Jaded

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Excerpt:

Alana Wentworth locked the front door to the Walkers Ford Public Library with one thing on her mind: Chief of Police Lucas Ridgeway.

She gave the brass door handle an absentminded tug to make sure it was secured before setting off at a brisk walk down the traditionally named Main Street. Lucas usually got home a few minutes after she did. With any luck she’d have just enough time to put on the opposite of her librarian clothes, a primly buttoned silk blouse and cashmere cardigan over a tweed skirt. The blue scoop-neck T-shirt with the rosettes, her 7 For All Mankind jeans, then she’d put a little extra oomph into her makeup. Figure out her strategy before his truck pulled into the driveway next door to hers.

A quick glance at her watch told her she’d left herself just enough time to get ready, but not enough time to talk herself out of what she planned to do.

She stepped lightly in the shallow depressions worn into the marble steps by thousands of residents, and turned for the house she rented from Lucas. Spring had taken a firm grip on the region. The business district’s beautification committee spent the day hanging planters full of impatiens from the green-painted light poles, set out the half barrels spilling over with tulips and crocuses, and hung the banner announcing the upcoming Spring Fling Carnival in a few weeks time. Alana noticed the hardy spring flowers only when a sharp knock on the Heirloom Café’s front window snapped her out of her reverie. Fifteen-year-old Carlene Winters, dressed in her green uniform, waved brightly and hurried to the café’s front door.

“Hi, Miss Wentworth! I just wanted to say thanks for the recommendation. I started Pride and Prejudice last night, and I can’t put it down.”

“You’re welcome,” Alana said. “I really have to—”

“The language was a little tough, but I totally got that Mr. Darcy was being mean to Lizzie,” the girl continued. “He says there aren’t any pretty girls for him to dance with, but she’s more than pretty. She’s funny, and she laughs at herself. That should count for something.”

Dear God. Normally she’d love to talk to Carlene about all the intricacies of Darcy and Lizzie’s courtship, but not tonight, not when she wanted to start a courtship of her own. Or something resembling a courtship, in a way. In a very indirect way. “It should,” Alana agreed rather desperately. “I’m sorry, but I have to get home. Come by the library tomorrow and we can talk about it then?”

“Sure! Have a good night.”

An image of Lucas from last Sunday flashed into her mind. He’d caught Alana in her thin robe and nightie, scampering barefoot down the driveway for her Sunday morning tradition of reading the Trib in bed with a pot of coffee and jazz on in the background. Dressed in jeans, hiking boots, and a hunter green fleece pullover, he’d loaded his retired service dog, Duke, into his truck for his Sunday morning tradition of a long hike. As usual, he’d looked unflappable during the embarrassing encounter, but when she reached the safety of the stoop and looked back, he was still watching her.

The look in his dark chocolate eyes had sent heat flickering through her despite the early morning chill. Even now, two days later, her nerves still held the charge of that look.

“I hope to,” she said to Carlene, then set off again, impatient with the delay, but mostly impatient with herself.

Once again she’d left something important until almost the last minute. Well, this wasn’t the last minute. The last minute would be two weeks from today, when her contract with the town of Walkers Ford ended and she left to drive back to Chicago. But her habitual distraction and procrastination meant yet again she was scrambling to do something she’d always meant to do, then didn’t.

Like work in a public library, the goal she’d set when she got her MLS then let slip through her fingers after graduation. The whole point of this diversion was for her to learn to be more proactive in her life, to make things happen rather than letting them happen to her. Including Lucas Ridgeway, assuming he had no objections to being one half of the oldest clichés in the book, a whirlwind affair between a repressed librarian and a cop.

She hurried down the street to her rented house as nature put on a show in the expansive sky at the end of the street. There was the Hanford house five doors down, then there was nascent twilight streaked with the sunset’s reds, oranges, and pinks. It should have clashed horridly, but the prairie sky wore the colors with a magnificent lack of concern that reminded her of her sister, Freddie. Freddie wore jeans, ballet flats, and a faded blue button-down shirt in front of fifty thousand people, and within minutes #preppiestyle trended on Twitter all over North America and Europe.

Nothing ever happened to Freddie. Freddie made things happen. Their mother often complained that one daughter got all the initiative and the other got all the absentmindedness.

She hurried up the driveway, trying to remember if the shirt with the rosettes was in her dresser or on the closet shelf, when Lucas’s police department Blazer passed her and pulled into the driveway next to her. The transmission ground when he shifted into park and cut the engine.

