I thought you worked for Mr. Plum?”

         “Only part-time.” Ranger gave her a smile that reached all the way to his eyes. “I run a security and clean-up business.  Vinnie only calls me in for the more dangerous and difficult skips.”

         Amanda smiled as she felt Lee’s arm tighten even more possessively around her shoulder. She leaned her body closer to her husband’s giving his leg a gentle squeeze, hoping the simple gesture would warn him to stop being so jealous. She then tilted her head slightly in Ranger’s direction. “Clean up?”

         “A lot of landlords in the seedier part of Trenton need assistance expelling junkies from their buildings.” Ranger looked at his watch and then glanced around looking for the waitress. “It’s not fun work, but someone has to do it.” He glanced down the table at the blonde. “You mentioned back in Vinnie’s office that you ran an APB on Benjamin’s car.  Where did they find it?”

         Francine turned towards Ranger. “How do you know they found it?”

         Ranger shrugged. “Educated guess. If they hadn’t found it, you wouldn’t have come straight here.”

         “It was found in a Park and Ride lot off of I-95, just outside of Baltimore.” Amanda had heard the dangerous edge in Francine’s voice, and she didn’t want to alienate these people so early in the game, especially since they were going to need their help.

         Lee leaned forward slightly and caught Ranger’s eye. “We believe that he hopped on one of the local trains headed into Baltimore, or he stole a car from the lot.  Since no stolen vehicle reports have cropped up since last night, we’re assuming he took the train.  Presuming he went into Baltimore, he’d have access to various modes of transportation and could have headed anywhere.  After the APB was issued, the FBI stationed men at various train terminals and airports along the east coast.  They promised to let our boss know if Benjamin’s sighted anywhere.”

         Ranger nodded, then, not seeing any indication that their food was arriving anytime soon, he pushed himself away from the table. “I apologize, but I have a few things that I really need to take care of.  I’ll leave you in Stephanie’s capable hands.  We’ll touch base tomorrow.” He stood up and locked eyes with the spunky blue-eyed brunette. “Babe.” He then turned and headed towards the door.

         Joe narrowed his eyes and then turned towards Stephanie. “I thought Ranger was going to be the one helping them.” His voice was even, but his eyes held a slight challenge.

         Stephanie narrowed her eyes at the dark haired Italian. “Don’t start, Morelli.” She leaned closer to him. “I did most of the leg work on the Adams case to begin with. Vinnie only called Ranger in when it seemed I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I know what you’re doing,” she crossed her arms defiantly across her chest, “we may be dating, but you do not have any say over what I can and can not do.  I happen to like being a bounty hunter, so get over it.” She kept her eyes locked with Joe’s even though she didn’t really feel that strongly about her conviction.  Truthfully, her job was dangerous, and even if it was exciting at times, she constantly found herself wishing that she could find another, safer profession.  And, aside from the thrill of it all, the fact that it drove Joe crazy was enough to keep her working for Vinnie. “Besides, you see these three,” she motioned towards Lee, Amanda and Francine, “they’re federal agents, and they’ve asked for my assistance.  So you don’t have a leg to stand on.” She had a strong urge to stick her tongue out, but in the presence of practical strangers, she opted for keeping her arms crossed and simply glaring at the Morelli.

         Joe clenched his teeth as he felt the color rising in his cheeks. “You are the most frustrating, stubborn woman I have ever known. I’d cuff you to the bar over there if I thought it’d keep you out of trouble, but no matter what, Cupcake, trouble always manages to find you.” The waitress arrived with their food and, taking the bag with his meatball sub, he rose from his seat. With Ranger gone, and his blood pressure now at a low boil, he decided it was best not to stay here and eat. Taking a deep breath to keep his anger in check, he turned towards Lee and Amanda. “Steph’s got a key and can let you in.  I’m working a stake out and probably won’t roll in till late.  Just make yourself at home.” He then bent down in front of Stephanie and placed a kiss on her forehead. “Just be careful, ’kay?  I’m getting tired of everyone down at the station placing bets about what disaster they’ll find my girlfriend in the middle of next.” He turned and headed for the door, nodding at Bobby as he left.

         As the waitress passed the food around, Francine glanced over at the bounty hunter. Her first impression of the brunette might have been a little off.  At first glance, she might pass for Amanda’s sister, which in itself was disturbing.  The protective air and comments about her from both Joe Morelli and Ranger, seemed to suggest that Stephanie definitely had a knack for finding trouble, just like Amanda.  However, the brunette obviously had a fiery passion and hardcore stubbornness that was nothing like Amanda; in fact, Francine found herself admiring the bounty hunter, despite the fact that she knew she was going to have to keep a very close watch on her.  Amanda had common sense, but Stephanie Plum, it appeared, went charging into situations like a raging Spanish bull.  As she dug into her salad, she had a feeling that the next few days were going to prove to be anything but dull.

        

 

Chapter 6 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 6

         Lee had pulled his car up to the curb and parked behind Stephanie.  Climbing out of the car, he immediately went around to the passenger side to assist his wife out.  As he reached her door, he stopped when the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up, letting him know that they were being watched.  With his hand instinctively going to his gun, he turned slightly towards the duplex house behind him.  What he saw, made him remove his hand from his gun, but didn’t calm the feeling of unease he was feeling.  Standing in the doorway was an older woman with blue tinted gray hair and a slightly taller, slimmer woman with very East European features.  They both stood in the doorway, their hands clasped in front, watching them with extreme interest.  His body relaxed somewhat, when he realized that both woman resembled Stephanie in some way, and therefore were most likely her grandmother and mother; however, he sensed a very domineering presence from both of them and knew that they were women he wouldn’t want to cross.  Opening the passenger door, he assisted his wife out of the car.

         Stephanie waited for her guests to join her on the sidewalk before moving up the walkway with Francine and Amanda behind her, and Lee bringing up the rear.  She had watched Lee’s reaction when he had gotten out of his car and mentally chuckled to herself.  Men in law enforcement were all the same, they constantly felt the need to be on their guard, no matter how safe a neighborhood they were in. 

         Stephanie’s mom took one look at the serious looking people following her daughter and sighed. She loved her daughter dearly, but why couldn’t Stephanie have found a respectable job, something at the button factory perhaps.  She had heard from Mabel Dunworthy that they were still hiring, and they had good benefits, with the added benefit being that she would be able to sleep better at night knowing that her daughter had a safe, reliable job. She honestly didn’t know how much more her mental health could take if Stephanie continued to work for Vincent. If her daughter wasn’t chasing after delinquents all day, she wouldn’t have to constantly worry about her daughter being shot at or blowing cars and people up. “I wish you would have called to tell me you were bringing guests,” she shook her head disapprovingly at her daughter, once Stephanie had reached the porch, “I’d have kept the leftovers from dinner warming, and set out place settings at the table.”

         “We already ate.” Stephanie opened the screen door and stepped aside to allow the federal agents to enter her parents’ house ahead of her. “We actually came here to talk to Grandma.”

         “Oh, wonderful, and you’re just in time too.” Grandma swished her dentures around slightly in her mouth, “Bernie Moppin is being laid out at Stiva’s tonight and the funeral starts in just under half an hour and I need a ride.”

         Stephanie followed Lee into the house and shook her head apologetically. “I’m sorry Grandma, but I’m afraid I can’t.”

         “All I need is a ride over, you could drop me off and maybe I’ll get lucky,” Grandma’s eyes began to twinkle, “and find a studmuffin to drive me home.”

         Stephanie heard a faint mumbling coming from the living room that sounded very much like “oh, dear God,” and knew that her father had been the one to utter it.  “Hi, Dad.” She called out as she closed the screen door behind her.  Her father and grandmother had an on-going love-hate relationship, although neither one of them truly hated the other, they just didn’t really see eye-to-eye on anything.  She believed that on some level, way down deep, her father probably felt some affection towards her grandmother, but on the surface, he wished very hard that some great tragedy would befall the older woman.  Her grandmother had come to live with her parents shortly after Grandpa Mazur had gotten a free one-way ticket to heaven.   She knew that her father secretly wished that Grandma had joined Grandpa Mazur, rather than moving in with them and making his life miserable.  Personally, Stephanie loved her grandmother and viewed her as nothing short of a hoot, who enjoyed finding new ways to bug her father.  Turning towards her mother and grandmother, she began making the introductions. “Mom, Grandma, I’d like to introduce you to Lee Stetson, Amanda King and Francine Desmond.” She pointed to each one in turn. “They’re federal agents from D.C.” She then motioned with her head, “This is my Grandma, Edna Mazur, and my mother Ellen Plum.  The grumpy man in front of the television with his head stuck in the newspaper is my father, Frank Plum.”

         Before any of the agents could say anything, Stephanie’s mother who had paid very little attention to the rest of her daughter’s introductions, having focused only on the words ‘federal agents,’ made the sign of the cross and glared at Grandma Mazur. “What in heaven’s name have you done now?”

         “Grandma hasn’t done anything, mom.” Stephanie immediately jumped to her grandmother’s defense. “Lee, Amanda and Francine are here trying to track down Benjamin Adams.”

         Stephanie’s mom let out a deep sigh. “What a relief, I apologize,” she glanced briefly at the three strangers standing in the entranceway, “but when Stephanie said that you came to talk to my mother…” her expression grew serious once more as she looked directly at her daughter, “why did you and these federal agents come to talk to your grandmother then?”

         “Because, one of Vinnie’s skips resurfaced in D.C. and then gave everyone down there the slip. So Lee, Amanda and Francine came here hoping to keep the trail from going cold again by retracing the steps I took before when I was trying to apprehend Benjamin Adams. We came here because we think the best place to start looking for Benjamin is through his grandmother and I thought,” Stephanie glanced over at her grandmother, “that Grandma might know where we can find Mrs. Adams.” 

         “Poor Polly, I tell you if I had a no good grandson like that, I’d cut him off permanently. From what I understand she sent him a birthday card last month.” Grandma shook her head in disgust. “Not me, no way, if you ever had me evicted from my house, I’d cut you out of my will.  No good son of a female dog, I’ll tell you where Polly Adams is now, she’s homeless.”

         Stephanie’s mom closed her eyes and sighed. “She’s not homeless, mother.” She smiled apologetically at the three strangers standing in her hallway. “She’s living with her sister over on the other side of town.  Oh, please forgive my rudeness, won’t you have a seat?” She motioned them towards the living room.

         Stephanie shook her head. “We weren’t planning on staying long. We just wanted to find out where Mrs. Adams was.”

         “She might actually be at Bernie’s funeral.” Grandma grinned. “We could probably interrogate her about Benjamin at the viewing.”

         “There is no ‘we’ Grandma.” Stephanie glanced over at the three agents. “It might not be a bad idea, though, to check out the funeral and,” she looked back at her grandmother, “there won’t be any interrogating – we just want to ask her a few simple questions.” She turned her attention back to Lee and Amanda. “Even if Mrs. Adams isn’t there, a few of the other attendees might have seen Benjamin recently.”

         “Isn’t it extremely bad taste to crash someone’s wake and start interrogating the mourners?” Francine stared wide-eyed and slightly appalled in Stephanie’s direction.

         “Not really.” Stephanie laughed and waved her hand in the air, dismissing the whole thing. “Most towns have bingo parlors or rec centers for old folks to hang out, we have Stiva’s.  It may be a funeral parlor, but everyone goes there, not only to pay respects, but to pass along the latest burg gossip.  You’d be amazed at what kind of information you can uncover at a burg viewing.”

         “If we won’t be intruding, then it sounds like as good a place as any to start.” Amanda glanced over at Francine before turning her attention to her husband. “I, for one, am very interested to know where Mrs. Adams sent her grandson’s birthday card, especially if the authorities don’t have any leads on his whereabouts.”

         “That’s settled then.” Grandma looked at her watch. “We’d better get a move on though. I want to get there as early as possible. Bernie had a heart attack, but they had to do an autopsy on him so it’s a closed casket, but if I time it right, I might be able to get the lid up and sneak a peak before the crowd starts arriving.”

          Stephanie’s mom’s eyes widened in horror. “Wait! A closed casket.” She turned and glared at her daughter. “She’s your responsibility. I’m putting her in your care. Do not, I repeat, do not let her out of your sight.”

         “Mom, Con’s started nailing the coffins shut…”

         Stephanie’s mom shook her head adamantly. “No.  If anything happens tonight, I’m going to hold you personally responsible, and I’ll cut you off from anymore pineapple upside down cake.”  Her daughter gasped audibly and she fixed her with a pointed stare. “I mean it, Stephanie.  The last time they had a closed casket, nailed down or not, she got kicked out because she toppled the casket over trying to get a peak at Sal Vaducci.  Poor man had his brains blown out, and my mother had to see the empty skull.” She raised her hands in the air. “Why me? I have a daughter who hangs out with feds and shoots people, and a mother with an extremely morbid curiosity.”

         “You know what I need to get,” Grandma Mazur scrunched up her face in thought, “I need to get me one of those lock picking kits.” She looked at her granddaughter. “Do you think that handsome Ranger could get me one and then teach me how to use it?” She then glanced over at Lee. “You’re a fed.  Are lock picks hard to come by?”

         Lee, who had been exchanging bemused glances with his wife, stared unbelievingly at the older woman. “Um…well…”

         Amanda tried to hide her own amusement at her husband’s sudden speechlessness. “Actually, the kind of lock picking kit you’d want is not that easy to find and takes a lot of patience and training to use.”

         Stephanie reached up and tried to hide the nervous twitch of her eye.  She loved her family, but sometimes they were just a little trying. She was barely paying attention to the lock picking conversation, and was more concerned with the comment her mother had just made about her. “I only shot a guy once, and it was in self-defense.” She protested, more for her mother’s benefit than the benefit of the agents. “I rarely carry my gun…”

         “And that’s just one more thing for me to worry about. You chase down all types of criminals but don’t carry a gun.” Stephanie’s mom shook her head.

         “I hate the thing. No matter how hard Joe and Ranger try and convince me that I should keep it with me, I just don’t feel right carrying one.”

         Lee stifled a chuckle and glanced over at Amanda with a knowing grin. “I know exactly how they feel.”

         Amanda looked over at Stephanie. “I hate guns too.”

         Grandma began tapping her foot. “Time’s a wastin’. And you don’t need to worry about Stephanie’s lack of a gun. I’m sure this strapping young man has one. We’ll be well protected.”  She began moving towards the front door. “I want to ride in that silver sports car. When I get my license renewed, I’m going to get myself a sports car.”

         “Oh good Lord.” Stephanie’s mother made the sign of the cross and pointed at her daughter. “Remember, she’s your responsibility.” She started heading towards the kitchen, but stopped and looked directly at her daughter. “And make sure she’s not armed.”

         Stephanie sighed and as she moved to follow her grandmother out the door, caught the raised eyebrows of the three agents. “My grandma likes to carry a ‘big boy’ .45 millimeter.  She claims she’s gotten rid of it, and no matter how hard my mother searches we can’t find it.  We can search her till we’re blue in the face, and yet she still manages to pull it out of thin air, and at the worst times too.” She chuckled as she stepped out onto the porch and saw Grandma waiting impatiently next to the silver Corvette.  She turned towards Lee. “Do you mind letting my grandmother ride with you?” She turned towards Amanda. “You’re more than welcome to ride with me. In fact, it might make more sense if we left your car here too, Francine.  It’s not always easy to find parking at Stiva’s especially when there’s a closed casket involved.”

         Lee glanced at the excited face of the elderly woman and sighed. “I don’t think I really have much of a choice in the matter, and besides, I’d hate to disappoint an old woman.  How far is it to the funeral home?”

         “Not that far.” Stephanie replied as she moved down the steps towards the cars. “Don’t worry, Grandma’s not really that bad, and maybe you can get her to leave her gun in your car, after all you are a good looking man, she might listen to you.”

         Amanda grinned and patted her husband’s cheek affectionately as they reached the end of the walkway. “You are definitely a good looking man.” She leaned up and placed a kiss on his lips. “I love you.”

         Grandma Mazur watched in amusement at the young couple. “Don’t worry honey, I’ll keep a very close watch on him.” She patted her shoulder bag. “He’s absolutely safe with me.”

         Lee shot Amanda a look that clearly said ‘please get me out of this,’ and when his wife just smiled and blew him another kiss as she walked towards Stephanie’s car, decided that he was going to find a way to get even with his wife, somehow.

         Amanda opened the passenger door of Stephanie’s gray Honda Civic and looked at the brunette over the hood of the car. “I gather that your mom isn’t crazy about your choice of careers?”

         Stephanie shrugged as she opened her own door and began to climb into the driver’s seat. “I didn’t have much of a choice.” She commented when Amanda had gotten into the car. “I was laid off from my job and needed something.  It’s not the best job, bounty hunting that is, but it’s better than nothing. Besides, anything ‘normal’ just doesn’t suit me anymore, and this way I can continue to be the black sheep of the family. It’s no fun being the good daughter.”  She waited till Francine was in the backseat with her door closed, and then double checked to ensure that her passengers were buckled in before starting her car and pulling way from the curb.  “My sister Valerie is the perfect one. Perfect hair, perfect husband, perfect children.”

         “How did you end up being a bounty hunter in the first place?” Amanda glanced over at Stephanie. “I hope you don’t mind my asking, that is.”

         Stephanie shrugged. “It’s not a secret really, in fact you could probably ask anyone in the burg, cops included, and they’d all be able to tell you.  I used to be a lingerie buyer for a company called E.E. Martin.  They went belly up and I got laid off.   When I had exhausted all my resources, doing temp jobs here and there, I finally admitted to my parents that I wasn’t working there anymore.  My mom wanted me to get a job at one of the local factories, in fact she secretly prays that I’ll still do that.  My dad, on the other hand, mentioned that my cousin Vinnie was looking for someone to do filing.”

         “Correct me if I’m wrong,” Francine leaned forward from her seat in the back, “but doesn’t filing deal with paper and filing cabinets, not guns and pepper spray?”

         Amanda turned around and gave Francine a sharp look.  She then turned her attention back on the brunette in the driver’s seat.  “So what happened, since you obviously aren’t in charge of keeping your cousin’s files in order?”  The last bit of her comment was directed more to the blonde than Stephanie.

         “Nothing really.  I got there to talk to Vinnie, and Connie, the office manager, said that they’d already hired someone to do filing, and no it wasn’t Lula, it was some other girl who didn’t end up lasting the week.” Stephanie let out a small, ironic laugh. “They never seem to, my cousin ends up chasing them off.”  She passed the already packed parking lot of Stiva’s and drove up the block looking for a place to park. “Anyway, Connie, after hearing me whine about my need for money, said that their usual apprehension agent was out of commission, burst appendix I think, and talked me into filling in for him.  Vinnie wasn’t so easy to convince, that’s why I used family blackmail to get him to hire me.” She pulled the Civic into an open spot two blocks from the funeral home.

         Francine let out a long drawn out sigh as she unlocked her seatbelt.  Climbing out of the car, she quickly caught up with her friend.  “I think I found your long lost sister, Amanda.” She smiled cunningly at the brunette’s questioning gaze. “She rambles almost as well as you, only unlike you, she stops to breathe every now and then.”

         “You know, I always wanted a sister.” Amanda smiled impishly at the blonde as they made their way to where Grandma Mazur was standing at the base of the stairs.

         “Where’s Lee?” Stephanie asked her grandmother, who was standing alone on the sidewalk, waiting for them.

         Grandma pointed down the street. “He dropped me off and then went to find someplace to park.  Said he didn’t want to have to make me walk too far.  What a charming man.” She looked over at Amanda. “If I were a few years younger, I might just try and steal him away from you. You’re one lucky woman, see that you hold on to him as long as you can.”

         Amanda tilted her head questioningly towards Grandma Mazur, then remembered that she and Lee weren’t hiding their feelings for each other from anyone anymore. in fact, Francine had said on more than one occasion how annoying it was that now that they were publicly engaged, they seemed to wear their hearts in their eyes. “Yes, Mrs. Mazur, I truly am and I don’t plan on letting go of him…ever.” Smiling, she noticed the slightly impatient look on the older woman’s face as her eyes were focused on the doors into the funeral home. “Look, why don’t you three head on in. I’ll wait for Lee and we’ll meet you inside shortly.” She chuckled at the hesitant look on Stephanie and Francine’s faces. “I know my fiancé, and he’ll probably be awhile.  He likes to try to find the safest, most out of the way place he can to park his car.”

         “Honey,” Grandma Mazur smiled as she put one foot on the step behind her. “If I had a sweet car like that, I’d want to keep it safe, too.” She then turned and began walking up the stairs towards the entrance.

         Francine watched Stephanie follow her grandmother up the stairs, and then turned towards Amanda, her eyes searching the unfamiliar neighborhood. “Are you sure?”

         Amanda nodded. “Yes, Francine, I’m sure.  Trust me, I’ll be fine.  There are plenty of people around, and despite what you and Lee seem to forget, I am a fully trained agent. I can take care of myself.  Besides,” she glanced to her right. “I see him coming now. Go on, Mrs. Mazur and Stephanie are already at the entrance, and one of us should stay with them.”

         Francine glanced briefly in the direction Lee was coming, then looked around and realized that it was a very well lit area and there were plenty of well-dressed people entering the funeral home and conceded that her friend was right.  “All right, I’ll go, but if Lee makes even the slightest comment about me leaving you alone, you have to promise that you’ll stop him before he gets more than one word out.”  She turned and headed up the stairs, not bothering to wait for a response from Amanda.

         Amanda just shook her head, knowing full well that if her husband even raised an eyebrow at seeing her left alone, she was going to put him in his place immediately, and she didn’t care who was around to witness her tirade.  Everyone seemed to forget that she was no longer the inexperienced housewife she was six years go, but rather a highly trained and skilled agent.  It was bad enough that she had to constantly remind her husband of that fact, but when her co-workers and friends felt the need to constantly watch over her, it made her just a trifle angry.  Two years ago, heck even a year and a half ago, she would have swept it under the carpet, understanding that they were just concerned for her because of what had happened to her out in California, but not anymore.  That was two years ago, and she had more than proven herself to be in top physical form since then, especially to her husband. 

         Lee noticed immediately, as he crossed the street on to the block the funeral home was on that neither Francine, Stephanie or Mrs. Mazur was waiting with his wife and safely assumed that Amanda had told them to go on ahead.  He was extremely relieved about that fact.  Grandma Mazur seemed like a nice enough older woman, but he had come to realize, on the five minute drive over here, exactly why Stephanie’s retired father started driving a cab.   Grandma Mazur, after going on about her interest in getting into law enforcement had made a side comment about her son-in-law taking up cab driving.  She said it was just an excuse he used so that he could drive one of his buddies down to the VFW hall and then stay to play cards all day.  Lee, on the other hand, suspected that it was merely an excuse to get out of the house and away from Mrs. Mazur.  He hoped that his relationship with Dotty remained close, because if Amanda’s mother ever got as bad as Mrs. Mazur, he knew for a fact that he’d go crazy. As he got closer to his wife, he noticed the slightly annoyed look on her face, and not knowing if he had done something wrong or if something had transpired, he approached her cautiously. “Everything okay?”

         “Yes,” Amanda let her features soften slightly, but watched him speculatively. “I sent the others inside.  Mrs. Mazur looked about ready to jump out of her skin if she didn’t get in there.” She pointed up the stairs, and then glanced back at her husband.  She had worked herself up and gotten ready for some sort of argument and was now slightly upset that she might not get her wish. “You aren’t mad that they went in ahead of us?”

         Lee caught the edge in his wife’s tone and had all the explanation he needed for the look on her face when he’d first arrived. Smiling, he shook his head. “Not in the least.  Aside from the fact that you’ve reminded me on more than one occasion that you are a trained agent and don’t need to be coddled, you’re standing in a brightly lit area, with lots of people and we’re not in the middle of some dangerous case at the moment, so you hardly need someone to watch your back.” He put his hand on the small of her back and began leading her up the steps. “Besides, I’m enjoying the intermission from Mrs. Mazur.”

         Amanda glanced over at her husband. “Now you’ve piqued my interest.  Mrs. Mazur seemed harmless enough, perhaps a bit unusual, but sweet.”

         “She’s a character all right but ‘sweet’ is not a word I would use to describe her.” Lee chuckled. “She wanted me to show her what the car could do and race you guys over here.  I tried to tell her that I didn’t know where we were going, and that it probably wasn’t a good idea.  She finally gave up on that and then started on other topics.  I thought old people were supposed to be somewhat reserved, even proper, but that doesn’t even come close to describing Mrs. Mazur. Not only does she have a colorful vocabulary, but there’s nothing that woman doesn’t talk about, body parts included.” His face turned serious. “Do you know she came right out and asked about our sex life.  She wanted to know that since we were both secret agents, if it was more exciting to have sex while being pursued by criminals than just normal everyday sex.  I thought nothing could shock me anymore, but that woman left me speechless.”

         Amanda stopped at the top of the stairs and looked at him, her expression half amused and half shocked. “She asked you a lot of personal questions?”

         Lee nodded. “She asked how serious you and I were, that’s what led up to the question about our sex life.  Not realizing where the conversation was going to go, I told her you and I were engaged, and to be honest, I think I would have told her even if we were keeping it a secret.  She gave me this look like she was sizing me up to be her next ‘studmuffin’.  It was scary.”

          “I guess we know which side of the family Stephanie takes after.” Amanda grinned as she remembered what Stephanie’s grandmother had said to her. “Oh, and,” she lovingly patted her husband’s cheek, “you were right, she was sizing you up. She told me that if she were a few years younger, I’d have some serious competition.” She laughed at the exasperated look on her husband’s face and began walking towards the entrance of the building, but stopped right outside the doors. “Lee, were you able to convince Mrs. Mazur to leave her gun in the car?”

         “Yes,” Lee nodded. “Believe me, that was no easy task.  I finally had to take out my federal ID and tell her that if she didn’t leave it behind, I was going to take her down to the local police station and have her arrested for illegal possession.”

         “I bet she loved that.” Amanda chuckled.

         “She said I was discriminating against her because she was old.” Lee opened the door for his wife so she could enter the noisy funeral home ahead of him. “I told her that I didn’t care about race, color, sex or age, the law is the law and I took an oath to uphold the law.”

         “I bet you put on your best Scarecrow face when you said it too.” Amanda laughed as she scanned the area looking for any indication of where Bernie Moppin was being laid out. “Who knew funeral viewings could draw this much excitement. I thought Stephanie was exaggerating when she’d equated coming here with a bingo parlor, but I’m beginning to think she was right. I don’t think I’ve seen one truly grieving person.  Everyone seems very chatty and happy, almost like they come here just to socialize.”

         Lee shrugged. “From the minute we stepped into the bond agency, I’ve felt like we walked into an alternate universe.  We’ve definitely met our share of interesting characters today.”

         “At least it hasn’t been dull.” Amanda pointed to a little black sign outside the main viewing room. “I guess we need to go in there.”  She walked over to the entrance to the room and began searching for any sign of Francine or Stephanie.  As her gaze fell on the area near the refreshment table, she grabbed her husband’s arm. “Lee,” she whispered. “I’m not a hundred percent sure, but from what I remember of his file, isn’t that Carlos Veranos.”

         Lee looked at his wife and then followed her gaze.  Sure enough, standing by a small table with cookies and coffee was Veranos.  He appeared to be deep in conversation with another man, who reminded him of someone who belonged in one of the Godfather movies. “Well, what do you know? Maybe your suggestion to Billy that we come here to check out the missing guns wasn’t just a ruse after all. What do you say we go over and have a little chat with him, see what he’s doing in Trenton? We’ll just act like two people paying their respects to Bernie Moppin.”

         “Sounds like a perfect plan to me.” Amanda linked her hand through her husband’s arm and began walking towards the refreshments.  Suddenly a thundering crash came from the front of the room, and, along with everyone else in the room, she turned towards the area where the casket was displayed.  The first thing she noticed was that the bier was empty, a clear indication that the noise that had echoed through the room, was a casket falling, and from what she had heard at Stephanie’s parents’ house, she had a sinking feeling that she knew exactly who had caused the disruption.  Her suspicions were confirmed when she caught sight of a familiar blonde head racing in their direction. As Francine got closer, Amanda noticed the gun in one hand and a small frail arm attached to the blonde’s other hand. 

         Lee caught the unabashed look on Mrs. Mazur’s face and then saw the slightly horrified look on Stephanie’s face as she quickly followed the other two up the aisle.  He glanced back towards the refreshment table, but Carlos Veranos was no longer there, and everyone was standing up and crowding around the toppled casket in the front of the room.   He was now extremely torn.  Every fiber of his being was telling him to try and find Veranos in order to find out why and how long he was going to be in Trenton, but the menacing look he saw on the face of one of the older men in the crowd told him that he should probably stay with his wife and their entourage, if for no other reason than for their safety.  Running a hand through his hair in frustration, he followed his wife and the others out into the lobby.

         “What were you doing?” Francine turned towards Stephanie, her eyes blazing.  “Didn’t your mother tell you to watch your grandmother?”

         Stephanie put her hands on her hips. “I was trying to find out if Mrs. Adams was around and confirming where she was living now.  My grandmother’s a grown woman.  I can’t watch her every second and ask questions too.”

         “What happened?” Lee asked the minute he had caught up with them in the lobby.

         “Grandma tried to pick the lock on the casket.” Stephanie knew she should be mad at her grandmother for disrupting yet another viewing, and she was pretty sure that Constantine Stiva was going to find a way to legally ban Grandma Mazur from ever stepping into his funeral home again, but for some reason, she couldn’t find it in her to be even the slightest bit annoyed.  Perhaps it was because these incidents were so common, that they didn’t phase her anymore. “By the time I realized what she was doing, it was too late and the casket was on its way towards the floor.” She looked at her grandmother curiously. “What exactly were you using to pick the lock?”

         Grandma opened her palm to show them the bobby pin in her hand. “I found it in my purse.  One of my curls had come undone and was bugging me. I was about to pin it back up when I realized I could put it to better use. I’d seen that hunky MacGyver use one once and thought I could test my own lock picking skills. I’ve seen it done a zillion times on all those detective shows on T.V., and they make it look so easy, so I figured why not try my hand at it? I guess I was concentrating so hard, that I didn’t realize how hard I was leaning on the casket till it started to topple backwards.  Apparently I don’t know my own strength.”

         “Uh oh, Con’s coming this way. We better leave now, before he has us thrown out.” Stephanie grabbed her grandmother’s arm and began dragging her towards the door.

         Amanda glanced back at the man who was now walking towards them, his expression determined and definitely not happy. “Who’s Con?”

         “He’s the owner of the funeral home and definitely not one of our biggest fans.” Stephanie raced down the stairs as fast as she could without causing her grandmother to fall.  “He kind of blames Grandma and me for starting a fire that killed his son about a year or so ago.” She paused when she reached the bottom of the stairs. “It wasn’t really our fault.” She commented when Amanda and the others had caught up to them. “Spiro, Con’s son, had locked Grandma and me in the basement and then the fire somehow started and anyway, that’s really a story for another time.  I think we should get Grandma home.”

         “Since you weren’t watching your grandmother, did you at least find out anything useful about Mrs. Adams?” Francine asked as they made their way towards Stephanie’s car.

         “She’s definitely living with her sister. I figure we can drop Grandma off at home, you can pick up your car,” Stephanie glanced at Francine as she unlocked her car door, “and then we can head over to Joe’s house.  I’ll get Amanda and Lee settled in there, and then you and I can head over to my place.” She caught the unmistakable look of a woman getting ready to protest and quickly continued, “I’m sure you’re anxious to find Benjamin, but it won’t do any good to bother Mrs. Adams tonight.  We’ll have better luck if we wait until tomorrow.” She glanced over at Lee and Amanda. “Joe can bring you over to my place in the morning and we can set up a plan of action then.  I’ve had a pretty exhausting day, and you guys did have a long drive up from D.C. I think we could all use a good night’s sleep, don’t you agree?”

         “You really can’t argue with that logic, Francine.” Lee said as he took his wife’s hand in his. “I’m pretty sure I know how to get back to your parents’ from here,” he glanced over at Stephanie, “it wasn’t all that difficult, so Amanda and I’ll just meet you there.” He then began walking quickly in the direction of his car, dragging his wife along with him.  He wanted to put a few car lengths between him and Mrs. Mazur, before she decided that she needed one more ride in his ’Vette.

*****  *****

         Lee glanced around the guest bedroom and noticed the slightly yellowing, old, but cared for, curtains on the window. “This house has a definite female touch to it, and somehow I don’t think it was Stephanie who decorated it.” He commented as he placed their luggage down on the bed.

         Amanda shook her head as she moved over to the bed and opened her small suitcase. “Stephanie said that Joe inherited this house from his Aunt Rose.”  She pulled out her bag of essentials and then began searching for something to wear to bed.  She had brought along a very sexy nightgown hoping to have at least one romantic evening with her husband, but since they were staying at Joe’s house, a practical stranger, whose house only had one bathroom, she didn’t feel comfortable wearing something that revealing.  It had been wishful thinking on her part, and knew that there was no hope of that now.  Catching sight of the lacy fabric, she kept it hidden inside her bag, not wanting to give her husband any ideas that they definitely wouldn’t be able to act on now, not when Joe might be able to hear what was going on.

          “Joe probably hasn’t had a chance to really make this house his own yet, although I have noticed a few areas where he’s started making changes.” Lee sat down on the bed and began removing his shoes and socks. “Speaking of Joe, I want to talk to him in the morning…,” he paused and glanced up at his wife, “you know what, I think I’m going to start calling him Morelli. Joe makes me feel like I’m talking about your ex.”

         Amanda raised her eyebrows archly as she stared intently at her husband. “And that’s a bad thing…”

         “No, not bad, just…weird.” Lee glanced at his wife with a serious expression. The subject of Joe King had always been a sensitive one between them.  He knew that Joe was going to be around, after all, he was the boys’ father, and no matter how happy Joe appeared to be with Carrie, he still felt a little jealous of all the years that Joe King had shared with his wife.  It didn’t matter that, despite reassurances from Amanda that she no longer felt anything but brotherly affection towards Joe, and the fact that he knew in his heart that the bond between himself and Amanda was very special and unbreakable, he knew he’d always feel that little bit of jealousy towards her ex-husband. “Anyway, I want to talk to Morelli about Veranos.  He might be able to give us some insight into why Veranos was in town. Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and not only track down the stolen Army weapons, but find Benjamin, too.”

         “Someone’s doing a lot of wishful thinking.  Are you going for some agent of the year award that I don’t know about, or just trying to make this trip last longer and thereby jinx our chances of getting home in time for the wedding.” Amanda paused and, taking a breath, looked at her husband curiously. “Why do you think Joe might know?” She noticed the slight wince her husband made when she said Joe, and fixed him with a look that clearly said ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’ Shaking her head she let out a small sigh. “I didn’t realize, when you said you were going to refer to Joe as Morelli that I had to as well.” She caught the pleading look on Lee’s face and rolled her eyes. “Fine, why do you think Morelli might be able to give you information about Veranos?” She asked, shaking her head with mild amusement as she made her way out of the bedroom and towards the bathroom. 

         “Because he’s a cop, and not just any cop, he works in Vice. They always have their ear to the ground.” Lee shrugged as he stood up.  He pulled his jeans off and placed them on the bed beside his suitcase.  “And call it a hunch, and maybe I’m being a bit prejudiced, but he is Italian, and perhaps he’s got some connections.” He opened his bag and dug out his toothbrush and then placed his pants into the suitcase. 

         Amanda chuckled as she stepped out of the bathroom dressed in a pair of pajama shorts and a loose fitting t-shirt. “You sound like someone who’s watched too many mob movies.”  She stood in the doorway of the guest room and watched as her husband took off his shirt. She shook her head lightly to clear her mind of dangerous thoughts as she watched the smooth ripples of his hard muscled body come into view.  Thoughts like those were exactly why she had changed in the bathroom.  She didn’t want to tempt her husband by undressing in the same room. She pushed off the frame and sighed as she made her way back into the room; it really was a shame they weren’t staying at a hotel, a little privacy would have been very nice.

         Lee slipped his t-shirt over his head and then moved his luggage to the floor at the foot of the bed. “It might be a little bit of that, mixed in with a lot of years in the spy business.” He turned and made his way towards the bathroom, smacking his wife’s bottom playfully as they passed each other.

         Amanda moved over to her suitcase and pulled out a bottle of lotion.  Walking over to the bed, she sat down on the mattress and began to rub some of the creamy liquid on her legs. “What do you think of Stephanie?”

         Lee poked his head out of the bathroom. “What do you mean?” His tone was slightly suspicious.

         Amanda shrugged her shoulders. “Francine commented that she and I could be sisters.  I guess we do look alike, but what I was really getting at was, well, she doesn't really fit the picture of what a bounty hunter should look like.”

         Lee finished brushing his teeth and then rinsed his mouth. Grabbing the nearby hand towel, he quickly dried his face. “Oh and what do you think a bounty hunter should look like?” He asked as he made his way back towards the bedroom.

         Amanda shrugged her shoulders again. “Sort of menacing, with an air of self-confidence and definitely someone who carries a gun. Someone kind of like... well... like Ranger.”

         Lee leaned against the doorframe and watched his wife as she continued to apply lotion to her silky skin.  He was extremely tempted to take over, but he had a feeling that it might lead to something else, something very enjoyable, but inappropriate considering their current accommodations.  Joe Morelli seemed like someone who probably had a healthy sex drive, but that didn’t mean he’d want to come home to find two strangers going at it in his house. He mentally sighed as he continued to watch his wife. “Some people didn't think a divorced housewife with two little boys and a live-in mom could be a counter-intelligence agent.”

         Amanda tilted her had and smiled. “Touché. Anyway, you didn’t answer my original question…what do you think of her?”

         Lee shrugged his shoulders slightly. “Honestly, I don’t think she’s cut out to be a bounty hunter.  I do think she’s a very determined and stubborn woman, and from what I could gather, she’s managed to get her man, or woman.  I don’t think she does it with any great skill though, I think she manages to get very lucky…” he flashed her his most charming smile, “not unlike someone else I know.”

         Amanda closed the lid on her lotion bottle and put it back in her suitcase. “Did I marry a spy or a comedian?”

         “You wanted an answer, so I gave you one.  What’s your impression of her then?” Lee pushed off the doorframe and walked towards his wife, his expression slightly challenging.

         Amanda chuckled. “Okay, I see your point.  Despite the fact that she doesn’t look like a bounty hunter, she does appear to have a pretty decent track record, at least that’s what I gathered from some of the stories Stephanie told us at dinner, and from the little bit of dialogue Ranger contributed to the conversation, before Morelli arrived.” She closed her suitcase and began to move it to the floor beside her husband’s.

         “I have to agree with you though, most people's perception of a bounty hunter would be the Ranger type, but I guess bounty hunters come in all shapes and sizes.” Lee watched as his wife made her way to the head of the bed and began pulling the covers down.  Remembering that they weren’t in a hotel or at their apartment, he quickly turned and closed the bedroom door.  “By the way, you stay away from that Ranger, I didn't like the way he was looking at you.”

         “Lee,” Amanda glanced at her husband with an amused glance, “I think you’re being blinded by that little green monster.  Anyone with brains in their head can see that Ranger only has eyes for Stephanie.”

         Lee stood in place and stared at his wife with an extremely baffled expression on his face. “I thought that she was involved with Morelli.”

         “I didn’t say that Ranger was involved with Stephanie or that she wasn’t involved with Joe. What I said was that Ranger seems to have a thing for Stephanie.  I noticed the concerned looks he gave Stephanie the minute she entered Mr. Plum’s office and the intensity of his gaze during dinner, all directed at Stephanie.  He barely knew I was alive, unless I actually said something to him.” Amanda sat down on the bed and slipped her legs under the covers. “I also sensed a battle of some sort going on when Ranger and Joe looked at each other.  I have a feeling that if Joe weren’t in the picture, Ranger would jump at the chance to be with Stephanie.”

         Lee shrugged his shoulders and made his way towards the bed. “If you say so, but if you don’t mind, I think I’ll keep an extra eye on him and you, just to make sure he doesn’t try and invade my territory.”

         Amanda sat up straight in the bed and, crossing her arms, glared at her husband. “Your territory?”

         Lee winced at the slight edge to his wife’s voice. “Okay, I admit, bad choice of words,” he noticed his wife’s eyes beginning to grow wider and threw up his hands in defeat. “Ah hell, you know what I mean.”

         “There’s that little green monster again,” Amanda relaxed her features and patted the bed beside her. “Honestly, Lee, you have nothing to worry about where Ranger’s concerned.”

         Lee climbed into bed and slid under the covers. He turned and lay on his side, bending his elbow, he propped his head up with his hand. “You’re too trusting, Amanda.  I may not have to worry about him making advances towards you, but there’s definitely something about the guy that screams danger.  He’s too cautious and reserved.  And besides,” he rolled over onto his back, “I think I was more concerned with the looks you were giving him, than the way he might or might not have been looking at you.”

         Amanda began to chuckle and, lying down, placed her head on his shoulder. Sighing contentedly, she began to trace lazy circles on her husband’s chest. “You can’t deny he’s good looking.  And there’s nothing wrong with me looking, after all, what’s good for the gander is good for the goose.”

         “What’s that supposed to mean?” Lee asked his wife cautiously.

         Amanda chuckled harder. “Oh please, I’ve seen your eyes wander when a gorgeous supermodel-like woman walks by.”

         Lee looked over at his wife with a very shocked expression. “I do not.”

         Amanda laughed as she reached over and turned out the bedside lamp. “Yes you do, and it’s perfectly normal, I’d be worried if you didn’t look, just as long as you don’t touch.”

         Lee reached out and slipped his hand into his wife’s hair. “The only woman I want to touch is you.”  Pulling her to him, he caught her lips with his.

         Amanda brought her hand up and placed it tenderly on his cheek, deepening the kiss. As she felt her husband respond, she quickly remembered that they couldn’t continue any further down this path of intimacy, and she reluctantly pulled her lips away.  “And you’re the only man I want.  However, until our accommodations are a little more private, I think a good night kiss is the only touching we should do tonight.”

         Lee let out a reluctant groan, “I hate it when you’re right.” He leaned down and kissed her gently on the lips. “Goodnight, I love you.”

         “I love you too, and I know this is difficult, but at least we get to share a bed. Besides, it won’t be too much longer until we’ll get to fall asleep together like this every night, and we might as well get used to the idea that we are going to have others down the hall from us.” Amanda rested her head on his chest.

         “Hmm…” Lee smiled as a thought occurred to him. “You know what, you’ve just made a very valid point. Maybe we can use Morelli’s house as a test run, see how well we do in keeping our love making quiet.” He whispered and then began to nibble on his wife’s ear.

         Amanda lightly swatted her husband’s stomach. “As tempting as that sounds, maybe we should wait until we get to know this Morelli a little better before we use his house as a field test.” She deftly maneuvered herself so that her husband no longer had easy access to her ear, or neck.  Snuggling deeper into his warm body, she slid her arm across his chest. 

         Lee sighed reluctantly as he tightened his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “I love you.”

         “I love you too.” Amanda brought her free hand up to cover her yawn. “Get some sleep, Lee.  We’re most likely going to have a very long day tomorrow.”

