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Hot and Bothered

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A/N: Disclosure: This story is rated M due to explicit sexual situations.

ONE

I should be used to getting shot at by now. Or at least expect it. But no, as Ralph Cercone hauled a silver Smith and Wesson .45 from his waistband, I dove in surprise behind one of the hedgerows lining the front of his building. A bullet pinged off the concrete where I just stood. My sometimes partner, Lula, dove in the opposite direction. Her neon green mini skirt rode up around her waist, leaving me a clear view of her derriere though her skin tight, black spandex leggings.

Lula was much darker skinned than me, a few inches shorter, a lot of pounds heavier, with much more colorful hair, but that didn't bother her any. She had more self-esteem than most super models, and she let it show, mostly by wearing revealing outfits a few sizes too small and dying her hair from the Crayola collection. Today, her hair glowed a blinding candy cane red, and her ensemble included knee high black leather boots with a four-inch block heel and a pink angora sweater that revealed a mile of cleavage. She used to be a 'ho, but a near-death experience caused her to redirect her life, and now she worked at the bonds office. No one knew exactly what she should do there, so she mostly rode shot-gun for me.

BANG! Another shot rang out and Lulu shrieked. I saw her leg jerk. My head spun. I didn't want to see the blood.

Wait, there wasn't any blood.

Lula gripped something small and black in her hand, looking royally pissed. "That mo-fo shot the heel off my new Mahalo Blonik look-a-like boots."

Uh oh. This wouldn't end well for Ralph.

Lula reached into her gigantic hobo purse and hauled out a nickel-plated Glock. She leveled it at Ralph's house and released a spray of bullets. The living room window shattered, glass flying everywhere. I glimpsed Ralph dive for cover behind his sofa.

I scrambled for my car, which sat peacefully undisturbed at the curb. Laying down cover fire, Lula limped after me. I wrenched open the door of the powder blue monstrosity currently on loan from my Grandma Mazur and threw myself into the driver's seat. Jamming the key into the ignition, I prayed Big Blue would turn over on the first try. The old girl didn't care much for the Jersey winter. Luck seemed to be on my side as the engine roared to life.

Lula slammed her door closed and I peeled out, speeding away. I cut down a few side streets and back into an area of Trenton known as The Burg. It was short for Chambersburg, and where I'd grown up. My parents still lived there in a cramped, but comfortable, duplex. The Burg comprised a proud neighborhood of hard working, God-fearing people who kept their homes and lawns tidy, ate around dining room tables, and tried to adhere to the ten commandments. Good thing God had forgotten, "thou shalt not gossip," because Burg residents loved nothing more than a good rumor. Except maybe a good funeral.

"I don't think he wanted to reschedule his court date," remarked Lula a few blocks later.

"Gee, you think?"

Such is the life of Stephanie Plum. Unfortunately, I'm Stephanie Plum. As a bond enforcement agent for my cousin Vinnie, it's my job to track down the dregs of Trenton who've skipped their court dates. I liked to think most of them missed their hearing by accident, and a gentle reminder from me would set things right. However, more often than not, I ended up with doors slammed in my face or guns pointed at my chest. I'd rolled in dirt, garbage, and worse, more than a few times. I'm Hungarian-Italian with blue eyes, naturally curly brown hair that hits my shoulders, and a body that usually allows me to button the top of my jeans. I had a propensity for losing handcuffs, destroying cars, and getting death threats. And the truly crazy thing was, I liked my job.

Lula examined her broken heel, frowning. "My poor shoes. What did my boots ever do to him? I need some of that soul food."

"Soul food?"

"Yeah, you know, good, home cooking, full of love and sympathy and shit. Oh look, Cluck-in-a-Bucket! Pull in."

I pulled up to the drive through, huffing and puffing as I rolled down the window with the hand crank. My Honda CR-V had power windows. However, it had recently gone to car heaven at the hands of a demented plow truck driver, so I'd resorted to borrowing my late Uncle Sandor's 1953 Buick.

Lula leaned across me so she could yell into the drive through receiver. "One bucket of chicken, extra crispy, with a side of mashed potatoes with extra gravy, mac and cheese, and four of those good biscuit things." She paused, looking at me. "What do you want, Steph?"