Too late. The story of her life, but she resisted the urge to write off the rest of the night. Instead, she climbed the front step and waited, pretending to thumb through the mail while she watched him greet Duke, his Belgian Malinois. Maybe it was the untempered affection he had for the dog that tugged at her heart. He hunkered down to scratch the dog’s throat and whisper You’re a good boy, yes you are into his upturned muzzle. Duke spent his days on the screened-in front porch of his house next door. Every time Lucas came home, Duke pranced and danced, rubbed his white-furred snout against Lucas’s legs, his fawn-colored tail wagging frantically. The raw blast of emotion from the dog and Lucas’s gentle scratching tightened Alana’s throat every time she saw it.

Tonight was no exception. When the reunion ended, Lucas got to his feet, then glanced her way. He wore a navy suit and a gray tie, with his badge and service weapon clipped to his belt.

“Evening, Chief,” she said.

“Ms. Wentworth,” he replied.

The way he said her name shouldn’t make her heart beat a little faster, but her name on his lips always did. She could salvage this, still get her few minutes to get ready. “I wonder if you’d have a few moments later tonight,” she said. “The bathroom sink isn’t draining properly.”

“It’s not the kitchen sink this time?”

“Sorry, but no,” she said.

He looked at his watch, a no-nonsense Timex. “I’ve got a couple of minutes now,” he said. “I’ll get my toolbox.”

Damn!

Alana carried her bags inside, turning on lights as she moved from the kitchen through the dining room and down the short hall to the bedroom she used as an office, where she dumped the bags, then continued down the hall to her bedroom. The house was lovely, with gorgeous hardwood floors, walnut cabinets built into the corners of the dining room, brick molding, and charming window seats in the three bedrooms. When she first looked at the rental property, Lucas had told her his grandparents lived out a seventy-year marriage in the house. Love seeped from the woodwork and floors to give texture to the light that poured through the picture window overlooking Mrs. Ridgeway’s famous rose beds. Chief Ridgeway had scrupulously pointed out the house’s defects—leaky windows, ancient plumbing, and a kitchen straight out of the 1970s—but to Alana, bundling up during the winter was a small price to pay for the chance to see those roses bloom in the spring.

After opening the kitchen door, she poured herself a glass of wine, turned on NPR, and more attentively sorted through her mail. The stack included the usual bills as well as invitations, personal notes, and birth announcements on Crane’s finest paper. She slit open the formal announcement of an upcoming party honoring her stepfather’s contribution to efforts to ameliorate global poverty. Her mother had set the date for the celebration months earlier, but receiving the formal invitation made it all real. Alana’s time in Walkers Ford was almost over. She should start packing, another task she was putting off, but she’d brought so little with her. A few hours one evening and she’d be ready to leave.

Lucas knocked at the kitchen door with the Maglite she recognized from the sports bag he carried to and from work each day. Glass of wine still in hand, she crossed the kitchen and let him in.

“You’re still dressed for work,” she said, stating the obvious. He’d left the gun and badge in his house, though.

“Town council meeting tonight,” he said as he turned sideways to get past her. He carried an old-fashioned wooden toolbox in weathered gray. A hammer and a neatly organized set of wrenches lay on the top shelf, other tools stored in the compartment underneath. His broad shoulder brushed hers as he managed to avoid hitting her knees with the toolbox.

Every cell in her body lit up, and heat bloomed on her cheekbones. His gaze, normally so controlled, flicked down just enough to let her know he saw the blush. Silence. The air between them heated.

“I’ll just . . .” he said with a tilt of his head to the bathroom.

“Of course,” she replied, and stepped to the side to let him down the hall.

Her experience with Marissa Brooks and Adam Collins a few weeks after she had arrived taught her about small-town values, and gossip. After a tragic accident in high school, Adam Collins left town to join the Marine Corps. He returned to Walkers Ford a distinguished veteran and rekindled his relationship with Marissa, setting off a firestorm of gossip. She couldn’t just start up a torrid affair with a small-town chief of police. Yet she wondered how to tell him in no uncertain terms that she wanted to go to bed with him and stay there until she couldn’t remember her own name, preferably without sounding like a shameless tart.

A sophisticated woman would know how to go about this. Freddie could probably do it while polishing the paper for an international conference on human trafficking that Alana had researched and outlined for her two weeks ago. But Alana wasn’t Freddie, or her mother, or her stepfather, the former senator Peter Wentworth. In a family characterized by brilliance, wit, and a talent for far-reaching policy development, Alana was quiet, observant, content with the background. Just stand still and smile, her mother used to say with resignation. You have such a pretty smile. So her pretty smile graced the walls and corners, first of school dances and mixers, then college parties, then cocktail parties and receptions when she went to work for the Wentworth Foundation.

