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Fire and Magic

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Chapter One

“Ranger was fire and magic, but he wasn’t real. Morelli was everything I wanted in a man, but he wanted me to be something I wasn’t.”

I knew I loved Morelli. I also knew that things like marriage, children, and building a life together in the Burg were all things that were at the end of the path if I started a real relationship with him. It was comforting but also terrifying. Good relationships were about compromise, something that I wasn’t so good at. If I did end up marrying Joe, that would mean I would have to compromise and give up my job as a bounty hunter so I could be his wife, and he could be happy knowing I was always safe.

I didn’t want to quit, though. Maybe someday I would get tired of it and decide on a career change, but I didn’t see that day happening any time soon. I also didn’t want to get married - at least, I couldn’t see myself marrying Joe. He’s a good man but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering if I’d made the right decision.

I supposed that if I had so many doubts, I shouldn’t even be considering a relationship with him, right? I also supposed that it didn’t matter. Joe loved me...but he didn’t want to be in a relationship with me.

These were all thoughts I had while I was being bandaged up at the ER for the burn on my arm, thanks to Abruzzi. We’d made sure to clean up Valerie at Morelli’s house so my mother wouldn’t have a conniption when she got home, and then we came straight here. Morelli led me to his car when I was finished and I started to feel panicky. “I think I should check on Val and let my mom know everything is okay on my end,” I said abruptly. “She’s probably ironing the curtains by now.”

Morelli looked at me with a raised brow. “Steph, it’s late. I’m sure they’re both asleep.”

I just needed time to think, time away from both Ranger and Joe so I could know what I really wanted. I guess that it probably didn’t matter - Ranger just wanted an occasional bed partner and sent me back to Joe, but Joe wanted a housewife who didn’t get kidnapped by crazy old men.

“Please. I would feel better if I stayed there tonight.”

He sighed and we quietly drove through the Burg to my parents house. I gave him a quick kiss and went inside. The house was dark and quiet, but felt familiar. I was dead tired. I knew with the house being so full with Val and the girls, there was nowhere to sleep but the couch. I kicked my shoes off and laid down, and it was lights out for Stephanie.

-0-0-0-0-

I awoke to bright light and something poking me on the cheek. I cracked an eye open and saw it was Mary Alice poking me with the end of bright red crayon. “You’re going to miss breakfast.”

I didn’t know how I slept with all the noise that was surely going on in the background but I still felt tired and sore. I got up and followed the now galloping girl into the kitchen. My arm was burning and my muscles ached from sleeping on the cramped couch.

Val looked at me wide-eyed. “You look how I feel. Last night was crazy. Do things like that happen a lot?”

I poured myself a cup of coffee. “Hardly ever.”

“Do you want to explain to me how the two of you got kidnapped yesterday?” My mother wanted to know. Damn. Valerie was a loudmouth.

“Not really?”

She just shook her head and gave me a plate of cinnamon rolls to bring to the dining table, so I did and then sat down. My dad was already at his usual place. “Isn’t it nice having the whole family under one roof?” I asked him.

He slid his eyes over to me. “I’m thinking about getting an apartment.”

I grinned. We all ate breakfast and everyone was quieter than usual, especially Val. I hadn’t lied to Joe last night when I said I should check on her. I was worried that last night’s experience was too much for her. I was already thinking about the amount of tastykakes and denial that would help me forget about the incident.

I helped with breakfast clean-up, and managed to have a second alone with my sister. “Hey, thank you for saving me yesterday. I know you were probably scared shitless, because I was.”

She rinsed off a plate and blew out a shaky breath. “It was just instinct. I knew I had to help you. I’ve always heard about adrenaline and moms saving their kids from being crushed by a car. Maybe it’s the same thing.”

“You could’ve gotten help from someone.”

Valerie shut off the water and waved a hand dismissively. “That would’ve been a waste of time.”