I gaped for a second before recovering. "Chicken sandwich with fries and a Coke," I told the clerk.

"Oh yeah, give me a large diet Coke," Lula shouted after me. "Oh, and one of those apple turnover thingies."

We pulled around to the window and collected our food, then headed back to the bonds office.

"Do you think we should have got something for Connie?" Lula asked as she dug into her bucket of chicken.

"If she wants something, I'll run out and get it for her," I offered, trying not to roll my eyes.

My cousin Vinnie's bail bonds office was a one-story storefront off Hamilton Ave. It had a lot in the back, but today I parked in front of the office. I walked in, while Lula gimped along behind me, hanging onto her food.

I put my lunch on a small end table and slouched into the Naugahyde sofa across from Connie's desk. Connie Risolli, Vinnie's office manager and guard dog, provided the last line of defense between Vinnie and irritated bondees, bookies, and hookers.

"Rough morning?" asked Connie.

"I got shot at." The 'again' hung unsaid in the air.

Lula, only now recalling her injured apparel, shoved her foot out so Connie could see the damaged heel. "Bastard shot my heel off," she said through a mouthful of chicken.

I polished off my chicken sandwich, fries, and soda, then waited for Lula to finish her small mountain of food.

"Vinnie in today?" I asked, eying the closed door to his office.

"Had to go down to the courthouse to write a bond," Connie replied. "And then he said he had a 'lunch meeting.'"

That was Vinnie's code word for picking up a 'ho on Stark Street. At least I wouldn't have to face him and explain why I hadn't managed to pick up a skip in a week. I had really hoped Ralph would come easy. I had rent to pay on the first and my bank account currently ran drier than the Sahara in July.

My purse vibrated as my cell phone went off. I recognized the number for the police department.

Please don't be Morelli, I prayed as I answered it. Turns out there is a God. Or at least someone who answers telephone prayers.

"Stephanie?"

I recognized cop Eddie Garazza's voice. "What's up Eddie?"

"Just thought you should know we have Ralph Cercone down here at the station. But I need to ask you a few questions before I can book him on the FTA."

"Okay."

"Ralph came down to the police station to file a complaint against you. Said you shot out his front window?"

"What? He shot at me when I tried to bring him in for the FTA. I had to dive behind a shrub."

"And you didn't shoot back?"

"I didn't even have a gun with me, Eddie. I swear, I didn't shoot at him." And it was the truth. Lula shot at him. My gun sat safely at my apartment, empty of bullets and buried beneath a bag of Chips Ahoy in my cookie jar.

"That's what I figured. I'll book him and you can stop by to get the body receipt."

"Thanks, Eddie."

"If I don't see you, Merry Christmas."

"Thanks. Merry Christmas."

I hung up and explained the situation to Connie and Lula.

"No way someone could be that dumb," Connie insisted as I grabbed my coat and headed for Big Blue.

"Maybe it's an early Christmas present from Santa," suggested Lula. "Like, he knew you needed the money, and you've been real good this year, so he decided to give you an easy capture."

I didn't think getting shot at counted as an easy capture, but who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth?

I parked in the lot across the street from the police station, trying to ignore that Morelli's SUV sat only a few spots away. My on-again off-again relationship with vice cop Joe Morelli currently idled in the off position. Our latest breakup quickly became known around the Burg as the Thanksgiving Day Plum Parade. After enduring my mother's non-stop pestering at dinner over when I finally planned to give up bounty hunting, marry Joe, and start popping out grandkids, I snapped just as dessert hit the table. Storming out of the house should have been the end of it, but Morelli made the poor choice to try and follow me, insisting I'd overreacted and should just calm down.

There were rumors the screaming could be heard four blocks away. My mother emerged after Joe, and the angry words just escalated. My Grandma Mazur followed, with an air horn she'd procured from god knew where. A few blasts from the air horn had stunned us enough to pause the shouting. It gave my father a chance to come to the door and yell that he would start eating the pumpkin pie without us. I'd gotten in my car and sped away, without pumpkin pie, leftovers, or a boyfriend.