         Lee breathed in the flower scent of his wife’s hair and sighed happily. He couldn’t believe that in a little less than two weeks, he’d be able to fall asleep with his wife in his arms every night for the rest of his life.  However, as thoughts of tomorrow began to creep into his mind, a feeling of fear started to grow in the pit of his stomach.  With so much to look forward to, and the fact that Veranos was in town left a very big opening for things to start going very wrong.  Add to the mix the fact that everyone seemed to delight in making a point of Stephanie’s luck for disaster; he decided he needed to take a few precautionary steps now. “Amanda…”

         Amanda sighed and rolled her eyes. “Lee,” she managed in a very exhausted voice, “we really need to get some sleep.” Sensing the sudden tenseness in her husband’s body, she realized that unless she let him tell her what was on his mind, neither one of them would be getting any rest. Raising herself up slightly, she looked into her husband’s worried face. “Sweetheart…what’s wrong?”

         “Nothing…yet.” Lee wrapped a curl around one of his fingers and absently began to play with it.  “It’s just I have so much to look forward to, moving in to the house, becoming a full-time husband, waking up with you in my arms every morning…”

         Amanda gazed at her husband intently and then, as if being able to read his mind, she began to understand his concern. “And you think that something with this Benjamin case is going to happen that’s going to change that.” When her husband nodded his head slowly, she leaned forward and placed a tender kiss on his lips. “We’re not even sure Benjamin’s here.  This is merely a fact finding mission, and a way to keep an eye on Francine.”

         Lee shook his head. “Amanda, you know as well as I do that none of our cases ever end up being simple.  Just look at tonight, and the fact that a man we were supposed to investigate a week ago, turns up in the very place we need to start the search for Benjamin Adams. You even joked about it earlier, and if we don’t report Veranos’ whereabouts to Billy, and he finds out, or worse Dr. Smyth finds out, he’ll have our heads.  So now we have two cases to deal with, and we have to wrap them both up in time to get home and exchange our vows in front of everyone.”

         “First, nothing is going to keep us from our wedding, it didn’t the first time and it won’t now; and second I don’t see the Veranos thing as a problem, I see it as an opportunity.” Amanda laid her head back on her husband’s chest and began tracing lazy circles. “You said yourself that you wanted to see what information Morelli could provide on Veranos, so tomorrow, instead of all of us trying to be in two places at once, we split up.”

         “That’s kind of what I had in mind. The problem is,” Lee cleared his throat, “the best way to do that is for us to split up, and I’m referring to you and me.” He pulled back a little and rolled over on his side, so that he could look into his wife’s face. “One of us has to stay with Francine, while the other goes to the station with Morelli.”

         “That’s easy, I’ll go to the station with Morelli, and you can keep an eye on Francine.” Amanda replied teasingly. “Now, that that’s settled, I really want to get some sleep.” She kissed his cheek and then rolled over on her side, with her back to her husband.

         “Seriously,” Lee felt almost relieved. If Amanda would willingly go with Morelli, spending the majority of the day under the close supervision of an entire police force, he could definitely sleep better. However, he knew his wife better than that. “Wait, you’re joking with me, aren’t you?”

         Amanda rolled back over to face him. “Yes, of course I was. You don’t really want to spend the day with Francine and Stephanie, do you? Nor do you and that jealous streak of yours really want me to spend the entire day with Joe Morelli.” As she noticed, in the dim light of the room, the solemn expression on her husband’s face, her own expression turned serious. “Wait a minute…you do want me to spend the day with Morelli.” She instantly sat up in bed. “Oh, ho, no way buster.  You are not putting me on the sidelines. You think that if you surround me with policemen, that I won’t manage to get into any trouble.  Well let me remind you that I’m a fully trained, qualified agent and I do not need you finding ways to protect me any more.”

          “Amanda,” Lee rose and was now sitting up, facing his wife. “This has nothing to do with your capabilities as an agent.  I just don’t want you being paired with someone who seems to have the same luck as you do when it comes to finding trouble.  Face it, you two are very similar in a lot of ways.  You both kind of stumbled into your current jobs, in a manner of speaking, plus the way that Vincent Plum and everyone else we’ve met today, Morelli and Ranger included, enjoyed joking about her little mishaps…”

         Amanda let out a long deep breath.  “Lee, you need to stop worrying.  Nothing bad is going to happen.  If you ask me you’re getting pre-wedding jitters, which isn’t uncommon in most men, except you and I have already done the whole marriage thing before.  This wedding is just a formality so that we didn’t have to tell everyone that we’d been lying to them for the last two years.” She smiled and moved closer to her husband. “Although your second marriage proposal was a lot more romantic than the first.” She placed a kiss on her husband’s cheek. “Now, tomorrow, I will go with Francine and Stephanie to talk to Benjamin’s grandmother, and you will go to the police station with Morelli.” She then scooted back down under the covers and patted the pillow, inviting her husband to join her.

         “There’s no way I’m going to change your mind is there?” Lee asked with a skeptical tone as he lay back down and raised his arm, allowing his wife to take up her earlier position in the crook of his arm.

         “Nope,” Amanda rested her head on his chest and smiled. “there really isn’t. Besides, I know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t enjoy talking to an old woman, let alone spending the day with Francine, who’s hell bent on making anti-male comments every chance she gets.  Face it, she’d take out all her frustration with the male gender on you.”

         Lee sighed and realized that no matter how much he disliked the idea, his wife was right, but he wasn’t about to let her know that. “I think you’re just using Francine as an excuse so that you can enjoy some good old fashioned female bonding.”

         Amanda laughed. “So what if I am? And you know what, it might do you some good to do some male bonding of your own…with someone who isn’t under the age of fifteen.  When was the last time you hung out with ‘the guys’ and I’m not talking about Mr. Melrose and the occasional Friday night steak and beer at Randy’s.”

         “Okay, I get the point.” Lee placed a kiss on his wife’s forehead.

         “Good, now, can we get some sleep please?” Amanda let out a yawn, further letting her husband know just how tired she was. “I love you.” She whispered as she felt her eyes drifting shut.

         “I love you, too.” Lee tightened his arm around her shoulders. “Goodnight.” He whispered as he heard her breathing start to even out.  Closing his eyes, he hoped that Amanda was right and that nothing was going to happen to keep them from walking down that aisle and spending the rest of their lives, publicly, as man and wife.

 

Chapter 7 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 7

         Stephanie woke to the sounds of cabinets banging open in her kitchen and instantly began to panic.  Then, smelling the wonderful aroma of freshly brewed coffee, she decided that whoever was in her kitchen had to be friendly and was probably just searching for something to eat.  If they had meant her any harm, they wouldn’t have made coffee.  Her first instinct was that perhaps Ranger had once again let himself into her apartment, but then realized that it couldn’t be him because he never made any noise and seemed to take great pleasure in seeing the startled look on her face when she’d find him just lounging in her kitchen. Not to mention the fact that he knew she never had food in her cupboards, and always brought breakfast with him.  Remembering that she had a sleepover guest, she figured that it was most likely Francine searching for something to edible. Stretching, her hand brushed the empty pillow beside her and she gave a little sigh of regret.  Despite the fact that she enjoyed her independence, she couldn’t deny that she missed not having Morelli lying beside her when she awoke, and it had been her idea to have Francine stay with her, rather than let all three agents stay at Joe’s so she had no one to blame for her empty bed, but herself.

         Throwing back the covers, Stephanie climbed out of bed and walked down the hallway to the bathroom.   Stepping inside the brown and yellow room, she caught one look at her hair and had to stifle a scream.  She said a silent prayer of thanks that she had decided to come in here and brush her teeth before checking on her guest.  Francine gave the air of someone who took pride in her appearance, and probably didn’t mind making comments about the way others looked. Grabbing a brush, she ran it through her hair, and finally gave up, pulling it back into a ponytail.  Glancing once more at herself in the mirror, she sighed and made her way into the kitchen.  “Good morning Francine,” she said as she entered and noticed her guest already seated at the table nursing a cup of coffee. “I feel like a truly terrible host, I’m the one who should have gotten up and made you breakfast.”

         Francine shrugged. “I didn’t sleep all that well, I never do in a strange place, and besides that thing you keep in that cage,” she pointed briefly to the glass box on the counter, “wouldn’t stop running on its wheel.  The squeak kept me up most of the night.”

         Stephanie did her best to bite her tongue.  The thing to which her guest was referring to was her hamster, Rex, and Rex wasn’t just a pet; he was her roommate, her confidant and well the closest she would probably ever get to having children.  “I’m sorry Rex,” she said his name quite forcefully and with just a hint of annoyance, “kept you up, I’ll remember to move him into the bedroom with me tonight.  He’s not used to being quiet for guests.”

         Francine closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m tired, I’m stressed, and you have nothing in this kitchen worth eating, with the exception of this.” She picked up the piece of toast from her plate and casually waved it back and forth.

         “I’m sorry, I tend to live paycheck to paycheck, and don’t usually keep my cabinets stocked.  What little there is, is usually for Rex.” Stephanie moved over to the coffee pot and grabbing a mug from the cabinet above, poured herself a cup.

         “What do you do for meals?” Francine took a bite of toast and then dropped it unceremoniously back on her plate.

         “I either get take-out, or bum meals off my parents.” Stephanie shrugged as she pulled out two slices of bread and placed them into the toaster.  “Since I live by myself, I usually just grab a donut or six, on my way into work.”

         “Don’t tell that to Amanda.” Francine laughed. “She’ll give you a twenty minute lecture on why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

         “Maybe I should mention it to her. I could use some good motivation to alter my diet.” Stephanie glanced self-consciously down at her waist, and then glanced back at the blonde.  It was evident that the woman hadn’t showered yet, since her face was devoid of make-up, yet her hair was perfectly in place and she was still quite stunning. “How do you do it?”

         Francine looked over at the brunette with a confused expression on her face. “Do what?”

         “Look so good so early in the morning.” Stephanie pulled the butter out of the fridge. “I mean, you look as put together as you did when we went to bed, minus make-up.”

         Francine shrugged. “It’s a gift.” She watched for Stephanie’s reaction but when the brunette seemed unfazed by the comment, she found herself just a little put out.  “You don’t seem offended by that.”

         “I have an older sister who prides herself on being perfect.  Perfect in everything she does, including how she looks.” Stephanie sat down at the table opposite Francine. “She’s out in California with her perfect husband and their two perfect kids. Don’t get me wrong, I love my sister, but because she’s so perfect, everything I do, no matter what it is, makes me look like the black sheep.” She laughed a little ironic laugh. “Then again, I’ve never really done anything to alter that perception either. Hell, I have a horrible job, one that I’m not even really good at, and I’m not married, so I’m a huge disappointment to my mother.”

         Francine couldn’t help but laugh and, relaxed her poise a little.  “You mentioned last night that you had a sister who you felt was better than you, and I think you’re being too hard on yourself.  I didn’t get the impression from your mother that she’s disappointed in you. I think just worries about you.  I actually envy you a little.  My mom and I aren’t very close.” Realizing that she was getting a little too personal with someone she’d just met, even if that someone reminded her a lot of Amanda, she cleared her throat nervously. “As for my appearance, don’t be fooled. I definitely don’t wake up looking like this. I found a clean towel and took the liberty of taking a shower while you were still sleeping.  My stomach demanded food before I had a chance to put on any make up.”

         Stephanie realized that a normal person might be a little annoyed that someone had gone snooping around her place, looking for clean towels, but nothing bothered her anymore.  She had a deadbolt on her door and yet even the most inexperienced thief managed to break into her apartment.  “I really do suck at being a host. I should have thought about leaving clean towels out for you, rather than have you hunt for them yourself.”

         Francine shrugged. “I should apologize for snooping around like that.  I guess it comes from working in the intelligence business, you get used to fending for yourself most of the time.” There was something extremely likable about Stephanie, and the brunette really didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of her barbed comments. After all, it wasn’t Stephanie’s fault that she’d let her guard down and allowed Adam to get so close so fast. But, she couldn’t deny the fact that she really did want to find him. “So what’s our plan for today?”

         Stephanie glanced at her watch. “Well I suppose I should get cleaned up, and maybe, once everyone gets here, we can find someplace to have a decent breakfast.  Joe should be here soon with Amanda and Lee, unless his stake out ran long or he’s needed back at the station right away. He’s usually a pretty early riser, but he’s got extra motivation since he wants to keep an extra close watch on me, which means he won’t want to waste anytime getting over here.  We also need to wait for Ranger to show up.  I called him last night and told him to meet us here.  We can see if he managed to dig up anything new on Benjamin, and then some of us should go talk to Mrs. Adams. I don’t think we all need to go, it might scare her if we brought an army with us.”

         Francine brought her coffee cup up to her mouth to cover the grin on her face.  She was beginning to wonder if she was just a magnet for talkative brunettes or if Stephanie was, in some strange way, truly related to Amanda.  Clearing her throat, she smiled. “I think you’re right.  It might be easier if you, Amanda and I went to talk to Mrs. Adams.  I’m sure the men can find something else to occupy themselves.”

         “Well Joe’ll probably have to head into the station, but I’m sure Lee and Ranger can find some thing to do.” Stephanie turned to head out of the kitchen.  She paused briefly in the doorway, “If you hear a key turning in the lock, it’s probably Joe, but I’d recommend having your gun ready.  Some very strange people have a habit of breaking into my apartment.  Oh, and if Ranger happens to just miraculously appear on this side of the door, can you tell me how he did it?”

         Francine looked at Stephanie with a very perplexed expression on her face. “I’m afraid I don’t follow you.”

         Stephanie shrugged. “Ranger manages to break into my apartment, but the windows are always closed and the locks still in place. I’ve never been able to figure out how he does it. I just want to know if he’s related to Houdini or if he’s an alien.”  She smiled half-jokingly, then made her way down the hall towards the bathroom.

         Francine shook her head and once again began to wonder just exactly what they had gotten mixed up in.  What had started out as a wonderful marriage proposal had turned into a nightmare complete with a cast of bounty hunters, bigamists, and old ladies who got into more trouble than Amanda King. However, she had to admit that even though it went against every bit of common sense to bring civilians into the mix, she was actually enjoying the bit of distraction that Stephanie and her family and friends could provide.  She even had to admit to herself that although he wasn’t really her type, the bounty hunter, Ranger, wasn’t exactly hard on the eyes.  Reminding herself that she was in the process of swearing off men, or at least only using them, she decided it was best to put thoughts of Ranger out of her mind, but then, again the dark and mysterious bounty hunter might just be the one to take her mind off of Adam-Benjamin, or whatever his real name was.  Her musings were interrupted by a knock at the door before she could go any further with that train of thought.

         Rising from her chair, Francine made her way to the apartment door and peaked out through the peep hole.  Recognizing the three people on the other side, she quickly slid the deadbolt over and unlocked the door.

         “Took you long enough,” Lee replied somewhat grumpily as the door swung open and Francine’s face appeared in the open doorway.

         “What’s put him in such a good mood?” Francine sarcastically asked Amanda, as the brunette entered the apartment.

         “He got some disturbing information about his car.” Amanda closed the door behind Joe and followed the others into the small living room.

         Francine looked curiously at Amanda. “Did it break down and he had to take it to a shop?”

         “I’m right here, Francine, you don’t have talk about me in the third person.” Lee flopped down onto the couch and let out a small grunt.

         Having said that same exact thing to Lee on more than one occasion, Amanda turned her head away from her husband so that he wouldn’t be able to see that she was doing her best to keep a from grinning. “Lee, Joe said not to take it seriously.  Besides, maybe she was referring to the Porsche, after all it did blow up, and it was silver.  Maybe she just got her timeline confused.”

         “Only after it fell of that cliff, Amanda.” Lee crossed his arms and glared at his wife. “I’ve grown to really love the ’Vette.”

         “I thought guys didn’t love cars, that they only just got attached to them.” Amanda moved over to the couch and sat down on the arm beside her husband.

         Francine looked over at Joe and noticed a smirk on the Italian’s face. “Does someone want to fill me in?”

         “Joe’s grandmother and mother stopped by this morning.” Amanda glanced up at the blonde. “Joe’s grandmother seems to think that she’s touched and has visions.  Apparently she got one last night that told her that Joe had some visitors, so the two women stopped by with some fresh baked bread and a casserole, which turned out to be a pan of lasagna. Joe said that most of the Italian women he knows call most of their dishes, casseroles because they bake them in a casserole dish.” She smiled apologetically at her impromptu mini-ramble when she caught the impatient look on Francine’s face.

         “Wait, I think I’m missing something here. What does that have to do with your car, Lee?” Francine turned her attention towards the sulking man on the couch.

         “Did you curse me or something, Francine, because lately I seem to be a magnet for crazy old broads,” Lee glanced quickly up at Joe, “no offense Morelli.”

         “None taken,” Joe shrugged. “I love Grandma Bella, but there’s no denying she’s a little off.”

         “A little off and a lot scary.” Stephanie commented as she entered the room. “Why are we talking about Grandma Bella?”

         “My mother and Grandma Bella stopped by this morning, because Grandma claimed she had had a vision that I had guests.” Joe smiled at Stephanie.

         “Yeah and the vision’s name was Mrs. Friolli.” Stephanie gave Joe a knowing look, then glanced over at Amanda. “She’s one of Joe’s neighbors and has Grandma Bella on speed dial.  It’s how she always knows when I’m there and the very next morning Grandma Bella and Mrs. Morelli show up at the crack of dawn.”

         Lee let out a sigh of relief. “So she’s not really ‘touched’ as Mrs. Morelli so graciously put it.” He looked over at Morelli for conformation.

         “I wouldn’t go that far.  Grandma Bella’s very good at giving people the evil eye, and some of her visions have been known to come true.” Stephanie shuddered involuntarily. “I take it that she had another one of her visions this morning?”

         “She said that she saw a silver sports car engulfed in flames.”  Amanda put a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “She glanced over at Lee’s Corvette, gave us what could only be called a knowing look and then they left right after Joe’s grandmother said something about feeling tired and needing to lie down.”

         Joe laughed. “Yeah, she claims that her ‘visions’ tire her out and that she needs to immediately lie down after she has one.” He looked over at the agent on the couch with a serious expression. “I really wouldn’t worry about it too much, Lee. Especially if what Amanda said on the way over here is true.  If you already had a silver car burn to a crisp, then it’s fairly safe to say that’s what she was referring to.”

         “She had a vision not too long ago that I was pregnant, which I wasn’t, but man it scared the bejeezus out of me.  Problem was the rumor spread like wildfire through the burg, and before I knew it, people were congratulating me on the street and asking when the wedding was.  I really wouldn’t take Grandma Bella too seriously, Lee.” Stephanie glanced at her watch. “Where is Ranger? I’m starving and all I had was coffee.” She looked over at Joe. “Don’t suppose you brought donuts with you.”

         Joe shook his head. “I was going to stop off at the Dunkin’ Donuts, but Amanda suggested that it would be better if we went somewhere and had a real breakfast.”

         Francine glanced over at Stephanie and smiled.

         Stephanie narrowed her eyes and glared as she pointed a finger in the blonde’s direction. “Don’t you dare say, ‘I told you so’.” She caught the questioning glance Amanda was giving Francine and mentally rolled her eyes as she let out a sigh. “Let’s just say that you and Ranger are apparently in complete harmony when it comes to what is and isn’t proper breakfast food.”

         Joe walked over and after placing a kiss on Stephanie’s forehead, wrapped an arm casually across her shoulders. “You don’t have anything to eat in the house again, huh Cupcake?”  He chuckled when he felt the brunette’s shoulders shrug indifferently.

         Lee glanced back towards the hallway and then in Stephanie’s direction. “Where is your friend Ranger, anyway.  Wasn’t he supposed to be here by now?”

         “Present and accounted for.” Ranger said as he casually walked into the room.

         Amanda would have fallen off the arm of the couch if Lee hadn’t instinctively grabbed her arm the minute Ranger spoke. Shaking her head, she turned to look in the black clad bounty hunter’s direction. “You’re better than Lee at sneaking up on people; I didn’t even hear the door open…or close for that matter.” She looked at him and then her husband. “How do you two do it?”

         Ranger locked eyes with Lee briefly, and then glanced back at Amanda with a very small smile, “Trade secret.”

         Amanda smiled wistfully at Ranger. “And if you told me you’d have to kill me, right?”

         With a very straight face, Ranger nodded. “And it would be a shame to have to do any physical harm to you before you’ve had the most important meal of the day.”

         Amanda laughed and then looked down at her husband when she felt his body go slightly rigid.  She patted his arm gently and shook her head, trying to communicate to him that he had no reason to be jealous of Ranger, but she knew Lee well enough to know that it didn’t take much for his little green monsters to make an appearance.  Sighing to herself, she realized that she would have to try and keep any conversations she had with Ranger, in Lee’s presence, to a bare minimum, in order to avoid any kind of scene.

         Ranger recognized the look of distrust on Lee’s face and turned his gaze towards the other very jealous male in the room. “Morelli.”

         “Ranger,” Joe nodded and then coolly locked eyes with the other man.

         Stephanie shrugged Joe’s arm off her shoulder and stepped away from him. She then glanced from one man to the other. “Oh knock it off.” When both men turned their attention on her with innocent looks on their faces, she rolled her eyes and grunted. “Don’t even bother trying to come up with a way to keep me off of this case.  If you two feel the need to bond, go do it over something besides me.” She turned her back on them, and taking a deep breath to get her anger under control, looked towards Amanda. “I called Connie while I was getting dressed and got Benjamin’s aunt’s address.” She turned her attention towards Francine. “So, we’re all set to talk to Mrs. Adams, and then I figure we could revisit a few of Benjamin’s old friends.” Glancing briefly in Joe and Ranger’s direction, she narrowed her eyes, “Now, I don’t know about you all,” she commented as she stalked off towards the kitchen, “but I’m hungry.  The caravan is leaving, feel free to join me.” She grabbed her purse off the counter and headed for the front door, shaking her head and muttering under her breath.

         Ranger glanced over at Morelli. “I’m glad she’s yours and not mine.”  He then followed Stephanie out the door.

         Francine watched as Morelli shook his head and then made his way out into the hallway, with Lee and Amanda right behind him. “I guess I’m locking up.” She pulled out her lock pick and after closing the door, did something she didn’t normally do, she locked the door instead of unlocking it.  “No wonder people are always breaking in, she never locks her door when she leaves.” She muttered to herself and then turned to join everyone in the elevator, only to find the doors closing shut. She looked up at the ceiling and made her way to the stairway. “Mrs. Adams better be a wealth of information, or I’m seriously going to hurt someone.” She stomped down the stairs, pretending that each step was one of Benjamin’s body parts.

*****  *****

         Lee looked down at his watch and then glanced up and stared out the glass windows of the Plum Agency for the fifth time.  “I knew it was a bad idea to split up. We should have all gone to Mrs. Adams, and then met up with you at the station.”

         Joe shrugged. “True, but look at all the time we saved in splitting up. Besides, Amanda was right, if too many of us had gone to talk with Mrs. Adams, she might have felt too overwhelmed to divulge anything about her grandson.  The poor woman just got evicted from the home she’d lived in for nearly fifty years and could do without any added stress in her life.”

         Lee glanced at his watch again. “Fine, but where are they, then? Shouldn’t they have been back by now?” He turned his attention on Morelli and began pacing the small office.

         “Stetson, there’s something you need to know about the older women in the burg. They love to bake and they love company.  Stephanie, Amanda and Francine probably ended up being talked into staying for something that had just been taken ‘fresh out of the oven.’  And I know Stephanie well enough to know that she can’t refuse a freshly baked dessert, it’s a physical impossibility for her.” Starting to get dizzy watching Lee walking back and forth, Joe moved to stand in front of the agent, effectively blocking his path. “Besides, if something had happened to them, my phone and pager would be ringing non-stop.”

         Lee stopped just a few feet from Morelli and gave him a questioning gaze. “What do you mean?”

         Joe chuckled. “Stephanie has a habit of getting herself into a lot of interesting situations, usually as a result of something she inadvertently did.  The cops and emergency personnel, who are called to the scene, automatically contact me the minute they get the call.  My phone hasn’t rung once, which means everything is fine, so please stop pacing, you’re making me edgy.”

         Lee let out a deep breath and moved over to the small worn couch in the outer office.  “Sorry, it’s just with everything we found out today regarding Veranos and his connections, I don’t like my…fiancée out there on her own, especially if what your sources told you was true and Veranos pulled up shop in D.C. because he received a tip that the authorities, meaning us, were on to him.”

         “Amanda’s not alone, she’s got Francine with her, and she’s armed, right?” Joe moved over and leaned against Lula’s desk. “Besides, isn’t Amanda a trained agent too?”

         Lee ran his hand through his hair and nodded. “Yes, but like Stephanie, Amanda has this gift for getting herself into trouble, despite her training, and Francine’s head isn’t really in the game right now.”

         Connie cleared her throat. “You can both relax now.  They just pulled up and are getting out of Stephanie’s car now.” She motioned towards the window with one slender, well-manicured finger. “And they've brought lunch… and Lula too.” She shook her head in mild disgust. “She comes and goes as she pleases, and never manages to file anything at all, though amazingly enough she does manage to find the right file when I need it.”

         “Why do you keep her on then?” Lee asked with mild curiosity.

         Connie shrugged. “She may not be the best file clerk, but she definitely helps keep Vinnie in line.”

         Amanda smiled as she stepped into the office. She resisted the urge to whisper an ‘I told you so’ to Francine.  One look at her husband’s face and she knew that he had been pacing and extremely worried that they hadn’t arrived back sooner. “Sorry it took us so long…”

         Lee had risen to his feet and had approached his wife the minute all the women had entered the small outer office. “What did take you so long?”

         Stephanie placed a big bucket of Cluck-in-a-Bucket fried chicken on Connie’s desk. “Mrs. Adams had just pulled a fresh batch of muffins out of the oven,” she took a napkin from the stack and then proceeded to dig out a chicken leg from the bucket. “She insisted that we have a few.”

         Lee ignored the knowing smile on Morelli’s face and looked at his wife. “You could have called to tell us you were running late.”

         “I’ll make sure she checks in with you every fifteen minutes from now on.” Francine commented acidly as she brushed past Lee and went to sit on the office couch. “But first I’d need to get the number for the ‘me caveman’ hotline.”

         Lula glanced over at Lee as she placed the second bucket of chicken down on her desk. “I think I have an old loin cloth in my closet.  Props from when I used to be a ‘ho. I’m not ashamed of my previous profession, a girl’s gotta do what she’s gotta do to get by. Anyways, I may have given up that line of work, but I haven’t given up finding a good looking man to take back to my place and sometimes I even find one who likes to play dress up.  Don’t hurt none to keep that stuff.” She looked the federal agent up and down and licked her lips. “You’d look mighty fine in something like that. We could probably find something for you to use as a club, too.”

         Lee glanced over at his wife and noticed the slightly bemused expression her face.  He could see that she was looking him over as well, and wondered if she was imagining him in nothing but a loincloth. He also caught the hint of annoyance in her eyes and knew that he was going to get an earful later, when everyone was out of earshot, and he was thankful that she didn’t start in on him now. “So, what did you find out from Mrs. Adams? Has she seen her grandson recently?”

         Amanda walked over to Connie’s desk and pulled out a chicken wing.  She then turned and leaned against the edge of the desk. “She claims that she hasn’t seen or heard from him in months.  She was however, very hurt to know that she had another great-grandson out there who she’s never met. I think that’s what upsets her more than the fact that she lost the house she lived in since she married Benjamin’s grandfather.  Poor woman.  Grandma Mazur was right though, Mrs. Adams did just send her grandson a birthday card. She said didn’t have an address for him, just sent it to a local P.O. Box number.  Apparently Benjamin told her that he’s arranged for his mail to be forwarded, so,” she pulled out a piece of paper from her purse. “We figured we would pass this over to Ranger and have him look into it.” She caught the raise of her husband’s eyebrow and shook her head. “Ranger’s local, the Agency would have to jump through hoops to deal with the post office here in Trenton.”

         Lee crossed his arms and stared questioningly at his wife. “Wait a minute, you said Mrs. Adams claims that she hasn’t seen Benjamin. You don’t believe her do you?”

         “Miss ‘I can read people like an open book’ thinks that Mrs. Adams wasn’t being entirely truthful,” Francine shrugged her shoulders, “I for one think the old broad would jump at the chance to turn her grandson in. I know I would, especially if he had me evicted from my own house.”

         “Francine,” Amanda shook her head in mild disbelief, “Mrs. Adams practically raised Benjamin after his mother disappeared.  You heard what she said, that her son, Benjamin’s father, spent so much time getting divorced and remarried that she felt Benjamin needed a constant mother in his life, and spent as much time with her grandson as she could.  He’s very much like a son to her, and being a mother myself, if it were my son, I don’t think I’d be so quick to turn him over to the authorities.”

         “Why do you think Benjamin’s granny wasn’t telling the truth?” Lula asked, shaking a drumstick in Amanda’s direction.

         “It was something very subtle, really.” Amanda picked up a napkin and then wiped up a piece of breading that had fallen on Connie’s desk. “When we asked her if she’d seen or heard from him, instead of answering us, she changed the subject, asking us if we wanted any more to drink. Then when Stephanie asked her again, she replied that she had received an Easter card from him.”

         “Seems to me she hasn’t really heard from him, then.” Lula shrugged and dug another drumstick out of the bucket of chicken in front of her.  She then picked up the bucket and offered some to the blonde agent.

         Francine shook her head and glared at Lula. “I told you back at that Clucky-Lucky joint that I don’t eat fried food.”

         Lula shrugged indifferently and then turned towards Lee.  “How about you handsome, you don’t have near enough meat on your bones.”  She asked as she tried to pass the bucket to him.

         Lee looked into the bucket and although his stomach had been grumbling earlier, one look at the greasy chicken made him slightly ill as he suddenly remembered a night out with his two stepsons not too long ago.  What had started out as just a fun night out, with dinner and a movie had ended with a bad case of heartburn, which he blamed fully on the greasy burgers and fries he’d eaten way too much of.  He admitted that it was entirely his own fault that he had to drink half a bottle of Pepto Bismol that night, all because he had to show off by trying to keep up with his stepsons, forgetting that they had much younger metabolisms.  He shook his head and waived the offered bucket away. “I’ll pass, but thanks anyway.”

         “Just means more for me.” Lula placed the bucket back on her desk and grinned as she got ready to bite into her piece. “Don’t say I didn’t offer when it’s all gone and your suddenly starving.”

         “Amanda’s right about Mrs. Adams not being totally honest with us.” Stephanie had been pacing back and forth during the discussion, and stopped, glancing over at the brunette. “I’ve questioned enough people now, and I’ve learned to pick up the subtle signs, too.  Mrs. Adams asking us if we wanted more to drink wasn’t so much avoidance of the original question, as it was something that bought her more time to phrase a proper response.  Then when she responded about the Easter card, she didn’t really say that she hadn’t seen him recently, only that she had heard from him, and who doesn’t receive greetings from loved ones at the holidays?”

         Lee knew his wife’s intuitions were usually right on the money and having the young bounty hunter confirm her suspicions, he really had no reason to doubt her, not that he would have anyway. “Okay, so we suspect Mrs. Adams isn’t being entirely truthful, is that all you got out of your visit?”

         “Basically, that and a few extra pounds.” Stephanie chuckled. “Mrs. Adam’s makes better muffins than the Tasty Pastry. She wouldn’t let us leave till she’d given us a care package.” At Joe’s questioning gaze, she shrugged. “Left it in the car.”

         “So what’s our next step? I’ll concede that Mrs. Adams has most likely heard from her no-good grandson,” Francine looked from Stephanie to Lee. “Do we set up surveillance on an old lady, on the off chance that she leads us to him?”

         Lee shrugged. “I don’t think we need to go that far.  What we probably need to find out is her regular daily routine.”

         “That shouldn’t be a problem.” Ranger commented as he leaned against the doorframe of the exterior door.

         “Holy crap!” Lula spat out the piece of chicken she was eating and spun around to stare at Ranger. “When you gonna stop sneaking up on people…and where did you come from? I never even heard the door open.” She glanced over at Connie. “You see him come in?”

         Connie shook her head. “Nope.  But that’s why Vinnie keeps him on the payroll. If he can sneak up on a bunch of federal agents, imagine what he does to the bad guys.”

         “I think we’re getting off track and I do need to get back to the work soon.” Joe chucked his cleaned-off chicken bones into the trashcan and looked over at Ranger. “Has Rangeman suddenly started stalking old ladies?”

         “I had my research guy run another check on Adams.” Ranger watched Stephanie take a piece of chicken from the bucket and shook his head ever so slightly.  How anyone could eat something that greasy and unhealthy was beyond him.  “Among the things he turned up was a report on Mrs. Adam’s daily routine that the FBI filed after Benjamin skipped town.”
         “I doubt that report’s very accurate anymore.” Francine looked directly at Ranger. “He skipped town like four months ago.”

         Stephanie shook her head. “She’s a woman of the burg, her routine is pretty much going to be the same. Trust me,” she glanced over at the blonde, “my grandma pretty much does the same thing every week.  Her routine doesn’t vary too much, unless someone dies and they hold a daytime viewing.”

         “Okay, fine, so she’s most likely a creature of habit. We still have to arrange some sort of twenty-four hour surveillance.” Francine looked over at her fellow agents.

         “Not necessarily.” Amanda looked first at Lee and then at Ranger. “If we can figure out which days she usually runs errands, those are most likely going to be the days or times that she might meet up with her grandson. Then all we have to do is concentrate on those times.”

         “You said you do security work,” Lee turned his attention to Ranger, “I don’t suppose you have access to a few listening devices?”

         “We’ve got a few bugs back at the office. I’ll get one of my guys to plant a few.” Ranger nodded slightly. “I like the way you’re thinking.  If we can listen in, we don’t really need to watch her. If Adams makes contact in any way, we should be able to find out. I’ll have my guys do the monitoring, and keep you posted on what we find out.”

         Amanda walked towards Ranger, holding out the slip of paper with the PO Box number on it. “Mrs. Adams gave us this PO Box number for Benjamin.  She said he told her that he was having his mail forwarded.  Would you mind having one of your men run a check on it?”

         Ranger nodded as he accepted the paper from Amanda. “Shouldn’t be a problem.  Either I or one of my men’ll call Stephanie’s cell if anything turns up.” He then turned towards Connie. “Vinnie said he had a skip he wanted me to bring in.”

         Connie nodded and handed him a file. “Vinnie posted a $100,000 bond on this one.  Arrested on charges of raping his girlfriend. He’s also got a history of spousal abuse. Why Vinnie bothers to post bail for scumbags like this one is beyond me?  They almost never appear for their court dates and then Vinnie ends up sweating until they’re reprocessed.”

         Ranger opened the folder and scanned the contents. “I take it he wants this guy found yesterday.” When Connie nodded, he turned to head back out of the office.  He glanced around the room once. “Call if you need me.” As he passed his protégé, he brushed her shoulder with his hand. Their eyes locked briefly and he tilted his head ever so slightly. “Babe.” Then as silently as he had entered the office, he left it.

         Stephanie chanced a quick glance in Joe’s direction and sure enough, just as she had suspected, his hands were clenched and if he and Ranger didn’t already have some sort of understanding between the two of them, he might just have gone running after the bounty hunter and beaten the crap out of him.  She mentally shook her head.  She wasn’t used to someone being so territorial about her.  “So what next?” She looked around at the three agents.

         “Well, Ranger’s taken care of Mrs. Adams, but I refuse to sit around and just wait for Benjamin to possibly make contact with his grandmother.” Francine stared at Stephanie. “You said something about some of Benjamin’s old friends...”

         Stephanie tossed the remains of her chicken in the trashcan then moved over to Lula’s desk.  “I know from when we tried to track him down before that he spent a lot of time at a bar on the other side of town. It’s not the nicest place, but people flock there because everyone pretty much minds their own business.  Plus, word on the street is that the owner isn’t above helping out a few friends here and there, providing them with places to stay, in exchange for money. Could be that he’s helping to ‘hide’ Benjamin.”

         “Which bar are you talking about?” Joe had a sinking feeling he knew which bar she was referring to, and had an even stronger feeling he wasn’t going to like the answer.

         “Pete’s down near Stark Street.” Stephanie braced herself for the Morelli stubbornness that she knew was about to explode any second now.

         “Are you crazy?” Joe raised his arms in the air. “Pete’s isn’t just some bar, it’s owned by the Grizolli’s.  Pete hides associates of the mob.  You can’t just go in there and start asking questions about Adams.”

         “We did it before, so we can do it again.” Stephanie crossed her arms and stared at Joe.  She was trying very hard to resist the urge to stick her tongue out. Then, recognizing the look on his face as one she’d seen quite a few times in the past when she was getting a little too close to Joe’s work, she narrowed her eyes. “Wait a minute. Let me guess, this sudden aversion to me going to Pete’s has something to do with last night’s stake out, doesn’t it?”

         Joe took two quick steps and grabbing Stephanie’s arm, pulled her out of earshot of everyone else. “Yes, but I don’t really need to let everyone in this office know my business. Stay away from Pete’s.”

         Stephanie did not enjoy being bullied and yanked her arm out of Joe’s grasp.  “Why, are you secretly meeting with Terry Gilman there?” She asked, trying her best to keep the jealousy from her voice.

         “Jesus, Stephanie.” Joe hissed through clenched teeth. “Why do you always have to bring her back into this?”

         “Because whenever you order me to do something that has to do with one of your mob related cases, Terry Gilman and her underwear aren’t far away.” Stephanie began turning away from Joe.  Terry Gilman was tall, blonde and perfect, who always carried a gun and probably wasn’t afraid to use it either.

         Joe gently grabbed Stephanie’s arm and forced her to look at him. “Terry and I haven’t been together since high school…let it rest already.  It’s not my fault that my work keeps throwing us together.  You have to learn to start trusting me.”

         Stephanie looked up at the ceiling and sighed. “I do, it’s just that Terry Gilman always gets what she wants, and I saw the way she was staring at you during your sister’s wedding.  You can’t deny the fact that she wants you, it’s written on her face every time she looks at you. You can’t blame me for being suspicious; everywhere I go I come face-to-face with another rumor about the two of you that’s tearing around the burg like a tornado.”

         “Oooh, I’m so glad I arrived when I did. If I hadn’t, I’d have missed all this entertainment.” Lula picked up her bucket of chicken and walked over to Connie’s desk. “It’s better than cable.” She leaned closer to the office manager, “who do you think’s gonna win, Officer Hottie or Stephanie?”

         Connie smiled and whispered, “My money’s on Officer Hottie, but Steph’s not going down without a fight.”

         “That’s all they are, Cupcake, rumors.  So stop listening to them,” Joe softened his tone and placed a kiss on Stephanie’s forehead, “and trust in me, please. And stay away from Pete’s. I’ve got enough to worry about with this case I’m working on, and I don’t need to add you to the mix.  If you promise to stay far away from Pete’s, I promise to do some asking around for you?”

         Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll stay away from Pete’s…”

         “Guess Officer Hottie won that round.” Lula shook her head and took out another drumstick from her bucket.

         Stephanie ignored Lula and kept her gaze focused on Joe. “But…only if you swear that you’ll pass on every scrap of information you find out.”  She gave him a knowing look. “I know you, Joe, you have a tendency to skim over the more important aspects and that’s how I end up in the middle of things you don’t want me in the middle of. In fact,” she scrunched up her nose at him, “I want you to swear that if you leave anything out, I can ask Grandma Bella to put the ‘eye’ on you.”

         Joe laughed. “I promise, but I’m not swearing to that, ’cause it won’t ever happen.  I’m Grandma Bella’s favorite grandson.”

         “Fine, then if you don’t come through to my satisfaction, you can forget about having sex for a month.” Stephanie crossed her arms and smiled.

         “That’s not much of a threat, Cupcake,” Joe raised his eyebrows slightly and shook his head, “considering the fact that it’s been close to four times that long since you stopped by, the boys have begun to forget what sex is.”

         Amanda had inched a little closer to where Joe and Stephanie were talking.  She could tell that their conversation wasn’t getting the rest of them anywhere, and it was delving into matters she felt were better discussed in a more private place, without so many ears.  “I don’t mean to intrude, but Stephanie will be with three highly trained agents, and if going to Pete’s will help us we track down Benjamin…”

         Joe shook his head. “Trust me, Pete’s is not the place that any self-respecting woman goes to.” He glanced briefly over at Lee hoping the other man would jump in and help get this situation back under control.  He wasn’t a begging man, but he might have to make an exception soon if things didn’t turn around quickly.

         Lee had caught the look on Morelli’s face and knew that he really didn’t want Stephanie anywhere near Pete’s, especially after what they’d found out at the station with regards to Veranos. “How about a compromise?” He walked over and stood next to his wife. “What if I go there and nose around a little, while you,” he turned to look at Amanda, “Stephanie and Francine go and talk to Adam’s ex-wife, the one who turned him in.  That way we cover more ground than before.”

         “Of course the ex-wife, now why didn’t I think of that?” Stephanie mentally slapped her forehead. “Though, I’m not sure if she’s still living in the old house, she might have sold everything and moved away.”

         Joe shook his head. “Actually, Lee did a little searching at the station and found out that she hasn’t moved.  To tell you the truth, if I lived in that neighborhood, I wouldn’t want to give it up either. The former Mrs. Benjamin Adams is living the high life, that’s for sure.”

         Amanda had picked up on her husband’s subtle cue.  Joe must be working on something highly sensitive not to want Stephanie around and for some reason he had confided in Lee.  There was no other explanation for her husband, who had most likely spent the better part of the last half hour pacing this small office waiting for them to come back from Benjamin’s grandmother’s house, to change his tune so quickly and willingly let the women go off on their own, again. “I guess that makes the most sense.  How far is Seaside Heights from here?”

         “Just about an hour, give or take.” Stephanie glanced over at the brunette. “Why?”

         “Because I remember from what we discovered in Adams’ file, the reason he got caught was because Eleanor Adams got suspicious and followed her husband and found out he had another wife in Seaside Heights.  We could make a trip to the beach after we talk to Eleanor Adams.”  Amanda turned towards her husband. “I don’t suppose the research you did down at the station turned anything up on her, did it?”

         Lee nodded. “Actually I discovered that his fourth wife, Mrs. Marie Benton, is still living in Seaside Heights, but sold the house she and Adams bought together, shortly after he skipped bail. Apparently, without her husband to support her, she didn’t have the means to hold onto the house.”

         “Great, now that we have a plan, how about we stop talking about it and get back out on the street?” Francine rose from the couch and approached the two couples. “The sooner we find Adams, the sooner we can get the heck out of this wonderful vacation spot.”

         “Francine…”

         “No, Lee.” Francine put a hand up to ward off any further comments from her friend. “You and Amanda may be enjoying this time away from everyone else, but I have a life back home, that I’d really like to get back to.”

         “Francine, that was uncalled for.” Amanda stepped between her husband and their friend. “In case you’ve forgotten, we have a wedding planned which is supposed to take place next weekend.  If anyone wants all of this wrapped up sooner rather than later, it’s us. Now it’s time you stopped behaving like the jilted fiancée and started acting like an agent.” Placing a friendly hand on the blonde’s shoulder, she lowered her voice. “I know you're hurting, and no-one would expect you to be anything but, and although under normal circumstances I wouldn’t recommend that anyone bottle up their feelings, but I think in this case, you're just going to have to.  Revenge might be more dangerous than Adams, and if you give into it someone might just get physically hurt.”

