Disclaimer: Thank you to Janet Evanovich for creating wonderful characters and letting us play. Not mine.

A/N: Hello! Today I achieved a goal that took me 25 years to achieve. I'm over the moon thrilled, and I don't mind sharing my enthusiasm with you. This really is the Best. Day. Ever!

Thank you to everyone for your interest and enthusiasm in this story. Two more chapters to go! I'm currently halfway through a short story I'm looking forward to sharing before I launch Lift Off. To misty23y, I'm always grateful for your tremendous work as my beta.


Chapter 56

Date/Time Stamp: Monday, 24SEP18 0730-1200

Stephanie POV

The next time I awake, light is leaking into the room around the blinds, and I'm alone in the bed. I turn off the 7:30 alarm and blink away my remaining sleep, feeling more refreshed than I have in months. I got nearly thirteen hours of sleep with only one interruption, and even that was relatively short. It's been years since that happened.

I roll out of bed and stretch the kinks from being still for so long away as I shuffle towards the bathroom. I choose an all-black outfit of running tights and a form-fitting long-sleeved three-quarter zip pullover with my hair in a ponytail. I'm determined to throw everything I've got at the test this morning.

I find a plate of scrambled eggs, sausage links, and an oat bran muffin waiting for me in the fridge. I warm it up and quickly eat about half with a cup of coffee and a glass of water. I don't want to work out with too full of a belly.

I'm in the gym by 8 to start my warm-up. I'm not entirely sure what Lester and Bobby have in mind, but I don't want them to wait for me. I begin with a slow jog to get my heart rate up. After a mile, I move to the mats to start stretching out, beginning with legs. I'm finishing up with a shoulder stretch when Bobby and Lester stride in at 8:20.

"Beautiful, good morning! Ready to take your test?" Lester booms with more enthusiasm than I will ever have over exercise. I walk over to the water cooler and pour a cup.

"Sure, but what are we doing?" I reply between sips.

Bobby smiles. "What do you know about Rangeman physical fitness standards?" he asks.

I shake my head. "Not much. I mostly know how to avoid them," I answer, and Lester laughs.

Bobby starts the explanation, and I can tell he's shifted from friend to fellow professional seamlessly. "Contrary to popular opinion, Rangeman doesn't require everyone to meet the physical fitness standards of a US Army Ranger to qualify for employment. There's a reason that's an elite benchmark, and maintaining a too high standard for positions it isn't appropriate for would preclude the company from being able to hire otherwise stellar candidates, and we could even open ourselves up to lawsuits. So, we stagger our fitness standards based on the position. Employees who are a part of our physical protection details, forcible takedown teams, extraction teams, and other similar roles are held to the highest standards, and those mimic that of the Rangers. We hold employees who do routine fieldwork and are a part of general security monitoring and patrols to a standard that's equivalent to the US Army on the whole. Employees who do support work only in an office setting, such as lawyers and accountants, are not required to participate in the semi-annual physical evaluations, but if they choose to do so, they will earn bonuses.

"Within both the standard physical assessment and elite physical assessments, there are three tiers; Meets Expectations, Exceeds Expectations, and Outstanding. Everyone must reach Meets Expectations to pass. We give bonuses and promotional considerations to those who Exceed Expectations or are Outstanding. Anyone who wishes to test into the elite standards must first pass an Occupations Physical Assessment Test (OPHAT). That test gives us a better measure of where the employee stands from a holistic perspective. Additionally, anyone required to complete a physical fitness test must also pass also maintain a healthy body mass index.

"The elite level testing is the same for everyone regardless of gender or age. The basic physical fitness test and BMI requirements are broken out by gender and age levels. Steph, today we are going to do the basic physical fitness test, and, if you consent, the OPHAT. Any questions?" Bobby finishes.

While this is new information to me, it makes a lot of sense. "No, got it. If it's alright with you, I'd rather not know what numbers I'm supposed to meet. I'd rather approach this blind and see where I land with an all-in approach," I reply evenly.

"No problem. First, you need to sign the consent and waiver forms," Bobby says, handing me a clipboard of papers. He points line items on the various forms, and I sign and date where required.

"Alright," Lester says, rubbing his hands together. "Now let the fun begin!" I smile back at him nervously.

"Bomber, I need you to step on the scale for an official height and weight," Bobby directs, and I assume the position.

"Sixty-seven inches, one hundred and nineteen pounds," Bobby says to no one in particular as he enters the data into his laptop. "Good news, Steph. The couple pounds you've gained this week place you into the low end of the healthy weight spectrum. Keep it up."

"Over here, Steph. Next up is two-minute sit-up and push-up drills. I'll demonstrate proper form," Lester directs, laying down on the mat while Bobby secures his ankles. He shows me what counts and doesn't and then repeats the same for push-ups. "Ready?"

My mouth is dry from nerves, and I settle for nodding my head while assuming the position. Lester anchors my feet to the mats with his hands. "You've got this, Beautiful," he says quietly, and I cross my arms over my chest.