According to Grandma Mazur, my mother had ironed for a week straight.

I hadn't seen Morelli since Thanksgiving. After a month, I still wanted to stay mad at him, but I feared my resolve would crack if he cornered me at the station. Plus, I missed Bob, his big, hairy orange dog.

I walked into the station and collected my body receipt. Ralph didn't amount to a big ticket skip, but he'd pay my rent and put food in my fridge. I practically ran back to Big Blue, thankful I'd escaped the station without a confrontation with Morelli. I headed straight back to the office so Connie could cut me a check. I deposited it and headed home, content to know I wouldn't get evicted for at least another month.

I spent Christmas Day at my parents' house. After the Thanksgiving fiasco, I didn't know if I wanted to endure another family dinner, but the temptation of enough leftovers to fill my fridge for a week proved too strong. Thankfully, the focus of Christmas fell on my nieces, so no one said a word to me about my personal life.


A few minutes before midnight on December twenty-seventh, Lula and I left Rosie's bar. Despite the name, Rosie's fit the bill as a dive bar. Only a block from Stark Street, it could be described as sketchy, at best, and frequented by 'hos and lowlifes, which was exactly why I found myself there. My intelligence said that one of my skips, Johnny Barker, liked to hang out at Rosie's. He'd gone FTA on a simple assault charge: he'd imbibed a bit too much and cracked someone over the head with a glass beer bottle.

After nearly two hours of inhaling second hand smoke and fending off unwanted advances, I'd thrown in the towel. It seemed unlikely Barker would show tonight.

Lula waved goodnight to me as she sashayed toward her red Firebird parked half a block down the street. Even in the dim light, she stood out in her neon pink spandex mini skirt, gold sequined tank top with more than ample cleavage, and four-inch spike heels. She made me look like a Catholic school girl in my clingy, black mid-thigh skirt and white glitter scoop neck t-shirt. I'd opted for a pair of black flats over Lula's suggested fuck-me heels, hoping I'd be cuffing Barker and hauling him back to jail. Turns out my sensibility was for nothing.

I crossed the street and headed for Big Blue. I'd parked a block up the street, under one of the few working streetlights. Shivering, I scooted into the driver's seat and turned the key. Nothing happened.

Cursing, I tried the key again. Again, nothing happened. Not even one measly crank. Big Blue had finally given up the ghost.

I got out of the car, looking back down the street, but Lula and her Firebird were already gone. I got back in and vigorously rubbed my hands up and down my arms, assessing my situation. I pulled out my cell phone and turned it back on, ignoring a few missed call notifications, and dialed Lula. She should only be a few blocks away, but her phone went straight to voicemail and her in-box said full. I hung up.

I had limited options. My parents were in bed. And while my ever-loving father would haul himself out to come get my sorry ass, I couldn't take the humiliation. Or my mother's consternation. Morelli wasn't an option, either. That left just one person: Ranger. My body spontaneously warmed at the thought. Ricardo Carlos Manoso, aka Ranger, had been my mentor when I first started working for Vinnie. During his time in the Army's Special Forces he'd earned the name Ranger. Now he owned a high tech, high end security firm called Rangeman. His Cuban American heritage and chiseled body made him a Latino Adonis. The sexual attraction between us became nearly palpable at times, and we'd caved to it more than once, but Ranger left no room in his life for any kind of committed relationship. If I called him now, I would owe him, and owing Ranger came with a dangerous bargain. Still preferable to freezing to death in Big Blue, though. I started to dial his number when movement outside caught my eye.

A man walked quickly down the sidewalk, and as he passed the streetlight by Big Blue, I caught enough of his face to recognize Johnny Barker. He headed toward Rosie's.

My car troubles suddenly forgotten, I grabbed flexi-cuffs from my purse and hopped out.

"Hey, Johnny, wait up!"

I hoped he would pause and give me a chance to catch up with him. Unfortunately, he jumped like a startled rabbit and took off at a run. I sprinted after him, shouting, "stop, bond enforcement!"