         “She’s right Francine. It’s time to stop sulking.” Lee moved to stand behind his wife, and looked at his friend.

         Francine shrugged Amanda’s hand off and crossed her arms. “You’re a fine one to talk Lee. I could bring up a number of instances where you let the need for vengeance rule your actions. But I’ll be the bigger person and not mention them in present company.”

         Stephanie could see that things were getting way out of hand. “Well, since everyone’s eaten lunch, we’ve taken care of that.  How about we all pile into my Civic and head on over to see Mrs. Benjamin Adams?”

         “Don’t forget me. I’m goin’ with you. You may need an extra able bodied woman around to brow-beat Mrs. Adams into talking.” Lula tossed her now-empty chicken bucket in the trash and moved over to her desk to grab her purse.

         Stephanie let out an exaggerated sigh. She knew better than to try and talk Lula out of coming. “Fine, you can come, but there will be no brow-beating.”

         Joe tried to catch Stephanie’s gaze “I think you should take the Buick.”

         Stephanie turned towards Joe and almost laughed out loud. “You can’t be serious.”

         Joe nodded. “Very serious.  You’re giving three people a ride. The Buick would be more comfortable for everyone.”

         “Ha!” Stephanie narrowed her eyes at Joe. “That’s not why you want me to take Big Blue and you know it.” She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “What’s going on, Joe?  First you don’t want me going near Pete’s, and now you want me to take the pimp-mobile. What aren’t you telling me?”

         Joe let out a long sigh. “I just think it would be safer for you to take the Buick. You don’t have the best track record when it comes to cars, and your Uncle’s Buick is totally indestructible.”

         Lula moved over to Connie’s desk and sat on the edge. “Officer Hottie versus Bombshell Bounty Hunter round two.”

         Stephanie ignored her friend and stared at Joe.  He had put on his cop face which could only mean one thing, he was definitely hiding something from her. “Fine, don’t tell me what’s really going on.  And I’m telling you this once and only once, I’m not taking Big Blue and that’s final.   First, there’s no reason for me to leave my Civic behind, especially when we can all fit in that.  Second, I don’t have any homicidal maniacs after me, that I know of,” she raised her eyebrows questioningly at her so-called-boyfriend, “and third, that car stands out like a sore thumb.  We’re going to a very upscale part of Trenton and all the neighbors would call the cops thinking some pimp was trying to drum up business.” Tired of looking at Joe’s unwavering expression, Stephanie glanced around the room and noticed the curious looks on the three agent’s faces.  “My great-uncle Sandor left my grandmother a ’53 Buick.  It’s powder blue and white…”

         “And belongs on Stark Street where all the pimps and ho’s hang out.” Lula stood up and began moving towards the door. “All this arguing is getting us nowhere and there’s a woman waiting to be questioned.”

         “I’m pretty sure Benjamin’s second wife has no idea that we’re coming.” Amanda smiled warmly at Stephanie’s friend and then turned towards Lee. “She doesn’t know we’re coming does she?” Her husband shook his head and she looked over in Stephanie and Joe’s direction. “But I think Lula’s right, we aren’t accomplishing anything standing around here arguing.”

         “In the interest of getting everyone moving, how about I suggest an alternative.” Lee pulled out his car keys. “Since the Civic seems to be an issue, and the Buick does sound like it would turn too many heads in the neighborhood you need to go to, how about if Stephanie and Amanda go in my car? Amanda can drive, especially since it sounds like I really don’t want to be driving my car to the area where Pete’s is located,” he glanced briefly over at Joe, then turned towards Francine, “and Lula can ride with Francine.”

         Lula shook her head as she pushed the front door open, “I gots a better idea.  How about I play chauffeur to the blonde.  I know the area a lot better than she does and I hate having to tell people where to go; it’s easier if I drive. Plus, my car has a backseat, just in case we find our man and want to haul his ass back to jail.” She turned towards Francine. “I know a couple of alleys we could stop at on the way to the big house, if we do find him.” She shook her head slightly at the raised eyebrows that had instantly gone up around her. “What? I was just thinking that Blondie might want to exact some revenge before turning him over to the cops.” She shrugged, then turned and headed outside.

         Stephanie rolled her eyes and sighed; Lula would never change, and she didn’t think she really wanted her friend to. Life might get too dull if Lula suddenly quieted down.  She glanced around the room and then out the glass, noticing that her over-eager friend was already at her car. “Now that we’ve got all the details ironed out, we should definitely get moving.” She smirked at Joe then started to follow Lula out the door.  She stopped when she felt Joe’s hand on her arm and turned to look at him.

         “Cupcake, just promise me you’ll be careful.” Joe softened his features when she nodded and placed a kiss on her forehead.

         “You be careful too.” Stephanie whispered before looking over at Francine.  “Guess we shouldn’t keep Lula waiting too long. If she gets impatient enough, she’ll drive over to Mrs. Adams’ without us.” She watched the blonde nod and then headed for the door, with Francine right behind her.

         Amanda reached out to take the keys from her husband, but grabbed his hand and pulled him with her towards the door. “What was that all about?” She whispered once Stephanie and Francine were outside, and they were far enough away to avoid being overheard.

         “I promise to fill you in more tonight, when we’re alone.” Lee leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on his wife’s lips. He pulled away slightly and looked into Amanda’s eyes. “But the short version is that there might be a link between Morelli’s current case and Veranos.  Morelli says that this Pete’s is apparently a big meeting place for shop talk.”

         Amanda’s eyes widened and she lowered her voice even more. “Shop? As in the mob?”

         Lee nodded. “Yes. I’ve been mulling over the idea of going down there and introducing myself as a potential buyer for some weapons that might be on the market, ever since Joe filled me in on his case back at the station.  Since the need to split up again was sort of forced up on us, I figure it’s the perfect excuse to do some Agency-related work.” He gave her a devilish grin. “I’m suddenly in the mood to bring Ricky Joe Jackson out of hiding.”

         Amanda laughed. “Fine, just as long as Ricky Joe stays back at the bar, ’cause if I remember correctly sex with Ricky was always a huge disappointment.” She smiled and kissed him. “Be careful.”

         Lee placed the keys in his wife’s hands. “You too. I love you.”

         “I love you too.” Amanda stepped away from Lee and moved towards the door.  She could see Francine and Stephanie impatiently standing near the ’Vette and laughed to herself.  She knew that Francine was anxious to go, but that her friend was also not looking forward to riding, alone, with Lula.  Smiling, she opened the door and glanced back towards Joe. “Take care of him, and I’ll keep a close watch on Stephanie.”  She then stepped outside and made her way over to Lee’s car.

 

Chapter 8 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 8

         “Once you make the turn, you’ll want to stay on Hamilton for a while.” Stephanie watched Amanda nod her head. “I’ll give you some warning before we have to turn, but you’ll know we’re getting close, all the houses start to look richer.”

         “Can I ask you a personal question?” Amanda asked as she maneuvered the ’Vette out onto Hamilton.

         “Let me guess, you’re going to ask me about Joe, right?” Stephanie leaned her head against the headrest and turned to look at Amanda.

         Amanda let out a gentle laugh. “Yes, actually. I can’t help but notice the tension that radiates off of the two of you whenever you’re together.”

         “I guess that’s a good way of putting it.” Stephanie laughed. “We’ve known each other a long time, and in some way have been attracted to each other since we were kids.  You aren’t wrong, though, there’s definitely a lot of tension between us.  It’s mostly stubbornness, with a lot of sexual tension.   We have great sex, but while Joe may be happy with just having sex, I think I want more out of it, yet I’m not sure I’m ready for that life long commitment.” She let out a long sigh. ”Amanda, have you ever lusted after two guys, who both wanted you.  One dangerous in a mysterious way, the other dangerous to the health of my future… meaning I could end up married to him, with kids in tow, ruining both our lives forever.  And both are well built, good looking and make you weak at the knees.”

         Amanda smiled knowingly. “Would Ranger be one of the men in question?” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Stephanie nod. “I can see where that could be confusing. Especially if both of them seem to have feelings for you.”

         Stephanie turned her full attention on the brunette in the driver’s seat. “What do you mean?”  She knew that there was some sort of unspoken chemistry radiating between her and Ranger, but she didn’t realize that others could see it too.  If Amanda, someone who was practically a stranger, could sense it, then Joe definitely could.

         “I noticed the way Ranger was looking at you at dinner last night.” Pulling to a stop at a red light, Amanda glanced over at Stephanie. “He may be the strong silent type, but when love’s involved, men have a tendency to wear their hearts on their sleeves, whether they realize they’re doing it or not.”

         “You think Ranger loves me?” Stephanie’s eyes grew wide as she thought about the implications of that one statement.

         Amanda shrugged her shoulders slightly. “There are many different types of love and I don’t really know Ranger at all, so I can’t say for sure that he loves you, but I can tell that he cares very deeply for you.” When the light changed back to green, she turned her attention back to the road and spoke in a more concerned tone, “Stephanie, are you afraid of love?”

         “I don’t think I’d go that far, but I will admit that I’m afraid of becoming like my mom.  I love her dearly, but she’s like most every other woman in the burg.  Even my best friend is happily married with a litter of kids.” Stephanie turned her attention out the window, watching the familiar duplexes pass by. “They enjoy being the little woman who cooks, cleans and raises the kids.  Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to be a housewife, I’m just not sure it’s what I want to turn out to be.  Maybe some day, I’ll want to have kids of my own, but for now I’m content to just worry about taking care of me and my hamster, Rex.  Hell, even on a good day I have hard time just taking care of myself. ”

         “Having kids doesn’t ruin your life, you know.” Amanda smiled tenderly as she thought of her own two boys. “They actually make your life more fulfilled. I have two teenage boys and I know my life wouldn’t be the same without them.”

         “I didn’t really mean that the way it came out.” Stephanie gave a resigned sigh. “I guess I’m afraid of losing who I am, and I’m not even sure if I know what that is, anymore.  The only thing I know for sure is that I love my independence and I’m afraid that if I get married, especially to Joe, I’ll lose that forever. You said you have two teenage boys?” When the brunette nodded, she looked quizzically at her companion.  Amanda seemed like a very sensible woman, not someone who would have children out of wedlock. “They aren’t Lee’s are they? I don’t mean to pry, but if you and Lee are engaged…”

         Amanda laughed. “No, they aren’t Lee’s.  Lee and I have only known each other for 6 years.  I was married once before.”

         “Did it end badly?” Stephanie then mentally slapped herself on the head. “I’m sorry, that was kind of insensitive of me.”

         Amanda shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. I don’t mind talking about my marriage to Joe.” She laughed. “Now I know why Lee was insisting that he and I refer to your Joe as Morelli. It is kind of awkward.  My ex-husband, Joe, and I are still very good friends.  We got married straight out of college. We were young, and I put my career on hold when Phillip and Jamie were born, but Joe kept going.  He’s a lawyer, but he always yearned to do something important, not just defend people in a court of law.  He got offered a job overseas in Estoccia when the boys were barely out of diapers. I didn’t want to raise them in a foreign country, I wanted to give them a real home. So Joe went to Estoccia and I stayed behind to be a stay-at-home mom.”

         “Do you regret giving up your career for your kids?” Stephanie watched Amanda’s face, as the brunette kept her eyes on the road ahead.

         “My only regret is that Joe and I couldn’t make our marriage work for the boys’ sakes.” Amanda smiled and sighed. “But if I were to be completely honest, in some small way I’m not really disappointed that Joe and I didn’t last, because if he and I were still together, I wouldn’t have met Lee.” She sighed and chuckled lightly. “Then again, maybe I would have. I truly believe that fate brought us together, and that it would have brought us together no matter what obstacles had stood in our path.”  She glanced briefly over at Stephanie. “You sound like you have a few regrets of your own. I don’t mean to pry, but I have a feeling that there’s something you wish you had that you don’t.”

         Stephanie shrugged her shoulders. “I guess I regret marrying the first guy I thought I was in love with.”  She let out a small laugh. “I guess we are more alike than I thought.  I was married to a lawyer, too, only mine didn’t last a whole year.”

         “High school sweetheart?” Amanda asked as she kept her eyes on the rearview mirror and the red Firebird behind them.  She wasn’t concerned that Lula would lose them; she was afraid that Francine might try strangling Lula and cause the other car to veer off the road.

         “No, but I thought he was my first true love.” Stephanie smiled ruefully. “My marriage, unlike yours, did not end on a good note.  I found him bare-assed on our brand new dining room table, humping my arch-nemesis.  I guess you could say my relationship with Dickie is as infamous around here as my bounty hunter career.”

         “Ah, now I think things are beginning to make a little more sense. I don’t believe that you’re afraid of having a family of your own, I think you’re afraid that you won’t ever find the right person to settle down with.” Amanda nodded understandingly. “If you don’t let yourself take a chance on love, you may end up letting the right person slip away.”

         “I think I’m more afraid of making the wrong choice.  What if I settle for one, and he turns out to be the wrong choice? And I’m not even sure I have a chance with Ranger, and if I do, I’m not sure I really want to go down that path. Ranger’s like the forbidden fruit. I wouldn’t mind sinking my teeth into it, but I’m kind of scared of what I might find out if I do. Does that make sense?” She glanced over at the brunette and then realized that they were getting close to their destination. “Oh, you’re going to want to make the next left.” Stephanie glanced over at Amanda. “I think Joe is the right one for me, and if what you said about fate is true, then fate definitely brought us back together, but he sometimes tries too hard to get me to change. I know he does it because he loves me, and is worried about me…my career choice isn’t exactly the safest.”

         Amanda turned the ’Vette onto the next street and then reached over and patted the younger woman’s hand. “Sometimes you have to trust your heart to make the right choice for you.  And you’ll know you’ve made the right choice because everything will just fall into place.  But, when you finally make your choice, you need to make sure that you don’t let yourself lose your sense of self, which will further emphasize that you chose the right man, because he’ll respect you for who you are, and not try and force you to become something that you’re not, and if he tries, then you just put your foot down.  Don’t let yourself be changed, if you don’t want to be.”  She put her hand back on the steering wheel. “Just because you get married, and even have kids, doesn’t mean you have to lose sight of who you are.  Don’t constantly put others’ needs ahead of your own.” She sighed regretfully. “I learned that the hard way.  During my first marriage, even though I decided to stay in the States, I still put my needs on the back burner for Joe and for my boys.  Now, with Lee, I’ve been given a second chance.”

         “And you’re sure you’ve made the right decision?” Stephanie chuckled. “I guess that’s a silly question, you two are the perfect couple. I’ve seen the way you guys look at each other, and how you seem to know what the other’s thinking.  You and Lee have a real partnership on two levels. Not only are you getting married to each other, but you work together. It must be nice to have a man who loves you and doesn’t object to your career choice.”

         Amanda laughed. “Don’t be too quick to judge on that score.  He did his best to keep me out of the spy business for a very long time. I just showed him I refused to be pushed aside, and that I planned on sticking around. Like I said, I’d decided I wasn’t going to let my own wants and needs play second fiddle to anyone.  I knew what I wanted to do, and I went for it.  I won’t lie to you, it’s not always easy.  There will be arguments, but making up can be fun,” a small reminiscent smile played on her lips. “And if the person you’re with truly loves you, they’ll realize that they can’t keep you in a cocoon and that they need to let you fly in order to get you to stay.  You can’t be an effective team if there isn’t an equal amount of give and take.  If you end up doing all the giving, then you will definitely lose yourself.  One of the biggest benefits of getting married is becoming a team. It can get very lonely doing things by yourself.”

         “Make the next right onto Davenport.” Stephanie pointed out the front window and then sighed as she brought her hand back down. “I hear everything you’re saying, and I truly appreciate it, but how can you be an effective team if your partner is a cop, and you can’t help him in his work, and your work and his constantly cross paths, but he keeps trying to keep you safe by not telling you things, and you end up stumbling into it anyway?” Her mind wandered to Ranger.  Now there was a man who not only was she extremely attracted to, but who also didn’t mind her working, in fact he seemed to enjoy having her come along on some of his FTA captures.  Granted he disappeared on secret missions all the time, but when he was in town, and he wasn’t laughing at her because of some comical mishap, he did treat her like an equal…almost. She let out a frustrated groan. “Maybe I’ll move away and start over, change my name like Benjamin did, and speaking of which, his ex-wife’s house is number 232, just up there on the right.”

         “I’m not saying that you should make Joe change who he is, but if you really want a relationship with him to work, you’ll have to keep putting your foot down until you make him realize that if he wants to keep you, he can’t try and change you. As for whether or not to choose between Ranger and Joe, I really can’t advise you on that one…just don’t marry them both.” Amanda smiled as she pulled the car up to the curb in front of the house Stephanie had just indicated. Putting the ’Vette in park, she turned the ignition off and removed the keys.  “Since you know this area better than we do, I’ll let you take the lead in questioning Mrs. Adams.”

         “Are you sure?” Stephanie asked as she unbuckled her seat belt and began opening her door.

         Amanda reached out and gently grabbed Stephanie’s arm. “I’m positive. I have another reason too, if I let you handle the questioning, I can keep a closer watch on Francine. I don’t want her doing anything irrational, and right now, she has every reason to be anything but rational.”

         Stephanie nodded. “I’ll do my best.” Climbing out of the sports car, she closed the door and then stood on the sidewalk, waiting for everyone else so they could approach Mrs. Adam’s front door together.  She had to agree that Amanda was probably right in wanting to keep an eye on Francine.  The blonde agent had definitely been running hot and cold all day, changing temperature without blinking an eye.  No sooner had that thought entered her mind then the passenger door to Lula’s Firebird swung open and Francine practically flew out of the car.  Amanda’s co-worker was definitely hot under the collar, and most likely not in the right frame of mind to lead any kind of questioning. She turned to look at Amanda, who had just reached the sidewalk and gave her an understanding smile.

         Francine marched over to Amanda. “Do not leave me alone with the ex-hooker, ever again.” She muttered between clenched teeth.

         “I couldn’t have been that bad.” Amanda gave her a sympathetic look.

         “It was worse.  Someone, I don’t care who, Lee, Joe or maybe even you, is going to owe me big time.” Francine then turned and began walking up the walkway towards Mrs. Adam’s front door, just as Lula reached the spot where they were standing.

         Stephanie quickly sprinted ahead of Francine. She wanted to make sure that the first face Benjamin Adams’ former wife saw was a friendly one, and not someone who looked like they were out for blood.  As soon as she reached the top of the stairs, she rang the doorbell and positioned herself directly in the middle of the doorway.  She didn’t have to wait long for someone to answer. She smiled politely as a very tall woman with jet black hair and green eyes opened the door. “Eleanor Adams?” She waited while the other woman nodded confirmation. “I’m Stephanie Plum, this is Amanda King and Francine Desmond, two federal agents…”

         Eleanor interrupted Stephanie with an ironic little laugh.  “I know you,” she smiled at the curly haired brunette, “you’re the bounty hunter who’s always in the papers...the one who set fire to that funeral home.”

         Stephanie nodded reluctantly and mentally rolled her eyes. “That’s me…but the funeral home wasn’t my fault.”

         Francine glanced over at Stephanie then at Mrs. Adams with a puzzled expression on her face. “Wait a minute, didn’t you two meet the last time you were looking for Benjamin?”

         Eleanor smiled and let out a sardonic chuckle. “Ah, so that’s what this little gathering is about, you’re here about my ex-husband.”

         Stephanie nodded. “Yes, would you mind if we came in and talked to you about him?”

         “Not at all, please, come in, I don’t want to give the neighbors any more gossip to talk about if we stand out here and talk where they can gawk.” Eleanor stepped back and allowed the four women to enter.  Once they were all inside, she closed the door. “I don’t know what new information I can give you that I didn’t tell the police four months ago. I haven’t seen the no good son-of-a-bitch since I had him arrested.  Please, have a seat and make yourselves comfortable.” She pointed towards the living room to the right.

         Francine moved over and sat down on one side of the brown leather couch. “I’m still confused,” she watched as Amanda sat down on one of the arm chairs and Lula plopped herself down at the other end of the sofa. “Wouldn’t you two have met four months ago when Stephanie was trying to track Benjamin down after he jumped bail?”

         Stephanie and Eleanor both shook their heads simultaneously.  “I never got a chance to question her the last time.” Stephanie glanced apologetically towards Francine.

         “Once I’d seen him being taken away by the cops, I had all the locks changed on the doors, just in case he managed to make bail, which he did.” Eleanor shook her head sadly. “Poor Polly.  I still keep in touch with her. She’s the sweetest lady I’ve ever met and did not deserve what that rotten SOB did to her.  Anyway,” she moved over and sat down on the empty arm chair, “I packed a bag, let the authorities know where to find me, assuring them I’d be back in time for Benjamin’s trial, and then I went to stay with my sister in New York City.  I needed to get away; there was just too much emotional baggage for me to deal with alone. I also didn’t want to be reachable should Benjamin decide to contact me to make bail.” She sighed and shook her head. “Maybe if I had, he would have used me for his one phone call, and I would have taken great pleasure in denying him his request, and he’d still be rotting in jail.”

         “Didn’t he know it was you who turned his skinny white ass in?” Lula leaned forward and stared at the ex-wife.

         Eleanor shook her head. “I don’t think he knew. I think he thought he’d been pulled over because someone snitched on him for what he had in his trunk, a business partner or someone.  I understand they found stolen guns. I really wish I’d paid closer attention to what he did; if I had I don’t think I would have stuck around long enough to find out he was married to two other woman.”

         Stephanie watched this woman with extreme interest.  Here was someone, who, like herself had been wronged by a member of the opposite sex, and aside from obviously hating the guy, she had managed to bounce back fairly unscathed.  Of course, her coloring and slight accent indicated that she was of Irish decent, and the Irish were known for being strong-willed.  She suddenly found herself quite envious of the other woman’s beauty.  Her eyelashes were naturally thick, which meant she didn’t have to bother spending hours applying mascara, and her skin had that natural tanned look.  “So, you really haven’t seen Benjamin lately?  Perhaps passed him on the street?”

         Eleanor shook her head. “No, I haven’t seen him, but if I had, you’d know it, because I’d probably be the one behind bars right now and he’d be lying in a big deep grave with hand marks around his neck from where I strangled him to death.” She then glanced around the room at the four women, her gaze coming to rest on Stephanie. “Why the sudden renewed interest in Benjamin?”

         “He made the mistake of proposing to a federal agent down in D.C., and then showed up in the wrong place under a different name. He was recognized by a colleague of said agent, and after a bit of investigating, his other aliases were discovered.” Amanda kept her eyes on Mrs. Adams, purposely avoiding looking at Francine. “We were in the process of apprehending him when he managed to escape.”

          “Go ahead and tell her the truth, Amanda.  Tell her that it’s all my fault that he’s not behind bars.” Francine gave her friend a cold, hard stare. “I know you’ve been dying to throw that in my face since the other night.”  She knew, deep down that her friend didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of her bitterness, but hearing Amanda speak of what happened with such professionalism, as if it hadn’t been personal, had triggered her anger all over again. Perhaps if she had ridden over here with Amanda or even Stephanie rather than Lula, then maybe she’d have been able to control herself better.  However, what little patience she’d had, had disappeared on the ride over here.  Lula probably figured that she was being helpful with her colorful comments about men and wronged women, but couldn’t have been farther from the truth.  Every time Lula opened her mouth and spoke, Francine had wanted to reach out and choke the other woman. 

         “Francine— ” Amanda glared chastisingly at the blonde.

         “You must be the agent Benjamin proposed to.” Eleanor looked at Francine with a sympathetic expression on her face. “What number wife would you have ended up being? The authorities tell me I was number two.”

         Reminding herself that she was here as an agent of the federal government, Francine took a deep breath and did her best to get her emotions back under control. “If my friends hadn’t gotten involved,” she glanced apologetically over towards Amanda, “I would have ended up being number five.  Oh, and I’m sorry to tell you this,” she commented in a business-like tone as she turned her gaze back on Eleanor, “but you were actually number three.   Wife number two lives near Baltimore, and wasn’t on the authorities radar when he was being investigated four months ago.”

         “Somehow, after all that I’ve learned about the man, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that I was number ten. It was interesting, though, to find out that I was the only one he married under his real name. Guess it’s because this is where he grew up, he had to use is real name. So,” Eleanor glanced around the room at the four women, her gaze falling to Stephanie, “what makes you think he’d come back here?  I mean, he may not have known at the time that I turned him, but I’m sure he’s found out by now, so I highly doubt he’d come knocking on my door.”

         Amanda shrugged her shoulders slightly. “We’re not sure where he’d go, and there’s the slight possibility that he might have another wife or alias that we weren’t able to find in the last background search we ran.  Since we knew that the original investigation took place here in Trenton, we figured it was the best place to start.”

         “Is there anything you can tell us about his habits, old haunts, even his job?” Stephanie knew that Francine would be anxious to get any kind of lead out of this woman, and even if they did share a common bond, she didn’t want to risk the blonde agent getting too riled up, and offending Eleanor.  Francine’s earlier outburst was a clear indication that the blonde’s patience was wearing very thin.

         Eleanor sighed and reluctantly shook her head no. “I’m afraid anything I can tell you probably wouldn’t be very helpful.  I thought he was an engineer.  He told me he worked for a firm in New Brunswick, and was constantly traveling to different sites all over the country.  Apparently, that was a big old lie, although,” she looked up at Amanda, her eyebrows furrowing, “the name was on his pay stubs, so maybe he really did work there.”
         “Could you tell us the name of the company? It might not hurt for us to check it out.” Amanda reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen.  She had a sneaky suspicion that Benjamin worked for a well-connected organization and that the name of the engineering firm would turn out to be a dummy corporation, a front for something bigger.

         Eleanor rose from her seat and walked over to the desk in the corner.  “I’ll do you one better. I have a few of his old pay stubs.” She opened the second drawer and pulled out slip from one of the files. She then walked over and handed the paper to Amanda. “It’s a really old one, so I don’t think I’ll need it back.”

         “This should be a big help, thank you.” Amanda put the slip in her purse then watched as Eleanor sat back down in her chair. “Is there anything else that you can tell us, anything that might seem minor to you, but might be something extremely helpful to us?”

         “What about why you decided to start following him? Did he come home smelling like cheap perfume and you figured he was cheatin’ on you?” Lula had been sitting back letting the others talk, but it was obvious that this woman needed a good memory jog. “I mean it’s not every day a wife wakes up and decides that she don’t trust her man no more, something had to spark your curiosity.”

         “Oh I remember exactly what happened as if it was just yesterday.” Eleanor nodded her head slowly and smirked. “I was tired of sitting around all day doing nothing.  All my friends have kids or jobs and they were always running around, they never had time to just hang out anymore. I told him that I wanted to get a part-time job. In fact, I had already put in my application at a few temp agencies.  One of the agencies called and Benjamin had answered the phone.  He went ballistic.  He seemed so open and gentle when I first met him, even in the early days of our marriage.  When we’d first met I was working for an insurance company, but shortly after we got married, he convinced me that he made enough money for both of us, and that I deserved to relax, be pampered and let him bring in the dough.  To be honest, I only agreed, because my boss was a jerk and I was tired of fending off his advances.”

         Francine shook her head and mentally sighed.  She was suddenly very thankful that Amanda had been concerned enough to look into Adam’s past.   She always prided herself on being strong and independent, but the conversation the night Adam had proposed to her kept rolling around in her memory.  There had been something in his voice that indicated he didn’t want his wife to work, and now she knew for certain that her job would have been the source of many arguments.  If they tracked down the wife in Seaside Heights, she had a feeling the woman would tell them a similar story.  Even Sally Thompson was a stay-at-home mom.  She had assumed it was because Sally wanted to stay home to be with her little boy, but now she was beginning to wonder if Adam had played a large role in that decision.  She’d have to remember to ask Amanda about it later…and to apologize for her recent snippiness. And she was going to have to remember to think of Adam as Benjamin, since, after all that was the name on his birth certificate and the man who had claimed to be Adam Clyde was merely a myth. “So, Benjamin demanding that you stay home and not work, prompted you to start following him?”

         Eleanor shook her head slightly. “I told him exactly what I told you, that I was tired of being bored. I wanted to be around other adults during the day, even if it was for a little time, and I’m not much for doing a lot of shopping.  So, I went on an interview, and managed to actually land a secretarial job.  Benjamin got so mad I thought he was going to have steam coming out of his ears.  We fought until he couldn’t stand my stubbornness anymore. He told me he was going to go meet up with the guys for a few drinks because he just couldn’t handle being in the same house, let alone the same room with me.  I was so mad and tired of him going out with these men who I had never met, I followed him.”

         “You’re one gutsy woman, girlfriend.” Lula nodded approvingly at Eleanor. “Weren’t you afraid he’d spot you?”

         “Not really.” Eleanor shrugged. “I yelled after him that if he could go out with the guys then I was going over to a girlfriend’s house, so while he ran up to get his wallet from his nightstand, I grabbed my purse and raced to my car.  I managed to get in my car and drive it far enough away to park it where he wouldn’t notice me by the time he pulled out of the garage.  I waited till he’d passed my hiding spot, and then got behind him and started following at a safe distance.  I’d seen enough of those detectives on T.V. follow suspects, so it wasn’t all that hard.  Anyway, I began to grow a little concerned when he started getting closer to Stark Street.  That’s not the nicest area, and definitely not someplace a woman wants to be caught alone, unless she’s selling herself.”

         “She ain’t lyin’ neither.” Lula nodded her head. “Stark Street’s a scary place. I speak from past experience when I say that even for the ‘hos it ain't safe, but a girl’s gotta make a living somehow, and the best time to do that is at night.”

         “Where did he end up going?” Stephanie asked with just a hint of suspicion in her voice.  For some reason, she had a very strong feeling that she knew exactly where Benjamin had gone.  No matter how hard Joe tried to keep her away from something, she always managed to stumble into things that he was working on.

         “I watched him park and then go into this really skeevy dive – I think it was called Pete’s or something.” Eleanor scrunched up her face in thought and then nodded. “Yeah, now that I think about it, it was Pete’s, because I remember thinking that I didn’t even want to know what he was doing there.  That place has a real bad reputation.  I’ve heard a lot of rumors about mob connections. Then again,” she shrugged her shoulders, “half the places around town are connected to the mob.”

         “So after that night, you started following him on a regular basis?” Amanda, who had been keeping a close watch on Francine, turned her attention back to Adams’ former wife.

         Eleanor nodded. “Once I got home and started to calm down, I realized that if Benjamin was going to a place like Pete’s, then he had to be doing something illegal.” She sighed and shook her head sadly. “It’s amazing how one little thing can make you start doubting someone, even someone you love.  I began wondering what he was really up to, and my curiosity got the better of me.  Two days after our big fight, he told me he was going on a business trip, so I followed him. It wasn’t difficult, since he wasn’t flying anywhere, at least that’s what he had told me, and it turned out to be the truth.  That’s when I found out about the woman in Seaside Heights.  Looking back on it, if he had been connected with the mob and not just married to someone else, I could have ended up dead if I’d been caught following him.”

         Stephanie sighed and mentally congratulated herself. She then reached into her purse and took out a business card. “We want to thank you for your time, and if you think of anything else that might help us,” she handed the card over to Eleanor, “please don’t hesitate to give me a call.” She then rose from the couch and watched as Amanda, Francine and Lula did the same. 

         “I’ll definitely call you if I think of anything.” Eleanor stood and followed the four women as they made their way towards the door. “I really want to see that man spending the rest of his days rotting away in some foul smelling jail cell.”  Reaching the hallway, she tapped the blonde woman on the shoulder. “Don’t let Benjamin ruin your life.” She gave Ms. Desmond a warm smile when the blonde turned towards her. “I speak from experience when I say that I wanted to swear off men, but I quickly realized that by doing that, I was letting Benjamin win, and in the end I’d end up being very, very lonely.”

         “I’ll take your advice under consideration.” Francine snapped out a little more harshly than she would have liked. She shrugged apologetically and softened her tone. “We’ll let you know the minute Benjamin’s in custody.” She then turned and followed the other three women down the stairs.

         Stephanie waited until Francine had joined them on the sidewalk before discussing what their next move would be. “Well, I think Seaside Heights can wait. I really want to know what the big draw to Pete’s is, and now we have a legitimate reason for going over there.”

         “I knew you would find a way to get in on the action at Pete’s, no matter what you told Officer Hottie.” Lula grinned. “But don’t ya’ think we oughta call in Batman?”

         Amanda glanced over at Stephanie, her eyebrows raised questioningly. “Batman?”

         “Ranger…Batman’s what Connie, Lula and I call him.  We’re convinced he isn’t exactly human and has all the characteristics of a superhero.  He dresses all in black, is extremely secretive and no one knows where he goes when he goes home. It’s like he has a secret hide out, kind of like the bat cave” Stephanie shrugged and smiled. “So we call him Batman, never to his face of course.” She then glanced over at Lula. “I guess if we’re going over to Pete’s it might not be a bad idea to have his threatening form around to protect us from the scum of the earth.”

         “And from Officer Hottie, ’cause you know he’s going to go ape all over your ass when he sees us, especially since you promised him you wouldn’t set foot inside.” Lula turned and started walking towards her car. “You coming, Blondie, we don’t want to keep the men folk waiting.”

         Francine glared at Amanda. “Do not make me ride with her again.” She pleaded through clenched teeth.

         Stephanie laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll ride with Lula. I think that we should head over to Vinnie’s first and swap cars.  We can all head over to Pete’s in my...” Her eyes grew wide when she caught sight of the disheveled looking man who had just come out of the little corner market. “Holy crap, that’s Tommy the Sleaze!”  She started running towards him, but then stopped when she realized that Tommy had just seen her and was now jumping behind the wheel of a beat up Toyota Celica.

         Without thinking, Stephanie quickly changed direction and was about to dig out her car keys, when she suddenly remembered that they didn’t come in her car.  She ran over to where Amanda and Francine were still standing, reached out and grabbed the set of keys that Amanda had just pulled out of her purse. “I am NOT losing him again.” She then dashed towards the silver sports car.

         “Stephanie!” Amanda yelled as she raced after the bounty hunter. “Lee is going to kill me if anything happens to his car.  Please let me drive.”  However, she knew it was pointless to argue as she watched Stephanie climbing into the driver’s seat.  Letting out a string of curses that would have made her husband proud, she yanked open the passenger door and jumped into the ’Vette.  She barely had time to pull the door shut and buckle her seatbelt as the brunette behind the wheel peeled away from the curb in hot pursuit.

            Francine said a few choice words of her own, as she realized that she was going to be stuck riding with Lula once again.  Not sure if being left behind would be a good thing or a bad thing, she ran to the waiting Firebird and climbed into the passenger seat.  She managed to get her seatbelt fastened just as Lula took off after the ’Vette.  Once she was safely buckled in, she took hold of the dashboard, and said a silent prayer that they’d all make it out of this alive.

 

Chapter 9 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 9

         Lee sat at the bar of Pete’s watching the front door and nursing a bottle of Corona.  He would have preferred to have a glass of scotch in his hands, but he didn’t think that anyone would believe that a cowboy like Ricky Joe would ever drink hard liquor.  He was thankful that not only had Morelli agreed to bring him along to Pete’s, but that he had insisted they stop back at the station and grab a few props, making him look more like a Texan.  Glancing around the room he took in the very seedy décor, and all the extremely inscrutable characters nursing their drinks, he understood exactly why Morelli had been adamant that the women stay away.  This place could give his sometime informant Augie Swann’s business ventures a run for their money, at least the more tasteless ones. When one of the patrons winked at him as she passed, he tipped his Stetson politely and looked down at his watch, hoping to give the young lady the idea that he was waiting for someone. Noticing that he’d been sitting out here, alone for half an hour, he sighed and brought the bottle of beer that he really didn’t want to his lips, and continued waiting for either Veranos to arrive or for Morelli to reappear from one of the back rooms he’d disappeared into in order to maintain the loose cover he had made for himself. 

         Lee silently chuckled at that thought. Morelli had confided in him earlier that he wasn’t really undercover, he was merely playing a role he apparently took on quite a bit around Trenton; he was acting as a liaison between one of the head mob bosses and another faction.  It was the other faction that vice was really interested in, as was Lee, since it was that faction that was being headed up by Carlos Veranos.  Morelli was going to keep his ears open to find out if the guns going to El Salvador were among the merchandise being negotiated for behind closed doors.

         The fact that Morelli, a known cop, was welcome in these meetings was causing Lee a fair amount of concern. He had discreetly asked around about Morelli when they were at the station earlier, and from what everyone told him, Morelli was a good, clean cop.  The fact that the head of one of New Jersey’s big mob families trusted Morelli to act as a liaison worked in everyone’s favor, and was not seen as cause for alarm.  However, no matter how clean Morelli seemed, having any kind of mob connection was something Lee didn’t fully trust.  He’d been around enough organized crime in his years with the Agency to know that any link could turn into something ugly.  The connected family might decide that Morelli was a liability and have him killed, or they might ask him for a favor he would have no choice but to fulfill.  He had to concede, however, that for the purpose of this case, he needed to trust Morelli, but that didn’t mean he was going to let his guard down completely.

         The door to Pete’s opened interrupting Lee’s thoughts.  He was hoping that it would be Veranos, thereby making this whole excursion worthwhile; however it wasn’t a man who walked through the door, but a tall, blonde woman.  She was gorgeous and although she turned the head of every man in that bar, she didn’t seem to notice or care as she made a beeline for the back room where Morelli was.  He watched with extreme curiosity as the blonde entered the backroom, and was just about to turn his attention back to watching for Veranos, when the door reopened and the woman re-emerged with her arm possessively linked with Morelli’s. 

         Lee’s eyes followed the couple as they walked over to the other side of the bar and did his best to hide the shock from showing on his face when the blonde planted a very sultry kiss on Morelli’s lips.  He almost fell out of his chair when he saw Morelli’s arm wrap itself intimately around the blonde’s waist and he fought the urge to go over and punch Morelli’s lights out.  For some reason, now that he was married to Amanda, he found himself feeling very brotherly towards women he was close to, and although he hadn’t known Stephanie for very long, the fact that she was so similar to Amanda that she could easily be his wife’s long lost sister, made him feel almost as protective of her, as he did for Francine.  Therefore, he was not enjoying watching Morelli being so friendly with this other woman.

         Lee brought his bottle of beer up to his lips and began to watch the couple more closely.  As he did, he let his body relax ever so slightly.  The more closely he watched, the more he realized that everything was not as it appeared.  To the casual observer, Morelli and the blonde looked like lovers, but to someone with the trained eyes of an agent, the two people weren’t speaking words of love but were actually conducting business. He had to admit, however, that the blonde’s technique was a lot more pronounced than his wife’s more subtle overtures, which made the scene he was watching seem very convincing.  In fact, the way the blonde was running her finger tantalizingly up and down Morelli’s arm and across his cheek as they talked, reminded him of the way his wife acted in the privacy of their bedroom, and it was enough to cause his brotherly instincts to remain at the forefront of his thinking. 

         Although Lee was pretty sure the couple was simply talking shop, he had to admit to himself that either Morelli was a very good actor, or on some level he was enjoying the attentions of the blonde, almost as if the pair shared an intimate past.  He began scrutinizing the blonde's face and it was the glint in her eye that confirmed his suspicions.  He'd known enough women to recognize the look of the huntress in the blonde's gaze.  He hoped, for Stephanie's sake, that Morelli's feelings for the bounty hunter were strong enough to resist this seductress.

         Joe let out a slight gasp when the blonde wrapped in his arms moved her hand down and subtly squeezed his butt cheek. Then, as she whispered a goodbye and blew in his ear, his body involuntarily shivered, and he forced images of Stephanie into his mind.  Terry Gilman was a beautiful woman, one he shared a very heated past with, but he had no intention of jeopardizing his relationship, whatever it was, with Stephanie for anything Terry might really want to offer.  His body shivered again as she blew once more in his ear, then abruptly unwrapped herself from the embrace, turned, and headed straight for the front door. He took a deep breath to get his hormones back under control and then scanned the bar, wondering how many of the patrons had enjoyed the show.  He let out a long sigh when he caught sight of Lee.  The agent was avoiding looking directly at him; however Joe couldn’t ignore the tight, almost angry expression on the other man’s face. 

         Without another moment’s hesitation, Joe made his way over to the bar to do a little damage control. He sat down on the stool next to Lee and motioned for the bartender.  “Pint of whatever you have on tap.” He then drummed his fingers on the counter, and without looking at Lee, muttered in a barely audible voice. “Go ahead and say what’s on your mind, Stetson.”

         Lee brought his bottle of Corona closer to his lips and didn’t bother to hide the annoyance he felt when he spoke. “You sure looked like you were enjoying yourself.  I wonder what Stephanie would’ve thought if she’d been here.”

         Joe gave a quick glance in Lee’s direction, then quickly looked away when the bartender brought him is beer.  Mimicking Lee’s actions, he brought the glass to his lips to hide the movement of his lips. “It wasn’t what it looked like.  She’s a business associate of sorts and we were simply exchanging information. I’m sure you’re familiar with the method, especially someone in your line of work.  Therefore, Stephanie doesn’t need to know anything about it.” He then turned and gave Lee a hard stare as he stuck his hand out in way of a friendly greeting. “Joe Morelli.”

         Lee picked up on what Morelli was doing and took the cop’s hand. “Ricky Joe Jackson.” He said with his already established Texas drawl. 

         “You’re a long way from Texas, my friend.” Joe wanted to establish Lee’s cover more openly so that, if Veranos showed up, he could invite the agent into the back room, under the pretense of an interested party in what Veranos might be selling.

         “I just follow my nose and end up wherever the deals are.” Lee gave Morelli a friendly smile, “I could tell that you seemed to be making some sort of deal with that gorgeous beauty who just left.”  He then lowered his voice, but kept the accent. “Looked to me like the blonde really wanted to do more than just exchange information, either that or you two used to be more than just business associates.”

         Joe nodded. "Oh we definitely used to be more than just business associates. I've known Terry since high school.  We even went to the prom together, but it’s not like we dated seriously.  You see, I was quite the player in high school, hell even after high school. Burg mothers used to warn their daughters to stay a way from me.” He grinned smugly and then shrugged. “Then one day I decided I didn't want to be like every other male in my family, so I stopped fooling around and got serious about my job.”

         Lee glanced briefly at Morelli. “I don't suppose Stephanie was the reason for the abrupt change in lifestyle, was it?”

         Joe shook his head. “Steph didn't factor into it at all. I just decided I wanted to make something of myself.  Steph’s more like my reward for doing something positive with my life.”

         Lee glanced over in Morelli’s direction. Although he didn’t care too much for the cop’s off-handed remark regarding Stephanie, he did understand exactly what the other man was saying, even if Stephanie wasn’t the reason for Morelli’s change, Amanda had been the one to open his eyes and made him realize that it was time to grow up and stop being so reckless. “So how does Terry factor into all of this?”

         “Terry’s full name is Terry Gilman,” Joe chugged down some of his beer, “and she’s related to Vito Grizzolli.” He finished and wiped some froth that had settled on his mouth away with the back of his hand.