"Ready, set, go," Bobby announces, starting the timer. I give it everything I've got and push myself hard. I want desperately to prove myself worthy of their investment, and I leave nothing in my reserves. "Time!" Bobby declares, and I lay back on the mat to catch my breath.

"Good job, Steph. Two-minute break," Lester says, and I stand to grab a quick sip of water.

All too quickly, I'm back on the mat, my body tense as I wait for the final countdown to explode in energy to complete as many push-ups as possible. "Go!" Bobby says, and I attack with the same vigor. I'm mindful of my technique and attentively make sure I keep my body a stiff plank during the exercise. Bobby announces the final ten seconds, and I push out two more on shaky arms before collapsing to ground as Bobby calls time.

I roll over and pick up my water again as I wait to find out what's next for me.

"Good work so far, Bomber. The final part of the initial assessment is a two-mile run. For today, we are going to do this on the treadmill, but you will need to complete it on a track or premeasured course at a later date. However, I do have a conversion chart we borrowed from the Navy to make the calculation fairly accurate," Bobby says. "One minute, and you'll begin," he continues, checking his watch.

Internally I groan, but I try to channel my Rangeman blank face. Running will never be my favorite thing, but if two miles is what it takes to prove myself, then two miles it is.

I hop on and begin adjusting the settings as Bobby starts the timer. Again, I'm not sure what the pace should be, but based on the fitness of the men I'm living with, I assume I have to push myself to be around an 8-minute mile pace. I finish the first half mile and increase the belt speed, continuing to do so for the next mile. I realize I have a little more energy to give before the crossing the two-mile threshold, so I bump it up again over the last quarter mile, finishing at what I hope is a respectable time as I pant and slow the machine. I walk another half mile as a cool down. I might hate this deep down, and I'm sure I'll be sore tomorrow, but there's no need to make my inevitable stiffness any worse than necessary. Lester hands me a refill of my water, which I gratefully accept while sweat continues to drip down my temples, matting my hair to the side of my face.

I step off the machine and look between the two men. "What's next?" I ask.

"We have to do the next part of the test in the front yard," Bobby says. "Take a five-minute break, and we'll meet you up there."

I nod my understanding and take a quick bathroom break before joining them again, ignoring how red my face is when I pass the mirror.

Bobby and Lester are waiting with excited expressions I don't attempt to match and instead settle on neutrally interested. There are several cones laid out and a medicine ball resting on the grass. "Lucky for us, Ranger's property is longer than it is deep, and we have plenty of room to do the 20-meter interval sprint onsite," Lester says. "But first, we'll do a standing long jump and seated power throw. We'll finish up by heading inside for a strength deadlift. There isn't a minimum or maximum for these tests. The point is to find the limits of your muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance, and explosive power and speed. I'll demonstrate," he finishes and begins showing me what I'll be doing.

All in all, the test is pretty simple, and after a practice round, I feel more comfortable with the long jump and power throw. The sprint, however, is something I'm not sure I'll ever feel like a master of because of all types of running, I hate sprinting the most. For this test, I have to run between the cones. I stop at the end, turn, and wait for Bobby to announce "Go" before running back. The time between sprints steadily decreases until I can't finish the run before the beginning of the next interval. I'm panting like an overheated dog by the end and very ready to cool down in the air conditioning. Well, sometimes the best thing about a task is the end.

We walk back into the gym together to complete the strength deadlift. Lester racks up 120 pounds on a hex bar and sets it on the ground.

"Almost done, Bomber. For this test, you have to lift the bar from the floor to a standing position, and we will add weight in increments of ten pounds until you've reached your max weight," Bobby informs me. "Lester, show her what to do."

I attentively observe Lester's demonstration, shake out my tired muscles, and find a comfortable stance. I lift the bar, paying close attention to more form to injuring my back, and continue to do so through 190 pounds. After that, exhaustion wins, but I feel that I Iifted a respectable amount of weight.

Lester returns the weights to the bench while I begin stretching out my quivering muscles. When he comes back, I reach over my head to answer the high five he's offering. "I'm going to go get Ranger, and we'll do a debrief," Bobby says, exiting the room.

I'm glad they aren't going to delay letting me know how I did, but I hope I met the minimum requirements for fieldwork. My clothes are soaked through with sweat, and I decide it's good we talk in here where I can't drip onto any of Carlos' nice office furniture.

I stand when Carlos steps into the gym a minute later with Bobby on his heel.

"This morning Bomber completed the basic fitness test and OFAT. We used the treadmill for the two-mile run, and I used our conversion calculator to assign an appropriate point value. She completed 37 push-ups for 89 points, 66 sit-ups for 88 points, and a two-mile run in an adjusted 16:30 for 98 points. Steph's total points are 275 out of a possible 300. Congrats, Steph. You earned an Outstanding," Bobby reports without fanfare, and I'm speechless. All three of them are smiling broadly at me.

"Regarding the OFAT, Steph passed the threshold to be eligible to begin elite level training. She's physically cleared for fieldwork," he finishes.

"I'm proud of you, Babe," Carlos says. I'm proud of me, too.