Johnny skidded around a corner into a small alley between a closed Chinese restaurant and a 24-hour laundromat. I followed cautiously. Darkness consumed the alley. Dumpsters and trash cans blocked most of the space, Barker nowhere to be seen. I slowed to a walk, wishing I'd thought to bring a flashlight. In the dimness, I could see the brick wall of a building ahead. A dead end. Barker had to be here somewhere.

I stood on my tip toes and peeked inside a dumpster. Nada. Behind me, I heard the scrape of metal. I spun just in time to put my arms up to block a flying trash can. It bounced to my left with a clatter. Barker sprinted back toward the street. I followed and he grabbed the overturned lid of another trash can and flung it at my face. Half-frozen slushy water hit me. At least I hoped it contained water. I shrieked as it soaked my head, face, and chest. Barker pulled over a third trash can, scattering its contents across the width of the alley before escaping back onto the sidewalk. I picked my way through the garbage, sputtering and shivering. By the time I reached the sidewalk, Barker had disappeared.

Headlights suddenly illuminated me as a black Porsche 911 Turbo rolled to a stop on the street. The window slid down and Ranger gave me a once over, half a smile gracing his lips.

"Babe." That single word could hold a multitude of meanings when uttered by Ranger. At the moment, it conveyed amusement.

"I was just going to call you. Big Blue won't start. How did you know?"

"I didn't. I've been calling, worried as to why your car was parked so near Stark Street so late, but you weren't answering."

"No reason for concern. Lula and I were fishing for an FTA at Rosie's."

"Babe, I think that fish threw you from the boat."

I shivered. "Slight snag. Could you give me a ride home?"

Ranger nodded. I retrieved my phone and purse from Big Blue and hopped into the Porsche, sighing as I sank into the heated leather seat. It felt so nice and warm.

I sensed Ranger's eyes on me.

"What?"

"Babe, you could win first prize in a wet t-shirt contest right now. Not that I'm complaining."

I glanced down at my chest. The slush had soaked through both my shirt and my bra, leaving very little to the imagination. I awkwardly crossed my arms over my breasts.

Ranger pulled into my lot a short time later.

"You can just drop me off at the door," I told him.

"Not a chance," came his reply. Shivers that had nothing to do with the cold shot up my body.

He parked and walked me up to my apartment. I unlocked the door and Ranger entered first, quickly sweeping the space as I waited in the foyer. Sadly, a totally normal procedure for me.

"No bad guys lurking under the bed," Ranger reported, closing the gap between us to put his hands on my waist. His eyes darkened as he scanned my still-wet shirt.

"I should really get a shower and go to bed," I replied.

I could smell the cigarette smoke in my hair and god only knew what else was in the trash can water. I tried to wiggle out of Ranger's grip. A night with him always proved tempting, but tended to make my life complicated. Sex with Ranger felt a lot like making love, at least to me. But since he left no room in his life for relationships, it seemed best that I kept my distance.

Ranger had other plans. His lips brushed mine, then moved to my ear. "I forgot to check the shower. I should probably go with you."

Electricity shot through my extremities, cumulating between my legs. A month without Morelli also meant a month of abstinence. I liked to think myself better than that, but who was I kidding? One of the sexiest men alive just offered to shower with me. 'Turned on' didn't even begin to describe my emotions.

"That would probably be best," I agreed breathily.

A second later, Ranger's lips crashed greedily into mine. His tongue swirled against mine and lava supplanted all the blood in my body. Panting, I let him steer me into the bathroom. His hands moved north, tugging my shirt off. It hit the floor with a wet slap, followed shortly by my bra. Ranger cupped my breasts, his thumbs flicking across my taunt nipples. His hands felt exquisite, like fire against my cold skin. As his lips collided with mine once more, I moaned into his mouth.

He stopped kissing me long enough to turn on the shower and pull off his clothes. He soon divested me of the rest of mine. Ranger stepped into the tub first, tugging me along behind him. He ducked his head under the stream of water, splashing me.

I gulped as I took in his toned body, glistening with water. His wet hair clung to his face and neck, only increasing his sex appeal. Despite the warm water, I shivered. Perhaps I'd bitten off more than I could chew, but too late to back out now.

