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Falling in love is not the plan
Police chief Alex Novak is exactly the kind of man Kristen Lange could fall for?if she were staying in Sparrow Lake. But she can't fall. And she can't stay. Moving home was a temporary setback, not a life choice! As soon as she lands a job in Chicago, Kristen will be packing her Manolo shoes and hopping back on the fast track.
If she's going to meet her goals, she can't afford distractions?or involvement. Not in...
Falling in love is not the plan
Police chief Alex Novak is exactly the kind of man Kristen Lange could fall for—if she were staying in Sparrow Lake. But she can't fall. And she can't stay. Moving home was a temporary setback, not a life choice! As soon as she lands a job in Chicago, Kristen will be packing her Manolo shoes and hopping back on the fast track.
If she's going to meet her goals, she can't afford distractions—or involvement. Not in her aunt's quilting store, not in her widowed sister's life, and certainly not with Alex. No matter how intriguing—and determined—he is. No matter what she's starting to feel.
Being bone tired for a change felt good.
Kristen Lange knew she was driven when it came to work, and it had been nearly a year since she'd had the opportunity to satisfy her type A personality. But thanks to Aunt Margaret, she'd spent a long day going over Sew Fine's records to acquaint herself with the business. She knew nothing about shops that sold quilting materials and offered quilting classes. But she was a quick learner.
When her eyes began to water and she couldn't stop herself from yawning, she knew it was time to call it quits. There was always tomorrow.
She checked her watch. One in the morning. Sheesh, it already was tomorrow.
Enough. Even a type A needed some sleep.
And food, her noisy stomach reminded her. She remembered having lunch halfway through the day, and she'd meant to order in dinner, but she'd been so preoccupied going over the store's accounts and various orders—mostly handwritten on scraps of paper—that she'd simply forgotten she needed to eat. Her growling stomach was doing a fine job of reminding her. When she got back to the house, she would have to raid Aunt Margaret's refrigerator.
She closed down the computer and searched under the desk for her high heels. Designer shoes were her weakness, but four-inch stilettos weren't meant to be worn for so many hours, and she'd taken them off once the store had closed for the night.
Yawning again, she shoved her swollen feet into her shoes and headed for the back door, where she shut down the store's lights.
She was so tired she might not bother with the fridge after all.
It wasn't until she'd closed the door and heard the automatic lock click into place that she realized she'd left her purse—and keys!—by the register inside.
Drat! She couldn't get into her car. Now what was she supposed to do? She guessed she could walk home—crawl nearly a mile was more like it—but then she had no keys to the house. They, too, were inside the locked store. She didn't want to wake her aunt, who'd stayed home all day trying to fight off a sinus infection, so she figured she'd just have to find some way back into Sew Fine.
Unfortunately, the windows facing the alley were too high. She could reach them, but there was no way to get herself in a position to climb inside from the ground. And, of course, the store had an alarm system. But if she could figure out how to get in through a window, she could quickly drop to the floor and shut down the alarm, which was next to the back door.
The downtown area of Sparrow Lake was nearly deserted at night, so who was going to hear?
Kristen looked around for something to climb on. The Dumpster would get her high enough, but it was shoved to one side of the building, not directly under the window.
Too tired to cry, she made an unhappy face and then got to work.
If, a year ago, someone had told her that she would be stuck in her small hometown, living on her aunt's charity, trying to make sense of a business that she didn't understand, she would have laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of the idea. Now here she was, dressed in a designer business suit and heels, pushing a Dumpster along the back of a building so she could climb on top of it to break in.
You can't go home again.
That thought had been echoing through her mind since Aunt Margaret had invited her to do so. At the moment, she wondered if she'd made the biggest mistake of her life by trying.
Kristen wearily set the Dumpster in place and struggled to get on top of it. Good thing she still worked out. Only three tries and she hiked herself up with her arms like she would to get out of a swimming pool. Throwing her upper body forward, she grabbed onto the side of the Dumpster and squirmed sideways until she could get a knee under her.
One look down at her filthy, snagged suit told her it was ruined.
What else could go wrong?
Kristen got to her feet and checked the closest window. Of course it was locked tight. Groaning, she checked the other window, knowing what she would find before even trying to open it.
Wearily, she assessed her options. She could walk that mile and sleep on the front porch swing, or she could sleep atop the Dumpster. Neither idea appealed to her.
So she told herself that a girl had to do what a girl had to do, and, with apologies to Christian Louboutin, picked up one of her precious shoes and used it to break a single glass pane, immediately setting off the alarm.