I smiled to myself a little. My mother and Valerie were a lot alike; that meant they were women who didn’t think bounty hunting was a viable career option and they were at their happiest when they were at home and in the role of wife and mother. Me? Not so much.

They were also pretty bad at showing their emotions, but that was a common theme amongst most members of our family. Love was shown through home cooked meals and leftovers. And apparently, if you’re a member of my family, you ran over men in rabbit suits and drove vans through houses for the people you loved.

I was okay with that.

I went to the living room to put on my shoes and grabbed my phone. I really needed a ride home, but I didn’t want to call Joe. At that same moment, his name flashed across my screen. Speak of the devil.

“I got a call from Constanza a few minutes ago,” he said when I answered. “Eddie Abruzzi was found in his car this morning. Looks like he killed himself.” I sat down heavily on the couch.

“He left a note,” he continued. “It said he was depressed over some business deals.”

It was my general understanding that Abruzzi was certifiably insane, but I didn’t think he would take his own life. But I knew someone who would do the job. “It wasn’t suicide, was it?”

Joe was quiet for a moment. “If I had any reason to believe it wasn’t suicide, there would already be an investigation. Are you okay?”

Somehow, I was relieved that Ranger wouldn’t be in any trouble for what he did. I was also relieved that Abruzzi would no longer be able to hurt anyone, but I almost felt guilty for thinking that.

“I’m okay,” I said robotically. “Thanks for telling me. I’ll call you later, okay?”

I hung up before he could protest.

-0-0-0-0-

I called Ranger but he didn’t pick up, so I left a message asking him to call me. I got the keys to Big Blue and went home. I greeted Rex when I got inside and he twitched his whiskers at me. I fed him a grape and he disappeared into his soup can.

Feeling restless and a little lonely, I cleaned up my apartment a little. I needed to get mind off the fact that I had no car, no couch, and no solution for the Ranger and Joe problem. I scrubbed my counters a little harder, hoping the small amount of exercise would distract me.

The day dragged on, and when the sun finally started to make its descent I called it quits on the cleaning. I took a long shower, careful to keep the hot water off my burn, which felt like it was on fire even still. I wondered if I had any burn cream or aloe somewhere. I highly doubted it.

I wrapped a towel around me and dried my hair the best I could with another towel to hopefully keep it tamed for awhile. I had no energy for a blow dryer. I stepped out of the bathroom and froze when I saw Ranger sitting on my bed. A tingle ran down my spine, through my belly, and down into my lower parts. The last time we were in my bedroom together, we’d done some things that I still couldn’t stop thinking about.

“Ranger,” I said, but stopped there because I couldn’t think of what else to say.

There was an air about him that felt dangerous, more dangerous than usual. Of course, that could be my imagination talking since I knew without a doubt that Ranger had been the one to kill Abruzzi. I also knew that he’d never hurt me. He would apparently hurt for me, though, and that knowledge was more heartwarming than I wanted it to be. ‘Ranger’ and ‘heartwarming’ didn’t necessarily go together. Maybe the words ‘Ranger’ and ‘scary as fuck’ did.

I’d clearly told him I couldn’t keep doing what we were doing with each other, and that was because I knew near to nothing about him. I was nosy by nature. Not to mention, having a semi-complicated history with one man was probably more than I could handle without adding another into the mix. Morelli was an old, familiar book that I’d read a million times. Ranger was exciting and new and really good in bed.

So maybe I wasn’t the best at metaphors. I couldn’t forget that Joe was also great in bed. I probably needed to prioritize my life.

I wasn’t going to be able to forget about Ranger saying he was an opportunist, and that he would be back in my bed if I didn’t repair my relationship with Joe. What was with that, anyway? Why did he think he could tell me to fix things with Joe the day after we slept together? Talk about a blow to the self-esteem.

“Babe,” Ranger said, bringing me out of my mind and into the present moment. “I can smell something burning.”

“What are you doing here?”

“You called me.”

“Yeah, I told you to call me back, not show up in my bedroom unannounced.” I could feel my tone getting pissier with each word.