         Lee did his best to keep the shock out of his voice. “You mean the Vito Grizzolli who’s in there?” He asked as he gave a barely perceptible nod of his head towards the back room.

         Joe nodded. “She’s his niece.  Basically anytime Vito wants to negotiate something that is more on the up and up, he usually tells Terry and she comes to me. I then send the information back through her. Only people from the burg know Terry’s true connection to Vito.  She used to be a Grizzolli, but she got married and then divorced a week later.  She decided to keep Gilman as her last name.  It makes things a little easier for her to do certain things for her uncle, with no one knowing their familial connection.  Vito likes to play nice with the authorities, because as long as he does, it keeps him out of the slammer. However, for today’s meeting, Terry needed to be somewhere else, so she convinced her uncle to let me be in the room.”

         “And so you decided to make it look like you were hot and heavy for each other in order to fill her in on what she’d missed?” Lee’s tone held a slight note of skepticism. “I gotta be honest with you, Morelli. If you say you’ve cleaned up your act, and seem to be in some kind of relationship with Stephanie, then, if it were me, I think I would have found a different way to pass information along.”

         Joe’s expression turned serious. “You have to understand something about this area.  Its gossip central and everyone in the burg knows that Terry and I used to be an item, and that the men in my family have a reputation for infidelity.  So I use the gossip mill to my advantage.  If people see Terry and me together, they think that we’re having yet another fling; no one suspects that we’re actually conducting business.”

         “I guess I can see how that works to your advantage.” Lee took another swig of his Corona. “So, if you don’t mind me prying…what does Stephanie think of your not so casual meetings with Miss Gilman? I mean you don’t let her believe, like everyone else around here, that there’s something other than business going on, do you?”

         Joe shook his head. “I tell her the truth, that it’s just business, but Stephanie can be stubborn, and since she spends all her time in the burg, she can’t help but hear the rumors.” He saw the slightly confused look on Lee’s face and shrugged. “I think on some level she trusts me, but her jealousy sometimes won’t let her believe the truth right away, especially when the rumor mill is in overdrive.  And unfortunately her jealousy puts her into situations that she shouldn’t be anywhere near.”

         “Yeah, well if the display I witnessed earlier is anything someone in the gossip mill saw, I can see why Stephanie would get the wrong idea.” Lee twirled his bottle around in his hand. “It looked like Terry was doing her best to turn up the heat, not just pass along information.”

         Joe smiled nonchalantly and tilted his head slightly. “Terry gets a little carried away sometimes, and perhaps her motives aren’t all business.  But,” his expression turned serious, “I have no intention of jeopardizing my relationship with Stephanie for a one night stand with Terry.”

         “Just what exactly is your relationship with Stephanie?” Lee lowered his voice a little as the bartender walked past. “I mean, it seems to me that there’s a lot of sexual tension between the two of you, yet she was extremely eager to have Amanda and I stay with you, and Francine with her.”

         “It’s a little complicated.  We’re both very stubborn and neither one of us is truly ready to make a full blown commitment with rings, rice and vows.” Joe glanced around the room to make sure that no one was watching them too closely. Assured that everyone in the bar was minding their own business, he continued. “Steph can be extremely infuriating sometimes. One minute we’re dating, the next we’re not. Right now we’re in the on-again stage, but she’s doing her best to keep me out of her bed.”

         Joe let out a frustrated groan when he caught the almost disapproving look Lee was casting in his direction, it was the same look he’d seen on a dozen or so fathers in his day, Mr. Plum included. “Just ’cause I’m a one woman man, doesn’t mean I don’t have a healthy sex drive. Despite the little show you saw before, I’m fully committed to Steph and hell, we’ll probably even end up married someday.” He involuntarily shuddered at that thought. He wasn’t sure if it was from excitement, fear or the fact that he was suddenly realizing just how well-suited he and Stephanie were for each other. No matter what the reason, he did know one thing for sure, whether in the on-again or off-again stage of their relationship, he did not like Stephanie hanging around Ranger.  He could tell her and everyone else that it was because Ranger wasn’t someone to be trusted, but the truth was, he didn’t like the way the bounty hunter looked at Stephanie. He recognized the look in the other man’s eyes, it was a mixture of lust and something else, something deeper that made him feel threatened and very jealous.

         Lee had noticed the other man’s reaction to the idea of marriage. “So you don’t want to get married, and Stephanie does?”

          “I have absolutely nothing against marriage. I’m just not sure if Steph and I will ever make it down the aisle. Lord knows we’ve known each other long enough and have been attracted to each other for probably longer than that, and who knows, maybe marriage really is in the cards for us, just not anytime soon.” Glancing over at his bar mate, Joe noticed the interested look on Lee’s face and then, after downing the rest of his beer, he placed the empty glass on the counter. “A few months ago, she ended up moving in with me temporarily because of an FTA case she was working on and she needed a safe place to stay.  One thing led to another and well…” He smiled and shrugged. “Then, even though she was still living in my house she told me that she wanted more of a promise for the future before she let me enjoy the pleasure of her company, again, but I think it’s just an excuse.”

         Lee stared curiously at his companion. “Steph seems like someone who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.” 

         “Oh she definitely speaks her mind, and she knows what buttons to push too.  But I think she made up the whole promise for the future thing ’cause she’s really afraid to get married. I think living with me gave Steph a taste of what being married might be like, or at least living together,” Joe paused when the bartender came back with a newly topped off glass of beer.  He waited until the man was out of earshot before continuing, “The minute it was safe for her to go back to her apartment, she practically ran, eager for her independence again. She’s the most contrary woman I’ve ever met.  One minute she wants a marriage proposal, and the next she wants her freedom. I think the truth of the matter is that she’s not ready to give up her independence and here in the burg, a woman who gets married ends up staying home and raising the kids.”

         Lee let out a deep chuckle. “So Stephanie really did have an ulterior motive for having us stay with you?”

         Joe nodded and laughed. “I suppose she did.” He looked at Lee with a slightly curious expression. “What exactly were her reasons for having me play host?”

         Lee tapped his finger against the side of his beer bottle. “I believe she said something about you owing her a favor.”

         “Yeah that sounds like something she would say.” Joe shook his head slightly and smiled. “It’s kind of a running joke with us.  One of us always ends up owing the other some kind of payment or another.  I prefer to collect my payment in the bedroom.  Steph, on the other hand, finds more creative ways to collect, or get even, depending on how you look at it. I guess we’ve sort of been finding ways to do that for as long as we’ve known each other.”

         “You said that you and Stephanie have known each other a long time.  How long, exactly, is a long time?” Lee asked before swallowing the last bit of his beer.

         “Why do I suddenly feel like I’m meeting my prom date’s father for the first time?” Joe smiled jokingly.

         Lee shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, didn’t mean for it to come out that way. I was just being curious.” He lowered his voice a little. “Comes with the job.”

         “I can appreciate that.” Joe laughed and nodded his head slightly. “I’ve known Stephanie since we were kids.”  He didn’t feel like telling Lee that in some respects, he and Stephanie knew each other a little more intimately than most normal kids.  Perhaps he knew back when he was eight that he and Stephanie were meant to be together; it was the explanation he could come up with to defend why he just had to lure her into his parents’ garage.  Stephanie wasn’t exactly innocent either, because she willingly let him play a little game of choo-choo, where he got to be the train and, even at six years old, you couldn’t make Stephanie Plum do something she didn’t want to do. 

         “Did you and Stephanie end up dating back in high school?” Lee nodded when the bartender came over and picked up his empty bottle of Corona.  He really didn’t want another beer, but he would look extremely out of place if he didn’t have something in his hand.

         Joe shook his head. “I didn’t date any one steadily back then.” He tilted his head and laughed a little ruefully. “I had a reputation for being with a different girl every week.  I won’t deny the fact that I definitely enjoyed chasing the girls back then, Stephanie included. And although Stephanie wasn’t hard to catch, I did wait until she was sixteen, and more than willing, before I finally caught her.” A gentle smile crossed his lips as he thought about that little rendezvous.  It was the same smile he always got whenever he went into the Tasty Pastry and had to get a box of éclair’s for his mother.  The memory of what had taken place behind that éclair case would live in his mind forever.  

         Lee could understand being the center of attention for a bunch of girls, but the one thing he would never have done, was take advantage of another girl’s feelings of attraction for him.  If he hadn’t been interested in pursuing even a casual date here and there, he wouldn’t have gone all the way with her.  He couldn’t deny that on some level Morelli was an okay guy, but his attitude towards women and sex was just a little more cavalier than he was comfortable with.   “I haven’t known Stephanie very long, but it seems to me that she probably didn’t enjoy being used and then tossed aside.” His tone was a little more brotherly and protective than he meant it to be.

         Joe had caught the edge in Lee’s voice and mentally laughed to himself.  What was it about Stephanie that caused other men to suddenly become protective of her? He didn’t mind the idea of Lee wanting to defend Stephanie so much, especially since the agent was already taken, but if it had been Ranger who had been sitting next to him and taken that tone with him, he’d probably have belted the man in the eye without blinking.  Then again, he wouldn’t be having this conversation with Ranger, even if they were the last two people on Earth with nothing to talk about. “You aren’t wrong about that.  Even though she agreed not too long ago to take partial blame for what happened, I don’t think that she’s ever really forgiven me, especially since I pretty much let everyone in town know about my ‘conquest’.”

         Joe shrugged apologetically when he saw Lee raise his eyebrows slightly in disbelief. “I was cocky, and I had a reputation to live up to.  I made the stupid mistake of writing a little poem about her on the bathroom wall of a local sub shop and on the wall of the high school football stadium.  She got even with me, though,” he laughed ruefully as he ran his hand unconsciously along his leg, “she ran over me with her Uncle's Buick.”

         Joe saw Lee’s eyes open wide in shock and shrugged. “She didn’t do any major damage, but she did end up breaking my leg in several places.  Of course it took her three years to do it, but it just goes to show you that you should never underestimate a woman scorned.  I was mad as hell at the time, but by the time I recovered, I didn’t have the stomach for revenge. It was probably a good ten years till we saw each other again, and we managed to pick up where we left off.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to get even with her for locking me in the back of a freezer truck with three dead bodies.” He shrugged the incident aside. “What can I say, except that we bring out the best in each other.  Must be the Italian in our blood…and the fact that she has a lot of spunk.”

         “Spunky does seem to be a very good adjective to describe Stephanie,” Lee smiled and let out a small chuckle.

         Joe laughed. “You aren’t kidding.  Sometimes I think I might do better joining a monastery, at least if I was there, I’d know I wouldn’t be getting any.  If I were the playboy I was in my youth, I wouldn’t care, but damn it all to hell,” he ran his hand through his hair in frustration, “Steph stole my heart and now other women don’t catch my eye like they used to, or maybe it’s the fact that I don’t seem to look their way twice and they leave me alone.”

         “Except for Terry Gilman.” Lee shot Joe a smug grin.  He couldn’t help throwing the blonde back in Morelli’s face.

         Joe shrugged his shoulders in indifference. “Terry is Terry. She won’t ever change, nor will she believe that I have.  She has a hard time accepting the fact that Steph is the only woman I think about or want anymore.”

         Lee caught a note of irritation in Morelli’s voice that went deeper than someone who was sexually frustrated.  “You make it sound like that’s a bad thing, and I’m not referring to the fact that you and Stephanie aren’t sleeping together.”

         Joe let out a long sigh and downed half his glass of beer.  Wiping his lips, he looked over at Lee with a serious expression. “It’s her damn job.” He lowered his voice as a bar patron walked by. “I think I lose more sleep worrying about what crazy madman might be after her than I do about getting shot at when I’m on the job. I’ve even started worrying that the rapist, serial killer or whacked out gang member that I’m trying to track down might decide to target my girlfriend next. Would you believe that I actually jump at the long undercover assignments these days, just so I can keep my mind focused on work. If I’m pretending to be someone else, then I can pretend that I don’t have a girlfriend who attracts maniacs.”

         “I didn’t think bounty hunters made that many enemies.” Lee picked up a wedge of lime and squeezed it into the new Corona the bartender had just brought him.

         Joe shook his head. “Normal bounty hunters don’t.  But Steph’s not normal…she has a very scary knack for finding trouble.  She always manages to piss off the pyromaniacs, too. I wasn’t joking when I said that she has no luck with cars.  They all seem to catch fire or someone plants a bomb on them.  When I mentioned that she moved in with me a few months ago, it was because someone had firebombed her apartment.  She moved in with me till the renovations were done.  That apartment of hers isn’t safe either. I’ve never seen anything like it; there have been more reports of breaking and entering connected to her place than there were convenience store robberies in the last two years.  She's got a dead bolt on her door, and still everyone from a pickpocket to a crazed manager of a psychotic boxer breaks in.”

“Hell,” Joe grunted as he suddenly had an epiphany, “I think my fear of actually asking her to marry me is because she scares the crap out of me.  The situations she stumbles upon, it’s unnatural, and I really don’t think I’m ready to deal with the fact that one day she might be the mother of my children.” He sighed and took another chug on his beer. “It’s ironic really.  It’s because of her job that we’re together, and at the same time, it’s the main reason we keep breaking up.” He suddenly laughed out loud and then lowered his voice when he spoke. “I just realized all the frustration in my life is all Vincent Plum’s fault.  If he didn’t have such exotic…and disgusting sexual habits, she wouldn’t have had anything to blackmail him with, and she’d probably be working at the button factory now and my life would be a lot less stressful.”

         “And probably very dull,” Lee grinned and then tilted his head curiously at Morelli. “If the last time you saw each other was when she’d run you over with her car, how the devil did the two of you hook up with each other again?”

         “Ironically, I was her first FTA. So I guess I can blame Vinnie for bringing Steph back into my life, but at the same time, if he hadn’t we probably wouldn’t have gotten back together.” Joe grinned slightly as he remembered opening the door to his cousin’s apartment where he’d been hiding out, only to find Stephanie Plum standing in the hallway, wanting to bring him back in. “I’d been working on a case that went sour.  I was looking for my contact, and walked into a bad situation.  I ended up killing a guy, and his partner disappeared along with my contact, making it look like I’d killed the scum in cold blood.  Steph didn’t know the first thing about being a bounty hunter, but man she had luck on her side.  Every time I gave her the slip, she’d manage to find me again.” He let out a small grunt. “Then, to make matters worse, the suspect I was after decided to make Stephanie his next victim.  I was torn between trying to stay undercover, break my cover in order to keep her safe or just let the homicidal maniac get her.  Though I hate to admit it, if it wasn’t for her, I might still be hiding out somewhere.” He shook his head in mild amazement. “She has the craziest damn luck.  Turned out that the guy we thought was behind it all, was really a scapegoat for his manager.  Granted Benito Ramirez, was, and still is a psychopath, and thanks to Steph is currently behind bars, but I don’t know if we’d have caught the manager if it wasn’t for her.”

         Lee’s eyes grew slightly wide. “You don’t mean Benito Ramirez the boxer, do you?”

         Joe nodded. “One and the same.  Ramirez would rape and beat his women to a pulp, and then his manager would threaten the women into keeping their traps shut or he’d kill them.”

         Lee shuddered involuntarily. “It’s amazing the crap they let athlete’s get away with, just because they make their managers rich.” He tapped his fingers on the counter. “You know, the more I learn about her, the more I realize that Stephanie sounds exactly like Amanda.  My…fiancée has a knack for getting herself in over her head, but she’s also very good at getting herself out of almost any situation.  Most of it’s pure luck…at least it was when I first met her. Now that she’s had formal training, though, she’s one of the best agents I’ve ever worked with, and I’m not just saying that because we’re involved.”

         “How do you handle it, knowing that the woman you love is in a dangerous line of work?” Joe finished off his beer and put the glass back on the bar.

         “I won’t lie, it’s not easy, but the fact that we have the same job makes it a little hypocritical for me to tell her she shouldn’t be in this line of work.  And truthfully, I wouldn’t want anyone else watching my back.” Lee smiled wistfully as he thought about his wife, and then sighed. “However, I didn’t always feel that way.  I spent a lot of time trying to push her away, hoping that if she stopped associating with me, then she’d be safe. Especially since it was my fault she got involved with the Agency in the first place.”

         “Wrong place at the wrong time?” Joe grinned; Lee was right, Amanda and Stephanie were beginning to sound quite a bit alike.

         Lee nodded. “Or the right place at the right time, depending on how you look at it.  I was in trouble, and I needed to pass some classified information along, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to able to meet up with my contact.  So I grabbed the first trustworthy looking person I could find, and begged her to get on the train and pass the package along to my contact who was wearing a red hat.  Only she didn’t pass it on, because there was a Shriner’s convention on board the train, so instead of one man in a red hat, there were twenty.”

         Lee let out a rueful laugh. “Fate apparently had a reason for continually throwing Amanda in my path, because no matter how hard I pushed her away, she kept coming back.  She was persistent, over-eager perhaps, and definitely stubborn, and I finally realized that I’d be better off keeping her in my life so that I could keep an eye on her.  It took me a while, however, to admit that I needed her as a friend even more than I wanted to keep her around just to watch over her.   Eventually, we became partners.  I trust her like I’ve never trusted anyone, and not just to watch my back, but with my heart as well.  That in itself was a big deal for me,” he paused when he realized that he was sharing some deep thoughts with the man beside him.  Morelli was a basic stranger, and even if the other man was opening up to him, he wasn’t normally the type to willingly share his thoughts and feelings.  He chuckled as he realized that that was another thing that had changed about himself because of his wife.

         “I don’t know much about the rules of the FBI and CIA, but I’m pretty sure they frown on fraternization between partners,” Joe lowered his voice to just above a whisper, “so I’m surprised that you two are still partners.”

         Lee shrugged. “We have friends in very influential positions.” The more he thought about that statement, the more he realized just how lucky he and Amanda were.  Aside from having Billy on their side, he knew that Harry, a man who was probably the closest thing he had to a father figure, whole-heartedly approved of his relationship with Amanda.  Add to the list Francine, who apparently had something on Dr. Smyth, he didn’t see his partnership with Amanda ever being broken.  Of course he’d give almost anything to find out what Francine had on the Agency’s esteemed leader, but no matter what he or Amanda waived in front of her, she refused to tell them what dirty little secret she had on Dr. Smyth. 

         Joe looked at Lee with a slightly curious expression. “When you asked Amanda to marry you, did you hesitate because you were worried about what would happen to your partnership?”

         Lee had to admit to himself that he was almost enjoying this bit of male-bonding, especially since he didn’t have many male friends.  However, he wasn’t going to admit to a guy he’d only known for forty-eight hours that he was already married and that that marriage had been kept under wraps for exactly that reason, and a few others, for two years. He smiled at Morelli and shook his head. “I did a lot of skirt chasing of my own before I met Amanda, and even in the early years that I knew her.  I actually had four little black books, but once I realized that I loved Amanda, I didn’t want to wait.  I was ready to focus on one woman.  She changed my life the minute she entered it, whether I was ready to admit it or not. I won’t lie to you, marriage scared the hell out of me, but not spending the rest of my life with Amanda, scared me even more.”

         “So, you went from being a bachelor with four books, which by the way is damn impressive,” Joe smiled as he toasted him with his empty beer glass, “to a man who didn’t hesitate to ask the woman he loved to marry him?  Forgive me for being presumptuous, but I am a cop after all and I’m trained to read people, and I get the feeling that maybe you were burned more than once before Amanda came into the picture.” When Lee gave him a very non-committal shrug, he knew that he’s suspicions were right on the money and he let out a low whistle. “Man, Amanda must be one special woman.” 

         “Special doesn’t even come close to describing Amanda; she’s the best thing that every happened to me.” Lee smiled wistfully. “Don’t get the wrong idea, though, I didn’t just decide one day to ‘pop the question’. We’d actually been friends for about two and half years before I realized that I wanted more than just friendship, but I didn’t want to treat Amanda like all those other women in my black books.  I wanted to prove to her that I was in this for the long haul. We actually dated for about four months before we said ‘I love you’ to each other.”

         Lee sighed as he thought back to that time. It hadn’t been easy, he knew that Amanda knew about his past, and he had done his best to keep the ghosts of his old flames away.  The hardest one had been Leslie O’Connor, since Amanda pointed out to him that she and Leslie could almost have been sisters.   The fact that he’d let Amanda’s name slip out the last time he’d been having a romantic evening with Leslie, only confirmed her later observations.  In truth, that slip of the tongue had opened his eyes to the truth about his feelings for Amanda.  It had also made him realize that he wasn’t being fair to Leslie, Amanda or himself.  Once he admitted that to himself, he stopped dating altogether, although he and Amanda had gone out on a few dinner dates, they hadn’t really begun to truly date until after they had stopped the detonators from leaving California.

         “It was a about month after we’d admitted we loved each other, however, that I became very anxious to prove to Amanda, and myself, that my bachelor days were over, so I proposed.” Lee decided not to go any further into the details.  Morelli didn’t need to know that although he’d been planning to propose to Amanda in a more romantic setting, that being put in a life and death situation had caused him to seize the moment just in case he never got another chance.  And even if his spontaneous proposal while they were being held captive by Addi Birol hadn’t been the most romantic, he did have to admit that he’d more than made up for that when he re-proposed at the Inaugural Ball.

         Joe turned his beer glass upside down, letting the bartender know that he didn’t want a refill and then turned towards Lee. “You never considered just living together instead of getting married? You know, see if you two were really meant to be together.”

         Lee shook his head adamantly. “Never. First that idea never even crossed my mind, and even if it had, it wouldn’t work because she has two teenage boys and becoming a live-in boyfriend would not have set a good example for them.” Then there was the fact that Joe King would probably have sued for custody of the boys if they’d even considered that, especially since Amanda’s ex wasn’t exactly thrilled with their line of work.  “And to be honest, I wanted to be a permanent fixture in their lives, not just be considered their mother’s live-in boyfriend.  They deserve more stability than that.”

         “I guess with kids to consider in the equation, marriage was your only option.” Joe nodded sympathetically. “It’s commendable that you wanted to be such a huge part of their lives, but I’m sure you realize that with two curious teenage boys around, having spontaneous sex is pretty much going to be damn near impossible.”

         Lee grinned. “Oh, I can tell you with certainty that it won’t be impossible at all.  But,” his expression turned serious, “let’s get one thing straight, I never once considered marriage an option, it was a choice I willingly made.  I’d already experienced the lack of commitment-type relationships, not having to be tied down to one woman, being able to go where I wanted, whenever I wanted, without answering to anybody, but I never felt truly fulfilled and whole.  All the other women in my life were like expensive exotic cars, you know like a Ferrari or Lamborghini.  They’re fun to test drive, but you know in the end that you can’t afford to keep them.  Then all of a sudden this station wagon comes along and suddenly I didn’t care about taking those other cars out for a test drive… I wanted the family car.”

         Joe nodded in understanding. “And family cars aren’t something you want to test drive, they’re the type of car you want to buy.”

         “Exactly.  I was ready to settle down.” Lee smiled as he thought about how much being a part of Amanda’s family had made him complete. “And I wanted the car that had enough room not only for my baggage, but for Amanda’s two boys, her live-in mother and the white picket fence, too.”

         Joe sighed a bit longingly. “I think on some level, I want that too, but I think it helps if the car you’re ready to buy has enough faith in you to love and care for it forever.”

         Lee nodded his head understandingly. “Well given your sordid dealings with Ms. Gilman, I think I can understand why Stephanie doesn’t have a lot of faith in you. Do you ever do anything to help curb her fears…give her a reason to trust you?”

         Joe shrugged. “Probably not. I can’t always tell her the honest truth, because I’m not really legally allowed to, so that adds one more reason for her not to trust me.  But even without that reason, there are other reasons for her to doubt me.  I’ve told her that I love her, and though she probably believes me, in my family that doesn't mean much.  The men in my family are known for sleeping around. Divorce isn't an option, so they take other avenues.  Me, on the other hand, I don't plan on being like every other male in my family. As I’ve said before, and I really meant it, Stephanie is the only woman I'll ever want.” 

         Lee glanced at his watch and realized that they’d been male bonding for almost a half hour.  Morelli was going to have to get back to the backroom before too long, and he really wanted to know what the cop had been able to uncover, if anything. “So, were you able to find out if Grizzolli’s involved with Veranos and the guns that are supposed to be going to El Salvador?”

         Joe shook his head. “Not really, I think Terry was a distraction, something to get me out of the room so they could talk about things they didn’t want me to hear. She showed up about ten minutes after one of Grizolli’s men had hung up a two minute phone call.  I can only assume he was calling her at Vito’s request.”

         Lee tilted his head and looked at Morelli with a puzzled expression. “You said not really?  You have your suspicions?”

         “As I was heading out of the room,” Joe glanced around to make sure no one was close enough to over hear them, “I noticed Veranos’ name on a document that was on the table.  But seeing his name doesn’t mean anything.  Besides, its unlikely Grizolli’s involved, they deal mostly with drugs, the bigger action usually goes through New York.” Suddenly his beeper began to buzz and as he reached down to check the number, his cell phone rang, and his heart leaped to his throat. The only time his pager and cell phone went off simultaneously, was when something bad happened and Stephanie was involved.

         Lee watched Morelli’s face go from concerned to exasperated to concerned again, so fast that a sinking feeling began to grow in the pit of his stomach.  Something had happened to Stephanie, and since Amanda was with her, that meant his wife was in trouble too. 

         Joe smacked the off button on his cell phone and jumped off the bar stool. “We need to leave now. I want to get to the scene before half the burg shows up.” Muttering a few choice words, he headed for the door.

         Lee got down off his own stool and quickly followed Morelli. As soon as he had caught up to the cop, he asked, discarding the Texas drawl, “What happened?”

         Joe pushed through the front door and then, as soon as they were both outside the bar, he turned towards Lee. “There’s been an explosion.”

         “Is anyone…” Lee couldn’t bring himself to ask the rest of the question.

         Joe threw up his hands and shrugged. “Hell if I know.  This is why I hate her job.  The emergency personnel find it amusing to tell me that Stephanie’s been involved in some sort of explosion, but they never bother to tell me if she’s okay.” He gave Lee an understanding, but worried frown, and then turned and ran towards his truck.

         Feeling like someone had just ripped out his heart; Lee sprinted after Morelli praying that his wife was alive and unharmed.

 

Chapter 10 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 10

         Amanda stood on the sidewalk staring blankly at the charred remains of Lee’s car while a million anxious thoughts tumbled through her head; the first and foremost being that her husband was going to go nuts when he saw what had happened to his precious baby.  She was thankful that she hadn’t been in the car at the time, or Stephanie or Francine or Lula, for that matter, but no matter how many times she thanked God that everyone was okay, her thoughts kept rushing back to what her husband was going to do.  She knew someone had come to stand beside her, but couldn’t force herself to look away from the remains of the silver sports car to find out who.

         Stephanie saw the distant look on Amanda’s face, and knew exactly how the other woman felt.  Although she’d lost more than her fair share of cars in a catastrophic blast, she still remembered how she’d felt the first time it had happened.  Granted the first car had been Joe’s, but that just meant that she had an even deeper understanding of what the brunette next to her was going through.  “After you lose more than one car to a fiery demise, you learn not to get sentimentally attached to your vehicles anymore.”

         “Yes, but this wasn’t just any car, this was Lee’s, he’s had it for almost five years.   It’s survived bullets, garbage cans and car chases,” Amanda watched as another flame shot out from where the hood used to be, “but one afternoon with me, in a strange town, and poof, it’s gone.” Her eyes suddenly grew wide and she tore her gaze away from the debris. “Joe’s Grandma Bella was right.  She warned us that something was going to happen to Lee’s car, but everyone said she was crazy, so I dismissed it as some ramblings of an old woman, and I’m sure after listening to Joe, Lee did too. If only…”

         Stephanie reached out and placed a hand on Amanda’s shoulder. “I’ll admit that sometimes Grandma Bella has a scary knack for being accurate ninety percent of the time, but that’s usually only with people she knows.  She’d never met you before, so it was highly unlikely she’d be right.” She smiled apologetically. “Guess we shouldn’t be so quick to poo-poo her ‘visions’ in the future.”  Starting to feel a little warm, she gave Amanda’s arm a slight tug. “Come on, it’s probably not a good idea to stand so close to the fire, besides I can hear the emergency vehicles getting closer and they’ll just tell us to get back anyway once they arrive.” 

         Feeling a bit uncomfortable herself, Amanda nodded a bit reluctantly and began moving to where Francine and Lula were standing with a very subdued Tommy the Sleaze.  “I can’t understand how this happened though.”  She glanced once more towards the burning rubble.

         Stephanie shrugged. “Who knows, could have been faulty wiring, after all you did say he’d had the car for five years, maybe it was just its time to go.” She didn’t want to tell Amanda that she had a very strong feeling that it wasn’t a faulty anything, that someone had most likely planted a bomb on the car, but the question was who.  The only case other than Tommy that she was working on was this one with the agents, and it wasn’t even her car that went up in flames.  So chances were that if it was a bomb, it was probably directed at one of the agents.  A fact that, if Amanda and Francine were really good intelligence operatives, they probably would have figured out anyway. She turned towards the brunette. “You know what I could go for right now, I could go for some cake.”

         Amanda stopped midstride and stared at the bounty hunter in astonishment. “Cake?” She let out a slightly hysterical laugh. “We could have been blown to pieces and you suddenly have a craving for cake?”

         Stephanie smiled. “Cake always makes me feel better, especially right after my car’s blown up.  I know this great bakery that sells day old birthday cake that no one’s come to claim, real cheap.” She gently nudged Amanda. “It’d be my treat.”

         Amanda laughed again, a little more jovially this time. “Tempting, but I think I’ll pass.” The idea of eating day old cake, though probably still slightly fresh, just didn’t really appeal to her, especially not right now. Sighing sadly, she glanced briefly at the wreckage then back towards Stephanie. “So, how many cars of yours have actually ended up like Lee’s?”

         Stephanie twisted her face in thought as she ran down the list in her head. “At last count, I think I’ve been in possession of about six cars that have either been blown up or smashed into a pancake.” The image of the Rangeman Porsche blowing up and then being flattened by the garbage truck was a memory she’d never forget. “Oh wait, I forgot about the garbage truck, although I never drove it or anything, it did blow up because it fell on the Porsche Ranger had loaned me, which had exploded because of a bomb. So, I guess the count should probably be seven. But,” her expression turned serious, “none of them were really my fault.  They just had the misfortune of being around my bad karma, which I fully blame on my job.  If I knew that the life of a bounty hunter was going to be so dangerous, I never would have set foot in my cousin's office and begged him for a job.”

         Amanda groaned. “Somehow I don’t think that telling Lee that his car is now a pile of molten metal because it happened to be around your supposed bad karma is going to make him feel any better about the loss of his baby.” She turned around and stared at what was now nothing more than a smoldering skeleton of her husband’s precious sports car. “He loved this car.  Granted it’s been in the garage for repairs more than it’s been out, but when it wasn’t being fixed, he really cherished it.”

         Lula sauntered over to where Stephanie and Amanda were and sighed audibly. “I should learn to start bringing some marshmallows and those metal stick things to put them on whenever I go out with you, girlfriend.” She turned towards Stephanie. “We’d never go hungry, since your cars always turn into barbeques.” She looked up at the sun, which was no longer directly overhead, but starting its slow descent towards the horizon, and shook her head in disappointment. “Guess we ain’t goin’ to the beach. I was really looking forward to working on my tan, too.  It’s a good thing we didn’t contact that Mrs. Benton ahead of time, ’cause now we don’t feel obligated to call and tell her we ain’t gonna make it after all.”

         Amanda turned towards Francine. “You know, you and Stephanie could head over there if you wanted to. It’s not like any of you can do anything around her anyway. I’m the one who needs to wait for Lee.”

         Lula nodded her head enthusiastically. “We could pile into my car, since Amanda won’t be going with us, there’s enough room to put Tommy in the back and haul him back to jail, then we can just high tail it to the beach.  There’s definitely enough daylight that if we go now, I could still get a pretty decent tan.”

         “I think Seaside Heights is going to have to wait till tomorrow.” Stephanie glanced over at Lula and then back towards Amanda.  “I know you’ll probably say we don’t need to stay, but the truth is that I know almost all the cops and emergency personnel, so it’ll make things a lot easier on you when they start questioning you about what happened.” Not to mention the fact that she wanted to be present to personally tell each and every one of them that she had nothing to do with this car exploding.

         Francine, who was still firmly holding the cuffed Tommy at her side, turned towards her friend. “I agree with Stephanie, Mrs. Benton can wait until tomorrow.” She moved a little closer to Amanda and lowered her voice. “Besides, if it means that I don't have to spend another second with miss-absolutely-no-fashion-sense, I can stand waiting one more day to get any more leads on Adam.” She noticed the perplexed look on the brunette’s face and frowned.  “If I have to spend one more minute alone with that Lula person, Amanda, I swear on what’s left of Lee’s car that I will jump off the next bridge I see.”

         “She’s not really that bad, Francine, she’s just overly eager.” Amanda had to admit that although her language was a bit colorful, she found Lula to be a bit of comic relief, and right now, she needed something to keep her mind off of their current situation.

         “Trust me, she is that bad.” Francine was about to explain to Amanda just exactly how horrible Lula was, when the first fire engine rounded the corner.

         Stephanie watched as one of Trenton’s finest turned onto the street right behind the big red truck, and came to a stop in the middle of the road, effectively blocking any more traffic from rolling past the scene.  The passenger side door opened, and forgetting momentarily that her boyfriend was undercover at Pete’s, she half expected to see Joe emerging from it, since he usually arrived moments after the emergency vehicles.  However, she wasn’t the least bit surprised to see Carl Costanza’s head pop up over the roof of the car instead.  She and Carl had known each other since school and had even dated once or twice. Although nothing serious had ever developed between the two of them romantically, they had managed to remain friends.  “This wasn’t my fault, I swear to that, Costanza.” She pointed towards the wreckage as a grinning Carl approached.

         “It never is, Steph and yet you’re almost always present at the disaster.” Carl looked over at the cuffed Tommy the Sleaze and then at the bounty hunter’s disheveled appearance. Stephanie’s hair was mussed and traces of leaves and twigs were stuck in between various curls.  There was dirt on her face and a nice big rip in her jeans and Tommy didn’t look much better. “FTA related explosion?” He asked, not even bothering to hide the amusement from his tone. “I told Big Dog,” he pointed towards his partner who was now directing traffic away from the scene, “that I should have put more of a wager on the fact that we’d find you here.”

         “Wager? On me?” Stephanie glared at him in mock annoyance. She knew that she was the running joke around the station house and that any time a call came in for a fire or explosion, everyone at cop central was placing some bet or another that she was involved.

         “The minute the call came in that a car had exploded in the ritzy district, we all placed bets that you were somehow involved.” Carl grinned from ear to ear. “Looks like I won the bet, though, I wish I had bet more.  Ah well, three hundred bucks isn’t bad.”

         “Three hundred!” Stephanie scrunched up her face in disgust. “Isn’t it illegal to gamble? I mean you are paid to uphold the law, not break it.”

         Carl shrugged. “Not when it’s you we’re betting on.  Heck, even the Captain gets in on the wagers.  Besides, we don’t really call it gambling or betting…we call it entertainment.” He grinned jokingly at Stephanie, as he playfully pushed her shoulder.  His expression turned slightly serious when he noticed his friend’s eyes widen at the thought of all the cops getting in on the action. “Don’t worry, Morelli’s never in on the game. It’s no secret that he’s not thrilled with your career as a bounty hunter, but the rest of the force,” his lips turned up into a grin again, “is behind you one hundred percent. Our lives were extremely dull and boring until you came along and livened things up.”

         Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Glad to know I provide a service for the boys in blue.”

         “So whose car did you kill this time?” Carl asked as he pointed at the wreckage.

         Amanda had only been half listening to the banter between the cop and Stephanie, and focused the majority of her attention on the firemen hosing down what was left of the fire engulfing Lee’s car.  She turned, however, when she heard officer Costanza’s question. “Stephanie didn’t ‘kill’ anything.  It was my…fiancé’s car and the truth of the matter is that it just exploded all on its own.  We were all a good hundred or so feet away.”  She then turned towards the brunette. “I wish I knew how to get a hold of Lee.  I’m not looking forward to seeing his reaction to this, but he really does have a right to know about it.”

         Stephanie smiled knowingly at Amanda. “Don’t worry about it. I can almost guarantee that he’s heard about it and is already on his way.” She sighed at the agent’s puzzled expression. “The one downside of dating a cop, or upside depending on how you look at it, is that the minute disaster strikes me, all the emergency personnel, from paramedics to a firemen, are calling Joe and since Lee’s with Joe…you can bet that they’ll arrive any minute now.” She glanced up and saw Joe’s truck right behind the third fire truck to arrive on the scene. “See, what did I tell you?”

         Amanda felt her stomach bunch into knots as she followed Stephanie’s gaze.  She cringed inwardly when Joe pulled up to the curb and barely had time to turn the engine off before she caught sight of her husband jumping out of the passenger side. She took one look at the distraught look on his face and her heart sank.  Assuming that his expression was a direct result of what was left of his car, she put on her best sympathetic smile. “I'm so sorry about the car, Lee.”  She said as soon as he was within earshot. “But look on the bright side, at least you won't have to worry about Phillip messing up something under the hood anymore. I know how much it stressed you out every time you caught him anywhere near it.”

         Lee had noticed the worried tone in his wife’s voice and, in two long strides, he was at Amanda’s side. He immediately pulled her towards him and wrapped his arms around her. “I don't care about the car.  I'm just glad you're okay.” He pulled apart a little and looked her up and down, assuring himself that she was, indeed, unharmed.  Not seeing any visible signs of injury, he pulled her closer, reassuring himself that she really was safe. “You are okay, aren’t you?”

         Amanda nodded. “I’m fine…but, Lee, your car…I’m so sorry.”

         Lee shook his head and pulled back slightly, fixing his wife with a very serious expression. “Amanda, the car's replaceable…you're not.”

         Amanda managed to smile as she wiped a stray tear from her eye.  She really did love this man. “Thank you, Lee. But you don’t have to say that just to make me feel better.  I know how you felt about the Corvette.” She took a deep breath as she gazed into her husband’s eyes. “Can you honestly stand here and tell me that you’re not even a little upset about the car?”

         Lee sighed and placed a kiss on his wife’s forehead.  “Fine, if it’ll make you happy, then yes, I’m going to miss the car…but there are other cars out there, cars that are ten times better and faster than this one was.” He nodded his head towards what remained of his silver sports car and smiled. “In fact, I’m actually looking forward to going out and buying a new one. I think I’ll even let Phillip help me pick out the next one, it just won’t be silver.” He smiled, trying to lighten the mood. “Silver seems to have bad luck.” Noticing that his attempt at humor didn’t seem to lighten his wife’s mood, he wrapped his arms tighter around his wife’s waist, his expression turning serious again. “Right now, however, the only thing I care about is the fact that you’re safe.  I mean that, Amanda. You could have been seriously injured, or worse killed, and I’m just happy that you’re okay, and I really could care less about the current condition of my car.”  He sighed contentedly as he felt his wife relax in his arms.  He then smiled at Morelli who was making is way over to them.

         Joe approached the group and looked directly at Stephanie with a slightly bemused expression. “How’d it happen this time?”

         Stephanie crossed her arms in front of her and glared at Joe. “Honestly I had nothing to do with it. I was nowhere near the car with anything flammable when it blew up. We were all chasing after Tommy, who, by the way, I finally caught, hence the holes in my jeans and the crap in my hair.”  She commented as she pulled another twig from her hair.

         Lula bounced with excitement. “You should’a seen her. She tackled him, and they started rolling around in the dirt.  If they hadn’t been swinging punches at each other, you might have had cause to get jealous.”

         Joe glanced speculatively at his girlfriend. “So you caught Tommy and somehow the car magically exploded.”

         Francine had had enough of everyone picking on Stephanie.  Still clutching Tommy tightly to her, she moved in front of Joe. “That’s exactly what happened.  Forensics will probably find a bomb strapped to the car somewhere, because that’s the only explanation for the random explosion.”

         Lula nodded in agreement “Craziest thing I ever saw, we’re all traipsing back with Tommy in tow and we get about four cars away and wham, the Corvette just goes up in flames.” She shook her head in disappointment. “Such a shame too. Beautiful car.”

         Lee wrapped his arms around his wife’s shoulders. “Thank God no one was inside at the time.” He leaned over and placed a loving kiss on his wife’s cheek. “I mean that with all my heart,” he whispered in her ear to try and put all her fears to rest.  He knew his wife well enough to know that she was still quite worried that he’d be upset about the state of his car.  Truthfully, he was going to miss it, but it was just a car and, as he’d told his wife a long time ago, you don’t love a car, you can get attached to it, but you never love it; at least not like you love a person.  Nothing could or would ever replace the fulfillment he got from loving Amanda and being loved by her and by being a part of a family.  His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of an unhappy groan from Morelli.

         “I told Big Dog to keep all the riff-raff out, we don’t need any more people attending this little party, and that includes the press.” Joe glared at the brown sedan that had just pulled up behind his truck.  “I bet you even money that guy’s looking to get his very first by-line, featuring my girlfriend the accident prone bounty hunter.”

         Carl smiled. “I’ll take that bet.”

         Stephanie narrowed her eyes. “You would. I think someone needs to tell your wife about your gambling problem, Costanza.”

         Lee scrunched his face in thought and shook his head. “I don’t think either one of you is going to win that bet.” He glanced over at Morelli. “I don’t think he’s with the press.  That’s a federal car, and I’m almost positive I saw him at Pete’s, which means he’s probably FBI.”

         Lula whistled and leaned towards Stephanie. “I don’t care if he is a fed, if he’s single, I’m claiming him, cause he is f-i-n-e…fine. Mmmm…mmmm.” She smacked her lips together and began fluffing up her hair.

         “FBI!?” Stephanie ignored Lula and glanced at Joe with an accusatory glare. “Why would the FBI be at Pete’s, and why did he follow you here?”

         “Well isn’t this an interesting little gathering.” The tall, dark-haired agent said as he approached the group standing not far from the wreckage of a burning car. “I had a feeling the gentleman posing as a Texas buyer wasn’t really from Texas, especially when the two of you,” he pointed between Joe and Lee, “appeared to be a little chummier than two men who’d just met.  That was quite a show you put on with the blonde, Morelli.”  

         “Who the hell are you? And how is it that you know me, and I don’t know you?” Joe glared at the stranger, he had no idea who this man was, but he didn’t appreciate him letting that cat out of the bag. He didn’t have to look at Stephanie to know that she was getting ready for a fight.

         “Who cares who he is,” Stephanie gritted her teeth and stepped directly in front of Joe, “were you really working a case at Pete’s or were you working your moves on Terry Gilman.” She crossed her arms in front of her and glared. “Just how far down your throat did she have her tongue?”

         Joe took a deep breath and lowered his voice. “This is neither the time nor the place for this, Stephanie.”

         “The hell it isn’t.” Stephanie pointed towards the small group around them. “They’re my friends and I don’t keep secrets from my friends.  I want to know what the hell you were doing with Terry Gilman at that bar.”

         “Exchanging information.” Joe balled up his fists and forced himself to keep his arms at his side.      