Ranger's eyes bored into my body as I lathered my hair with shampoo. Then I grabbed a loofa, massaging shower gel into it until suds dripped down my hand. Slowly, I began to wash Ranger's body. Starting at his neck, I trailed down his shoulders and each arm before rubbing small circles on his chest. I moved down over his perfect abs, trying to control my breathing. As I got to his pelvis, I found him already hard and swollen. Good god. I felt a rush of heat and moisture between my legs that had nothing to do with the shower.

I took a handful of suds and gently stroked his manhood. A groan escaped Ranger's lips as he grabbed a handful of shower curtain. I didn't linger too long and soon moved down his legs. I motioned for him to turn around and he obliged. I slowly caressed his back with the loofa.

Rinsing the soap from his body, Ranger turned around to face me, taking the loofa. I swallowed hard. My turn.

He squeezed some more shower gel into the sponge and maneuvered me so that my back faced him, the water hitting my chest. He brushed across my back, scrubbing gently all the way down to my heels. Then he turned me, the water now running down my spine. I leaned back, allowing the hot water to rinse my hair and gasped as I felt Ranger's hands caress my breasts. His thumbs rolled across my nipples and I moaned, putting a hand on the tile to keep my knees from buckling.

With a wicked grin, Ranger pulled his hands away and began to run the loofa down my shoulders and arms. He gently circled my breasts with the suds, then rubbed down my stomach. My breathing hitched audibly as his fingers reached the edge of my pubic hair. With another grin, he by passed the entire area, kneeling so he could gently wash both my legs.

His fingers trailed back up my body and I shuddered as the loofa slid between my legs. Suddenly, the loofa disappeared and only Ranger's fingers remained, gently stroking my sex. I groaned, grabbing at the tile again. Swiftly, Ranger pulled me against him with his other arm as two of his fingers slid all the way inside me. His thumb played with my clit, causing my knees to quake. If it weren't for his arm pressing me to him, I likely would have been a puddle on the tub floor.

We spun and suddenly I found my back pressed against the shower wall. Ranger's magic fingers continued to stroke me and I felt the sensation of a spring tightening between my legs. Involuntarily, my hips moved against his hand, trying to maximize the thrusts of his fingers. I rushed toward the edge of release, moaning loudly. Ranger's lips crashed down onto mine, hungrily. I opened my mouth slightly, allowing his tongue to graze mine. My hands raked his back as the spring finally sprung, moaning into his mouth as intense pleasure overtook me.

As my spasms ebbed, Ranger's fingers left me. He stepped closer, until I could feel his erection pressed against my abdomen.

"Do we need a raincoat?" he growled in my ear.

I shook my head, suddenly very happy I'd decided to continue on the pill after my breakup with Morelli.

Ranger grabbed my waist with both hands and lifted me gently. He set me back down on his hips, impaling me on his manhood. I wrapped my legs around his waist, pulling him deep inside me as we groaned in unison. With my back against the tile, Ranger's hips began to pump. I moaned with each thrust. Once again his lips covered mine. As the ecstatic minutes passed, his thrusts grew more urgent, his mouth needier. I balanced on the edge of another orgasm already, and as Ranger shifted his hips, my world exploded and I dragged him along with me.

We remained locked together for a few more minutes, gasping for breath. The water had run cold. Probably a good thing, otherwise I might have passed out from the heat.

"That was the dirtiest shower I've ever taken," I remarked as we dried ourselves off.

"Babe."

I gathered my clothes from the floor, a towel wrapped around my torso, and walked to my bedroom. I expected Ranger to get dressed and leave, all part of his no commitment thing. Instead, he followed me into the bedroom, naked, and slid under my covers. So much for sleeping tonight. I switched off the light and climbed into the bed next to him. Even though he'd just gotten out of my shower, I could still smell his Bulgari shower gel on his damp skin. I breathed it in as he pulled me close, kissing down my jaw line and onto my collarbone. The scent surrounded me in the darkness, as he continued our shower activities underneath my sheets. My last coherent thought suggested this must be what heaven smells like.