Even with the setting sun as the only source of light in my room, I could see Ranger raise a brow ever so slightly. “Is there a problem?”

“I just figured you wouldn’t be showing up here any time soon, since I should be with Morelli and all,” I said bitterly, and immediately regretted it when he stood up and walked over to me slowly. I was suddenly aware of my nakedness - besides the towel - more than before and the heat radiating off his body was doing nothing to keep my hormones tame.

“Why aren’t you with him?” he asked me softly, his eyes serious.

“Why did you kill Abruzzi?”

Oh god, I really needed to stop with the word vomit. I know that technically I had a filter between my brain and mouth, so why couldn’t I use it?

“Also, it’s none of your business if I’m with Joe or not,” my traitorous mouth continued. My heart was racing. “Why should I listen to you? We both know you’re only after one thing, and if I’m single then it would be easier for you to get it. And you know, I haven’t forgotten about that little ‘entertainment’ comment you made. I may get a lot of cars blown up, but not all of them are my fault-”

My words cut off as Ranger laid a hand along my jaw, tilted my chin up, and kissed me with a lot of tongue. It was so good that I lost grip of the towel. Luckily, with us being pressed together from head to toe, it only slipped a little instead of falling to the ground completely. He was hard all over, and I was ready to have sex with him again, current issues be damned. I wanted him bad.

When he pulled away, I had a hard time remembering what we were just talking about. “It is my business,” he said, sounding angrier than I’d ever heard him. “Because for some reason, I can’t stay away from you. And you’re right. If you stay single, I’ll be in your bed every chance that I get.”

I had a hot flash just thinking about it. At the same time, I could feel my heart sinking. He’d just agreed that he was only looking for sex. And while I knew that already, it was still hard to hear.

“If sex was all I wanted from you, then Abruzzi would still be alive,” he continued quietly, as if he could read my mind.

“Are you saying you don’t kill for just anyone?”

He regarded me with a curious look. “You’re not scared.”

“I probably should be. But mostly I’m just glad that Abruzzi can’t hurt anyone ever again.”

“He would’ve most certainly tried to hurt you again, Babe. I couldn’t let that happen.”

“I’m surprised that you trust me enough not to tell someone about this.”

His eyes crinkled in an almost-smile. “I know you well enough that you and cops don’t exactly see eye to eye on all things. You wouldn’t be so good at your job if that wasn’t the case. If you’d wanted to rat on me you would’ve done so by now.”

I found myself smiling at those words. “You think I’m good at my job?”

“The way you do your job is entertaining,” he said, and I blushed a little. “But yes. You always seem to get your man despite hardly ever carrying your gun.”

“Guns are scary.”

“I’m going to ask you again. Why aren’t you with Joe right now?”

I thought about that for a moment. “I don’t think Joe wants a girlfriend that’s a bounty hunter,” I explained. “I think maybe he would be more comfortable if his girlfriend was a race car driver or a professional stunt woman.”

“He just worries about you.”

“Sure, but so do you. The difference is that you don’t tell me to get a different job. Besides, Joe may love me, but he doesn’t want a relationship with me. He’s said so multiple times.”

The hand on my jaw tightened a little. “He’s an idiot.”

I could agree with that.

He stepped back from me a little, and I missed his warmth immediately. I quickly made sure the towel still covered me but his eyes ran the length of my body anyway.

“As much as I’d like to continue this,” he said. “I gotta go. I’ll call you soon.”

He walked out of the room, and though I felt better than I had before our conversation, it still felt unfinished. I was on his heels and stopped him before he could walk out of my apartment.

“Ranger?” He turned to look at me, his hand on the door knob. “Thank you. For...you know. Everything.”

This time he did smile fully, and he became even more attractive, if that were possible. My heart did a mysterious fluttering and I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad sign. He made sure that we were making direct eye contact before he replied, and his eyes were warm and made my knees weak.

“No price, Babe.”