         “It looked like you two were exchanging everything but information if you ask me.  I was almost embarrassed enough to suggest that you two go get a room somewhere.” The dark-haired stranger then looked closer at the face of the brunette and realized that he had probably said way too much. “Sorry, man, didn’t mean to get you in trouble with the missus.”

         Stephanie turned her anger onto the stranger. “Oh don’t worry, I’m not his missus, and I don’t think he has to worry about me ever being the little missus.”  She turned her back on Joe and walked over to take Tommy from Francine. “I think it’s time that we put him somewhere safe.” She yanked the cuffed man from the blonde’s grasp and walked over to Carl. “Can you put him in the back of your squad car? I don’t want him getting away.”

         Carl nodded and took the bedraggled man from his friend. “No problem, Steph.” He gave a short wave goodbye to the group and then led Tommy away, thankful to be getting far away from the growing hostilities.

         Stephanie kept her back to Joe, and went over to stand beside Francine. She really didn’t want to be near Lula right now, afraid that her friend might say the wrong thing, and she needed to be near someone who was as fed up with the opposite sex as she was.

         Lee had noticed the look on Morelli’s face and knew that the cop was probably one step away from beating the stranger to a pulp for his little commentary. “We seem to have gotten sidetracked.” He said as he let go of his wife and moved between the two men.

         The federal agent dug into his jacket and pulled out his government identification. “Daniel Petrakis, FBI”

         “Oh my gosh!” Amanda brought her hand to her lips in shock and then smiled brightly. “Daniel Petrakis. I can’t believe it’s you.” She made her way over to where her old friend was standing. “I thought you looked familiar, but it’s been so long since I saw you last, so I wasn’t sure, well not until I heard your name.”

         Daniel turned and grinned at the bubbly brunette, instantly recognizing the familiar ramble, he grinned. “Amanda West, is that you?” He let out a laugh. “What am I saying of course it’s you, I’ve never met anyone else who could fit so much into one sentence the way you do.”

         Amanda nodded. “It’s Amanda King now.”
         “Well it has been almost twenty years since we saw each other last,” Daniel nodded and sighed. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re married, and that you married Joe King either. I always knew that you two would end up tying the knot.  How is Joe these days?”

         “I guess you could say he’s doing well.” Amanda gave him a small smile. “We got divorced a few years ago, and he’s happily remarried now.” She was just about to say that she was happily remarried as well, but quickly stopped herself, since Francine was the only person in this gathering that knew about her and Lee’s true marital status.

         “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.” Daniel gave her a sympathetic smile.

         Amanda waived his sympathy aside. “Don’t be. I’m not. We had two wonderful boys together and we’ve managed to stay quite close. So, did you and Meredith ever get married?  I remember you two were more inseparable than Joe and I.”

         Daniel shook his head and let out a reluctant sigh. “Sadly, no.  Meredith and I never married.” He shrugged his shoulders slightly at the look of sadness that crossed his old friend’s face. “Don’t get too sentimental about it, Amanda.  We just weren’t meant to be.  Our careers took us different places.  I wanted to pursue law enforcement, it’s why I went to law school, in the first place.  I had a friend in the FBI, and he recruited me.  I trained at Quantico, but then got transferred to the Newark Field Office.  I’ve been here for the last ten years and don’t regret a minute of it.”  He then looked back towards Lee and Joe and then back to Amanda. “So what are you doing here, this hardly seems like your scene.”

         Amanda laughed. “It’s a lot more my scene than you’d think.” She reached into her jacket and pulled out her government ID. “I got a job working in the intelligence community ,too.”

         “Damn, the sweet innocent Amanda West I knew became a spy,” Daniel grinned, “and working for the top secret Agency, too. How the devil did you end up there?”

         “Right place at the right time. Of course if it weren’t for a very persistent waiter and a bunch of men in red hats, I’d probably be an administrative assistant right now.” Amanda smiled at her husband and then noticing his rigid stance and the clenched fists at his side, she did her best to stifle a laugh.  She had been so caught up in seeing an old friend that she had forgotten all about Lee’s jealous streak.  She reached out and gently ran her finger down his arm, then, when she felt his arm relax, she took his hand in hers. “Daniel Petrakis, I’d like to introduce you to my partner and fiancé, Lee Stetson.  Lee, Daniel and Joe went to Georgetown together.”

         “Lee Stetson, as in the famous Scarecrow?” Daniel’s eyes grew slightly wider when Amanda nodded. “I’m impressed, Amanda. This man’s a legend, at least within the FBI.” He reached out his hand to shake Lee’s.

         Lee let go of his wife’s hand and accepted Daniel’s. “I’m sure most of the stories are grave exaggerations.”

          “While this little reunion is absolutely thrilling,” Francine commented sarcastically. “I’d like to know why the hell the FBI is investigating a car bombing?” She glared at this old college buddy of Amanda’s with contempt. For some reason his cavalier attitude and the fact that he just waltzed right onto the scene acting like he was the lead investigator bugged the crap out of her.

         “Not that it’s any of your business Blondie,” Daniel smiled cynically at Francine, “but I have reason to believe that this bombing may be related to a case I’m working on.”  He then glanced over to Lee. “I’m glad to know that I haven’t gone rusty.  I had some serious doubts that Ricky Joe Jackson was your real name.”

         Lee looked a tad bit hurt. “I thought my impersonation of a Texan was pretty damn convincing.”

         Daniel shrugged. “Maybe to a bunch of locals who’ve never been outside the Tri-State area, but to someone who has family in Texas, it was just a little off.”

         Stephanie, who was still seething at the thought of Joe and Terry Gilman causing a scene at Pete’s, had been watching the exchange between Amanda and Daniel with mild interest.  She looked closer at the agent and had to admit that Lula wasn’t wrong about him being good looking.  Agent Petrakis had jet black hair and olive skin that gave him an almost Mediterranean look. His gorgeous green eyes twinkled, and his mouth was shaped so beautifully that she had a strong desire to wrap her arms around him and kiss him, just to see if his lips felt as good as they looked.  That thought alone brought a smile to her face, because kissing this Greek god would definitely send Joe into an absolute frenzy, which was exactly what he deserved right now. “I have to admit, I never would have pegged you being from Texas.  Your accent definitely doesn’t sound like you’re from south of the Mason-Dixon line; it has a definite New York quality to it.”

         Daniel smiled. “I’m not from Texas myself. I just have family out there.”

         Amanda chuckled at her husband’s slightly hurt ego.  “Well, I’ve had occasion to meet Ricky Joe, and I have to admit, he did seem a little too full of himself. He definitely gives those good ole boys from Texas a bad name.” She smiled and patted her husband’s cheek affectionately.

         Lee raised his eyebrow. “If I remember correctly, the last time you met Ricky, I’m the one who ended up with a drink all over me.” He looked at his wife with a mock pained expression. “Don’t you think Ricky Joe’s taken enough abuse?”

         Amanda smiled seriously and leaned closer to her husband. “Yes, and I’ve decided to take back what I said about him,” she moved her lips next to his ear and whispered, “sex with Ricky Joe is definitely not a disappointment.”

         Noticing that the conversation was quickly going down hill, Daniel cleared his throat and decided that it might not be a bad idea to change the subject. “So, what’s the Agency doing this far away from home? I didn’t think the organized crime here in New Jersey was even on your radar.”

         Before Lee could answer, one of the firemen who’d been working on the car came over with something in his hand. “Thought you might want to see this, Morelli.  Definitely a bomb, but it’s not one we’ve seen on Stephanie’s cars before.”

         “That’s not too surprising.  She does attract some interesting characters, so I’m not surprised it’s a different type.” Morelli glanced over at Stephanie. He caught her eye and gave her a knowing smirk.  He was going to have a long talk with her about not doubting his instincts again.  He knew she should have taken the Buick. 

         The fireman shook his head. “This looks too professional to be the work of the kind of psychos that usually target Stephanie.”

         Daniel looked over at Joe. “Do you mind if I take a look at that?” When Joe shrugged and the fireman moved closer, he leaned in to get a closer look at the device.  His eyes glanced over every visible inch and then let out a low whistle when he recognized a small marking on the charred black box.  He’d seen that marking on a few bombs before and it instantly confirmed his suspicions that this bombing was directly related to his case. “This is one of Carlos Veranos’ bombs.  See this little CV here in the archaic script,” he pointed to the initials, “it’s his trademark.  He puts it on all of his devices.  He always seems to have an alibi whenever one of them goes off, so we can’t directly pin him to the crime.” He glanced up and looked directly at Lee. “You’re here in Trenton because you’re tracking Veranos, aren’t you?  Is that why you and Morelli appear to be working together?”

         Lee shook his head. “Yes and no.  Amanda and I had been looking into Veranos’ business down in D.C., but he disappeared before we had a chance to talk to him.  We’re here in Trenton because we’re trying to track down a bigamist. We found out yesterday, totally by chance, that Veranos was here, which is how I ended up at the bar with Morelli.”

         “So the Agency’s the reason Veranos reappeared here in New Jersey.  We were wondering why he suddenly started dealing with the big dogs up here again.” Daniel tilted his head and looked at Lee curiously. “Wait, you aren’t talking about Benjamin Adams, are you?” 

         Lee nodded a bit hesitantly. “Yes, but…”

         Daniel smiled and shook his head slightly. “I guess you aren’t aware that Benjamin is Veranos’ number one business liaison.”

         Lee glanced over at his wife, who, he knew, was just as shocked as he was. “No, we weren’t.”

         Francine threw her hands up in the air. “Why me? Why can’t I find a normal guy? One who isn’t connected to dangerous criminals.” She shook her head as she realized that even Jonathan had gotten involved with Brody.  Granted Brody had duped Jonathan into thinking that she was working for the wrong side, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating.  One thing was sure, after Jonathan and Benjamin, she was going to start running background checks on every man she dated from now on.  

         Daniel looked over at Francine. “What do you mean?”

         “Blondie here was going to be Benjamin’s fifth wife.” Lula pointed towards Francine. “Guess your files on Adams aren’t as good as you thought, especially if you didn’t know about that.”

         Francine turned and glared at Lula. “Do me a favor, and keep your nose out of my business.  I don’t go shouting to everyone I meet that you used to be a hooker, do I?” She hissed through clenched teeth.

         Amanda reached over and put a hand on her friend’s arm.  She could feel the tension radiating off of half the people here, and having had one explosion already today, they didn’t need another, even if it was just a verbal one. “Benjamin, although we knew him as Adam Clyde, seems to either enjoy using women to establish his covers, or he really just can’t help himself.  I’d like to believe that he really does fall for these women, and that he doesn’t enjoy using them as a means of establishing his many aliases.  Anyway, Francine and Adam – Benjamin really, met and fell in love.  They had only recently gotten engaged, when I met my mother and a friend of hers for lunch in Baltimore, and it turned out that this friend was married to a man who looked exactly like the man we knew as Adam.  Lee and I ran a background check on him, and found out who he really was.  We were in the process of trapping him, when he got wise and took off.”

         Daniel gave Francine a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry.” He then glanced back over at Amanda and Lee. “Everything’s starting to make more sense though.”

         Joe cleared his throat and looked directly at Daniel.  “Although your insight into this bombing is greatly appreciated, I hope you don’t expect to come in and take over this case.  Trenton Vice has been trying to link Grizzolli to Veranos for the past four months, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be pushed aside because the FBI wants in.” He clenched and unclenched his fists a few times. “I’ve been gracious enough to work with the Agency on it, but that was because Lee was willing to pretend to be an interested buyer, I refuse to throw away months and months of planning just so I can pass the information over to you.”

         “Relax, Morelli,” Daniel put a hand up to ward off the cop’s accusations. “I’m fully aware that this is Vice’s show, and more to the point, your ballgame.  I have no intention of stepping in and taking over. I was assigned to work the background on this case, watch you and wait until we were sure that Veranos was in possession of some material that was recently stolen.  My superiors told me not to make direct contact with you, unless something major went down.”

         “And you think that this particular car bombing was major enough to convince you to come out of the shadows and risk getting in trouble with your bosses?”  Stephanie briefly glanced over at what was now a pile of water, ash and metal and then looked back at Agent Petrakis and shrugged. “Even I’m not crazy enough to do something that dumb.”

         Daniel raised his eyebrows slightly and tilted his head slightly. “I think that blowing up a car belonging to an agent of the federal government is pretty major, don’t you?”

         Amanda looked at Daniel with a slightly confused expression. “But you didn’t know that this was Lee’s car until about ten minutes ago.”

         “True,” Daniel shrugged, “but either way, a bombing is pretty significant, especially now that I know that this car belonged to the famous Scarecrow.  Besides, even if I didn’t know that, I still had my suspicions back at the bar that things weren’t quite as they appeared to go by, and that’s why, when Lee and Morelli left together, I followed them here.”

         “How do you know that Lee’s car exploding has something to do with this case that everyone seems to be working on, everyone except me that is,” Stephanie narrowed her eyes in Joe’s direction then looked back at Daniel. “I don’t mean to burst your bubble or anything but cars do have a tendency to explode whenever I’m in the general vicinity.”

         Lula nodded her head vigorously. “She ain’t lyin’ neither.  She has the worst luck around cars.  She looks at ’em wrong and poof, they go up in smoke.”

         Daniel let out a strong laugh. “Oh, I’m fully aware of your exploits, Ms. Plum.  I've enjoyed reading about your many escapades, they managed to brighten up my day.” He then grinned apologetically. “I’m sorry for not recognizing you at first, and I do apologize for causing any kind of rift between you and Morelli.  That certainly wasn’t my intent, and had I known that you were who you were, I wouldn’t have said anything.”

         Stephanie didn’t feel like thinking about Morelli with his hands on the gorgeous blonde, so she ignored his apology and focused on his first comment instead. “What do you mean you’ve read about me? As far as I know, I’ve only made the papers twice.” If Carl were still standing nearby she would have loved to have grilled him to find out just what kind of reading material the station was passing out.

         “I was referring to your file.” Daniel looked closer at Stephanie Plum, renowned bounty hunter.  He had to admit that if he had met her on the street, he’d have had a very hard time believing that she was an apprehension agent, not that he was one to really judge a book by its cover.  However, having read the reams of information on Miss Plum, he had to admit that the brunette in front of him had to be the luckiest person he knew, there was no other explanation for her managing to consistently get her man. “It makes for very interesting reading.”

         Stephanie placed her hands on her hips. “The FBI has a file on me?”

         “They have a file on almost everyone in law enforcement, Babe.” Ranger nodded respectfully at the FBI agent, who very subtly returned his nod of recognition.

         “Damn, where the devil did you come from?” Lula glanced around looking for one of Ranger’s familiar black cars. “Do you have a link to Scottie or something? Is that how you always manage to just pop into a scene? Do you just buzz the Enterprise and ask to be beamed down from your home planet?”

         Ranger smiled at Lula and then looked over at Stephanie. “Tank heard about the bombing on the scanner and I just knew it had to be your handy work.”

         Stephanie smirked. “This one really wasn’t my fault. I was nowhere near the car, and I’m getting tired of repeating myself.” She then glanced at her watch and looked back at Ranger. “What took you so long? You usually arrive around the same time as Morelli.”

         “I was delivering that wife beater to the station when the call came in from Tank.” Ranger shrugged his shoulders slightly. “Tank said that there were no casualties so I dropped the body receipt off to Vinnie first.”

         “Glad to know where I rate.” Stephanie rolled her eyes then turned back towards Agent Petrakis. “I don’t buy the fact that the FBI has a file on everyone, so I want to know why you have one on me.”

         “It’s nothing to get excited about.” Daniel smiled reassuringly at the brunette. “The FBI has been tracking some weapons that were stolen from Fort Dix and word on the street was that they’re going to be sold through a middleman to El Salvador.  We got word that Veranos was going to contact the Grizolli family, and we know that Grizzolli sometimes arranges information to be passed through Morelli.  Since our records indicate that you and Morelli have been seen together a lot, our research department ran a report on you.  Don’t worry, you aren’t the only one we did a background check on, we basically wanted to find out information on everyone that Morelli has contact with.  Yours just happens to be the most memorable file we have.” He turned towards Joe. “I do find it interesting, though that the blonde never once showed up on our radar.”

         Joe took a deep breath and did his best to restrain himself.  He had an overwhelming urge to punch Agent Petrakis in the face. Breaking this man’s nose would cause him great satisfaction right now. “Would you mind telling me why the hell you have me under surveillance?” Not only was he pissed at this agent for starting a fight between him and Stephanie, a fight that he really didn’t need at the moment, but he was also mad at himself for not noticing that anyone was following him.  He was usually a lot more aware of his surroundings than that.

         Daniel shrugged. "Don't take it personally.  We've seen you in the company of some pretty well known organized crime bosses, and had to make sure you weren’t on the take.”

         Joe narrowed his eyes at Petrakis. “I can assure you that I’m not on the take. I never have been and never will be, and I’d appreciate it if the FBI needs to be involved with a case I’m working, they come to me. I’ve worked with quite a few of your boys in the past, so I don’t appreciate the cloak and dagger crap.”

         Daniel nodded. “I’m fully aware of your past cooperation with the Bureau. But this case is a bit more complicated, and it seems to be getting more complicated by the minute.”

         Stephanie was still extremely pissed at Joe, but she knew him well enough to know that he was right on the verge of starting something physical. Mentally sighing, she subtly maneuvered herself between Joe and the FBI agent. “So why do you think Lee’s car blowing up is connected to whatever it is that everyone seems to be working so discreetly on?” She then turned towards Ranger. “You’re not working on trying to catch Veranos too, are you?” When Ranger shook his head and looked at her like she had three heads she rolled her eyes and smirked at him. “I’m only asking because apparently Lee and Joe and Agent Petrakis all seem to be.”

         “Sorry to disappoint, Babe, but I don’t have my hand in that till.” Ranger smiled and then looked over at Agent Petrakis.  “What’s the FBI doing here? Car bombings aren’t something that you guys usually investigate.”

         Daniel nodded in agreement. “That’s true. As Stephanie pointed out, it ties into an ongoing investigation the Bureau’s been carrying out on Carlos Veranos. And despite what everyone seems to think, this bombing is not linked to Ms. Plum at all.  In fact, now that I know more of the facts, I believe that Veranos or perhaps even Adams, specifically targeted Lee’s car.” He looked over at the agent. “I think Veranos is wise to the fact that you’re in town and is trying to get you out of the picture.  I don’t mean this in a negative way, because I’m glad that no one was killed, but Veranos’ bombs hardly ever miss their targets. Unless,” his mouth twisted in thought as he glanced over at his college buddy. “Amanda, didn’t you say that you guys were nowhere near the car when it blew up?”

         “Yes, we were almost a block away.” Amanda nodded then looked at her friend quizzically. “What are you getting at, Daniel?”

         “Well, I’m thinking that maybe Veranos wasn't attempting to kill you, but rather distract you.  I don’t think he’s aware that you’re investigating him but, since Adams is technically his second in command, it could be that he’s trying to shake you off of Adams’ trail.” Daniel nodded more to himself than to anyone else as things started to become clearer. “Knowing how much trouble Adams has already caused Veranos, it makes perfect sense that he wouldn’t want you or anyone else coming in and getting wind of the deal and stopping it before he has a chance to complete it.  If he doesn’t deliver soon, his buyers in El Salvador are going to buy the goods from someone else.”

         “And you’re convinced that the deal is going down here?” Lee asked, a bit skeptically.  About an hour ago, he and Morelli still hadn’t received any information that Grizzolli was even involved with Veranos, and he wanted to know why this FBI agent seemed to be so sure.

         “Oh, I’m positive.” Daniel nodded more vigorously than he had before. “All the players are back in town, so something big is going down, and soon. When the guns were stolen from Fort Dix five months ago, we received some sketchy intel that they were going to be shipped out of Trenton and either go to New York or somewhere else to be sold to a foreign terrorist organization.  Then, Adams was arrested and some of the weapons showed up in his trunk.  We did some investigating and found the link between Veranos and Adams but before we could start investigating Veranos, he’d pulled up shop and then Adams skipped bail and disappeared.”

         “And you thought Adams would resurface floating face down in the Hudson?” Lee shot an understanding look in Daniel’s direction.

         “Actually, from what we’d found out, Adams was too important to Veranos’ operation for him to end up as fish food.” Daniel shook his head. “No, Veranos has enough connections that he can erase enough information on someone so that they fade into the woodwork.  How do you think Adams ended up with so many aliases? Anyway, we finally traced Veranos to an import/export company in D.C. that he’d apparently acquired about a year ago, so we transferred responsibility to the bureau down there, and I guess they went to the Agency for assistance.”

         Lee groaned. “Figures, Smyth had us doing FBI legwork, under the guise of doing some old research. Typical bureaucratic B.S.”

         Amanda gave her husband a placating look. “Lee, that’s not true and you know it.  Mr. Melrose gave us the stolen gun assignment because the intel the Agency had received from El Salvador linked directly into the Import/Export research project I’d done for Beaman’s class, and Southern Star just happened to be one of the companies I’d already visited.  Granted it wasn’t owned by Carlos Veranos at the time, which is what we were going to use as our excuse to talk to him, remember?”

         “I remember the assignment, Amanda, but trust me,” Lee ran a hand through his hair, “this is beginning to smell a lot like something Smyth would do to us.  Billy may have been the one who told me that our agent in El Salvador passed the information along, but you know as well as I do that all departments report to our esteemed leader,” his voice was laced with sarcasm as he spoke, “and that included Beaman, so Dr. Smyth was fully aware of the fact that you’d done the initial investigation into all those Import/Export businesses, including Southern Star.  This whole thing is so twisted and entwined, that I wouldn’t put it past him to have known that Adam Clyde was Benjamin Adams and that Francine was involved with him.”

         Amanda gave Lee a look that told him he was stretching things just a little too far. “I seriously doubt that Dr. Smyth knew that Francine was in a serious relationship, let alone that she was dating a known criminal.  He’d have wasted no time writing her up for that one.” She then looked directly into her husband’s eyes and then looked down at her hand and absently began to play with her ring finger, hoping he’d get the hint.  Francine had gone to bat for them with Dr. Smyth with regards to their marital status, and he would love nothing more than to have something to hold over her head, thereby counteracting Francine’s threat to him.

         “Whether Smyth is behind this or not, we’re involved up to our eyeballs, so if it’s all the same to you.” Francine glared at Lee, “I’d like to find out the rest of this, because if it’s going to help us capture Benjamin, I definitely want in, no matter who gave the original orders.” She turned towards Agent Petrakis. “Please forgive my co-worker, sometimes he lacks manners.”

         “No offense taken, I assure you Miss…you know we haven’t been formally introduced. You know my name, but I haven’t learned yours.” Daniel gave her his most charming smile.  He realized that they might have gotten off on the wrong foot, but there was definitely something intriguing about this take charge blonde.

         “Francine Desmond.” Despite her better instincts, Francine found herself strangely drawn to this agent and graced him with an endearing smile. “Now, please…finish your report.”

         Daniel chuckled. “There isn’t much more really.  The D.C. bureau was keeping an eye on Veranos, but he didn’t seem to be moving forward, at least not that we could see.  Then, one day he closed up the D.C. shop completely and resurfaced here less than a week ago.  Our sources say they’ve seen Adams in town as well.”

         “You mean Veranos wasn’t angry with Benjamin for getting caught with his merchandise, and therefore having so many fingers pointed at him?” Having grown up around enough organized crime, Stephanie had a hard time believing that Benjamin wasn’t, in fact, fish food. 

         “Oh word on the street was that Veranos was very put out with Adams.” Daniel nodded. “That’s why Veranos went back and sat quietly down in D.C. until things quieted down.  We figured Adams would have been clear across the country, we had no reason to believe that he’d stay so close to his employer.”

         “I bet Veranos wasn’t happy with Adams for almost getting caught again.” Lee turned towards Ranger. “I guess we know why your searches didn’t bring up Adams’ wife in Baltimore.  Veranos made sure that she couldn’t be tied to Benjamin.”

         Francine smiled a bit ruefully. “Somehow it makes me feel a little better that Adams probably doesn’t have many more lives left.  I’d say he has one more strike left, and then he might just end up floating in the Hudson.”  She sighed regretfully. “I’d hate to lose out on wringing his neck personally, but I won’t shed a tear if Veranos disposes of him, just as long as it’s very slow and very, very painful.”

         Ranger didn’t usually show emotion in public, but the blonde’s obvious dislike for the man who’d led her astray struck him as funny and he let out a chuckle.  Then, when his pager started buzzing, he pulled it off his belt and looked at the number.  Letting out a small grunt, he slipped the device back into its holder. “Gotta check in with the office.” He then towards Stephanie. “Glad to see you still in one piece, Babe.”

         “Nice to know you care.” Stephanie shot Ranger a very flirtatious smile.  She knew it wasn’t a good idea to tease Ranger, knowing full well that he could collect his payment at any time for the loan of the Porsche and many other bits of assistance he'd provided her with recently.  She suddenly realized that she seemed to be racking up quite a bill with him lately.  Although she doubted he’d do anything in public, she didn't doubt that he would hesitate in carrying her off to a secluded spot and having his way with her. A shudder of fear and excitement coursed up her spine at the thought of seeing Ranger in all his naked glory. “Hey, have you guys turned up anything on Adams, I mean has he made contact with his Grandma at all?” She kept her eyes firmly locked on Ranger, knowing full well that any attention she paid to her mentor drove Joe crazy, and she wanted to make him extremely jealous.

         Ranger shook his head. “Nothing. He’s definitely laying low. Petrakis is right, he’s most likely on to the fact that the Agency’s here looking for him.” He then turned and headed for his car, which he’d parked quite a few blocks away.  He cared about Stephanie, and would do whatever it took to keep her safe, but that didn’t mean his business didn’t take a hit every time she destroyed one of his cars.  Better to be safe, than sorry.

         As Joe watched Stephanie so obviously flirting with Ranger, his blood pressure began to rise exponentially.  He knew that she was getting in as many digs as possible to get even for the whole Terry affair, but that didn’t make it any easier to digest.  Not wanting to have another spat with her in public, he decided to get her alone later and hash everything out, so he turned his anger back on the agent who’d gotten him in this mess in the first place. “I still don’t understand why a full blown character analysis was done on me and everyone I came in contact with.  Vice is always very cooperative with you suits.”

         Daniel had a feeling that he had probably let too much out of the bag already, but since he’d already started, he’d never get Morelli’s cooperation if he didn’t tell him the rest, and if there was any hope of finding the stolen weapons before they were sold, he’d need Morelli on his side.  He sighed as he looked over at Morelli, knowing that he was in for some very unpleasant reprimands when this case was over. “When we got word that Veranos had moved the operation back here, we dug a little deeper and one of our contacts informed us that he’d heard whispers that Grizolli was somehow involved.  Since you’ve done work with us before, we were well aware of the fact that the Grizolli family had cooperated with Vice in the past, but had always used you as their main contact.  That’s why we put you under surveillance, Morelli.  We figured that you’d be the key to getting the inside scoop on what Grizolli was really up to.  However, we did it on the hush-hush, because we feared that if Grizolli got wind of us sniffing around, he might not make a deal with Veranos?”

         “There are other ways you could have gotten word to me that you wanted information.” Joe sneered. “Next time the Bureau wants my assistance, just come right out and ask, because if I find out that you’ve been sneaking around behind my back again, you can guarantee I won’t be so cooperative in the future.”

         Daniel nodded and shrugged apologetically. “My assignment came from very high up, but I’ll pass your message on when I give my final report.  I want you to know, that I think you’re fully justified in being annoyed with us. Personally, I wouldn’t want to find out that I’d been under surveillance either.” He felt a wave of relief hit him when he saw the lines of anger slowly start to disappear from Morelli’s face. “So, who was the blonde back at the bar?  She must be someone important otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to just waltz past the bodyguards posted outside the back room you were in.”

         “Her name’s Terry Gilman,” Stephanie answered before Joe had a chance to put his foot any further down his throat.  She realized that something big was going on, and that Joe was most likely just playing a role in order to get information, but that didn’t mean that she was ready to come close to forgiving him.  No matter how the cards were stacked, he had still lip locked with his old girlfriend, and that alone didn’t sit well with her at all. “And there’s a very good reason she had an all access pass, she’s Vito Grizolli’s niece.”

         “She’s Terry Grizolli?” Daniel let out a low whistle and then bit his tongue before he got Morelli in any more hot water.  What he had wanted to say probably wouldn’t have sat well with any of the females standing around him.

         Joe nodded. “She’s my usual connection to Vito.  Grizolli confides in her, and she passes the information on to me.  She got married a few years back, and when the marriage dissolved, she kept her ex’s last name.  It suits her purpose since not many people link her directly to Vito.” He then glanced around at the growing crowd of on-lookers. “Look I think we’ve said way more than we should have out here in the open.  I think it’s time that we break up this little party now before any of Grizolli or Veranos’ men start poking around.  We can reconvene back at my house.” He turned towards Daniel. “You’re more than welcome to join us and I’m sure you know where it is, so I don’t need to give you directions.” He then looked over at Lee and Amanda. “I’m pretty sure Lula has room for the three of you,” he nodded in Francine’s direction.          

         “Lula’s Red Cab at your service.” Lula began fumbling in her purse for her keys. “I’ll take you as far as Vinnie’s but then I need to run some personal errands. It’s been fun and all, but I’ve had about as much excitement as I can handle for one day.” She smiled and shrugged. “And besides, I gots me a really hot date tonight.”

         Amanda smiled pleasantly at Stephanie’s friend. “Thank you Lula, we appreciate the offer.” She then turned towards Joe. “Don’t I need to file a report with the police? I haven’t given a statement to anyone, and I’m sure that things like this don’t just get swept aside without some kind of explanation.”

         Joe shook his head. “You don’t need to file anything. I’ll call Costanza and have him write up a preliminary report, then I’ll add what you guys told me to the report.  That way we can leave out some of the more detailed aspects.” He saw the look of doubt on Amanda’s face and smiled. “Trust me. It’s a lot easier this way.” He then glanced over at the curly-haired brunette. “You’re riding with me.” He glanced back over at the others. “We’ll meet everyone back at my place. Steph and I’ll pick up dinner on the way over.” 

         Stephanie had spun towards Joe with daggers in her eyes the minute he’d issued the command that she’d be going with him. “The hell I’m going with you, Morelli. I don’t even want to talk to you right now, let alone spend any time in close quarters with you. I’ll get a ride with Costanza and Big Dog... I want to make sure I get my body receipt for Tommy.”

         Joe knew she was really good and pissed at him, but hell, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with her at the moment either. Regardless, they needed to air their dirty laundry out in private, and it needed to be done sooner rather than later.  Too much was riding on this case, and he didn’t need to worry about a lover’s spat with Stephanie as well. “Sorry, Cupcake, but you are coming with me. You and I need to talk, in private, so that I can explain about Gilman…and we can hash out a few other issues.”

         “I really don’t care what you do with Terry Gilman any more.  She can have you.” Stephanie turned on her heal and started walking towards Carl’s squad car.

         Lee watched the scene between Morelli and Stephanie with brotherly concern. He had been watching Morelli very closely during his exchanges with Petrakis, and though he didn’t think that the cop would intentionally hurt Stephanie, he’d seen the anger in Morelli’s eyes.  He’d been in that spot a time or two himself, but he didn’t have hot Italian blood running through his veins, which Morelli did, and there was no denying that Morelli was itching for a fight.  He took a step in their direction, but stopped when he felt his wife’s familiar touch on his arm.

         “Let them be, Lee.  They need to work this out alone.  She’ll be all right. No matter how mad Morelli seems, he won’t hurt her.  He loves her too much to do her any physical harm.” Amanda then nodded her head towards the direction of Lula’s Firebird. “On the other hand, I can’t say the same for Francine.” At her husband’s raised eyebrows, she chuckled. “Let’s just say that I think Lula’s tried her very last shred of patience.”

         Lee glanced once more in the couple’s direction, and watched as Morelli caught back up to the bounty hunter, before turning back towards his wife and nodding reluctantly. “Okay, let’s go keep Francine from committing murder.” He then let out an unhappy sigh as he followed his wife.  He had a feeling it was going to be a very long, very uncomfortable ride back to the bonding agency.

         Joe had taken two quick steps to catch up with Stephanie, and when he was right beside her, he gently grabbed her arm, pulling her to a stop. “But I don’t want her, I want you. Now, you’re coming with me and I’m going to talk, and you’re going to listen. I’ll drive you to the station so you can get your body receipt, then we’ll drive over to Vinnie’s so you can collect your bounty, and then you and I are going to pick up the Civic, drive it to your parents, lock it in their garage and get the Buick.”

         Stephanie narrowed her eyes at Joe. “You lost the right to try and tell me what to do when you started making out with Terry Gilman in public.  It’s bad enough when you do it behind closed doors, but I really draw the line at forgiving you when you suck face in front of witnesses.” She shook his hand off her arm and then crossed her arms defiantly across her chest. “And furthermore, I am not getting the Buick. It wasn’t even my car that exploded.”

         Joe shrugged his shoulders.  “True, but somehow you’ve managed to get under someone’s skin, and the Buick is reliable and safe.”

         “And has insane luck.  All my other cars get rammed, blown up or stolen, but the Buick…not even the most expert arsonist can make a dent in it.” She muttered as she rolled her eyes.

         Joe smiled. “Face it Cupcake, you make the most rational man want to hog tie you and lock you up somewhere, just to keep you off his back, and right now we’re mixed up in something that’s gotten very big and way out of hand. I like having you in one piece way too much to let you risk your life any more than necessary.” He leaned down to kiss her lips, and wasn’t a bit surprised that she turned her head, causing his mouth to land on her cheek instead. “Please, just come with me.”

         Stephanie threw up her hands and then put on her best pissed off face.  Truth was, when he started using his pleading voice, she had a hard time turning him down.  She knew he loved her and that he was only being a pig-headed ass because he was worried about her and about this case, but she wasn’t going to let him know that she was weakening; he needed to sweat a little longer. “Fine, I’ll ride with you, but only because it appears that Carl and Big Dog left already.” She sighed as she watched the squad car driving off and then glared back at Joe. “But don’t think that just because I’m going with you means that I’ve even come close to forgiving you or that I’m agreeing to ride around in that clunker of my grandma’s.”

         Joe smiled, knowing that Stephanie was beginning to soften her resolve. “We can discuss all this in the truck.” He then grabbed her hand and led her towards his truck.  He wasn’t trying to be a caveman, but he just knew that if he didn’t get a firm grip on her, she might just run off and hitch a ride on one of the fire engines. Even though she seemed ready to listen to reason, he knew her well enough to know that she could put on a very convincing act when she wanted to.  He’d briefly toyed with the option of cuffing her to him, but it might have made driving just a little difficult, and it would also lead his mind down the wrong path. Right now they needed to clear the air between them and he didn’t need thoughts of sex with Stephanie running rampant through his mind; there would be plenty of time later to enjoy the pleasure of making up. 

 

Chapter 11 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 11

         Francine followed Stephanie into her apartment building and over to the elevator.  As they waited for the car to arrive, she stretched her neck and stifled a yawn. “Damn, this day was exhausting.  Not to mention the fact that I’m going to need to go on a serious exercise regimen when I get home.  I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much fast food.  Between the pizza and the Italian restaurants, I can actually feel my hips expanding.”

         “I thought being a secret agent, you’d be used to a lot of drama.” Stephanie glanced up at the floor numbers, noting that the elevator was now on its way down.  “And as for the weight issue.  Trust me, you have nothing to worry about.” She fought the urge to suck in her stomach and hide the inch of fat that was trying to escape over the top of her jeans.

         Francine could have argued that though she didn’t look like she’d put on extra pounds, she could definitely feel them, so she chose to ignore the brunette’s flattering remarks. “I’m used to a lot of things happening, but I’ve never had to deal with so many emotions in one day, and all of them being mine. Usually I have to deal with everyone else’s.” She closed her eyes and gently rubbed her temples. “Between your over eager friend, Lee’s car being blown up, and having to question an old lady about her grandson who just happens to be my ex-fiancé who, by the way, I really want to get my hands on, I’m done for the day, I want off this emotional rollercoaster that has taken over my life.” She let out a sigh of relief when the elevator dinged, announcing its arrival on the ground floor. “I’m looking forward to just crashing on your couch and sleeping until next week. But since a week’s rest isn’t in the cards, I’ll settle for about six straight hours of uninterrupted rest.”

         Stephanie nodded in understanding and then, when the doors opened, she smiled politely at her neighbor. “Good evening Mrs. Bestler.”  Mrs. Bestler was a sweet old lady who lived on the third floor, and when she got bored, loved to play elevator operator.

         Mrs. Bestler leaned forward and pushed the close door button when both passengers were on board. “New mattresses second floor, hairdresser on two.” She then hit the one for Stephanie’s floor.

         Francine shot Stephanie a look that clearly said ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ She couldn’t help but wonder if the young brunette knew anybody normal. She was about to say something when the elevator stopped on Stephanie’s floor and the doors opened.

         Stephanie shrugged her shoulders slightly in apology as she followed Francine off the elevator. “Mrs. Bestler’s very nice, a bit senile maybe,” she commented as soon as the doors closed behind her. “but harmless.  Sometimes she pretends that she’s working in a department store.  She never comes out and says anything directly about my appearance, she uses departments instead.  I guess she didn’t like my hairdo, hence the hairdresser comment.” She chuckled as she pulled another twig out of her hair.  Joe had offered her the use of his shower, but she’d declined.  She had been too annoyed with Joe’s domineering attitude and his betrayal of her trust to even want to touch his soap.  Granted, he had explained to her why he’d done it, but no matter what his reasons, it had still been Terry Gilman that he’d been making out with, and for some reason the ex-cheerleader made her blood boil. Reaching her door, she started digging around in her purse for her keys.

          “You may not find what you’re looking for.” Francine commented as she slipped her lock pick out of her sleeve. 

         Stephanie glanced up at the blonde with a confused expression. “My keys?”

         Francine nodded. “Since you were so pissed off this morning, you were the first one to leave, and I ended up locking up with this.” She waived her lock pick back and forth and shook her head disapprovingly.  “You know, if you consistently leave your apartment without locking it, then I’m not at all surprised that you have so many unexpected visitors waiting for you when you get home.”

         “Well at least you won’t have to use that to open the door.” Stephanie laughed a little self-consciously as she pulled her keys out of her purse. “Believe it or not, today was very unusual for me, I always make sure my apartment’s locked, even though it doesn’t do any good, I can lock it in five different places, and people still get in.” She put the key in the lock and then turned to Francine. “So, what did you think of the FBI agent?  Was he not drop-dead gorgeous?”

         Francine shrugged as she put her lock pick back inside the cuff of her sleeve. “I guess he was okay.  To be honest, right now I’m so fed up with the opposite sex that he could have been Sean Connery and I wouldn’t have cared.”

         Stephanie turned the key and opened her door. “Well, if I didn’t have enough of my own man troubles, I might have seriously made a play for him.  As it was I was contemplating making out with him just to piss Joe off.  I’m just glad that I didn’t let him win the round with the Buick, well not entirely. After all, I did promise him that first thing tomorrow I’d bring my Civic over to my parents and trade it in for the tank. I still can’t believe I let him convince me to agree to drive that ugly powder blue monstrosity my uncle left for Grandma Mazur; I seriously need my head examined. I was just so tired of arguing with him that I finally…” Her voice automatically stopped working when she felt a menacingly strong hand grip her arm, yanking into her apartment and causing her big black shoulder bag to skid across the floor. The first thought that ran through her mind was that maybe she needed to get a guard dog, perhaps a bulldog or something equally menacing to keep bad guys from breaking and entering.  Any further thoughts about dogs were cut off when she felt the cold steel of a gun being pressed firmly into her temple and her assailant’s grip on her arm tightening.  She wasn’t looking forward to the bruise that was going to appear. She gazed at the blonde, hoping her new agent friend was working on a plan to get her safely away from this madman.  Becoming someone’s captive at gunpoint was happening just a little too often for her taste, and working at the button factory was becoming more and more appealing every day.

         “I suggest that you don’t bother trying to pull out your weapon, Francine, not unless you want me to splatter this pretty young lady’s brains all over her apartment.”
         Francine had caught the shadow moving inside, but the assailant had Stephanie in his grasp before she could get her hand around her own gun.  She silently cursed herself for putting it in her purse, rather than placing it somewhere where it would have been easier to grasp.  Her only excuse was that she had been too damn tired and she’d let her guard down; which had been extremely careless and stupid on her part, especially considering the discussion she’d been involved in earlier about Benjamin and his connection to Carlos Veranos. “Adam…or should I call you Benjamin, not that it matters, because you’re still going to hang from the tallest tree I can find.”

         “Franny, Franny, tsk, tsk, tsk.” Benjamin began walking backwards, dragging Stephanie with him. “Now, be a good girl and come inside and close the door behind you. We don’t need any of Miss Plum’s inquisitive, elderly neighbors looking inside and getting the hair-brained idea to call the cops, or accidentally getting themselves shot.”

         Francine mentally bristled. Only people who wanted to die a slow painful death called her by that name. However, she wasn’t going to let Benjamin know that he was getting to her. “Benjamin, let Stephanie go.  This is between you and me, there’s no reason to drag anyone else into this.”  She slowly moved forward, keeping her eyes locked with Stephanie’s. She had to admit that, although the brunette’s eyes clearly showed fear, her facial expression gave nothing else away.

         Benjamin dragged Stephanie into the living room and nodded to the bulky man standing just inside. “Randolph, would you be so kind and cuff Ms. Desmond’s hands behind her back? She’s a trained agent, and I want her restrained in such a way that it’s almost impossible for her to get loose.” Assured that Randolph wasn’t getting any resistance from Francine, he laid his gun on top of the television next to him.  He then pulled a slip of rope out of his back pocket, and grabbing the brunette’s other arm, he roughly brought her wrists together behind her back.

         Stephanie tried to yank one of her arms free, but gave up when Benjamin proved to be much too strong, and she felt the pull of a rope being wrapped around her skin. “Hey, how come she gets cuffs and you’re using rope on me?”

         “Because Francine is a highly trained government agent and you are an amateur bounty hunter with no real skills.  I happen to know that the government puts their agents through very rigorous training until they can untie every known knot.  Cuffs are a lot harder to get out of, especially the ones that Veranos makes, and I only use those in very special cases.” Benjamin grinned evilly at Francine as he concentrated on pulling the rope tighter around the brunette’s wrists.

         Stephanie winced as she felt the rope chaffing her skin. “Do you mind not tying that rope so tight? I promise you that I can’t untie every knot ever created. I would really like to keep the use of my fingers, though.” She then mentally noted that she planned on using those fingers, when and if she ever got free, to gouge out each one of his eyes.

         Benjamin whipped the bounty hunter around and glared. “Shut up, bitch.” He smacked her across the face and then threw her down onto the couch. He reached over and grabbed his gun off the top of the television and aimed it at the brunette’s heart. “Don't try my patience, bounty hunter. I'm keeping you alive for one reason and one reason only, and that's to keep Desmond in line.” He then smirked at Francine. “I must say that when I asked you to marry me, I figured I'd have to deal with your determination to keep your career, but I never once dreamed that that same career was going to be the one thing that messed up my entire life.”