Nearly on her last nerve, she gritted her teeth at the shrieking sound that pierced the night, and after taking a furtive look around to make sure no one was out there with a shotgun aimed at her, used the heel of the shoe to clear the glass so she wouldn't cut herself. Then she stuck in an arm and found the lock. Once she released it, she opened the window and raised the sash. The sill was about three feet higher than the Dumpster, and she was wearing a tight skirt, so it would take some fancy maneuvering to get inside.
After making certain there was no glass on the sill, she hitched her skirt high and started to climb in when, half in, half out of the window, she was nearly blinded by a brilliant beam from a flashlight below.
Then a deep voice said, "Lady, you're under arrest."
Speechless, she froze.
The light moved up and down over her, and the man added, "You know, you really ought to dress more appropriately when you're robbing a place."
Okay, that struck her last nerve.
Police Chief Alex Novak appreciated the length of leg he got to admire for a moment before yelling, "Come on down now!" above the still-screeching alarm.
"You don't understand!" the woman hanging on the window sill returned.
"I understand you're trying to break into the place."
"Because my keys are inside!"
"Sure. Like I haven't heard that one before."
"How do I know you're a cop? You're not wearing a uniform," she said, looking over her shoulder at him as she balanced on the sill.
"I'm not on duty."
"Then why are you being such a pain in the—"
"If you don't come down voluntarily, I'll have to come up to get you. I don't think you want that."
He could hear her muttering under the sound of the alarm, but she slid her legs back down to the Dumpster. He admired them all the way up to her thighs revealed by her skirt catching on the window sill. She muttered some more and he thought he heard a rip when she freed the material.
Then she turned to glare down at him. She appeared a little crazed, with tufts of dark blond hair sticking out around her face emphasizing her outraged expression.
"I can't believe you have nothing better to do than cruise alleys in the middle of the night!" she shouted over the blaring noise.
Alex clenched his jaw. "I heard the alarm go off and knew someone was up to no good!" He flicked a switch on his radio and connected with the night desk at the station. "Call Margaret Becker and tell her there's been an attempted break-in at Sew Fine. Someone needs to come and turn off the blasted alarm."
"No, don't call her and wake her!" the woman protested. "I can turn off the alarm if you let me get inside."
Figuring that would give her the opportunity to give him the slip by going out the front way, he said, "Just come on down."
She grabbed up her shoes and moved to the edge of the Dumpster. "Your arresting me is absolutely ridiculous."
His irritation level shot up a notch. "Casting aspersions on my job isn't going to win you any points."
He could see her face clearly now. One cheek was smeared with dirt, but it was her sour expression that detracted from her softly rounded cheeks, thick-lashed blue eyes and full lips. A sour expression aimed at him.
Even so, he stretched out his free arm. "Let me give you a hand."
She ignored it and got herself down, planting both stockinged feet in the alley. She started to put on her shoes, then stopped and straightened. She was a few inches shorter than he, but if she was wearing those stilts, she could meet him eye-to-eye.
"You're not going to put those on?"
"After planting my feet in muck?"
Her way of saying "are you crazy?" Her voice went up so high that it, along with the alarm, scraped down his spine.
"C'mon." He took her arm and led her to the edge of the alley where he'd left the patrol car.
"You're not even going to ask me to explain first?"
"Explain all you want at the station."
"But Margaret Becker is my aunt!"
"That remains to be seen."
He really should handcuff her, but she looked close to tears, and he thought things might not be exactly as they'd first seemed. He'd never seen her around town before, but if Margaret truly was her aunt
The raucous alarm was driving him crazy.
Nope. This wasn't the place to have any kind of conversation. And he did want to talk to her. A woman wearing designer everything breaking into the back of a store was the most intriguing thing that had happened around here in the two years since he'd moved to Wisconsin from Chicago.
Opening the rear door of the squad, he said, "Get in and watch your head."
Kristen had expected a small-town police station would be deserted at night. She was surprised to see a couple of uniformed officers talking to the woman at the desk. Their conversation ended immediately and the woman said, "I called Mrs. Becker, Chief. She said she would get over to the store and shut off the alarm right away."
Kristen tightened her jaw. "My aunt has been sick. You shouldn't be bothering her, Chief." "Not here."
She felt the gazes of the two officers follow her and the cretin as he led her toward the rear of the station. He escorted her into an office. The brass plate on his desk read Police Chief Alex Novak.
"Sit," he said. "Please."
Too exhausted to protest, Kristen dropped into a chair.
How had her life gone so wrong? She'd lost her job, her savings, her home.
And now this new humiliation.