"Way to go, Beautiful! I had a hunch you'd surprise me when I saw you box. Clean up, and we'll regroup after lunch," Lester says with his ever-present ebullience.

"Thanks, guys. One question. Does this mean I'd qualify to be a bounty hunter with Rangeman?" I ask, surprised by the results of the fitness tests and wondering where I fit in the organization.

"No. Rangeman tends to take on high-risk FTAs, and therefore we require an elite level fitness qualification for members of those teams. You are qualified for surveillance duty, basic security details, and possibly some of the low-level skips you used to capture," Bobby answers.

"Good. I don't think I want to go back to doing that anyway," I answer, and Carlos raises an eyebrow at me. "I've given it some thought this week, and I'm excited by the opportunity to take over some of the administrative and operational responsibilities, and I might even be able to help in Hector's department. I'm assuming this means I pass the fitness standard to the point that won't be tied to a desk all of the time, but that I also won't constantly be placing myself in danger. I'm okay with that," I explain, looking between the three of them.

"That's good to hear, Babe," Carlos says with a rare CEO-smile.

I smile in reply before walking to the master bedroom with Carlos right behind me.

I'm expecting him to be turned off by my grubbiness, but if anything, it's turned him on. The moment I enter the bathroom, he spins me around and crushes his lips against mine. "Babe, well done," he says, our lips still brushing against each other.

I bite my lower lip, tasting him as I look up at his intensely adoring expression. "I wanted to show I'm worthy of your investment and faith in me. I mostly didn't want to embarrass you," I confess.

Carlos pulls me into a firm hug, kissing my hair in the now regular and comforting expression of love. I take a step back as he relaxes his grip, and Carlos reaches out a hand to smooth my damp hair from my eyes. "Babe, even if you failed the test, I would never be embarrassed. I know you, and I know you would not only give it your best effort, which is all I ask, but I also know you would work hard to achieve whatever goal we set before you. I believe in you, and I love you. You will always be my best investment. Remember, there's no price," he says with tender firmness.

"All the same, it's better I didn't fail but thank you. I love you, too," I say with a small smile. "Join me?" I query, kicking off my sneakers. Carlos responds by turning on the water before pulling his shirt off.

I'm too tired to take things further than that fantastic kiss, which is an excellent incentive to run more, but I'd have to be dead not to notice the perfect male form accompanying me, and a surge of lust flares in my belly. I am one lucky woman.

I run my fingers over the scabs on my arms as I stand in the closet with my towel wrapped around my body. Carlos steps up behind me. "That's looking much better," he says. "I'd still have Bobby dress it. Keeping the ointment on it will allow the abrasions to heal faster and minimize any potential scarring, especially with your fair skin," he advises, running his fingers along the soft flesh of my underarms, generating goosebumps in his wake. I shiver and place my hands over his before twisting my head for a quick kiss.

We dress quickly, and he promises to make sandwiches while I see Bobby. I put on my now customary athleisure leggings with matching tank top and zip up but decide to skip the shoes. I run my fingers through hair as I walk down the hall and stop to knock on his bedroom door. "It's open," Bobby calls out.

"Got a minute?" I ask, poking my head into Bobby's room.

Bobby is sitting at a small desk, and he pushes back his chair as he replies, "Absolutely. What's up, Bomber?"

"I need some band-aids for my arms. I think it's healing pretty good, but whatever is in your magic ointment is working, so who am I to argue with results," I say, removing my zip up.

"No problem, have a seat," he says, pointing to his vacated chair as he stands and retrieves his medical bag from a corner. "You did well on your test, Steph, and I'm glad you've gained a couple of pounds back this week. I'm guessing you'll be a little sore, but extra stretching, a walk, or one of Lester's yoga sessions will all help," he says, keeping his eyes on his work. "Oh, and since I'll be going over to the office this afternoon, I'll pick up your packages this afternoon."

"That was fast. It'll be fun to have a few more clothes to choose from," I reply. "Thanks!"

With that comment, Bobby finishes, and as I begin to pull my zip up on, he slaps his palm on his forehead and groans. "Aren't I a dumbass sometimes! With everything going on, I completely forgot I brought the few salvageable things from your apartment with me. Ella cleaned and packed them, so it should good to go. I'm sorry, Steph. Let me get the bag out of my closet now," he apologizes.

"That's okay, Bobby. I thought I'd lost everything. Getting my stuff back is great! It feels a bit like Christmas!" I say excitedly, wondering what is in the small roller bag he sets at my feet. "Thank you!" I exclaim, before quickly wheeling it to the master. I set the bag on the island in the middle of the closet before opening it with impatient anticipation.

It's an odd collection of items. On top is a little black dress, and setting it aside, I see a couple of navy blue and gray t-shirts. Underneath is a pair of 5-inch cheetah print heels. Besides that, I discover a garter belt and a stuffed unicorn. Lastly, I spy a jewelry box tucked into the corner. Frowning, I reach for it and turn the small box over in my hands while staring at the eclectic array of things before me. Something doesn't feel right. I lift the lid, and the ring inside slides between my fingers as my world crashes down around me.