         Francine glared at Benjamin. “So, this is the real you.  If I’d known you were such a monster, I never would have accepted your marriage proposal.  I can’t believe I even doubted that the man I’d fallen in love with could be anything but kind and gentle, even when I wanted to drag you kicking and screaming back to D.C. for just being a womanizing cheat.” Feeling her anger towards her former fiancé starting to rise to the surface, she pulled on all her training to keep herself calm as she spoke. “Then when I found out you were Carlos Veranos’ right hand man, I cringed at the thought that you were a role model for a bunch of high school kids, but I still didn’t want to believe that you could be any kind of hit man or worse. But now…now that I’m getting a chance to meet the real you…I can see that Adam Clyde was just an illusion, and I’m usually a much better judge of character.”  She realized that she was probably talking too much but she knew that she had to keep her captor’s attention on her.  If she got both men to focus all their attention on her, and Stephanie was smart enough to see an opening, then maybe the bounty hunter could find a way to escape. “So tell me, Benjamin, how did you know I’d show up here at Stephanie’s, or were you actually planning on kidnapping her for another purpose all together?”

         “I didn’t actually know that you would be coming here, if that’s what you meant. I was actually going to use this pesky bounty hunter as bait to lure you in.” Benjamin laughed. “I bet you’re wondering how I even knew that Miss Plum would even be of any interest to you aren’t you?” He moved over to where Randolph was holding Francine and ran his finger tantalizingly along her shirt collar, all the while keeping his gun aimed in Stephanie’s direction. “You see, it really is amazing how fate works sometimes.  I’ve been following you since you left my former wife’s house.”

         Francine fought back the urge to show any kind of reaction to Benjamin’s taunting.  She knew he was baiting her, after all, they had been intimate and he did know her weak spots. “I’m surprised that you would even chance showing your face there.” She looked closer at the gun in Benjamin’s hand and silently cringed.  It was her gun he held, which meant that if she wasn’t careful, he could shoot Stephanie and pin the blame on her.  Not that there wasn’t enough evidence against Benjamin, but she couldn’t take that chance. “You’re obviously smart enough to know that her house would still be being watched.”

         Benjamin wrapped his fingers around Francine’s collar and pulled her face closer to his. “Well if it weren’t for the fact that things have gotten so out of control for me that I have to make sure the guns get to El Salvador, I wouldn’t have bothered.” He then planted a hard kiss on the blonde’s lips. “You still taste sweet, Francine. If I didn’t have other things to take care of, and we didn’t have this audience, I would have my wicked way with you right here and now.” He let go of her collar and stepping back a bit, looked her up and down, licking his lips lecherously. Clearing his mind of such scintillating thoughts, he shook his head slightly. “You’ve really put the hangman’s noose around my neck, Blondie. Since I know how much you love to ask questions, I’ll save you the trouble and just tell you what you’re probably dying to know. The reason that I was sneaking back into that house, is because there are some very important papers hiding in an old book that I placed somewhere in the house that not even the cops would think to look, but I’m not going to tell you where, that would spoil my best hiding place.”

         Benjamin smiled cunningly at his former fiancée. “And now I bet you’re wondering how I’d know that I could even get into the house without my former wife knowing…well you see, I’ve had Eleanor followed for the last few months, so I waited until I knew she’d be going to her yoga class to make my move. Imagine my shock when I turned the corner onto Eleanor’s street and saw you and Amanda leaving her house with the Bombshell Bounty Hunter.” He nodded his head in Stephanie’s direction, never taking his eyes off of Francine. “I thought I was a goner for sure when I saw the look of recognition on Miss Plum’s face. I can’t tell you how extremely relieved I was when I saw you all jumping into your cars and going off in pursuit of that Celica.”

         Francine clenched her teeth together to keep from spitting in Benjamin’s face.  If her hands weren’t secured behind her back she would have been rubbing furiously at her lips, trying to remove the vile taste that lingered.  How she had ever fallen in love with this Neanderthal Cro-Magnon wolf in sheep’s clothing was something she’d be asking herself for the next fifty years.  She took a deep breath, pushing her disgust behind her agent mask. “So how did you manage to set the bomb, or was it one of Veranos’ men?  I’m not being too presumptuous in assuming that you were the one that had the bomb placed on Lee’s car, am I?”

         Benjamin smiled devilishly. “Very good Frannie. I see that not only are you inquisitive, but you seem to be very intuitive as well.  You win the million dollar prize for guessing correctly, it was me who planted that bomb.”

         Francine bit her tongue. If he called her Frannie one more time, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep her self-control. “I can’t help wondering, though, if you were back at Eleanor’s and we were off in pursuit of the Celica, however did you find us in order to plant the bomb?  I mean I would think that you would’ve been so relieved that we hadn’t noticed you that you would have gone after your papers.  Or did you decide to chase after us instead?”

         “Once again, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I knew you were a woman with brains as well as looks.” Benjamin reached out and ran his finger over the blonde’s chest, letting his mind remember all the times he had enjoyed tasting her perfect breasts.  Shaking his head to keep from letting his mind go down that path, he let out a reluctant sigh and shrugged his shoulders. “I hate to admit it, but the minute I saw you and Amanda leaving my old house, my brain went into revenge mode.  I decided the book could wait, but I saw an opportunity to get rid of you that was just too perfect to pass up.  So I joined in the car chase; however, I didn’t really need to drive like a maniac to keep up with you.  I’d recognized Tommy, and I know some of his favorite hiding spots, so, based on the turns he was taking, I was pretty sure I knew where he was heading.  Then when I saw Tommy’s Toyota smashed into that telephone pole, and saw the four of you chasing after Tommy on foot, I knew I’d guessed correctly.  Luck seemed to really be on my side.  I slipped up to Stetson’s car, planted the bomb and was gone before anyone knew I’d been there.”

         Francine smiled gloatingly at Benjamin.  “I bet you weren’t feeling too lucky when all the bomb did was destroy Lee’s car.”

         Benjamin turned his full attention on Francine. “I was pissed.  I’d set the timer for thirty minutes, hoping that you and Amanda would be in the car.  Heck, maybe even Amanda and Stetson.   Either way, if Amanda had died, it would have devastated Stetson, and you, and I was putting my hopes in the theory that you’d both give up your pursuit of me and keep you from nosing around in Veranos’ business as well.”

         Francine mentally congratulated herself.  Benjamin’s attention was now fully on her. She glanced over briefly at Stephanie, willing her to take this opportunity to run.  She silently cursed, however, when the brunette misinterpreted her cue.

         Stephanie caught Francine’s look and couldn’t understand why the blonde wanted her to distract this madman holding them at gunpoint. Especially, since, although she hated to admit, she was scared out of her mind, which seemed almost ridiculous, after all this wasn’t the first time she’d been in a life or death situation. However, if Francine needed her to help, she was going to swallow that fear and do whatever it took to assist the agent in getting them out of this situation. “Do you always carry car bombs on you, just on the off chance that you’ll run into someone you want to get rid of?”

         Benjamin stepped away from Francine and turned his attention back on the brunette. “I learned the hard way not to keep any incriminating evidence in any of my cars.  However, the car I was in was one of Veranos’.  He usually keeps a small arsenal in his company cars.  He’s made a lot of enemies, and sometimes he has to get rid of someone quickly.  Unfortunately I guess the wiring on the one I found was faulty, because it went off twenty minutes too soon. I was really hoping to eliminate at least one obstacle, but alas, it’s not a big deal. Now that we know you all are in town, Veranos will take care of eliminating Lee and Amanda.  You on the other hand,” he turned back towards the woman he’d been madly in love with not forty-eight hours ago, “will have to come with us for insurance.”

          “Why not just kill me now and get it over with?” Francine noticed immediately that Benjamin was no longer pointing the gun in Stephanie’s direction and realized that if she was going to make her move, it was now or never.  Taking a slight step forward, she prepared herself to take out the goon behind her. 

         “Because you’re going to be my insurance policy.  Just in case Scarecrow and Mrs. King really are as good as everyone says they are.” Benjamin caught a slight glimmer of hope in Francine’s eyes and took two steps towards the couch. “Don’t even think about it Francine.” Keeping his gaze on the blonde, he reached down and grabbed a chunk of Stephanie’s hair.  Yanking it upward, he pulled the brunette up off the couch and then shoved his gun into her ribs. “The minute you attempt to escape from Randolph, I’ll have Miss Plum’s blood spilling all over this room.”

         Stephanie swallowed the bile that was rising in her throat.  She hadn’t felt this sick and scared since Ramirez the boxer had been threatening her.  “Who…who are Scarecrow and Mrs. King?” She glanced over at Benjamin and then turned her gaze on Francine.  Then, as soon as the words had left her mouth, she realized she already knew the answer. After all, Amanda’s last name was King, and earlier today, Agent Petrakis had mentioned that Lee was the famous Scarecrow.  Her only excuse was that she’d been too pissed off at Joe at the time to let the information fully sink in.

         “I’m surprised you don’t know.” Benjamin glanced over at Francine.  “Then I guess Stetson doesn’t like to shout his codename from every rooftop.”

         “No, he doesn’t.” Francine kept her expression neutral. “So how is it that you managed to find out that little bit of information?”

         Benjamin grinned at the blonde. “Oh, I know all about Lee and Amanda’s secret identities.  You see, after I left D.C., I contacted Veranos and had him run a check on you, Lee and Amanda.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that you guys worked for a secret government agency.  Just my dumb luck to fall in love with a federal agent.” He smiled evilly at Francine. “If the famous Scarecrow and his lovely partner do manage to escape the trap that Veranos is having set for them as we speak, then I want you along to keep them in line.  You are, after all, very important to them, otherwise you wouldn’t be the Maid of Honor at their wedding.  Besides, I want to be the one to do the final honors of ending your life.  It really is a shame that neither you, Amanda or Lee are going to make it to that happy day.  Weddings really are joyous occasions.” He turned his attention on to the brunette. “And you, bounty hunter, are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Seems to be a trend with you, doesn’t it? I’m truly surprised you’re still around to tell the tales.  We all would have been so much happier if you had died in that fire at Stiva’s.”

          “So why do you need me along if you’re only going to kill me?” Stephanie glared at Benjamin. “You know, your grandmother would be very disappointed to know what a monster you really are.”

         Benjamin tightened his grip on Stephanie “Veranos wants you alive. Apparently your cop boyfriend is getting a little too close to closing down his operation.  You’re just another addition to the insurance policy Veranos asked me to gather together.” He glanced down at his watch and then back at the brunette next to him. “I think we’ve waited long enough to ensure that your neighbors are all in bed.  We’re going to make our way outside and down to my car nice and quietly.” He aimed his gun in Francine’s direction. “I have reinforcements outside, just in case you’re thinking of escaping once we’ve left the confines of this rat-trap of an apartment.”

         Francine silently cringed as she felt a gun being pushed into her back and mentally berated herself for thinking that the gorilla behind her would be unarmed.  “You know if you’re going to be that rough, you might as well just put the bullet in me now.”

         Benjamin nodded slightly in his associate’s direction. “You can ease up a little, Randolph.  I have a feeling Ms. Desmond’s going to be quite cooperative.”  He then pulled on Stephanie’s arm as he led her towards the front door, placing the gun in Stephanie’s side, in easy view of Francine’s gaze.

         Francine allowed herself to be led out of the apartment and as they made their way down the hallway, she was about to comment about the fact that the goon with his gun in her back had left the door open, but quickly dismissed that idea.  Since no one was expecting to hear from them until tomorrow morning, maybe one of the neighbors would notice Stephanie’s open door and investigate or at the very least call the cops.  “We’re taking the stairs?” She asked in an annoyed tone.  It was bad enough that she was being forced to give up a good night’s rest, but to be forced to walk down the stairs at gunpoint, when she was already overly tired, was just going a little too far.

         Benjamin pushed the doorway to the stairs open with his foot and forced Stephanie into the stairwell. “Yes, we’re taking the stairs. I don’t want to take the chance that that batty old woman’s still hanging out in the elevator.” He glanced over at the brunette, and asked in a quiet, but irritated tone, “I think I realize the reason you like this apartment so much, everyone here is almost as annoying and strange as you are.  Does your super know that she’s impersonating a department store elevator operator? If he doesn’t someone should tell him and have her sent to a funny farm.”

         Francine shook her head in disgust. “I have to ask, Benjamin, was Adam Clyde just a façade, or was he in some part real, because I have to say, you suppressed this evil side of you very well.”

         Benjamin turned his head slightly and grinned. “It warms my heart to know that I was able to fool one of the country’s top federal agents.” He turned back around and kept his eyes focused on their descent. “Adam Clyde, like all my other aliases were really just an extension of who I am.  This evil side, as you choose to call it, only comes out when someone gets on my bad side, and let’s face it Frannie, you definitely pushed the wrong buttons. Now, enough with the chit-chat.  These old stairwells echo and we wouldn’t want to wake up any of the nice, crazy old folks, would we?”

         Francine glared at the man in front of her.  If she wasn’t afraid of seriously injuring Stephanie, she’d have kicked Benjamin in the back and forced him to fall down the remainder of the stairs.  However, she gritted her teeth and prayed that when they got into whatever car was going to transport them, she and Stephanie would be put in the back seat, alone.  Thankful that she’d had enough time to place the pick back in the cuff of her blouse before all hell had broken loose, she knew that if they were left unobserved, she would have ample time to pick the lock on the handcuffs, if even the tiniest bit of luck was on their side.  Granted if Amanda were with her, instead of Stephanie, there would be no doubt in her mind that Lee would be waiting outside in ambush.  However, Amanda wasn’t here, which meant there was no knight in shining armor waiting outside to rescue them. Sighing inwardly, she reluctantly continued the trek of doom through the lobby and towards the waiting vehicle outside.

         Plagued by a gut instinct telling him something wasn’t right, Daniel had gotten out of his car and was making his way inside to check on Francine and Stephanie, when he caught sight of them being led out of the apartment building at gun point.  He stopped and watched helplessly as the two men roughly dragged the two women towards a black Mercedes. If only there’d been room in the parking lot, he would have parked there, which would have put him in the perfect position to put an immediate rescue plan into action.  However, he’d been forced to park across the street, leaving him with the only possible choice of getting back into his car and following behind them.  Either way, it was fortunate that he’d listened to that little voice inside his head that told him to stick close to Agent Desmond. His fellow agents loved to mock his ability to be in the right place at the right time, but the truth was, he just used good old-fashioned common sense.  He’d had a hunch, especially after the car bombing, that Benjamin was going to go after Francine, which is why he’d decided to follow them to Stephanie’s apartment after the impromptu pizza party at Morelli’s house and set up surveillance. 

         Taking his cell phone out of his pocket, Daniel made his way back towards his car as he dialed Morelli’s number, “Stetson? Where’s Morelli? Oh never mind, I don’t have a lot of time. I’m at Stephanie’s and Benjamin’s here.  He has Francine and Stephanie.” He watched as the two women were forced into the black car and quickly opened his car door.  “I’m going to follow them, I’ll call you when I…” He wasn’t able to finish his sentence as his world suddenly went black.

*****  *****

         “Petrakis!…Petrakis!” Lee shouted into the phone and then, when nothing but dial tone responded, he briefly thought about throwing the receiver across the room, but at the last second remembered that it wasn’t his phone and slammed the receiver back down onto its base, instead. “Damn it!”

         Joe had just sat down on his couch and opened a new can of beer when the slamming of his phone made him jump slightly.  He glanced briefly at the phone and then up at Lee and immediately noticed the pulsing vein in the other man’s neck.  “Hey, Stetson, I know you mentioned earlier that you’re not a big fan of the FBI’s, but hell, that’s no reason to take your frustrations with Petrakis out on my phone.”

         Lee let out a string of curses then glared over at Morelli. “This has nothing to do with Petrakis being FBI, at least not at the moment. He was calling from Stephanie’s apartment.  He said that Benjamin was there and had both Stephanie and Francine.  The call was cut off before he could tell me anything else.”

         Joe slammed the open beer can down onto his coffee table, its contents spilling up over the top, jumped up from the couch and dug his keys out of his pocket.  He then dashed over to the front door and had it open within seconds. “Let’s go.” He held the door open as Lee and Amanda rushed out of his house and then he stepped out onto the porch, locking up behind them.  No matter how worried he was about Stephanie, he was still a cop first and foremost, and he wasn’t about to leave his house unlocked.  Turning around, he made his way towards his truck, where Lee and Amanda were already waiting. 

         Amanda nodded in thanks as Joe unlocked the passenger door. “We thought about taking Francine’s car, since Stephanie convinced her to leave it here because her apartment didn’t have enough parking, but then realized that we didn’t have a set of keys to the car, and it’s probably better to leave it here, if anything happens to her car on top of everything else she’s had to deal with the past few days, well…” She then let out a nervous laugh. “Sorry, I tend to ramble when I’m nervous or upset.”

         “I’d say this situation covers both of those emotions.” Joe gave her a small understanding smile and then rushed around to the driver’s side. 

         Amanda climbed into the front seat and then slid over to allow room for her husband.  She then leaned over and opened the door for Morelli.  Once Morelli had begun to climb in, she buckled her seatbelt and then glanced over at her husband. “I suggest you buckle your seatbelt too, Lee.” She stifled a chuckle when her husband rolled his eyes heavenward, but did as she’d suggested. 

         Morelli reached under his seat, pulled out his police strobe and then attached it to the hood of the truck. Slamming his door shut, he fastened his own seatbelt and then turned the key in the ignition. “Shit!” He exclaimed as he peeled away from the curb. “If Steph’s okay when and if we find her, I’m going to hug her, then kill her.”

         Amanda turned her head in Morelli’s direction. “Now Joe,” she ignored the barely audible grunt that her husband made at the use of the cop’s first name; this situation was way too delicate to fall back on formality. “This wasn’t Stephanie’s fault. Getting kidnapped by someone who’s really angry with Francine…”

         Joe shook his head. “Oh it’s never her fault, or so she says every time something like this crap happens. Yet every time there’s even the hint of something major going on, you can rest assured that Stephanie will turn up smack dab in the middle of it.” He slammed his hand down on the steering wheel and let out a growl of frustration as he took the next turn at top speed. “My nerves can’t handle this bullshit anymore.  I love her, I really do, but I don’t know how much more worrying about her safety I can handle.”

         Lee understood exactly what the other man was saying, especially after what Morelli had told him during their impromptu male bonding session in the bar this afternoon. The truth was, he felt the exact same way whenever his wife was in danger.  Running a hand through his hair, he let out a grunt. “I knew we should have insisted that Francine and Stephanie stay at the house tonight.”

         Morelli nodded. “I don’t know how we let them talk us into letting them go back to Steph’s apartment.  I knew better, that place is more of a magnet for danger than Stephanie is.  I think I was just tired of fighting with her.  Three rounds are about all I can stomach on a normal basis, and we’d definitely exceeded that today.” He quickly looked in both directions as he approached a cross street, and then, assured that no on coming traffic was approaching, blew through the red light.

         “Will you two stop this!” Amanda glared briefly at her husband and then turned her attention on the man behind the wheel. “I have a strong suspicion that Benjamin would have found a way to get Francine, one way or another, it was just a matter of when.  So there’s no use placing blame,” she glanced back at her husband, “or wondering about what ifs.  Francine has been in such a mood that we wouldn’t have been able to stop her, even if we’d tied her to Joe’s couch.” She glanced back over at Joe. “And I think Stephanie needed a little space from you, which is why she was chomping at the bit to get out of the house tonight, so you’d have had to cuff her to a drain pipe to keep her at your house.” She turned her gaze forward and folded her arms across her chest. “Now, Francine’s a highly trained agent, and as long as Stephanie’s with her…”

         “You’re wrong Amanda,” Lee shook his head, “Francine may be an agent, but she’s also a woman scorned, so she’s not thinking very clearly.  In case you haven’t noticed, she’s been out to get Benjamin since she found out that he’d been married four times before and wasn’t exactly the man she thought he was.  Add to that the fact that Benjamin is a man out for revenge and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

         “Lee, you’re not putting enough faith in Francine’s abilities.” Amanda relaxed her arms and glanced at her husband. “She’s probably better then you are when it comes to building emotional walls and pushing her feelings behind them.”

         “Normally, I would agree with you.” Lee let out a frustrated sigh. “But she’s been extremely bitter the past few days.  More bitter than she was when Jonathan left the first time.” He put a hand up to stop his wife’s interruption. “I know what they say about hell having no fury like a woman scorned, but trust me when I tell you that when a man with connections to people like Veranos seeks revenge, he’s way more dangerous.  Not to mention the fact that Benjamin has access to an entire arsenal of military weapons, and is very good at deceiving others. I’d say he’s far more dangerous than any wronged woman.”

         Joe nodded. “Lee’s right, Amanda. When you put a pissed off gun runner on the run from the law and a woman with government training who wants to see justice done to that man together, who knows what might happen.” He pulled his truck into Stephanie’s lot and parked it in front of the dumpster with his strobe light still flashing.

         Lee climbed out of the truck, and then held out his hand to assist his wife down.  Once she was safely on the ground, he made his way over to where Stephanie’s car was parked and put his hand on the hood. “Car’s still warm.”

         Amanda walked over and tried the door. “Her car’s locked which means that they probably weren’t grabbed out here in the parking lot, so Benjamin was most likely waiting for them inside Stephanie’s apartment.”

         Joe nodded, but his attention was focused on the brown sedan with its door wide open.  “Doesn’t look like the same can be said for Petrakis.” He commented as he made his way over to the car to investigate. 

         “Let’s head inside and see if they left any clues or signs of a struggle behind.” Lee took his wife’s hand and started walking towards the apartment building, eager to find out if his wife’s intuition was right.  He hadn’t led his wife more than a few feet when a sudden blast from behind sent him flying.  He instinctively pulled his wife to him and rolled her to the ground, covering her body with his own.

         Joe stopped dead in his tracks and spun around to find out what had exploded.  He let out a giant sigh of relief when he saw that his car was still intact, but shook his head when he saw the burning remains of Stephanie’s car.  He knew she should have locked it in her parent’s garage, and he was going to enjoy every bit of the gloating the minute he had Stephanie safely in his arms again.  He quickly rushed over to where Lee and Amanda were lying on the ground. “Are you two all right?” When Lee began to rise, Joe took his own jacket off and smothered the smoke emanating from the back of the agent’s jacket.

         “That was way too close for my comfort.” Lee grunted as he helped his wife up and scanned her up and down for injuries. “Are you okay?”

         Still too stunned to speak, Amanda simply nodded as she brushed some gravel off her pants.  She hadn’t gotten very far when she felt her husband’s arms wrap possessively around her, and she immediately buried her face in his strong chest. “Someone really wants to barbeque us.” She commented as she pulled back a little and caressed her husband’s cheek lovingly as she looked into his concerned face.

         Lee nodded and then leaned down to place a kiss on his wife’s forehead. “And I think it’s time we stopped sitting on the sidelines.  I want to find Benjamin and Veranos.” He turned towards Morelli. “I’m sorry if this interferes with your investigation…”

         Joe held up his hand and shook his head. “The hell with the investigation. This has moved out of the realm of being a simple gun running investigation and has now become a kidnapping…a kidnapping of someone who means more to me than investigating the Grizolli’s next big business deal.” He then turned and started towards the apartment building.

         “How did you end up being Grizolli’s go-between with the police force anyway?” Amanda asked as she sprinted to keep up with both her husband and Morelli. This was the one disadvantage of working with tall men; she had to work double time to keep up with them, especially when they were in a hurry.

         Lee held the apartment building door open for his wife. “Since Grizolli is the local organized crime boss here in Trenton, and we all know how most mob bosses like to keep their noses clean,” He followed his wife inside the building and then, picked up the pace as they made their way towards the stairs. “He uses his niece to pass along certain information for the local authorities to Morelli.”

         “The niece in question being Terry Gillman, the one who had Stephanie so angry at Joe?” Amanda’s eyes grew slightly wider as realization started to dawn on her. “No wonder Stephanie gets so upset, I’d be upset too if my boyfriend…or husband,” she glanced briefly at Lee, “had to spend a lot of time with one of his exes, business or not, especially with the way Daniel was practically drooling when he talked about her.”

         Joe entered the stairwell and started taking the stairs two at a time. “Look, it's a long and slightly sordid story which needs time to be told and time is something we definitely don't have right now. Plus, this is not the proper place for a conversation like that, so let’s just drop the subject.”

         Lee had caught the official tone in Morelli’s voice and knew that the cop was now in charge and that the concerned boyfriend had been pushed to the back burner.  He’d been in enough situations where Amanda’s life was in danger, to know just how important it was to push one’s emotions aside, which is why he didn’t make any comment about the slightly harsh way his new-found friend was addressing them, instead he turned his attention on to his wife.  “I was planning on filling you in on a lot of stuff tonight, but certain matters of life and death seemed to get in the way before I had a chance.”

         Amanda let out an exasperated laugh. “It’s the story of our lives.” She commented as she flashed her husband a quick, understanding smile.

         Lee grinned back as he realized just how amazing his connection to his wife was.  It never ceased to amaze him just how easily his wife could put his mind at ease with just one gesture or word. He wasn’t sure why he thought she might be mad at him for withholding information, especially since it hadn’t been on purpose, his only reasoning was that there was just too much frustration in the air, and a fight between himself and anyone, even his wife, wouldn’t be too far fetched.  Reaching the top of the stairs, he pulled out his gun and nodded to Morelli, who had just un-holstered his own weapon.

         “We want to be very quiet about this,” Joe whispered, “I don’t want any of Steph’s nosey neighbors to come out until after we’ve had a chance to inspect the scene.  They can gawk all they want once the police arrive, but I want a chance to look for clues before anyone has a chance to trample all over the evidence.” Receiving a quick nod of acceptance from both Lee and Amanda, he opened the stairway door and stepped cautiously out into the hallway. His eyes immediately fell upon Stephanie’s wide-open apartment door and instinct was telling him that an open door usually meant that no men had been left behind to spring a trap, however the cop side of him was telling him not to leave anything to chance. He slowly crept along the hallway towards the open doorway, with Lee and Amanda close behind.

         Reaching the open doorway, Joe raised his gun to shoulder height and then slowly made his way inside the apartment.  He glanced briefly around and noticed Stephanie’s black bag lying on the floor just inside.  He quickly moved over to it and picking it up, he handed it back to Amanda. He then moved further down the hallway, and catching Lee’s eye, motioned for him to check the living room, while he checked out the bedroom.

         Lee cautiously walked into the living room and then, noticing that the room was empty, he motioned for his wife to join him.  Since the room only had a couch, coffee table and television, there really wasn’t much for them to investigate.  Nothing was overturned, and there appeared to be no visible signs of struggle.

         “The place is empty.” Joe announced as he joined Lee and Amanda in the living room. “Do me a favor and check Steph’s bag.”

         Amanda glanced at him curiously as she began to unzip the large black purse. “What am I looking for?”

         “See if her gun’s in there.” Joe then turned and started walking towards the kitchen. He had a sneaky suspicion that Amanda wasn’t going to find Steph’s weapon in that oversized black bag, which would be one more thing he needed to discuss with his girlfriend once he knew she was safe.  It was bad enough that she got herself into very sticky situations, but he’d feel a lot better about her out there tracking down FTA’s if she had her damn gun with her.  Then again, if she had had it in her bag, chances are Benjamin would have it by now, whether she’d had time to dig it out, trying to protect herself or not.  Entering the kitchen, he made a beeline to the counter.  As soon as he reached it, he opened the cookie jar and let out a long sigh. “Never mind, it’s in here.” He wasn’t sure if he was relieved that Benjamin didn’t have it, or disappointed that Stephanie hadn’t had it on her all day.

         Placing the lid back on the canister, he moved over to Rex’s cage to check on the little guy.  Seeing the familiar furry critter’s rear sticking out of his soup can, he opened the cabinet and got down a box of raisins.  As he deposited some of the treats inside, his eyes fell on two pieces of paper neatly taped to the side of the cage. “Lee, Amanda, I think you need to come in here.”

         Joe peeled off the message addressed to him and then, as Lee and Amanda entered the small room, he took the other note off and passed it over to Lee. Opening his, he clenched his fist around the note as he read it out loud.  “If you don't butt out of my business and stay away from Veranos, the bounty hunter will meet the same fate as her cars and you'll be picking up bits and pieces of your blue-eyed bombshell all over town.” He gritted his teeth and looked over at the pair of agents. “I’m guessing yours is going to hold a similar message.”

         Lee noticed immediately that the paper Joe had just handed him was addressed to Scarecrow and Mrs. King, which meant that Benjamin had discovered their connection to the Agency.  As he unfolded the paper, he felt his wife’s hand on his arm.  He knew the gesture held a duel purpose, not only was it meant to provide a calming effect on him, but she was also seeking a bit of comfort for herself. Taking a deep breath, he began reading, “If you’re still alive and reading this note,” he felt his wife tighten her grip on his arm slightly, and wrapped his arm around her waist comfortingly, “then I suggest you take the hint, pack up your bags and head back to D.C.  If you don’t, not only can I guarantee that you’ll never make it back home in time for your wedding, but I’ll make sure that my lovely fiancée makes her way back in a wooden box.”

         Joe glanced at Lee and Amanda with a serious expression. “So, you guys throwing in the towel and heading back home?” He knew it was pretty much a rhetorical question, but the cop in him had to ask anyway.

         Lee glanced briefly over at his wife, who was shaking her head, and looked over at Morelli. “Hell, no. Adams,” he waved the note in the air, “can threaten all he wants.  I’ve gone up against guys worse than him, who had much bigger threats to hold over my head.” he pulled his wife closer to him as a brief memory of Addi Birol flashed through his mind. “How do we get Francine and Stephanie back?”

         “I think the best place to start would be to head on down to your police station,” Amanda looked over at Joe, “and find a way to locate all of Veranos’ local assets.  Any warehouses, businesses,” she began ticking the items away on her fingers, “or properties he might own. You know this area better than we do, but I can’t imagine he’d be holding them any place that’s too far away, after all, there’s supposed to be a weapons deal going down any day now.”

         Lee nodded. “And if your databases aren’t able to dig up the information we need, I know the Agency should be able to, and we can have them fax the information over to us at the station.”

         “Or we could just head straight over to Seaside Heights.” Ranger unfolded his arms and, pushing off the doorframe, he entered the small kitchen.

         Lee did his best to stifle a chuckle as his wife glanced over at him. He knew, from the involuntary jump she’d made when Ranger had first spoken, that the look she was giving him now clearly stated that she didn’t find being snuck up on very amusing.  He quickly regained his composure and looked in Ranger’s direction. “And just how did you get that intel so fast? Stephanie and Francine were kidnapped less than hour ago?”

         “From the wire taps we had on Adams’ grandmother’s phone.” Ranger stated matter-of-factly. “Adams called about thirty minutes ago to let her know he was going to be out of touch for a long while. We traced the call and discovered it was coming from a pay phone in Seaside Heights.  Guess he figured it wasn’t wise to call her from his cell.” He walked over and placed a few more raisins in Rex’s cage, watching as the critter backed out of his can and shoved the morsels into his mouth before retreating back inside his little house. “Did a little more digging and found out that Veranos bought the beach house the fourth wife put on the market right after Benjamin got arrested.”

         Lee glanced briefly at Ranger, then turned his attention to Morelli. “So we head to Seaside Heights.  We can set up a rotating surveillance and once we get an idea of what’s going on inside and how many men are inside with Francine and Stephanie…”

         “Already got my men doing surveillance.” Ranger interrupted the agent as he leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms in front of him. 

         “Wonder why that doesn’t surprise me.” Morelli muttered. He may not like the way Ranger looked at Stephanie, but when it came to needing information, the bounty hunter saved him a lot of time and research. “So what’s the situation?”

         Ranger shrugged. “Don’t know yet. I had just gotten their initial report and was on my way over to your place to fill you in, when I got a call about the car in Stephanie’s lot.  Figured you’d be on your way over, if you weren’t already here.  Told my guys that unless they hear shots being fired, to just sit tight until we arrived. I figured we could put a plan of action into place once we got there.”

         Amanda could sense the tension radiating off of Lee and Morelli and now would not be a good time for things to blow up in their faces, she’d had enough explosions in the last twenty-four hours to last her a lifetime.  The most important thing was to focus on their friends, who were currently in very grave danger, and if they were going to rescue them, they all needed to work together.  Hearing the sound of approaching sirens, she figured now would be a good time to step in. “I think that’s our cue to get moving.” She looked over at Joe. “We’re probably going to have to go talk to an officer or two, and it seems to me, we probably want to get that over with sooner, rather than later, and get on the road.  You know this area better than we do,” she glanced over at Ranger then back to Joe as she pointed between Lee and herself, “and we’re minus a car anyway, so we’ll just follow your leads.”

         Joe nodded his head slightly in agreement. “Probably not a bad idea since someone is obviously trying to get you out of the way.” He turned and started moving towards the door. “I’d really love to know just how that bomb went off right as you guys got near Steph’s car, though.”

         “The boys arriving downstairs will probably confirm this, but my guess is that it was activated by remote.” Ranger waited as Lee and Amanda made their way out of the kitchen, behind Morelli. Once they had passed, he followed them towards the door.

         Joe nodded in agreement. “He’s probably right. It’s the only way to explain how the bomb went off at the exact moment you and Amanda were right beside the car.”

         Lee turned briefly around. “If that’s the case, then that means someone’s following us or watching Steph’s apartment, so we have to be very careful how we leave the area.”

         “That’ll be easy to figure out,” Ranger stepped out into the hallway behind Lee, leaving Steph’s door open.  He knew the police would need to dust for prints, and he didn’t see any reason to add any fresh new ones to the mix. “You and Amanda will leave with Joe. I’ll wait and see if anyone starts following you, and then I’ll get them off your backs.”

         “So we’ll meet you at the beach house then.” Amanda nodded as she made her way towards the stairs. “Sounds like a good plan.” She paused and glanced back at Ranger. “How will we know your men, and how will they know us?”

         Morelli let out a grunt. “Don’t worry. We just look for a black SUV or two, and I’m pretty sure Ranger’s men know me, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem.” He caught Lee’s slightly raised eyebrows and shrugged. “Ranger seems to have a fleet of vehicles all in black, and the ones he lets his men use are all SUV’s.”

         “I find black blends in better.” Ranger gave a half smile as he passed a slip of paper to Morelli. “Beach house address.” He said in way of an explanation, before continuing past the little group standing in the hallway, and headed into the stairwell. “See you there.”

         Joe muttered a few curses under his breath and then let out a long sigh. “I know he’s good at what he does, but it bugs the shit out of me when he does crap like this.” He then turned and moved towards the stairs.

         “You mean just coming in, giving the facts and sort of taking over.” Lee let out a small grunt as he followed behind Morelli who was nodding his head in affirmation.

         Amanda let out a long sigh and shook her head as she fell into step behind Lee. She didn’t need to be a genius to realize that it was going to be a very long night and she was going to have her work cut out for her.  If they had any hope of getting Francine, Stephanie and Daniel safely away from Benjamin and Veranos, she was going to have to play peacemaker, and having to contend with two-hot headed, red-blooded, egotistical men, meant that she was going to have to be constantly on her guard.  Somehow she knew that Lee and Joe were going to prove to be more challenging than Phillip and Jamie, and she was thankful she had a few years of experience dealing with two teenagers under her belt, not to mention she knew just how to handle her husband.  If Lee got on her nerves too much, or refused to cooperate with Ranger, well she’d just have to play the ‘no-sex-unless-you-behave’ card.  After all, what was important was rescuing their friends, not in proving who was more macho.  She let out another small sigh and, following the other two men down the stairs, said a silent prayer that they would arrive in time to get Stephanie, Francine and Daniel out of this alive.

        

 

Chapter 12 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 12

         Francine glanced over at the goon stationed by the door to the little living room where she, Stephanie and Daniel were being kept and relaxed a little.  His back was to them, which provided her the perfect opportunity to work on dislodging the half-rake from the cuff of her sleeve.  Her hope, back at the apartment, that she and Stephanie would have been put in the back seat together, had been quickly dashed when she’d been tossed in the passenger seat, and Benjamin had shoved Stephanie in the back with him, where he could keep his gun trained on his ‘insurance policy’.  She had to admit to herself that she admired the bounty hunter a great deal right now.  Considering the situation they were in, Stephanie was keeping a very cool and calm demeanor, despite the fact that the brunette’s eyes gave away the fear she was obviously feeling.

         Stephanie leaned as close to Francine as she could, considering the fact that she was now tied very tightly to a very uncomfortable wooden chair. “Do you think Agent Petrakis is okay?” She whispered, keeping her voice as low as possible, so as not to insight the anger of the guard at the door.

         Francine glanced over to the couch where Daniel lay unconscious and shrugged. “He’s still breathing, so that’s a good sign.” Her hand fumbled within the seam of her blouse cuff and had to bite her tongue from crying ‘eureka’ out loud when her fingers finally clasped tightly around the little pick she’d been seeking.  Keeping it in her grasp, she slowly moved her hand into position and began working on the lock of the cuffs around her wrists.

         Stephanie glanced over at Daniel and then back towards Francine. “I don’t know about that, I’m no doctor, but that was a huge goose egg I saw on the back of his head when they dragged him in here. Not to mention the fact that he just spent the last thirty minutes being bumped around in the trunk of the car.”

         Francine let out a small ironic chuckle. “Trust me, I’ve seen worse on Lee, and he’s always managed to survive.” She glanced briefly towards the doorway as she continued to work on the cuff’s lock.  “Besides,” she shrugged slightly, “FBI agents have a reputation for having very hard heads and a little bump on the head every now and then seems to help keep their egos from getting too huge.”

         “Why do you think they brought him here and didn’t kill him?” Stephanie shuddered as she realized what she’d suggested. “I didn’t mean I want to see him dead, and it’s probably a good thing for him that he’s just unconscious, though I’m not sure he’s even breathing, but if you think he is, I’ll take your word for it, after all, you probably have more experience with this type of situation than I do.”

         Francine rolled her eyes as she worked on the lock of her cuffs.  “Are you sure you aren’t related to Amanda?”

         Stephanie looked at her curiously. “Pretty sure, why?”

         “Oh nothing really,” Francine shook her head slightly. “It’s just that Amanda tends to ramble when she’s nervous, too.”

         “Oh, that…” Stephanie laughed nervously, “I’ve been in some pretty tight places since I started tracking down FTA’s, but I can’t say as I’ve ever been used as insurance before.  The first case I was on, I was going to be raped and brutally maimed before I was killed, so this should seem like a piece of cake.”

         “How did you manage to get away unharmed?” Francine realized that the brunette needed to talk, and it allowed her the freedom to hide what she was doing, should the goon at the door look their way. “I’m not trying to assume anything, but since you’re still working for your cousin, I’m guessing that you got out of the situation okay.”

         Stephanie closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she nodded. The memory of what happened in her apartment that day was still very fresh in her mind and she needed a moment to get her self under control. “I managed to get away from him long enough to get to my purse…and my gun…he was the first person I’d ever killed, and hopefully he’ll be the only one.” She opened her eyes slowly and caught the understanding look in the blonde’s eyes. She quickly looked away and back over at Agent Petrakis, hoping to see some sign of life in the man. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being in life or death situations.” She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the steady rise and fall of the agent’s chest, and turned her attention back to Francine. “How do you do it? I mean in your line of work, this kind of thing must happen all the time.”

         Francine shrugged. “We learn to compartmentalize our emotions.  You can’t show fear to the enemy, and if you keep your fears and emotions tucked away, it allows you to keep a clear head,” she lowered her voice to barely audible whisper, “and figure out a way to escape.”

         Stephanie leaned as close to the blonde as she could. “Do you have a plan…to escape that is?” She quickly jumped away when she heard heavy footsteps approaching.

         Benjamin shook his head as he entered the room. “Tsk, tsk, tsk ladies, didn’t your mother’s teach you that it’s not nice to whisper?  Someone might think you’re talking about them.” He moved closer to the pair. “If you can’t be good, I’ll have to separate the two of you. In fact, I think I’ll do that right now, I wouldn’t want you hatching out a plan of escape while my back was turned.”  He walked over to Francine’s chair and as he gripped the sides, he leaned forward and blew hot breath into her ear.  He grinned when she shuddered slightly. “I remember how much you loved it when I did that. I believe it made you wet and hot for me.  Behave, or I might just have to find out if it still does.” He raised his head and dragged the chair a few feet away from Stephanie’s and a little closer to the couch.

         Francine silently cursed herself. She could tuck her emotions away, but she couldn’t control her body’s natural reactions. Of course what Benjamin had thought was her being turned on, was really her suppressing the urge to throw up, but either way, she had reacted and that wasn’t something she was proud of.  Mentally gritting her teeth, she stared calmly at her captor.  She needed to keep Benjamin distracted so she could continue working on her cuffs, and the best way to do that was to get him talking. “I’ve learned a lot about you in the last few days, but there’s one thing that truly puzzles me, why marry so many women? Wouldn’t it have been smarter to just date lots of women whenever you took on a new alias? Surely you had to realize one of your wives was going to get suspicious.”

         Benjamin shook his head and sneered. “It’s all about dominance, Frannie.  See you women all act like you want independence, but in reality you want a man to take charge of your life.  A boyfriend doesn’t have that authority, but a husband, he’s the bread winner.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in marriage without love.” He moved over to Francine and tenderly ran a finger along her cheek. “I meant what I said the night I proposed to you. I loved you and was willing to give you my heart, and despite what you and your job have put me through the last few days, a small part of me still loves you.”

         Francine let out a small grunt, he may be willing to admit he still loved her, but she could no longer say the same to him. Her love for him had instantly run cold back at the apartment when she had seen his true colors. “Little did I know when I accepted that you could only give me part of your heart.  I feel sorry for the women who came before me.” She kept her face and voice neutral as she spoke. “Actually I feel sorrier for the three children that have the misfortune of being your offspring.  We can only hope that they don’t learn from your example.”

         Benjamin gritted his teeth and began pacing back and forth between Stephanie and Francine. “You women are all the same. When are you going to realize that life was so much simpler back in the days when all you had to do was worry about housework? You know, cooking, cleaning and raising the children.  Men are the ones who should worry about where the money is coming from in order to pay the bills and keep you comfortable. This sudden urge for independence gave you all the wrong idea.”

         “Someone really did a number on you.” Stephanie sighed sympathetically. However, the more she thought about it, the more she realized that the deranged man holding them hostage wasn’t acting like someone who’d been jilted at the altar; his attitude was a little more old school.  Even Joe, who was raised in a family where the women didn’t work, hell almost all the women in the burg didn’t work, but even Joe didn’t have this warped ideal of a woman’s rightful place.  She knew that Joe didn’t like her working as a bounty hunter, but he never objected to her working; he just agreed with her mother that she should get a safe job. “Or were these screwed up ideas of women only being good for keeping house passed onto you by your father? Man,” she shook her head sadly, “if that’s the case then I feel sorry for your mother.”

         Benjamin stopped his pacing and, spinning on his heels, he glared at Stephanie. “Don’t you ever,” he took two quick steps and slapped the bounty hunter across the face, “mention my mother.” He wrung his hands together as he straightened up and glared at the brunette. “My mother was the worst one of the lot of you.  She got tired of knowing her place, as my father put it the day he told me my mother left us to find greener pastures.  Never said goodbye to me, her only son, she just up and left.  Never heard from her again, and for all I know she’s dead, which would be just fine with me. I just hope wherever she is she’s miserable and lonely.”