But not even time spent on the edge of the limelight matched the long, heated moments when Lucas Ridgeway gave her his full attention.

“It’s a budget meeting,” he said as he set down the toolbox. He shrugged out of his suit jacket and draped it over the linen closet’s doorknob.

“Oh. Of course.” Mayor Mitch Turner had asked her to update the former library director’s proposal to renovate and upgrade the town’s library, presumably to round out the town’s annual budget meeting.

The tiny, rose-pink bathroom was barely large enough for her to dry off after a shower. Lucas could brace one shoulder against the wall and rest his palm on the mirror opposite, something he’d done the day the pipe draining the shower cracked and leaked peach-scented water into the basement. He’d been cursing steadily and quite prolifically under his breath then, but not tonight.

He yanked the stopper free and peered into the drain. “It’s clogged.”

“I could use a drain cleaner.”

“It’ll eat right through the pipes,” he replied. “They’re seventy years old. Some weekend soon I’ll replace the drain line and the P-trap. Maybe that will help. In the meantime . . .”

He handed her the flashlight, then stretched out on his back and wedged his torso into the cabinet under the sink. One hand fumbled in the toolbox. He lifted his head to better see, banged his forehead on the cabinet, and grunted.

“Sorry,” Alana said hastily, and shone the light on the offending pipes.

It took only minutes to clear the pipe, then reattach the stopper to the drain lever, each stage punctuated by curt instructions given by the big male maneuvering in the small room. He twisted, his legs pushing against the opposite wall so his knee pressed into her shoulder.

“Do you wash your hair in the sink?” he asked.

“No,” she said, pulling a handful forward to consider it. It was thick and poker-straight, cut in a bob that swung just below her jawline. Its only redeeming characteristic was the natural, pale blond color. Freddie bemoaned her regular appointments with Chicago’s best hair salon to maintain the same shade. “There’s just a lot of it.”

“I can see that,” he said to the interior of the cabinet. His dress shirt pulled free from his pants, revealing the waistband of his dark blue boxers. A thin line of hair ran from his navel into the waistband. Muscles flexed as he tightened the joint, and with each moment the scent of male skin and laundry soap permeated the air.

Don’t let this chance slip through your fingers.

According to the thriving small town gossip, he wasn’t seeing anyone, which gave her an excellent reason to use what she’d heard described as the oldest technique in the book to get over what happened with David. She was going to get under Lucas Ridgeway. Tonight. A single, uncomplicated interlude without any awkwardness because he’d leave for the town council meeting.

She should probably attend, too. Mrs. Battle, a lifelong Walkers Ford resident and her assistant at the library, would be there, providing continuity to the permanent hire, assuming the city council ever got around to choosing one. The relationship between the previous library director, the former police chief, and the fire chief was contentious at best. Efforts to usher the library into the digital age had stalled while Mrs. Battle struggled with cancer, and gone dormant in the months Alana served as the temporary library director while the council slowly weeded through applications.

Ushering libraries into the digital age was her research focus during her master’s program. At his request, she’d given Mayor Mitch Turner a fairly lengthy document outlining a wide variety of possible approaches to upgrading the library. It was an interesting challenge. The library, built with money donated by Andrew Carnegie in the early 1900s, was a beautiful old building dangerously near the point of being irreparable. Something would have to be done, soon, although she assumed the something would be done by whoever they hired full-time. . . .

But she had no long-term business in town. She’d committed to a short-term contract, which extended month after month as the council dickered over who to hire.

The wrench thudded back into the toolbox.

Stay focused.

“Do you want a beer?” she asked.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

In the time it took him to extract himself from his contortionist’s position under the cabinet, she went into the kitchen and snagged a bottle from the fridge. Back in the tiny bathroom she handed him the bottle. He twisted the cap off and tossed it on the counter, then tipped it back. His throat worked as he swallowed. Her heart skittered in her chest.

Then he turned sideways to step through the door just as Alana made the same move. They ended up chest to chest in the narrow door frame, her breasts brushing that rock-solid chest with each breathy inhale. An electric charge sparked between them, heating the air as she looked up at him. He didn’t move closer, or take her mouth. He simply stayed a breath and a heartbeat away, like he was waiting for her to close the distance.

She went on tiptoe and brushed her lips against his, slow and hot, striking sparks.

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