My name is Stephanie Plum and I’m a bond enforcement agent. People generally call me a bounty hunter or skip tracer. Right now, I’d rather be anything other than a bounty hunter. Hell, I’d rather go back to my old job of buying sensible underwear for a provincial department store!
I tried to wriggle my legs a little to get more comfortable but the ropes that held my ankles and wrists together were tied too tight to allow me much movement. There was a rag stuffed into my mouth and held in place by duct tape. It was soaking up any saliva that I managed to produce, making my mouth and throat as dry as parchment and I was dying of thirst. I couldn’t see, either. I was in a dark basement somewhere but it was so dark I might as well have been blindfolded.
I knew I shouldn’t have gone after Micky Onzetti as soon as I read his file. He was out of my league and I really should have left him to the Rangemen. He was wanted for pimping and pushing. However, I’d been desperate; my rent was due, my refrigerator was empty and Rex was almost out of hamster nuggets. So, like a fool, I took the file and was immediately well in over my head. A series of bad choices on my part had brought me to my present predicament.
I had witnessed a murder. Onzetti knew I’d seen him knife that kid that worked for him, and he wasn’t going to allow me to live to tell anyone what I saw. Right now he was deciding who was going to have the honor of killing me, and had offered the winner the chance to have a little 'fun' with me first if they wished.
My only hope was that someone would miss me and come looking for me. I’d used the computers at RangeMan to do a search on Onzetti when all this started. Hopefully someone at RangeMan would find my research and figure out where to start looking.
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A Few Hours Earlier...
“No Morelli. I haven’t seen her. Not since first thing this morning.” I grimaced as I realized how that sounded. I could hear the anger in the cop’s voice as he thought the same thing. “Not that it’s any of your business any more, but she was in the office using the computers.” I knew his concern was real so I decided to unbend a little. “I’ll check out what she was working on and put a trace on her.” I disconnected and thought about what Morelli had said.
I wasn’t overly worried but I was somewhat concerned. It was unlike Steph not to show for dinner at her parents’ without calling them. What really rankled was that Mrs. Plum had called Joe Morelli for help and not me. Ellen Plum has met me and knows that Steph works for me from time to time. It really pisses me off that she still sees me as some kind of thug. Steph had finished with Morelli weeks ago and her mother knows that. But she still seems to be laboring under the impression that he’s a viable option for her daughter.
Picking up the desk phone, I dialed Tank’s number. “Tank. Bring me the file that Steph was working on this morning. Now.”
Five minutes later, after a perfunctory knock, Tank was entering my office. Taking the file from him, I opened it and immediately developed a sick feeling in my gut. Micky Onzetti was the worst kind of scum. He’d gone FTA on a pimping and drug dealing charge, and he wouldn’t draw the line at rape or murder.
Schooling my features so as not to show my feelings, I looked up at my second in command. “Tank, Steph’s missing. My gut is telling me she’s gone after this guy and he’s turned the tables on her somehow.” I passed the file back to Tank who read it, his blank face firmly in place. “I want every available man working the phones or out on the street. I want her found.”
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I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew my arms and legs had gone numb. With the way they had me tied there was no way I could get the circulation going again, and now I didn't think I could move if my life depended on it.
There were noises coming from somewhere above my prison. I picked up my head and strained my ears to listen. I couldn’t make out what or who was making the noise but it seemed to be getting louder.
I flinched and tried to hide within myself when the door burst open. This was it. This was the end. I tried to pray but couldn’t remember any words. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and pretended that it wasn’t happening; pretended that I wasn’t even there. I felt a knife cut my bindings, and a sob escaped me. I didn’t want to die and I certainly didn’t want to be raped first.
Strong hands pulled me up and held me against a tightly muscled chest. The smell of Bulgari assaulted my senses. Oh God. My mind was playing games with me now.
“Babe.” His voice breathed his pet name for me into my ear.
“Babe, it’s okay. You’re safe.”
Those same hands pulled the tape away from my mouth as gently as possible and removed the rag. I opened my eyes to slits and saw... nothing... well, I saw black, a black T-shirt. Tipping my head back, I could just make out his face in the dim light spilling into the room from the open door.
“Ranger?” I croaked, my voice cracked and raw. My savior, my hero, lifted me up and carried me out of the hole where I’d been held. He held me to his chest, held me tight but tenderly, as if I might break at any moment.
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Looking at her, sitting on the couch, wrapped in an oversized quilt she looked like a lost little girl. Sometimes when she barges headlong into situations that she has no business getting into, it's hard for me not to lose my temper. But then, when she gets hurt all I want to do is wrap her in a soft cocoon of cotton and kiss away the pain. I smiled as I thought how she would react to that. She might accept my kisses but she would just shrug off the pain.
I have never known a woman to be so tenacious, courageous and downright lucky. I shook my head at the wonder that is Stephanie Plum, turned back to the counter, picked up the kettle and poured the boiling water into the mug. Placing the kettle back on the stove, I picked up the drink I headed out into the living room.
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“You okay, Babe?”