         “So you fell in love and married four times, just to get back at your mother for deserting you?” Stephanie’s cheek was still smarting form the slap Benjamin had bestowed before, but she’d caught sight of the slight movement of Francine’s hands and had a feeling that the blonde would rather the nutcase’s attention remain on anything but her.  She just hoped that Francine managed to get herself free of her bonds soon, because she didn’t know how long she’d be able to keep Benjamin’s attention and not get the crap beaten out of her.

         “You truly are a woman of many trades, aren’t you Miss Plum?” Benjamin laughed. “Fire magnet, bounty hunter and shrink.” He shook his head and sneered. “I’m surprised that boyfriend of yours hasn’t managed to teach how to keep your pesky nose out of everyone’s business.” He turned his attention on Francine. “I guess birds of a feather really do flock together, Frannie.  I’ve been meaning to ask you, what was it that prompted our little game of twenty questions the other night.  You never seemed that interested in my past before.  Was your little secretarial pool really all that interested in me, or had you run some sort of background check on me and discovered my slightly colored past?”

         Francine mentally cursed under her breath.  She’d almost managed to get the tumbler to click over at the exact same moment that Benjamin had turned his attention back to her, and she’d been forced to stop what she’d been doing. “Actually it was Amanda who ran the check on you. She recognized you when you dropped off your wife, Sally Thompson at some restaurant in Baltimore. Apparently she was meeting your wife for lunch.”

         Benjamin snickered at his dumb luck. “It really is a small world, isn’t it? I knew letting her join that book club was a bad idea, but it was either that or let her get a job, and that was totally out of the question.”

         Francine felt the knot in her stomach tightening.  She couldn’t believe she’d fallen in love with such a back-ass-wards creep. “I’m curious about something, though, didn’t Veranos object to your many wives, especially since having more than one in this country is illegal, and if you were caught it would probably alert the feds to your connection to him.” She smiled sweetly at him, “oh that’s right you were, caught, weren’t you? I’m surprised, frankly, that he didn’t make you join the fish in the Hudson.”

         “Carlos and I go way back.” Benjamin smiled at Francine. “We met in college and ever since I saved him from an almost fatal car crash, he sort of owes me his life, so no, I don’t think he’ll be offing me anytime soon.  He’s the brother I never had; in fact he was the best man at my first wedding.”

         “And to show his gratitude, he let you in on his ‘family business’?” Stephanie rolled her eyes. “I’ve grown up around organized crime and I know that if you double cross the head of any family, blood or not, they won’t blink twice before they fit you with cement shoes.  You may have saved his life which gave you one get out of jail free card, but buddy, I think you’ve used it up.” When Benjamin turned in her direction, which is what she’d been hoping for, she caught the look of annoyance shining in his eyes and prayed that she wasn’t going to get another slap across the face. “Oh, I get it, you need us to make sure that Lee, Amanda and Joe stay far away from Veranos’ business deal, so that you don’t end up at the bottom of the Hudson.”

         “Girly, you’d be wise to keep that smart mouth of yours shut. One of these days it’s going get you killed.” Benjamin leaned against the arm of the couch and folded his arms comfortably across his chest. “Your concerns for me are quite touching though, but unnecessary.  See Carlos actually encouraged me to marry Sally.  He saw how much I loved her, and figured that marrying her would make my alias as Clyde Thompson even more trustworthy.  People tend to trust family men a lot more than do single men.  Then when I had to come back here to do business in Trenton, I met and fell in love with Eleanor. Made my dear grandma so happy to think that she was going to finally get some great-grandchildren.”

         “Little did she know she already had three.” Stephanie muttered as she thought about sweet Polly Adams.   

         Benjamin’s expression softened as he thought about the woman who’d been the only nurturing entity in his life after his mother had left. “I felt terrible not being to share my kids with her, but there was no way I could have kept all my aliases a secret if I started introducing everyone, now could I?” He sighed regretfully. “But we all have jobs to do, and Carlos was relying on me and my keen business sense to see that his deals went smoothly.  Everything was going just fine until Eleanor got suspicious.  Carlos warned me to stay away from Marie, but there was something about her innocence and absolute trust in me that I just had to marry her. I couldn’t live with the idea that if I let her go, some other man was going to get her.”

         “I bet it absolutely devastated her to know that you were a fraud.” Francine would have preferred to keep Benjamin’s attention off of her, but when the pick had missed the tumbler for the third time, her ire had grown and she felt like taking her frustration out on something that truly deserved it.

         “Oh, she’s being well taken care of and she was so in love with me that she instantly forgave me.  It might surprise you to know that she still sends me love letters.” He noticed the slightly curious looks on both women’s faces and grinned. “I bet you’re wondering how that’s possible, since I move around and never keep the same name?  I set myself up with a post office box and one of Carlos’ men checks it for me. He then forwards my mail to me, depending on where I am at the moment.”

         Stephanie gave Francine a slight nod of understanding. Ranger had checked into the post office box that Polly Adams had given them.  According to the post office, no mail was ever requested forwarded for the box number and the box was always empty when they went to put new mail in the next day.  Now they knew why.  “I guess what they say about love being blind really is true.  Marie must really have been an innocent, but then if she loved you so much, why did she willingly sell this house that would hold such pleasant memories of you?” She asked sarcastically.

          “Once I made bail, the first thing I did was contact Carlos and asked him to keep an eye on Marie for me.  He approached her, told her he absolutely loved this house, and very kindly made her an offer double it’s value. He told me she was reluctant at first, but when she realized that she had no real means to support herself, she finally accepted his offer. By the way,” Benjamin smiled as he looked around the room, “do you like my little beach house?  This is the one house I actually feel at home in.  Guess I’ve always loved the sound of the ocean crashing into the dunes at night.”

         “So assured that the only woman who still loved you, despite your past, was taken care of, you then ran straight back to Sally, the only woman who didn’t know about your past. Very clever.” Francine tilted her head slightly and raised her eyebrow questioningly.  “There’s one thing that we’ve all been dying to know, though, how is it that Sally never showed up on the radar?”

         Benjamin shrugged. “Carlos has his ways. I don’t ask how he does it, and frankly I don’t want to know.  He knew he needed me in D.C. to arrange the sale of the weapons, so he worked his magic and somehow managed to keep my connection to Sally off the radar.  Of course I stayed away for awhile until I was sure that no one had linked her to me. That’s why I got the job at the Arlington high school.  Although meeting you had made things bearable…at the time, I was glad when Carlos assured me Sally was safe. I missed my son.” He shook his head in disappointment. “Who knew that meeting you would end up complicating my life even more than it already was?”

         Mentally sighing, Stephanie knew that she needed to turn Benjamin’s focus away from Francine so the blonde could get back to working on getting herself free. “And what about your kids? Forget about the fact that you couldn’t tell them they had a great-grandma, but look how you turned out without a mother, aren’t your kids being raised without a father?”

         “I warned you to watch that mouth of yours.” Benjamin began advancing on Stephanie, but pulled up short when he caught sight of Randolph motioning him into the other room. “Looks like you just got lucky bounty hunter. If you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend to.” He walked over to Francine and placed a kiss on her lips. “Don’t go far, my love, I have plans for you later.”

         Francine waited till Benjamin was out of earshot and then spat on the ground. “I’m never ever falling for anyone ever again.”

         “He must be a really good actor, he managed to fool a lot of women Francine, don’t let it get to you.  There’s a good man out there for you.” Stephanie laughed to herself.  If only she believed the same would be true for her as well. Joe was a good guy, but he wasn’t perfect, and then there was Ranger, dark, mysterious and totally wrong for her.  Maybe neither one of them was the right one for her, and somewhere out there, was her Mr. Right; she just hadn’t met him yet.

         “This is all my fault.” Francine glared at the brunette when she saw Stephanie start to open her mouth to protest. “Don’t say it’s not, because if I hadn’t let my emotions get the better of me in the first place, I would have taken the information on Benjamin at face value and not had to prove Lee and Amanda wrong. I didn’t want to believe he wasn’t the right man for me.  Then I had to be even more stubborn in trying to track him down.  If I hadn’t let my guard down tonight, there’s no way Benjamin would have gotten the jump on us back at your apartment.”

         “Francine,” Stephanie shook her head, “it won’t do any good to think about what ifs. Instead,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “I think you might want to go back to working on that little project you were working on earlier.” She opened her eyes wider and tilted her head, hoping that the blonde understood what she was saying.

         “So you were baiting him on purpose.” Francine nodded as she glanced over towards the door to make sure that no one was watching them too closely, and assured that they weren’t, she went back to working on the cuffs.

         Stephanie nodded. “And don’t worry, you were being very subtle about it, in case you worried that you were being obvious. If I hadn’t been thinking about how we were going to get out of this and glancing your way hoping maybe you had an idea, I probably wouldn’t have noticed at all.”

         Francine chuckled despite the situation. “I really am glad you’re here, at least you’re bringing some levity to the situation.  Even if I do finish my ‘project’,” she lowered her voice as she spoke, “I haven’t been able to come up with a plan to get us all out of here safely.”

         “Somehow, I have a feeling that if we don’t end up dead soon, the cavalry is going to come busting in any time now.” Stephanie looked towards the window as she caught sight of a very familiar black SUV driving by the house for the second time.

         “I swear if I didn’t know better, I’d believe that Amanda really was here with me.  She’s a bigger optimist than you.” Francine gritted her teeth as the pick missed the tumbler again. “And if she were here with us, then I might believe you. Lee always shows up to save her in the nick of time, but she’s not here, so forgive me if I don’t share your confidence.”

         Stephanie lowered her voice as low as she could and still keep it audible. “It might be wishful thinking on my part, but I think I just saw one of Ranger’s merry men driving by.”   

         Francine looked at her skeptically. “How do you know it’s them? It may not be prime beach season, but that doesn’t mean a car or two wouldn’t be driving along this road just to get somewhere. Besides we don’t even know if anyone knows we’ve been taken and even if they did, we haven’t been missing long enough for them to have found us already. It takes hours of research to pinpoint a dozen possible locations, and even longer to narrow it down to the most likely one.”

         Stephanie shook her head gently. “Yes, but when it’s a very non-descript black SUV driving by, not once, but twice…” She shrugged her shoulders slightly. “Trust me, I don’t know how Ranger does it, but he always manages to find me. I think he’s planted a homing device on me somewhere. And maybe it is wishful thinking on my part, but he hasn’t let me down yet.”

         “If that’s true, than I’m doubly thankful you’re with me.” Francine shook her head. “Maybe I need to die my hair brown. They say blonde’s have more fun, but I’m beginning to think that brunettes get all the luck, or at the very least the psychic connections to the really good guys.  It’s the only way to describe the unique connection that Lee and Amanda have.  They have ways of knowing when the other is in trouble, and of finding each other in the bleakest of situations.  Even you, if what you say is true, with regards to that Ranger, then I definitely think it has to be linked to the color of your hair.” She let out a small grunt as she suddenly realized that Stephanie had not one, but two men watching out for her. “What’s with you, anyway, isn’t one man enough?”

         Stephanie rolled her eyes. “I don’t know if I’d go so far as to suggest that I have more than one man. Half the time I don’t even have Joe.” She watched the blonde raise her eyebrow, and sighed. “It’s complicated. In many ways he’s everything I could ever hope for in a man, but at the same time, he’s not.  He’s damn sexy and incredible in bed, but I think there’s something missing in the less physical aspect of our relationship.”

         “You mean he tries to control you?” Francine tilted her head to the side and raised her eyebrows knowingly. “I’ve watched the two of you, and although it’s obvious he cares about you, a lot, he doesn’t really accept you for who you are.”

         Stephanie grimaced. “You’re making him sound like the nutcase whose holding us hostage.”

         Francine shook her head slightly. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

         “I know you didn’t.  For one thing, Joe could never have more than one wife; he’d never be able to pull it off, at least not while Grandma Bella’s still having her visions.” Stephanie laughed somewhat self-consciously. “Why do you think anyone would even want more than one spouse? Hell, I can’t even have a steady relationship with Joe long enough to decide if we’re even meant to spend the rest of our lives together.”

         Francine shrugged. “I honestly can’t answer that one. If you’re asking me why Benjamin went down that road, perhaps he really did fall in love with each of his wives,” she let out a long sigh, “and perhaps even me, and felt the proper thing was to marry each of them…us.  He did give us an answer, though. For him it’s not just about love, it’s about seeing how many women he can control, but it was also a way to establish his many aliases.  The more I think back on it, the more I realize that he had hinted to me more than once that I didn’t need to work, that I deserved to be taken care of.  I thought he was just being romantic. I had no idea he really wanted me to be the ‘little woman’ cleaning house all day and having dinner ready and on the table for him when he got home from work.”

         “I think that’s my biggest problem with the idea of marriage.” Stephanie shuddered. “I’m not ready to be the one standing barefoot and pregnant at the door, with one kid on my hip and another tugging on my apron strings, when my husband comes home from work ready for me to give him a kiss and tell him that dinner’s almost ready.”

            “Unfortunately, there are a lot of men, like Benjamin, who feel that that’s the way women should be.” Francine glanced back towards the door to the other room and shook her head. “It’s a shame really that they feel that way, after all this country wouldn’t be the same if all the women were meek.”

         “I’m surprised Benjamin was able to get Eleanor to agree not to work.  She doesn’t seem the type to succumb to that kind of pressure.” Feeling her bottom start to fall asleep, Stephanie adjusted herself in her seat slightly.

         “Yeah,” Francine nodded in agreement, “after talking to her yesterday, she really didn’t seem like someone who would, but take it from me, damn it…” she gritted her teeth when the pick missed the tumbler again, “anyway, Benjamin can be very convincing as a caring, loving man.  He had me fooled, and I always prided myself on being an excellent judge of character.”

         “Do you think he really got his other wives to stop working?” Hearing a spring creak in the couch where Agent Petrakis was lying, Stephanie glanced over in his direction with a hopeful expression.  Seeing the agent’s eyes still closed and the even breathing of his chest, she realized that he was still out cold and her expression changed to disappointment; it would have been nice to have an unbound ally to get them out of this, especially if that hadn’t been a Rangeman vehicle she’d seen driving by.

         “Well, based on what Eleanor told us, and from what Amanda told me about Sally, Benjamin’s second wife,” Francine shrugged, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he had gotten the others to stop working.  I bet he thought he’d eventually have gotten me to quit my job. Hell I came home more than a dozen times since we’d started seeing each other, bitching and moaning about how much I hated my job.  I didn’t really mean it, I was just blowing off steam after a bad day, but he was probably storing all that up to use in his argument to get me to quit once we got married.” She let out an ironic laugh. “It’s funny, really. I was all set to tell him the truth about my job, right before I found out about his past, that is, and I can’t help wondering where I’d be now if I had told him.” She tilted her head towards the other room. “I bet he’d be pissed off, but not because I kept it a secret, but because it was going to mess up his plans, which in a sense it already has.  He probably would have poisoned me or killed me in my sleep.”

         Francine felt her hand cramping up and regretfully removed the pick from the lock.  Wiggling her fingers, she did her best to get some feeling back into her hands. “I know one thing for sure, if we had gotten married and he did try and get me to quit my job, our marriage definitely wouldn’t have lasted very long.” As she slipped the pick back in the lock, she glanced curiously at the bounty hunter. “I’m curious about something, why do stay with someone who tries to get you to change who you are?”

         Stephanie scrunched up her face and shrugged. “I don’t think Joe’s trying to change me, he just doesn’t like this bounty hunter gig, because of the danger I manage to stumble into and frankly, he does have a point. Some days even I don’t understand why I keep doing this job.”

         “So why do you keep doing it if you don’t like it?” Francine looked at the brunette seriously. “It’s not like its very glamorous, and from what I’ve gathered it seems to be a pretty thankless job.”

         Stephanie laughed. “You can say that again and it’s not like it’s a steady paycheck either.” She then shrugged her shoulders again. “To be honest, I think I do it because it’s different and I meet some interesting people.” She smiled as she thought about Sally Sweet, the cross-dressing rock singer who’d helped her with the treasure hunt in the stolen car case that tied directly into Joe’s counterfeit money case. “And, I think I do it to prove to him and everyone else that I can do the job.” She chuckled. “In some ways I stick with it just to piss Joe off.  He can be so infuriating sometimes and this job is the only thing that really ticks him off.  He says it’s because he doesn’t like to worry about me being in danger, but that’s not the entire reason.  He doesn’t like me working with Ranger.”

         Francine nodded in understanding. “I noticed he listens to the little green monsters too, though he hides his jealousy a hell of a lot better than Lee does.  I admit that in some ways jealousy can be flattering, but when they start polishing their guns every time another guy talks to their woman, it can be aggravating. I don’t know how Amanda puts up with Lee’s jealousy. Then again, I don’t know how she puts up with a lot of his quirks.  Guess love really does do crazy things to people, is that why you put up with Joe?”

          Stephanie let out a woosh of air. “I don’t know what I feel for Joe.  There’s a strong attraction and a feeling that we’ll end up married some day, but I don’t know if it is love.  I thought I was in love once, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I think I get more jealous than Joe does, and I know he trusts me way more than I trust him.  Does getting jealous and wanting to tear out the eyes of a leggy blonde who shares an intimate past with my boyfriend mean I love him,” she shrugged, “I have no idea.  As for why I put up with Joe, sometimes I think I do it because not only do I care deeply for him, but because I don’t want to be alone.”

         “What about Ranger?” Francine paused once more as her hand began to cramp.  She was glad for the distraction that talking about Stephanie’s love life was providing, otherwise she’d probably be cursing up a storm. She’d always done extremely well with picking locks before, and was beginning to get a little annoyed at herself for not being able to have cracked these cuffs by now.  She was beginning to wonder if Veranos really had designed a cuff that was pick proof, as Benjamin had mentioned earlier. Determined to prove that theory wrong, she went back to working on her little project. “He’s good looking, if you like that dark, mysterious, brooding type, and he seems to be very protective of you.  Does Joe have a good reason to be jealous?”

         “If you’re asking if I have feelings for Ranger,” Stephanie closed her eyes and sighed deeply, “I don’t know. I think I might, but then maybe it’s a guardian angel complex…you know the protective thing, he always seems to know when I’m in trouble and is always there to get me out of it.  At first I thought it might just have been because I was his protégé, but lately there have been a lot more obvious sexual overtones in his comments.” Overtones that she admitted to herself made her weak in the knees and unsure if she wanted to jump his bones or run screaming for cover.  “You have to admit, though, there is something very exciting about a man who is dark and mysterious, and who does a damn good job of keeping everything about himself a big secret.”

         “When I was younger, I might have agreed with you.” Francine sighed as she glanced back towards the doorway, “but I’ve been in the intelligence business long enough and have been burned twice in love, to know that it’s better to be very wary of anyone who has anything to hide.”

         Stephanie tilted her head and looked at Francine with a skeptical expression, “Even if that person seems to have your best interest at heart and you know in your heart that he’d never do anything to hurt you?” 

         “Sometimes faith in someone isn’t enough.” Francine felt the lock click and had to bite her tongue to keep from shouting for joy.  Glancing once more towards the doorway, she quietly slipped her hand out of the cuff, and was about to start working on the other half when she heard heavy footsteps approaching.  She quickly moved her free hand back into a position that made it appear that she was still bound.

         “Well ladies,” Benjamin shook his head almost regretfully, “it looks like our time together is almost coming to an end.” He smiled at Stephanie as he approached her, “It seems your boyfriend knows how to follow orders or else he’s very good at hiding because none of Veranos’ men can find any trace of him anywhere in Trenton,” he reached out and ran his finger along her cheek.

         Stephanie glared defiantly at Benjamin, she knew from first hand experience that Joe could hide under a rock in plain sight and not be seen if he didn’t wanted to be seen. “You must be talking about someone else, because the guy I’m dating, wouldn’t follow the orders of someone like you, especially not when there’s bigger fish to catch.” Unable to stand the feeling of the low-life’s hand on her skin any longer, she moved her head away from his touch.

         Benjamin moved his hand to Stephanie’s shoulder and leaned close to her ear. “Well, for your sake, you better hope that he’s changed his ways, otherwise he won’t be seeing you in one piece ever again.” He stood up straight and walked over to Francine. “As for you my love, your so called friends seem to have escaped Veranos’ latest trap and taken his warning to heart, because they seem to have left town as well.”

         Francine almost laughed in Benjamin’s face, instead she held his gaze defiantly. “I guess it just goes to show you that you never really know someone as well as you think.” She knew that Lee never gave into a threat; in fact a threat to Lee was almost like a dare and Amanda cared more about others than her own personal safety, so there was no way they had headed back home.  Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Stephanie looking out the window again, and began to suspect that the young bounty hunter’s instincts were probably right on the money, and Ranger and his men had found them.  If that was the case, then Lee and Amanda, and most likely Joe, were quite possibly waiting outside for the right moment to strike. 

         Benjamin shook his head. “That’s why I never count on anyone but myself.” He placed his left hand on the top of the chair, just above Francine’s shoulder, and moving his right hand to her leg, he tantalizingly ran it along her thigh. “It’s a shame things worked out this way, you and I could have been great together.” He then leaned down and capturing her lips with his, he forced his tongue inside her mouth.

         Recognizing this as probably her only opportunity to get the upper hand, Francine bit down on Benjamin’s tongue and brought her left leg up and kicked him smack in the groin. Then as he was doubling over in pain, she whipped her freed hand around and karate chopped him in the neck, sending him sprawling to the floor. “Never underestimate the power of an independent woman.” She quickly bent down and retrieved her gun from the waistband of his jeans. “I’ll take this back if you don’t mind.” As she rose from her position, she glanced towards the doorway of the room just in time to see Randolph and another man running into the room with their guns drawn.  Randolph had his gun trained on Stephanie, while the other had his aimed directly at her. 

         Randolph took one look at his boss lying on the ground and shook his head at the blonde. “Women really have no brains. If you’d just cooperated you might have gotten out of this alive.” He nodded towards Veranos’ man and then raising his gun a little higher, he aimed directly at the brunette’s chest.  “Say goodbye.”

         With split second timing, Francine aimed her own gun at the second goon and as she fired in his direction, she registered the sound of Randolph’s gun going off.  Without thinking she threw herself at Stephanie and the last thing she saw as she forced the brunette’s chair to the ground was a flash of black as she too fell to the floor.

        

 

Chapter 13 by The Yank and The Brit

Chapter 13

         Lee climbed out of Morelli’s truck and then extended his hand to assist his wife out.  When she was safely on the ground, he looked around at the scattered black SUV’s along the somewhat deserted street.  Fortunately it was still dark out this early in the morning, and unless you were looking for them, the black vehicles were well hidden. As he pondered the need for the element of surprise he glanced over to the group of black shadows gathered on the other side of the tall bushes that bordered Benjamin’s beach house.  The hairs on the back of his neck stood up when a very large, foreboding looking man, who resembled a tank more than a man, passed through the faint light provided by the street lamp nearby. Placing a hand on his wife’s shoulder, he looked at her with pleading eyes. “Amanda, maybe…”

         Amanda turned towards her husband with a no-nonsense expression on her face. “Lee Stetson if you even think of telling me to wait in the car, you’ve got another thing coming.” She could see the distrusting expression on his face as her husband’s gaze was split between her and the men gathered behind her. “Those are Ranger’s men. You can tell by the fact that they’re all dressed like Ranger. And I don’t think that Ranger would associate with disreputable men. Nor do I think that Veranos would have men just milling about.  They’d be guarding the inside of the house, and maybe have one or two men posted outside, but not in the neighbor’s yard.”

         Joe came around the front of the vehicle and shook his head. “You’re far too trusting Amanda. I happen to know for a fact that a few of those men have pretty shady pasts.  Ranger has them on his payroll because they aren’t afraid to get a job done, any job.  Ranger has his own methods for getting things done, sometimes very creatively, it’s the reason Vinnie uses him for more of the difficult apprehensions…the ones no one else in their right mind would do.  Lee has good reason to be cautious.”

         Lee turned his attention back on his wife. Morelli was right, his wife was too trusting, which is why, in this particular gathering, he felt even more protective of her than usual.  “Amanda…I wasn’t going to ask you to stay in the car, I’ve stopped trying since no matter how many times I ask, you don’t stay put. I was, however, going to ask you to stick close to me.”

         Amanda rolled her eyes. “Nothing is going to happen to me with regards to Ranger’s employees, so you can stop worrying about that. What we should be doing is concentrating our efforts and concerns on getting our friends out of that house.” She pointed to the house on the other side of the bushes. Then, seeing Ranger joining the other men, she shook her husband’s hand off of her shoulder. “Now, I’m going to go over and find out what the situation is. Feel free to stay here and brood.”

         When Joe started to follow Amanda, Lee placed a hand on the cop’s arm. “You don’t trust Ranger do you?” He asked in a low voice as he fell into step beside Joe.

         Joe took a deep breath. “I trust Ranger to keep Stephanie safe, but that’s the only thing I trust him for. His business dealings are extremely shady, he disappears for days and weeks on end, and no one seems to know where, and he knows way more than he should about what goes on around here.”

         Lee slowed his pace as he glanced over at Morelli. “Have you run a background check on him?”

         Joe grunted. “Everyone has and the guy knows how to keep his information secret, including where he lives.  The only thing we could uncover was his address, which happens to be an empty lot.”    

         “And yet you still trust him with Stephanie’s safety.  You’re a better man than me. I don’t think I’d feel that comfortable entrusting Amanda’s life to him, not unless I had more concrete data on him.” Lee felt a knot beginning to grow as he watched his wife talking with Ranger.  He admitted that a small portion of the uneasiness he was feeling was jealousy, but the rest was because he had sensed something familiar about Ranger.  It was a feeling he’d gotten many times in the past when he’d been forced to work with an enemy agent. In fact, it was exactly how he’d felt when he was forced to work with Petrovich and Chang on the stolen detonators being smuggled out of California.  He wasn’t saying that Ranger was working for the other side, but the fact that he kept his past well hidden, wasn’t earning him any points.  The only thing keeping him from suspecting the worst about Ranger was the fact that he was almost positive that some kind of silent recognition had passed between Agent Petrakis and Ranger back at the site of the Corvette bombing. 

         Joe laughed. “Stephanie doesn’t give me much of a choice. Since she insists on continuing to work for Vinnie, someone has to watch out for her.  I admit I don’t care at all for the way he looks at her, but I trust Stephanie, and if I can’t be there to keep an eye on her, Ranger’s the second best choice.”

         Lee shook his head slightly. “Well I still give you credit for having such confidence in his ability to protect her for you.” As he and Morelli approached the others, he made a mental note to do a full in-depth Agency background check on Ranger when he got back to D.C.

          “As a precaution Santos is positioned in the shadows near the back door, and is ready to move on my signal.  Hal is assessing the situation inside, and should report back shortly.” Ranger glanced over at Lee and Morelli as they approached. “According to Tank, we know that Adams and Veranos are both inside.” He nodded subtly towards the large man on his left.  

         “Have we received confirmation from your men that Francine and Stephanie are inside?” Lee asked Ranger.

         Amanda nodded along with Ranger. “Daniel’s in there too.”

         “How many armed men are inside with them?” Joe glanced towards the house, keeping his voice low.

         “Veranos brought two men with him, and Adams and the henchman who helped bring the girls in, makes five.” Ranger glanced over at Tank, who nodded confirming the count.

         Lee reached for his holster and pulled out his gun. “Well, then what are we waiting for.” He knew, from past experience, that opportunities where all the players are together didn’t come along often, and if they had any chance of nabbing both Benjamin and Veranos, they needed to act now.

         Ranger shook his head. “I don’t recommend moving in until we know for sure where the girls are.” Sensing the urgency radiating off of both Lee and Morelli, he quickly added, “and I’m not ordering my men to make a move until I’ve gotten Hal’s report.”  He glanced at his watch. “He’ll join us as soon as he confirms where they are.”

         Lee gritted his teeth as the muscles in his neck pulsed. “You expect me to just stand around and wait...and let the opportunity to capture one of the most wanted gun runners slip through our fingers…because if we don’t move now, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.  Our window of opportunity is going to disappear.”

         Amanda could sense the jealousy and distrust of Ranger radiating off of her husband, and she knew that if she didn’t intervene soon, Lee might very likely end up doing something that might jeopardize the whole operation.  Her husband was an excellent agent, and he’d gotten better at not charging into a situation half-cocked, but there were times when people he cared about were in danger that he sometimes forgot to put that agent mask firmly into place.  Hoping that she could reason with her husband, she placed her hand on his arm. “Lee, neither Veranos nor Benjamin is going to get away. Tank was telling us that Veranos only arrived about five minutes ago, which means it’s very unlikely that he’s going to be leaving any time soon.  I agree with Ranger, we need to make sure we know where Francine and Stephanie are.  If we go barging in there like gang busters, we risk getting them both killed.”

         Having gotten to know Lee Stetson, Joe was sure that if it were possible, steam would have been coming out of the agent's ears.  Though Amanda and Ranger were both right, and they needed to make sure Stephanie and Francine wouldn't get caught in any cross-fire, he agreed fully with Lee; they didn't have the luxury of waiting. “Veranos doesn't like to stay in one place for long.  I care about Stephanie and Francine's safety as much as Lee or you, Amanda, but your fiancé’s right, we need to act now.”

         “If you and Stetson want to go in now, then you’re on your own, Morelli,” Ranger kept his expression neutral as he looked the other man square in the eye. “because, I am not ordering my men to move in until I know the hostages won’t get caught in the cross-fire.” He had come close to saying Stephanie, but afraid that too much concern would be evident in his tone, and not wanting to enrage Morelli’s jealous side, he chose to use a formal moniker instead.

         “If there really are only five armed men inside,” Lee looked over at Morelli. “between the two of us, we should be able to handle them...”

         Amanda glanced at her husband. “Lee, why are you being so stubborn about this?”

         Before Joe could respond to Lee, a shot echoed from inside the house, followed by another. “This debate just ended.  I’m going in now…” Drawing his weapon, he turned and ran towards the front of the house, where the shots had come from.

         “Move in now,” Ranger spoke into his mic as he joined Lee and Amanda who were charging after Morelli.  He didn’t need to look around him to know that his men were moving into position, covering every possible exit to the house, because that’s how he’d trained them to react.

         Joe ran straight for the front door and, waiting just momentarily for Stetson and Ranger to get into position on either side of him, he kicked the door in.  With split second timing, he quickly assessed that neither Stephanie nor Francine were in line of his gunfire and as he did a diving roll into the house, he fired a shot at a bulking figure in a gray suit who was entering into the room.

         Lee glanced briefly at as his wife, who had taken up position beside him with her gun poised and ready. He nodded once, letting her know he was ready and that he knew she had his back. He then glanced at Ranger, nodded once more and as he moved to enter, quickly ducked back outside as a bullet grazed the doorframe. 

         Ranger bent down and, estimating the angle from which the shot was fired, moved in and fired three shots.  He moved in at a low crouch and nodded with satisfaction as he caught sight of his target falling to the ground.  As he sensed Lee entering the house, he heard gun fire coming from the back of the house and heard Tank shouting to Veranos to stay where he was. 

            Amanda slipped into the house and glanced around at the bodies lying on the floor.  The first one she noticed was Benjamin, curled up in a ball, moaning.  Catching Ranger's eye, she nodded in the bigamist's direction.  Ranger gave a quick tilt of his head and moved over towards the downed man.  The next set of bodies she saw caused her heart to stop.  Lying face down, in front of a toppled chair with a very much alive Stephanie attached to it, was Daniel, with a pair of unmoving female legs sticking out from under him.  She rushed over to her friends and as she knelt beside them, she stuck her fingers to Daniel's neck, and breathed a sigh of relief when she felt a faint pulse.  She then noticed a pool of blood and she quickly moved to check Francine’s pulse.  As she waited for a beat, she glanced towards the bounty hunter. “Are you okay?”

         Stephanie did her best to nod. “Couldn't be better.” She replied sarcastically. “Might be better if I weren't tied to this chair and lying on the ground, but, hey, I'm alive.”

         Amanda smiled, not only at the brunette's sarcasm, but also with relief as she felt a very strong pulse emanating from Francine.  Sensing a familiar presence above her, she glanced up at her husband, catching the worried expression on his face. “The blood's not Francine’s.  It has to be Daniel’s.  His pulse is very weak.”  Hearing the scraping of Stephanie’s chair, she glanced behind her and watched Joe as he righted his girlfriend. Then, as she felt Francine start to stir, she looked back towards her husband. “Can you move Daniel off of Francine?”

         Lee nodded and bending down, slowly began moving the injured FBI agent off of his friend. “You’re sure Francine's not injured?”

         Amanda shook her head. “I have no idea, and I won't know for sure until I can get a good look at her.” She watched as her husband gently rolled Daniel over onto his back, noticing for the first time the large blood stain on Daniel's upper chest. She glanced back towards the blonde and watched as her eyelids began to flutter. “She seems to be coming around, that's a good sign.”

         Having moved Stephanie’s chair into an upright position, Joe began untying her bonds, his eyes searching as much of her as he could from behind for any signs of injury. “Are you sure you’re okay?" 

         Stephanie nodded fully now that she was sitting up again. “I'd be a lot better if I could feel my fingers though.”

         Joe laughed. “I'm working as fast as I can, Cupcake.”  As he undid the last knot, he moved around to the front of her chair and helped her to a standing position.  Then, without any hesitation, he pulled her into a fierce embrace and planted a hard, possessive kiss on her lips.

         As Joe broke the kiss, Stephanie realized she’d lost all feeling in her lips, and decided that it was a good thing that Joe was holding her up; otherwise she might have melted into nothing but a pool of liquid on the floor. “Wow, maybe I should get kidnapped more often.”

         Joe shook his head and laughed despite himself. “Don’t push your luck, Cupcake.” He commented as he tightened his arms around her, and smiled warmly when she responded by wrapping her arms around him and laid her head against his chest.

         As Amanda helped Francine into a sitting position, she glanced over at Ranger, who was holding up a cuffed Benjamin, and noted a flash of anguish cross the bounty hunter’s face as he watched Stephanie taking comfort from Joe.  She could tell, from that one brief look, that Ranger definitely had feelings for Stephanie, and she wondered if Ranger’s distress was because of a secret longing for something he could never have, or simple jealousy towards Joe for having what he strongly desired.  Catching her eyes on him, Ranger quickly pulled his attention away from the couple and turned it back towards his captive.  Turning her own attention back to her friend, she asked, in a worried voice. “Are you injured anywhere, Francine?”

         Francine moved her hand to the dull ache at the back of her head and shook her head. Then, as she glanced slowly down at the red stain on her designer shirt, and for the first time in her adult life, she didn’t care that her clothing was ruined, instead, knowing that the blood wasn’t hers, she glanced over to the man lying next to her.  Then, with concerned eyes, she looked at Lee, who was bending over the agent with his hands pressed to a wound on Daniel’s chest, trying to stop the flow of blood. “Lee, is he…?”

         Lee looked at his friend with a grave expression on his face. “He’s weak, Francine, but he’s alive.  Looks like he caught a bullet in the shoulder but I’m not a doctor, so I can’t tell you how serious it is.”  He glanced over at Ranger. “Has anyone called in a med team?”

         “Ambulance should be on its way.” Ranger nodded. “One of my men called for emergency support as soon as we moved in.”

         Amanda placed a gentle hand on Francine’s shoulder. “Do you think you can move?”  When the blonde slowly nodded, she slipped her hand under her friend’s arm and helped her stand up. 

         Francine put all her weight on both her legs and instantly felt a sharp pain rush through her left leg.  She involuntarily grabbed Amanda’s arm, as her foot gave out. “Maybe I’m not as okay as I thought.”

         Supporting Francine, Amanda led the blonde over to the couch. “That’s why I stopped wearing heals during working hours.” She smiled teasingly and glanced down at the sneakers adorning her feet as she assisted her friend down onto the cushions. Then noticing the cuff dangling from Francine’s wrist, she pulled a leather case out of her back pocket.  Opening it, she pulled out a thin piece of metal. “Here give me your hand Francine.” When the blonde produced the wrist with the cuff, Amanda went to work on releasing the tumbler. “Do you remember what happened? How everyone ended up on the floor, and unconscious or,” she glanced over at the man lying motionless on the floor, whom she knew neither Ranger, nor any of them had shot, “…dead?”

         Francine nodded as she returned her gaze to the injured FBI agent.  Although she remembered everything with full clarity, she was still in shock.  Petrakis had jumped in front a bullet meant for her.  No one had ever done that before. “I’d managed to get my cuffs unlocked, and Benjamin pushed his luck one too many times and found out just how much a woman’s knee can hurt.  While he laid moaning and groaning on the floor, Randolph,” she motioned towards the lifeless body of Benjamin’s body guard, “came barreling in guns blazing.  Instinct took over and I knocked Stephanie over,” she turned towards the brunette, “I’m sorry if you have any lasting injuries, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”

         Stephanie stepped out of Joe’s comforting embrace and moved to sit beside the blonde. “Hey, you saved me from getting shot. What’s a bruised arm, right?”

         “What happened after you knocked Stephanie to the ground?” Lee watched his friend carefully.  He knew that she seemed to be in shock, and he also knew that if she didn’t keep going while it was fresh in her mind, vital details might slip from her memory.

         Francine glanced once more at Daniel’s slow rising chest. “I heard Randolph cocking his gun, I fired and the next thing I know, Daniel’s pushing me to the ground.”  She removed her gaze from the agent and stared at Amanda. “He took a bullet for me. Why the hell would he do something like that?”

         “He took an oath to protect others, Francine.” Lee shrugged his shoulders non-committally. “You know the FBI handbook isn’t that much different than the Agency’s on that score. ‘Protect all others above yourself,’ you should know that.”

         Amanda gave her husband an exasperated glare, then turned her attention back on her friend. “I know Daniel, and although he liked to play by the rules most of the time, he didn’t do anything life threatening just because it was his job.  He put his heart and soul into everything he did…does, I mean.”

         Joe crossed his arms and put on his best interrogation face.  He wasn’t trying to say that Francine was a suspect, but he had learned from years of experience that sometimes someone in shock could very easily assign a hero worship to a person who had accidentally saved their life.  “Are you sure Petrakis pushed you out of the way, maybe he just got in the way of the bullet and fell on top of you, knocking you down?”

         “Oh no, he definitely jumped in front of the bullet.” Stephanie turned towards Joe. “I may have been on the floor, but I saw the whole thing.  We thought Daniel was out cold, because of the huge knot on the back of his head from where Veranos’ man hit him.  He was lying on the couch, then the next thing I know, he’s flying across the room and knocking Francine to the ground.” She glanced over at Joe. “I thought it was against the bad guy code to shoot a man in the back.”

         Joe shook his head. “Yeah, but it doesn’t count when it’s a cop or a fed you’re shooting.”

         “Ah,” Stephanie replied then narrowed her eyes at Joe.  “Oh, stop being such a cop, Morelli. You’re among friends, so you can stop treating everyone like they’re suddenly a suspect.  If you want to go interrogate someone, go play with Adams.” She rolled her eyes and sighed as she turned her attention back towards the blonde. “By the way, Francine, thank you for saving my life.”

         Francine shrugged. “You’re welcome.” She was about to add that it was all in the line of duty, but immediately decided against that.  Stephanie had become almost a friend, and after having her own life saved in a similar fashion, she realized that what Amanda had said about Daniel, could almost be said about herself.  There had been a time when she would have put her life on the line for another person merely as a sense of duty, but sometime in the last few years, she had come to realize the importance of friendship. Whether that was because of Amanda’s influence or not, she didn’t know, but what she did know, was that she would willingly give her life for a friend, as well as for her country.

         Amanda could sense the awkward silence that had befallen the group and was about to say something to break the stillness when fate stepped in and did it for her. “Speaking of saving lives…” She glanced towards the front door and the sounds of approaching sirens. “Looks like the medics have finally arrived.” She looked towards her husband. “Do you think Daniel’s going to make it?”

         Lee shrugged his shoulders slightly. “I’ve managed to stop the flow of blood, but his pulse is still very weak. I’d say that the ambulance is arriving just in time.”

         Joe walked to the front door and peered out into the early light of dawn.  He saw two approaching ambulances but didn’t see any sign of the authorities.  He turned around and looked at Ranger. “Didn’t want the cops mucking things up?”

         Feeling his prisoner starting to get bold, a sign that his pain and discomfort was subsiding, Ranger shook his head as he tightened his grip on Adams. “Figured we had enough men here to handle things, including the clean up. I think it’s time I check on things in the back and make sure Veranos and this one get secured in a vehicle. You’re welcome to ride back to the station with me and take care of Veranos.”

         “If only we knew where the guns were this whole case could easily be wrapped up. I doubt we’ll get Veranos to talk here, not by conventional methods anyway.” Joe glanced knowingly towards Ranger. “We won’t be able to use any kind of force, not with medics arriving; they don’t like shows of violence.” He grimaced. “Not sure if it’s even worth bringing Veranos in.  Without the guns, we don’t have much to hold Veranos and he’ll be calling his lawyer the minute we walk in the stationhouse door.”

         “What about kidnapping?” Stephanie asked, as she rubbed the throbbing ache on her arm from where it had hit the floor.

         Joe shook his head. “Since he wasn’t present when Benjamin took you and Francine, he can claim that he had no knowledge and that once he found out what was going on, he came here to see to your safe release.”

         “Boss,” Tank called out as he stepped into the room. “I think you need to come back here and look at this.  We found the munitions from Fort Dix.”

         “Guess you just got your wish.” Ranger glanced briefly at Morelli before turning and walking towards the back of the house, dragging Adams with him.

         Joe started to follow, and then catching sight of Stephanie beginning to get up off the couch, he turned towards her. “Don’t even think about it, Cupcake.  You need to have the medics check you out.” When she opened her mouth to protest, he put his no-nonsense cop face back on. “Don’t argue with me, Steph, I saw you holding your arm, have it checked out.”

         Ranger turned and nodded. “Babe, he’s right.”

         Stephanie rolled her eyes and plopped herself back down on the couch. “Fine,” she turned and glared at Ranger, “but then I want you to promise that you’ll share the bounty on Adams with me…after all if I hadn’t gotten kidnapped, you wouldn’t have caught him.”  She heard Ranger laugh as he disappeared into the other room, and narrowed her eyes at the sight of the scowl on Joe’s face.   He didn’t like the fact that because Ranger had told her to do something, she had agreed, when he knew she would have gone another three rounds with him.  She was saved, however, from having to endure any kind of comment from him because the medics had begun entering the house.

         “The two women on the couch need to be checked out.” Joe pointed to Stephanie and Francine.  Watching as the first two medics went directly over to Petrakis, he smiled with satisfaction when two others moved towards the couch, and then turned and followed Ranger out of the room. 

         Lee removed his hand from Petrakis’ chest and moved aside to allow the medics access to the agent. As they began to stabilize the agent, he rose and moved to stand beside his wife who was watching them work on her friend with her heart in her eyes. Wrapping his arms supportively around her shoulders, he mentally added his wife’s concern for others to the list of reasons why he loved her so much.  “He’s going to be okay.” He whispered as he planted a kiss in her hair.