"If you're going to arrest me, just get it over with." At least that way, he would throw her in a cell with a cot and she could get some sleep. Undoubtedly he would take unflattering photos of her and then fingerprint her.
"First things first," he said. "How about you give me that explanation now."
Great. She could have cleared this up at the store if only he would have listened. "As I said, Margaret Becker is my aunt. I'm working at Sew Fine now—"
"I've never seen you around town."
"Because I just moved here from Chicago a few days ago."
"Chicago, huh?" His thick eyebrows shot up. "Do you have some kind of identification?"
She glared at him. "I do, actually. In my purse! Which I accidentally locked in the blasted store!"
"No need to shout what did you say your name was?"
"Lange." His expression shifted slightly. "Hmm."
"Well, I wouldn't have the same name as Aunt Margaret. She's been married a few times." Three times, actually. Divorced twice, and then widowed three years ago."
"Actually, I was wondering if you were related to Brian Lange."
"He's my kid brother." The police chief knew Brian? Why? Brian had only returned to Sparrow Lake from California a month before she'd come home. "And Heather Clarke is my younger sister."
Heather was the only sibling who had lived in Sparrow Lake all her life. Kristen had left for school at eighteen and had gone on to a job in Chicago. She'd come back to Sparrow Lake for visits, of course, but she'd never intended to live here again. She'd had big plans for her future and had never wanted to feel like the failure she obviously was.
"Funny," the police chief said. "You don't look like Heather or Brian."
"They resemble Mom. I've been told I look like our father."
His gaze narrowed as he gave her face an intent once-over. "I don't remember another Lange."
"Because he hasn't lived here for more than a decade."
She wasn't about to explain that their irresponsible father had walked out on his family, leaving his wife to fend for herself and three children. Two years ago, Mom had remarried and her husband's new job had prompted a move to California for them and Brian, who'd been in high school.
"So you're living with Margaret."
"Working for her."
Resenting being grilled, Kristen frowned. "What does that have to do with anything?"
His eyebrows flicked and he seemed to be smothering a smile.
"I was wondering why you're living with your aunt."
"What business is that of yours?"
"Just trying to get all the facts, ma'am."
Kristen sat back in her chair and fell silent. Now that she was able to see him clearly in the light, she realized he was a good-looking man, probably in his early thirties. He had dark hair, gray eyes, a slight cleft in his chin and a smile that would be nice if it wasn't plastered sarcastically on his face.
Was it her imagination, or was Police Chief Alex Novak being just a little too personal here?
Her gaze went to his left hand—no ring—and then back to his speculative expression. He knew her aunt. He knew her sister. He knew her brother. So let me go home, already.
"Are you going to arrest me or not?"
"That all depends."
"On whether Margaret Becker will vouch for you." He looked beyond her. "And there she is now."
Kristen twisted around in her seat and saw her aunt at the front desk, talking to the woman named Janet. Still dressed in what Kristen thought of as satin lounging pajamas, Aunt Margaret had merely put on a pair of sandals and thrown a light wrap around her shoulders for modesty before leaving the house. Neither Janet nor the officers who greeted her before going out the door seemed to think her manner of dress unusual.
Suddenly, Aunt Margaret marched toward the police chief's office, her face set in a frown. To Kristen's great relief, she saw the purse she'd left in the store in her aunt's hands. Also to her relief, her aunt looked fine, not sick, after all.
"Alex, what is going on?" Margaret shifted her attention to Kristen. "Hello, honey." She handed over Kristen's purse. "What a terrible thing to have happen on your first day working for me."
"So, this is your niece?"
"Of course she is, Alex. Who else would she be? Can't you see the resemblance?"
Kristen smothered a smile. If there ever had been a resemblance between them, her aunt's spiked red hair and penchant for bright colors like the orange-and-teal print of the pajamas she was wearing kind of smothered it.
To her irritation, although he was wearing a straight face, Alex said, "Yes, of course, Margaret. Your niece looks just like you."
Aunt Margaret beamed. "Well, we're going to be off now. Time to get some sleep. Come on, Kristen, I'll drive you back to your car."
"Hey, wait a minute—"
Aunt Margaret stopped dead in her tracks, narrowed her gaze on the police chief and added a slight chill to her tone. "Wait for what, Alex? You don't have a problem with my niece, do you?"
"Uh, no, of course not."
"Good. Then we'll see you later."
If Kristen wasn't so tired, she would have laughed at the frustration on Alex Novak's face. Whatever he'd been maneuvering for, he was disappointed.
That thought made her feel just a little better after he'd added more stress to her already disastrous evening.