I looked over at Ranger. It dawned on me just how fortunate I was. A few short hours ago I’d thought that I would never see him again. Never again look into those eyes that make me go weak at the knees. Never be kissed by him until I was light headed with desire. I pulled the quilt around me to ward off a sudden chill.
Ranger had brought me back to Haywood. For once he hadn't driven, he let Tank drive. Instead, he climbed into the back of the SUV and held me for the entire trip. The journey had been completed in total silence. Not letting go of me once we had arrived at RangeMan, Ranger carried me up to the seventh floor and straight into the bathroom. The moment he’d set me on my feet, my legs had given way and I would have fallen if he hadn’t been there to catch me.
He undressed me and then shed his own clothes. Together we stepped into the shower and let the hot water cascade over us. Ranger washed me, he even shampooed my hair, massaging my scalp, calming my fractured nerves. He handled me like a china doll and to be honest I was too tired and too overwrought to get aroused.
After every inch of me was clean, he stepped out, wrapped a towel around himself, then lifted me out. Grabbing a second towel, he gently dried me and then carried me into the bedroom. He wrapped his bed quilt around me and then picked me up again to carry me out into the living room and settled me on the couch.
I sat and thought of nothing at all. I was in a happy place were nothing horrible had happened to me today. Denial was always my friend.
I looked up as Ranger walked back into the living room and handed me a mug of hot chocolate! Whoa – Batman made hot chocolate? Wait a minute, is the Pope still Catholic?
“I guess I’m okay, but I think I might be a little bit in shock.”
Ranger sat down next to me and raised an eyebrow at me.
“The hot chocolate, Ranger – I didn’t even know you had chocolate in your kitchen.”
“Ella thought you’d need some soul food.” He looked as if he was going to smile but thought better of it and put his arm around me instead. I laid my head against his shoulder, careful not to spill my precious chocolate.
We sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, me sipping carefully from my steaming drink, before I felt the need to talk.
“I thought I was going to die." I looked at him and felt the need to explain further. "I wasn’t frightened of dying as such. I mean once you’re dead, you’re dead. You don’t feel anything once you are dead. But I was frightened of the pain Onzetti could and probably would inflict on me before I died.” I took another sip of my hot chocolate reveling in the feel of Ranger’s hand stroking my arm. “From what I overheard, they were going to rape me before killing me. I was scared of that.” I took a breath. “But more than that, I was scared that I would never see you again.” I pulled back slightly so I could look at his face. He was looking so serious. “I’ve been frightened before, Ranger, but I’ve never been so afraid as I was today.”
I settled back against his shoulder, drawing strength and comfort from his warmth. Suddenly I had to know something I'd wondered about for a long time, something I just had to ask. “What are you afraid of Ranger?”
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What am I afraid of? How am I supposed to answer that? I’m afraid of so many things and they’re all tied to this slip of a woman. I’m afraid of the power she has over me. The way I drop everything to help her. I’m afraid of the near lack of control I have over my feelings where she’s concerned.
I rested my head on the back of the couch and held Steph close. Closing my eyes, I thought of the all the close calls she’d had with the Grim Reaper. Finding her at Stiva’s. When I found her in that cupboard, I thought she was dead. Thinking I might have been too late to save her from the Junkman and the Slayers gave me nightmares for weeks afterwards. In fact, I would have been too late, and I thank God that Sally Sweet was ahead of me.
Today she had, once again, cheated death. How many chances does a person get in life? I’m afraid of her luck is running out and I’m afraid that one day I won’t get to her in time.
Opening my eyes, I turned my head to look at down at her as she rested against my shoulder. With my free hand I took her now empty mug and placed it on the coffee table. Running my hand up her arm and into her hair, I tucked some wayward curls behind her ear. No woman had ever become so dear to me so quickly after meeting them, and now I couldn’t imagine my life without her in it.
Perhaps the time had come to re-think my position on relationships; because for all intents and purposes we have a relationship. It’s not defined, and we don’t acknowledge it, but nevertheless we have a relationship.
“I heard you Babe, I was just thinking.” And wondering how to answer; if we are going to give a relationship a chance then I have to answer her. “There aren’t many things that frighten me Steph. But one stands out above all others.” I took a deep breath and kissed the top of her head. “Losing you. I’m afraid of losing you, Babe.”
“I’m not going anywhere Ranger.” She wrapped her arms around my waist and squeezed gently.
“No Babe, I’m afraid that you’ve cheated death once too often, and next time your luck is going to run out.” I stopped abruptly wondering if I should admit to my worst fear. I made my decision and continued. “If you died I would too, inside with you. I wouldn’t want to live without you.”
I put a finger under her chin and lifted her head so I could look at her face. There were tears swimming in her beautiful sapphire eyes. I gave her a tiny nod and lowered my lips to hers. The kiss started slow and gentle but she snaked an arm up around my neck and deepened the kiss, her tongue meeting mine.
Without breaking contact I lifted her into my arms and stood up. I carried her into my bedroom and placed her on my bed, intent on showing her exactly what my position was on relationships. And while I was at it, I thought I might show her few other positions as well.