         Amanda nodded. “I know.” She turned to look at her husband. “If it’s okay with you, I’m going to ride in the ambulance with him.” Before her husband could object, she continued, “I know him, Lee. I can give the hospital all his information, and being that I’m a government employee, I can make sure he gets the NEST treatment, as well as find a way to contact his superiors.”

         Francine who was now standing and leaning on the handsome medic who had been checking her over, placed a gentle hand on her friend’s arm. “No need to incite Lee’s little green monsters, Amanda.” She smiled wanly at Lee and then turned her attention back to Amanda. “I’ll ride over with him. I need to have my ankle x-rayed anyway.”  The truth was that she felt she owed it to Daniel to make sure he was indeed okay, especially since, he had saved her life, no matter what his reasons were for jumping in front of the bullet. As she watched the medics push the gurney by and move towards the front door, she wondered if she really did have a knight in shining armor after all.

         Amanda looked at Francine curiously. “You’re sure?”

         Francine nodded. “You can meet us at the hospital, though. After all, I am going to need a ride home, because I have no intention of spending an entire day at the hospital.”

         “Okay, we’ll meet you there.” Amanda nodded and then watched as Francine, leaning on the medic, hobbled out of the house behind the gurney carrying Daniel.  She then turned towards her husband. “I guess we should find Joe and see what the situation in the back is all about, and then head over to the hospital.” Her eyebrows furrowed as she watched the last medic leaving the house, closing the door behind him. “I don’t suppose anyone bothered to ask which hospital they were going to?”

         Stephanie shook her head. “No, but I’m sure Ranger knows.” She chuckled. “He knows everything.”

         Amanda smiled and laughed along with Stephanie as she caught the skeptical expression on her husband’s face.   She knew that her husband didn’t fully trust Ranger, and she had a feeling that it wasn’t all jealousy related. Once everything was wrapped up and they were on their way home, she was going to get to the bottom of her husband’s mistrust of the bounty hunter.  If nothing else, it would pass the time on the five hour ride home.  As she followed her husband and Stephanie towards the back of the house, she suddenly realized that they didn’t know how they were going to get home since they no longer had the Corvette.  They could always rent a car, but regardless of what options they had, now was not the time to figure out their mode of transportation home. 

         Entering the kitchen, Amanda confirmed that thought with the sight of all the cuffed men and guns lying around.  As the sun started peaking in through the kitchen window, she decided that when they were going to get home was a more appropriate question.  With only a week until their wedding, this day was shaping up to be a very busy one, and she had a feeling that they wouldn’t be heading home anytime soon.  Watching her husband inspecting the contents of a large wooden box, she began walking towards him, eager to get things wrapped up as quickly as possible.

        

 

Epilogue by The Yank and The Brit

Epilogue

         “Well I for one can’t believe the guns you all were so hot to get your hands on were so close the whole time.” Stephanie shook her head disbelievingly and then laughed. “Then again, maybe I can.  Too bad no one thought to check into the sale of the beach house, if they had, then all this might not have happened.” She absently rubbed the bruise on her arm; the result of having her chair thrown to the floor, with her still attached to it.

         “True,” Amanda nodded, “but then we wouldn’t have had a reason to come here to New Jersey, and make some new friends.”

         “Or run into old ones.” Lee muttered as he watched Agent Petrakis drive up in a non-descript brown sedan.  He smiled as Amanda slipped her arm through his. He knew he shouldn’t feel threatened by her past, or by any man who took a passing interest in his wife, after all, she had come to grips with all the women in his past, but for some reason, he couldn’t help getting jealous.  He realized, however, it wasn’t so much jealousy as it was a deep routed fear that someone might come along who would be able to offer her something better that he couldn’t, but one thing was for sure, he wouldn’t let her go without a fight, nor did he really believe, for one moment, that Amanda would ever leave him, at least not willingly.  Glancing over at Stephanie, he turned his thoughts back to the case they had just wrapped up and chuckled. “To be honest, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that those guns were there.  It never seems to fail that all our simple assignments end up turning into larger, much more complicated affairs.”

         Francine watched Daniel attempting to get out of the car and a feeling of remorse coursed through her. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go help Agent Petrakis.”  Not wanting to hear any comments from the peanut gallery, she hobbled as quickly as she could with a twisted ankle down the steps towards the sedan.

         “So, have you guys figured out how you’re getting home?” Stephanie glanced between Lee and Amanda. “I’m sure Joe wouldn’t mind you staying here a little longer, but I have a feeling you’re itching to get home.”

         Joe opened his mouth to comment, but didn’t get a chance as his phone began ringing. “Be right back.” As he turned to head back into his house, he shot Stephanie a quick look that told her they were going to have a serious talk about her suddenly offering his house up as a hotel.  He didn’t mind if she was the one who wanted to stay there, especially since the perks included her staying in his room, but basic strangers were another issue altogether.  Picking up his pace, he headed for the ringing device, thinking of all the ways he was going to get the brunette to pay up for volunteering his home as room and board to the feds.

         Amanda smiled slightly as she turned towards Stephanie and saw the teasing grin on the bounty hunter’s face.  It was blatantly obvious to her that Stephanie and Joe had the kind of relationship that was built on years of knowing each other intimately. “With all the craziness at the hospital, giving statements at the police station and then making sure the guns were returned safely into the Army’s hands, we didn’t really get a chance yesterday, to figure out how we were getting home.  Especially since once we got back here, all anyone wanted to do was get some sleep.  I know that there’s no way we’re all going to fit in Francine’s car. I could probably sit on Lee’s lap, and as much as I know you’d enjoy that,” she grinned at her husband, “it’d get very uncomfortable about ten minutes into the trip, and, might I add, it’s extremely illegal.”

         Stephanie’s face broke out into a grin as a brilliant idea popped into her head and she had to restrain herself from jumping up and down with excitement. “I have the perfect solution. You can take Grandma Mazur’s Buick.” She silently prayed that they’d accept the offer. If they took that monstrosity, then Joe and everyone else wouldn’t try and force her to use it because it was so safe. Granted she’d be out a back-up car, but if she got into a pinch, she could always plead with Ranger for a loaner, which he could just add to the growing list of things he was going to collect payment for, in very pleasurable ways, as he’d already forewarned her.

         Lee looked over at the blue classic sitting at the curb and although it wasn’t a bad car, he wouldn’t be caught dead driving that thing.  Stephanie had described it as a pimp-mobile and he didn’t think that description was too far off. “Thanks anyway. Although the Buick is sturdy and reliable, we’d have no way of getting it back to you. I think we might have to see if you or Morelli could give us a lift to the airport. I spoke to Billy earlier and he said that since my car was destroyed, the Agency would foot the bill…” He glanced over at his wife and noticed that her attention wasn’t on what he was saying, but rather on the sleek black Porsche 911 pulling up to the curb.  He wasn’t sure how he could have missed the purr of that motor approaching. He grinned as he followed Amanda and Stephanie down the stairs towards the sports car.

         “I would have thought that you wouldn’t want to bring another one of your Porsche’s within a hundred foot radius of me, Ranger.” Stephanie commented to her mentor as he climbed out of the car. 

         “Not my Porsche, Babe.” Ranger allowed a slow smile to cross his lips at the confused look on the brunette’s face.

         “Whose is it then?” Stephanie asked and her eyes grew wide. “Oh no.” She waved her hands in the air. “I thought we learned from the last fiasco that…” she stopped when Ranger shook his head at her and walked over to Lee.

         “It’s got bulletproof windows,” Ranger nodded towards the car as he spoke to Lee, “I did ask if they could outfit the whole car with bulletproof material, but since this is a Porsche, they informed me that they haven’t quite perfected material that is light enough yet.” He shrugged. “Best they could do was make sure you wouldn’t get pelted with flying glass.”

         “You’re giving me a Porsche?” Lee eyed Ranger suspiciously. 

         Knowing that Lee was going to be interrogating Ranger for awhile but in the end would end up taking the car, since she could see the boyish gleam in his eye, Amanda turned towards Stephanie. “Now, you promised, you and Joe will be coming to the wedding right?”

         Stephanie smiled at Amanda and nodded. “We wouldn’t miss it.”

         Noticing that her husband was no longer nearby, she glanced over at the Porsche and shook her head laughing.  Ranger and Lee were standing at the rear of the vehicle inspecting the engine.  She walked over towards them, smiling. “Since my…fiancé is obviously going to take the car, I don’t suppose we could pay you back with an invitation to our wedding, it’s not nearly as extravagant as this…” she pointed towards the Porsche.

         Ranger shook his head. “Afraid I’m going out of town day after tomorrow and I’m not sure when I’ll be returning.” He noticed the look of disappointment that crossed Stephanie’s face and for some reason it warmed his heart just a little.  That warmth quickly disappeared when he caught sight of Morelli approaching with a look that was anything but friendly.

         “I hope you don’t plan on giving that to Stephanie.” Joe glared at Ranger.  He knew he had to live with the other man constantly looking out for his girl, but he was going to be damned if he was going to let Ranger give her another vehicle that had a very suspicious origin.

         “It’s not for me,” Stephanie approached Joe, realizing that she needed to keep the situation from getting volatile.  “Ranger’s giving it to Lee.”

          Joe turned towards Lee. “I recommend that you double check all the VINS and paperwork before you sign on the dotted line.”

         Lee noted the seriousness in Morelli’s tone and glanced at the Porsche longingly.  If Morelli’s suspicions about Ranger were right on the money, he knew, deep down that he should decline the car.  He turned towards the bounty hunter with a regretful expression on his face. “This is really a nice gesture…but I’m afraid…”

          “It’s all legal and it’s already yours.” Ranger approached Lee and handed him the keys. “Let’s just say I owed you one.” He then turned and headed towards the black SUV that had just pulled up in front of Morelli’s house.

         “You owed him one?” Joe asked as he watched Ranger climb into the black Rangeman vehicle.  He turned towards Lee with a questioning gaze.

         Lee shrugged, his expression mirroring Joe’s. “I have no idea what he’s talking about.  Everything back at the beach house happened so fast, but I’m almost positive I didn’t do anything to warrant this.” He tilted his head towards the Porsche and then turned towards his wife. “I guess we have our way home now.”

         Amanda smiled as she gently placed her hand on Lee’s arm. “Good because I really wasn’t looking forward to flying home.”

         Lee grinned back. “Neither was I.  Especially with the way our luck is, we’d probably end up on a flight that has an international killer on it.”

         “Well I still recommend that you run the VIN before taking it across the state line.” Joe crossed his arms and stared at the black sports car.  “I could run them for you now if you want.  Wouldn’t take more than a quick call to the station.”

         Lee let out a sigh. “Guess it couldn’t hurt.” When Morelli nodded and then started towards the house, he looked over at his wife. “If everything checks out, I’ll grab our luggage while I’m in there.”

         Amanda nodded. “I suppose it’s a good thing we packed small bags.” When her husband looked at her curiously she pointed towards the front of the car where the ‘trunk’ was. “The Porsche doesn’t look like it has a very large storage compartment.”

         Lee grinned. “Don’t worry, if nothing else, we can put the luggage in the back seat.”

         Amanda looked inside the interior of the car. “True, it’s not like its big enough to hold passengers.”  She then pushed her husband towards the house. “Go on, get the car checked out and get our bags. I’m anxious to get on the road.”

         “Yes ma’am.” Lee saluted his wife and winked. He then quickly took two steps forward to avoid the smack on the behind Amanda had attempted to give him.

         Stephanie saw Amanda shaking her head and chuckled. “You and Lee have the type of relationship I always dreamed of.  You two not only look out for each other, but you respect each other and you are so obviously in love.”

         Amanda put an arm around the younger woman’s shoulders. “Don’t worry Stephanie, you’ll find that.  In some ways, you may already have it, if you would just let go of some of your insecurities.”

         Stephanie shrugged and then looked towards the street in the direction that the black SUV had just gone.  She smiled when she caught sight of the familiar red Firebird heading in their direction.  “Looks like Lula just found out from Connie what went down yesterday. I better go let her know I’m okay.”

         Amanda nodded and watched as Stephanie made her way over to her friend.  Realizing that two of her own friends hadn’t made it back over this way, she turned and smiled as she caught sight of Francine and Daniel standing side by side as they leaned against the agent’s car.  It appeared to her that the two agents were getting along quite well; in fact, there seemed to be a slight air of attraction between them.

         Francine glanced down at the ground, avoiding looking at the FBI agent. “You know, I’ve been meaning to thank you. No one’s ever taken a bullet for me before. In fact, I’m usually the one who ends up taking the bullet for someone else.” She laughed lightly as she absently moved her hand along her leg where she carried the scar from Ren Jepard, better known as King Cobra.  It seemed like ages ago now since she’d taken the bullet in the leg trying to protect Amanda and allow her time to escape the Old Cumberland.  The more she thought about it, however, even though she and Amanda hadn’t been very close back then, if she had to do it all over again, she would still willingly put herself in the line of fire, especially now that Amanda was one of the very few people she considered a good friend and close confidante. “Though I guess you did it in the line of duty,” she glanced up at Daniel, “right?”

         “To be honest with you, I’m not entirely sure why I did it.” Daniel coughed nervously. “That didn’t come out the way I meant it.  The truth is, I didn’t jump in front of you because it was my job.  The only thing that was running through my head at the time was that there was no way I was going to let anything happen to you before I had a chance to ask you out.”

         Francine’s eyes grew wide and she stared incredulously at Daniel. “You’re not serious? You hardly know me. Weren’t you afraid that I’d just accept because you might be a rebound guy, especially since you knew about me and Benjamin?”

         Daniel smiled serenely, though his eyes twinkled. “I just assumed that you had made an error in judgment and that you deserved to go out with an honest man for a change.”

         “So because you wanted to show me what I was missing you now have thirty stitches in your shoulder?” Francine shook her head and laughed.

         “That’s right. And,” Daniel sighed dramatically as he rubbed his wounded shoulder tenderly with his good hand, “I think it’s only fair that since I’m injured because of you, you should nurse me back to health.”

         Francine laughed even harder. “Buddy, I think you’re dreaming. Trust me, you don’t want me being your nursemaid, I have the worst bedside manner.  If its mothering you want, you need Amanda, trust me.  She’s even got a Bedside Bluebell uniform.” She then smiled at Daniel. “How about I treat you to dinner to reward you for saving my life instead?”

         “I think dinner sounds great.” Daniel smiled. “After all, it’s the whole reason I took the bullet.”

         Amanda grinned at the sight of her two friends getting along so well. She quickly hid her happiness and put on a serious expression as she approached them. “I hate to interrupt, but I wanted to let you know,” she turned towards Francine, “that Lee and I are ready to get on the road, and wanted to see if you were going to follow us or head back on your own.”

         “Actually, you and Lee go on ahead, I have a few things to take care of here first." Francine looked curiously at her friend. “I take it that you and Lee figured out how you’re getting home.”

         Amanda nodded. “In Lee’s new car,” she commented nonchalantly as she pointed towards the Porsche.

         Francine turned and her eyes grew wide. “Holy…where the hell did that come from?”

         Amanda smiled simply. “Ranger.”

         Francine looked with disbelief towards the Porsche and then towards Amanda. “Ranger?” When her friend nodded in confirmation, she let out a slow whistle and shook her head in amazement. “What did Lee do for Ranger that got him that?”

         Amanda shrugged. “I have no idea…and before you ask… Lee has no idea either.”

         Daniel grinned approvingly. “That is one awesome car.  Hopefully it’ll fare better than the Corvette.”

         Amanda laughed. “I have a feeling that that car is going to spend a lot of time in the garage…and I’m not referring to the mechanical garage either.”  She looked at the sling on her friend’s arm, and gave him a worried glance. “I really wish you would have stayed in the hospital another day, Daniel. You did lose a lot of blood, and you were suffering from a mild concussion.”

         Daniel shook his head and smiled good-naturedly. “Always the little mother,” he turned towards Francine, “when she was spending time with Joe back at school she was everyone’s mother hen.  Making sure that we got a few hours of sleep before big exams, and enforcing the ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ rule.”

         “She definitely hasn’t changed at all.  Lee used to eat stale donuts and coffee for breakfast and lately I’ll come up to the Q and he’s actually eating a bowl of cereal…with milk in it.” Francine grinned apologetically. “Sorry the Q-Bureau is what we call Lee and Amanda’s office.”

         Daniel waved his free hand in the air. “We’ve got interesting names for half of our offices too.”

         Amanda crossed her arms and gave her two friends a mock glare of annoyance. “If you two are done making fun of me,” she smiled and then turned her attention fully on Daniel, “mother-hen or not, I’m worried about you.”

         Daniel placed his hand on Amanda’s arm. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m fine, really.” Seeing the doubtful expression cross the brunette’s face, he sighed. “Honest, Amanda, I’m fine…trust me, I’ve had worse.  And as much as I would have loved to milk the attention from the nursing staff, I have an entire report to work on for my bosses.”

         Amanda sighed. “I truly believe that no one believes in taking time to heal anymore.  It’s all work, work, work.  Even Lee, he hates being ordered to rest, even when he needs it. If he’s sitting still for more than ten minutes he gets restless.” Noticing her husband coming out of the house carrying their luggage, she moved over to Daniel and careful of his wound, she gave him a big hug. “Don’t be a stranger.”

         “I won’t.” Daniel lowered his voice, “and if things go the way I’m hoping they will, we may end up seeing a lot more of each other.” When Amanda pulled back, he glanced briefly towards Francine and smiled.

         Amanda returned his grin. “Lee and I would be honored if you came to our wedding, Daniel.”

     Daniel’s smile turned into a wide open grin. “I wouldn't miss it for the world.”

     “Great, well then I’ll see you in a few days.” Amanda turned towards Francine, amusement twinkling in her eyes. “Just remember the rehearsal dinner's on Friday.”

         Francine rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry I’ll be there. I only plan on being a day behind you. Besides, if your mother even gets a hint that I’m missing, she’ll call out the National Guard to haul my ass back.”

         “No she’ll just call Mr. Melrose.  Ever since we told Mother about our jobs, she’s got Mr. Melrose on speed dial.” Amanda shook her head and smiled. “You’re sure you don’t want us to wait around and follow you back?” She glanced down at Francine’s ace-bandaged ankle.

         Francine shook her head. “I’ll be fine. It’s a mild sprain, and it’s my left ankle, which I don’t need to push the gas pedal.” She gave Amanda a friendly smile. “So you don’t have to worry about mothering me.”

          “Okay then, take good care of each other,” Amanda grinned, “and I’ll see you both in a few days.” She then turned and, before Francine could make a retaliatory comment, she quickly made her way back over to where Lee was waiting by the Porsche with Stephanie and Joe. As she got closer, she looked around and noticed that neither Lula nor her red Firebird was anywhere in sight. “Lula didn’t stay very long.”

         Stephanie shook her head apologetically. “She had to get back to the office.  She said Connie was threatening to have her ass fired if she didn’t come straight back to Vinnie’s and take care of the filing that was piling up.”

         Joe burst out laughing. “That’s a good one.  Connie wouldn’t fire Lula if she burned down the place.” He glanced at Stephanie with a knowing expression on his face. “She likes having her around, ’cause Lula’s the only other woman in all of Trenton who has balls enough to keep your slimy weasel of a cousin in line, especially since the man only knows how to think with his dick.”

         Stephanie grinned.  It was true, Connie liked having someone else around the office to give Vinnie crap and threaten him with bodily harm if he ever came within five feet of her person.  Most of the women who’d worked as file clerk were so threatened and disgusted by Vinnie that they didn’t last longer than a day or two. “Oh, I know.  Actually, I think it had more to do with the fact that Connie made Lula promise to bring back lunch” she looked over at Amanda and Lee, “and when it comes to food, nothing can keep Lula away.”

         “I believe that one.”  Lee chuckled. “After all she did polish off almost an entire bucket of fried chicken by herself the other day.” He turned towards his wife. “Well if we want to get on the road and be back in D.C. before rush hour, we should probably get moving.”

         Amanda nodded and then walked over to Stephanie. She reached out and embraced the younger woman. “Take care of yourself, and if you ever need to talk, I’m only a phone call away.” 

         Stephanie returned the embrace, and then, as she pulled away, she smiled. “Thanks,” she glanced briefly at Joe, “I may take you up on that, even before we see you again.”

         Amanda turned towards Joe.  “Thank you so much for letting us stay at your house.”

         Lee nodded as he reached out and shook Joe’s hand. “I hope we didn’t put you out…too much.” He flashed the cop a grin.

         Joe returned the shake. “Anytime you’re in Trenton, just give me a holler, my spare room is always open.”

         “Well thanks again.” Lee glanced over towards Stephanie. “Try and stay out of trouble, will ya’?”

         Stephanie rolled her eyes at the almost brotherly tone in the agent’s voice.  The last thing she needed was another male protector.  Hell, her father didn’t act as concerned as the other men in her life. Sighing, she nodded. “I’ll do my best, but it’s not me you need to get the promise from. If you’re really concerned about my safety, then you need to get all the nut cases around here to promise to stay away from me.”

         “Right,” Joe nodded and smiled sarcastically. “Because we all know that the trouble you get into is never your fault.”

         Stephanie scrunched up her nose and folded her arms. “Well it’s the truth.” She then turned towards Amanda. “See what I have to put up with.”

         Amanda laughed as she put an understanding hand on the brunette’s un-bruised arm. Giving it a squeeze, she let go and turned towards her husband. “Shall we?” She nodded towards the Porsche.

         Lee nodded and placed his hand at the small of his wife’s back to lead her to the car. “Is Francine going to follow us back?”

         Amanda shook her head and smiled. “Nope, she’s staying behind for a little while. She said she had a few things to take care of.”

         Lee raised his eyebrows questioningly as he opened the passenger door for his wife. “Like what?  She was the one who was chomping at the bit to get out of Dodge at breakfast this morning.”

         Amanda tried her best to keep a straight face as she climbed into the sports car. Turning her attention away from her husband’s face, she waved at Stephanie and Joe. “See you guys soon.” As they waved back she smiled at her husband. “Get in the car, Lee.”

         Lee let out a groan as he closed the passenger door and made his way around to the driver’s side.  He knew his wife had a point, if he were to stand at the side of the road interrogating his wife, they’d never get home.  As he opened the door, he glanced over to where the brown sedan was parked and suddenly, he had a very good idea of why Francine wasn’t going to be following them back.  Taking the Porsche keys out of his pocket, he opened his door and climbed into the low driver’s seat.  As he closed the door, he put the key in the ignition and turned towards his wife. “So, Francine has a few things to take care of, huh?”

         Keeping her face forward, Amanda nodded. Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced into the side view mirror at Francine and Daniel.  Not ready to let her husband in on the real reason for Francine’s delay just yet, and unaware of his suspicions, she shrugged her shoulders slightly. “Well for one, she still needs to go back to Stephanie’s for her things, and we really do need to get back home. I need at least a day or two to make sure mother hasn’t totally changed all our plans for the wedding.  I can’t believe the wedding is only a week away.” She leaned her head back against the headrest and sighed as she realized that she had a few changes of her own to make. “Mother is going to have a fit when she finds out that we’ve just added three more guests.”

         Lee stared at his wife in mock confusion. “Three?”

         Unable to keep the smile from her lips, Amanda turned her head to avoid looking directly at her husband. “Yes, Daniel’s coming too.”

         “Amanda…” Lee reached out and, placing his finger under his wife’s chin, turned her head to look at him. “Are you playing match maker?” His tone held just a hint of suspicion.

         Amanda laughed as she glanced back towards where her two friends were talking. “I don’t have to.  I think Francine and Daniel are taking care of that all by themselves. That’s why Francine’s not following us. I overheard them making dinner plans.”  She turned back towards her husband and smiled sincerely. “I feel better knowing that Francine’s not going to swear off relationships forever.  Daniel would be perfect for her. Too bad he works here, and not in DC.”

         Lee shook his head and put the key in the ignition. “Well if I’m reading the tone of your voice correctly, you have a feeling that things might actually work out for them…and I’ve learned from experience not to underestimate your instincts.” He then grinned at his wife. “You know, you seem to have forgotten what I do for a living.”

         Amanda glanced curiously at her husband. “Why do you say that?”

         Lee chuckled. “I caught sight of Francine as I was getting in the car. For someone who has sworn off men, she seems very relaxed with Petrakis.” He motioned behind them with his head. “Then again, he did just save her life, she could just be being nice,” he saw his wife start to shake her head, and added, but…as I said, I’ve learned not to doubt your instincts, and assuming those instincts of yours are right and things turn serious between them, who knows Petrakis might just transfer to the D.C. Bureau.” He laughed at the irony of what he’d just said. “I’ve never been a big fan of the FBI, but if things work out for Francine and your friend Daniel, I may just have to change my prejudice on that score. I know one thing’s for sure, though...”

         Amanda glanced at her husband with a quizzical expression. “Oh, what’s that?”

         “We won’t have to run a background check on him.” Lee checked his mirrors and then, putting his foot on the clutch, he shifted and steered the Porsche out onto the road. “The FBI is pretty picky about who they hire, so they took care of the background check for us.”

         Amanda smacked her husband playfully on the arm. “Just behave yourself, Lee.  She needs support, not a big brother.” Sitting back comfortably in her seat, she admired the interior of her husband’s new baby. “This was really nice of Ranger.” She glanced over at her husband. “I take it that since we’re driving this home, this car is perfectly legal?”

         “This baby checked out clean.” Lee nodded and then sighed discontentedly. “I can’t stop wondering what Ranger meant by owing me one, though.”

         Amanda shrugged her shoulders lightly. “Who knows, maybe he’s grateful we helped save Stephanie, or maybe he noticed the almost brotherly way you were watching her.  After all, he does care about her very much.”

         Lee shook his head. “I don’t think that’s it. I have a feeling that it’s something else.  The more I worked with him, despite my suspicions about him, the more I felt like we’d met before.”

          “Maybe you saved his life sometime in the past, and he didn’t really want to bring it up.  He seems to be very private.” Suddenly reminded of how much her husband had done his best to keep his own past a secret, Amanda glanced over at Lee thoughtfully.  Although in many respects, Lee was more like Joe, at least with regards to getting down to business; both her husband and Joe were able to instantly push all emotion behind an invisible mask. However, she couldn’t help thinking that there was a little bit of Ranger in her husband, as well.  It wasn’t just Lee’s need to be everywhere at once and striving to take charge, but the fact that he liked to keep a few things secret.

         Lee tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “I think I’ll definitely run a background check on our friend when we get back.”

         “Definitely?” Amanda asked suspiciously. “You sound as if you’d been thinking about doing that since you met Ranger.”

         “There’s something that just bugs me about him, Amanda.” Lee shrugged. “Call it natural curiosity if you want to, but…”

         “But you wouldn’t be the man I love if you didn’t do your best to get all the answers and put all the pieces of a puzzle in place.” A small smile crossed Amanda’s lips. “Could either be very interesting reading, or filled with lots of holes. I have a feeling Ranger likes to keep his background buried.”

         Lee nodded in agreement. “Morelli confirmed that earlier. He said Ranger knows how to bury his information, to the point that he’s listed an empty lot for his address.”

         “It was kind of interesting watching Joe…” Amanda rolled her eyes at the quick glance her husband threw her way, “Oh please, you know who I was talking about.  Anyway, it was interesting watching Morelli,” she stressed the cop’s last name, “and Ranger together.”

         “Are referring to the fact that they seem to have a definite animosity for each other, yet somehow manage to remain professional and work together?” Lee asked as he maneuvered the Porsche out on to the highway and shifting, sped up to move along with traffic.

         “Exactly.” Amanda nodded. “It’s obvious that both men care very deeply for Stephanie, yet Ranger seems to respect the fact that Stephanie is with Morelli.” She sighed as she thought about the conversation she’d had with the bounty hunter yesterday on the way over to Eleanor’s house.  Not only did Stephanie have two men who, it was obvious, were in love with her, but the young bounty hunter apparently had feelings for both men. “I have a feeling that Stephanie’s going to have a difficult choice on her hands one of these days.”

         Lee glanced briefly at his wife, before returning his attention back on the road. “You think Ranger’s going to make a move on another man’s woman?”

         Amanda rolled her eyes and shook her head.  “Twenty-four hours with Joe Morelli and suddenly women are possessions.  No, I don’t think Ranger would do that. He has more integrity than that.  However, if Stephanie and Joe ever break up, I think he might jump at the chance to make a move.  Yet, at the same time, I don’t think he’s the type that will ever be ready to settle down, and Stephanie, though she may not be ready right now to get married, is someone who will eventually want the family package.”

         “So you don’t think that Stephanie will end up marrying Morelli?” Lee asked seriously.

         Amanda shrugged. “I honestly don’t know.  There seems to be a lot of unresolved tension between Stephanie and Morelli.”

         “But there’s a lot of history between them as well.  Apparently they’ve known each other since they were kids.” Lee gritted his teeth as he caught up to a particularly slow moving car in front of them.  Glancing in his mirror, he saw an opening and zoomed into the next lane, swiftly passing the offending vehicle. “Either way, I don’t think Morelli’s going to let Stephanie go without a fight, that’s for sure.”       

         Amanda shrugged her shoulders slightly. “I guess only time will tell, but I'd be interested to find out who she does end up with.  Ranger’s so mysterious, keeping things bottled up inside, yet he can’t seem to hide how much he cares for Stephanie no matter how hard he tries.  Joe may love Stephanie, and as you mentioned he’s known her for a really long time, but he tends to be a bit on the domineering side.   Stephanie needs to be able to fly, and I have a feeling that Joe would like nothing better than to keep her tethered.”  Glancing at her husband, she sighed as she smiled devilishly to herself. “If it were me, though, I’d choose Ranger in a heartbeat. He’s rugged, handsome, not to mention dark and mysterious.”

         “Oh, really?” Lee glanced briefly in his wife’s direction and caught the twinkle in her eyes. “Well you can wish all you want, just as long as you know you belong to me.”

         Amanda shook her head and, rolling her eyes, let out a chuckle. “You really did spend too much time with Morelli.  When we get home, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time washing that caveman attitude out of your brain.”

         Reaching out, Lee took her hand in his and bringing it to his lips, he placed a tender kiss on her palm. “There’s one major difference between Morelli and me, I’d never try and keep you tied down, or tell you that you have to change careers.”

         “No, especially since you tried that once before, and it landed you in a lot of hot water.” Amanda raised her eyebrows knowingly at him when he glanced her way to protest. “Don’t try and deny that you tried to keep me chained to a desk after our disastrous first honeymoon.” She reached over and patted her husband’s leg lovingly. “And I already have my dark and mysterious man, though I’ve pretty much uncovered most of the mystery that is you.” Giving his leg a squeeze, she removed her hand and placed it in her lap. “Now, let’s see what this baby can do.”

         Lee threw back his head and laughed. “You may have solved the mystery that is me, but love, I apparently have miles and miles to go in uncovering the mystery that is you.”

         Amanda smiled sweetly at her husband. “And that’s the way it should be.  Now, step on it Stetson.”

         “Yes ma’am.” Lee winked at his wife and then shifting gears, he pushed the gas pedal to the floor. As he listened to the Porsche’s engine hum, he glanced briefly at his wife out of the corner of his eye, and hoped that he never uncovered all there was to know about his wife.  He was looking forward to a long and happy life with Amanda.  One that was full of surprises and excitement, but most of all filled with the feeling of complete and utter contentment.  As the Porsche’s speedometer hit sixty-five miles per hour, he increased his speed, suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to get home to their apartment and become completely one with his wife, something he looked forward to doing every day for the rest of their lives.

*****  *****

         “Yes, make sure all the title work is transferred to Lee Stetson.” Ranger nodded into the phone. “Right.” He hung up his phone and then glanced briefly at the three story apartment building as he passed it.  He was on his way back from Vinnie’s where he had just picked up his finder’s fee for Benjamin Adams.  Connie had been willing to give him the entire share, but he’d refused.  He told Connie that half of it belonged to Stephanie.  Although her part in apprehending the fugitive had, once again, managed to be that of the hunted, rather than the hunter, she still deserved a portion of the prize.  Lord knew he didn’t really need it, and she did.  He let out a small chuckle as he realized that there had been a time when he never would have thought twice about sharing the bounty with anyone, but there was something about Stephanie that brought out an almost protective quality in him that he hadn’t known he had. He thought about turning around and going to check on her, but then changed his mind.  There was a good chance she was with Morelli, and he decided that he really didn’t want to know for sure, so he continued on his current path towards Rangeman headquarters, even though, he wasn’t really looking forward to getting back to the office.   

         Tank was on duty in the monitor room, which meant that his very observant friend was going to know exactly why he’d taken the route past Stephanie’s apartment on his way home and though his friend knew better than to say anything directly, that wouldn’t stop him from giving him that all-knowing look. He let out a long grunt as he wondered when his life had gotten so complicated.  He laughed ruefully, as he realized that he knew exactly when his life had changed; it was the day Connie Rozelli had called and asked him to advise Stephanie Plum on how to be a bounty hunter.  He knew the minute he’d seen Stephanie at the little downtown café where they’d met for the first time that he should have turned around and never looked back.  Instead, he took her under his wing and she had somehow wrapped him around her little finger.

         As he pulled into the office garage and parked next to his Porsche, Ranger sighed regretfully, wishing that he could allow himself the luxury of getting involved in a permanent relationship.  Although he enjoyed the freedom of being able to just go off on an assignment at the drop of a hat, without having to answer to anybody, a small part of him longed to be able to settle down and fall in love with someone who would love him in return, just like Lee Stetson had managed to do with Amanda.  He smiled to himself as he thought about what either one of them would say if they knew that he was aware of their marital status. He knew enough about intelligence work not to question their reasons for keeping their first marriage a secret, and he found himself a little jealous of the couple as they prepared to share their relationship with their loved ones.  He knew that both agents would have been very annoyed to find out that he’d run a full, in-depth background check on them, but the truth was, he ran a check on anyone who had the potential of putting Stephanie in harm’s way, no matter what their occupation was.

         It had been that background check that had alerted him to the fact that he had met Lee Stetson before. The Porsche had been his way of saying thank you to Lee for saving his life in East Germany ten years ago; a fact, which from the look of confusion and suspicion on the agent’s face earlier, Ranger knew that Lee had absolutely no recollection of doing.  It had been in the early days of his career and he’d been too cocky and sure of himself.  If the man, codenamed Scarecrow, hadn’t come along and shot the two Stasi policemen he would have been dead for sure and for that he owed Lee his life.  Replacing the car that Lee had just lost seemed like the very least he could do, at least at this point in time.

         As he had reviewed Lee’s file, he couldn’t help but notice that the agent’s past indicated that the man known as the famous Scarecrow wasn’t much different from himself, at least when it came to patriotic duty.  The agent’s family history, however, was much different than his own, especially since his family was still very much alive, whereas Lee had been orphaned at the age of five. With something that devastating in your past, Lee was very lucky to have found a wonderful woman like Amanda, who could make such a worldly man settle down and give him the type of love that everyone should have.  Climbing out of his vehicle, he locked the SUV and as he shoved the keys into his pocket, sighed with regret that he had declined the invitation to Lee and Amanda’s wedding.  It would have been nice to see others in his line of work finally getting the happiness they deserved.  However, it was because of his job that he had declined. He had a feeling that he might run into someone in the intelligence community who would recognize him, and in his line of work, he needed to remain as anonymous as possible. 

         Stepping into the elevator, he sighed again. He didn’t know who he was trying to kid.  He had declined the invitation because he didn’t want to spend an entire evening watching Morelli give him warning glares, or watch him and Stephanie dancing and kissing. He shook his head; he definitely didn't want, or need to finish that train of thought. It would only bring out more feelings of regret and, in a small way, jealousy for a woman he couldn’t and shouldn’t get involved with.   Stephanie Plum drove him to enough distraction on a business level and he didn’t have the luxury to allow himself to get distracted on the personal level. 

         As Ranger pushed the button for the office level, he smiled despite himself, knowing that if any woman could distract him that way, he couldn’t deny the fact that it would definitely be the one who came in the very delectable form of a particular spunky and disaster-prone bounty hunter.

*****  *****

         Joe shut the door and, walking over to the couch, placed the pizza box on the coffee table. “What the hell’s taking you so long, Cupcake? The pizza’s here and I don’t have that much in my fridge. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding the beer.”

         “Chill out, you’re not going to die of thirst in the next thirty seconds are you?” Stephanie rolled her eyes as she entered the living room carrying a six pack of beer.

         Grabbing a slice of pizza from the box, Joe plopped down on his couch and smiled at Stephanie as she sat down beside him.  “What were you doing in there anyway?” He asked as he accepted one of the beers from her.

         “Spying on Mrs. Friolli.” Stephanie ignored Joe’s accusatory stare and, leaning forward, reached into the pizza box and grabbed a slice for herself. “She does it enough to us, and besides, she had a gentleman friend and I kind of owe Grandma Mazur some juicy gossip she can pass on to her cohorts at the beauty parlor.” Taking a bite of her pizza, she swallowed and then gulped down some beer. “This isn’t as good as Pino’s.”

         “No, but Pino’s doesn’t deliver, and I was afraid that if I left the house to pick some up from Pino’s, I’d get home and find you gone.” Joe placed his beer on the coffee table and then wrapped his arm around Stephanie’s shoulders.

         Stephanie snuggled in closer “Actually with the day…no make that days I’ve had, I actually prefer being with you.”

         “Gee, thanks. I feel so…loved.” Joe pulled Stephanie closer. “Seriously though, I am glad that you prefer to be with me than Rex.”

         “Well, Rex is nice to talk to, but he doesn’t warm me up the way you do.” Stephanie turned her head and smiled seductively at Joe.

         Joe tossed his pizza back into the box and then slipped his fingers through Stephanie’s hair as he pulled her lips to his.  As his lower body began to react to her hands roaming restlessly up and down his back, his brain remembered something that Stephanie had said right before the pizza had arrived. Breaking the kiss somewhat reluctantly, he leaned his forehead against hers. “What was all that talk about me having to take off work next weekend?”

         Stephanie glared at Joe as she tried to get her breathing back under control. “Your mind works in mysterious ways, Morelli. How the devil you can go from thinking with your lower anatomy to thinking with what’s inside that skull of yours in a matter of milliseconds is beyond me.”

         “Stop redirecting the conversation, Cupcake,” Joe pulled back and glanced at Stephanie with a very serious expression. “Why do I need to take off work next weekend?”           

         “Because I told Amanda that you and I would be attending her and Lee’s wedding.” Stephanie trailed her fingers along the buttons of Joe’s shirt as she looked at him demurely.

         Joe threw his head back and grunted. “Steph, come on, do I really have to go to their wedding?” He looked back at his girlfriend pleadingly. “You know how much I hate weddings.”

         Stephanie rolled her eyes. “I thought you just hated family weddings.” She removed her hand from Joe’s chest and placed it back in her lap. “Of course, if you really don’t want to go…” She heard Joe let out a sigh of relief and shrugged. “I can always see if Ranger’s available.” She knew Ranger wouldn’t go, he’d already told Amanda that he was going to be out of town, but he was the only leverage she had in ensuring that Joe did come with her.

         Joe let out a growl and glared at the brunette beside him. “Don’t even joke about that Steph, because you know if you even …” he paused when he felt her shoulders start to shudder and he looked closer at her face.  When he saw the corners of her mouth twitching slightly he let his muscles relax. “Very funny, Cupcake. Fine, you win and I don’t hate weddings, I just hate putting on that damn suit.”

          “But you look good enough to eat when you wear that suit.” Stephanie licked her lips and smiled. “Come on, it’ll be fun.  I promise to make it worth your while.”

         “Oh, really, and how do you plan on doing that.” Joe grinned at the playful tone in her voice.

         Stephanie slowly slid her hand up and down Joe’s leg. “Well, we'll be miles away from the burg, no interruptions, and no early morning visits from your mom and Grandma Bella.”

         Joe slipped his hand under Stephanie’s shirt and trailed it longingly along her ribcage “And...”

          “Room service, cotton robes, or we can just parade around naked.” Steph pulled her hand back and shrugged. “But if you really don’t want to go…”

         Joe swallowed hard and reached out for Stephanie’s hand. “I’m warming up to the idea but I think I need a little more convincing. How about we have a practice performance for next weekend, now?” He placed her hand back on his upper thigh, letting her know that he wanted her to continue her little foreplay.

         “Well, that’s what I thought we were doing earlier, till someone changed his mind.” Stephanie glanced down at the enlarged bulge in Joe's pants. “I guess we better take care of your condition soon or you might not last very long.” She rubbed her hand tantalizingly over Joe’s package. “Seems the boys have really missed me.”

         “Oh they definitely have. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve missed you, too.” Joe whispered before capturing her lips with his in a fiery kiss. 

         Stephanie had planned on teasing Joe a little longer, but the hunger burning in his kiss, ignited her own desires, throwing all thoughts and reasoning straight out the window.  As Joe lowered her down onto the couch she wrapped her arms around his neck, letting him wipe away all the trauma of the last few days, and hoping that he’d be able give her enough memories to carry through to her next life and death situation.

 

The End

 

 

End Notes:

Authors’ End Notes:  This story was based on a real-life story involving women who were the victim of one man, who married more than once.  Their lives were thrown into turmoil, and although we used their experiences for our story, any similarities to their actual experiences are merely coincidental.  

For those who are really interested, here’s the link to the original article that was the basis for our character Benjamin Adams:http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30000-13558168,00.html  

References are made to scenes or incidents from the following Scarecrow and Mrs. King episodes:  

Burn Out” (Season 2) – written by Lisa Seidman;

One Bear Dances, One Bear Doesn’t” (Season 3) – written by Whitney Wherret Robinson;

“Triumvirate” (Season 3) – written by Robert Bielak;

Three Little Spies” (Season 3) – written by Tom Chehak;

Stemwinder Part 1” (Season 4) – written by Robert W. Gilmer & George Geiger;  

Nightcrawler” (Season 4) – written by George Geiger;   

References are made to events and character that appeared in the following Stephanie Plum books written by Janet Evanovich: 

One for the Money

Two for the Dough

Three to Get Deadly

Four to Score

“High Five”  

For those interested:  Benjamin Adams aliases: Benjamin Adams, was arrested in Trenton, NJ as a bigamist with Army guns in his trunk, when his third wife in discovered he was married to another woman living in Seaside Heights.

·   Original name: Benjamin Adams, married Eleanor (wife #3) – when he moved back to Trenton, New Jersey, where his grandmother lived. (Eleanor was the wife who found out about wife number four and turned him in). 

·   First alias – Adam White - married Julie Clemmons (wife #1) – lives in Paramus - two kids.

·   Second alias - Clyde Thompson - married to Sally Thompson (wife #2) – lives in Baltimore, Maryland - one son, Johnny (the wife who slipped through the Rangeman radar, but who Amanda saw Benjamin with at lunch with her mother) – worked as an exotic car dealer. 

·   Third alias – Thomas Benton – married to Marie Benton (wife #4) - lives in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, sold her house, and, unbeknownst to Marie, Veranos was the one who bought it.

·   Fourth alias: Adam Clyde – proposed to Francine, who would have made wife number five – worked as an assistant baseball coach to Phillip’s Junior Varsity team. 

This story archived at http://www.wickyarchive.net/viewstory.php?sid=314