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He'd been following her for three days, watching. Waiting.
By now, he knew her habits and her schedule. He knew what time she got up in the morning, whom she saw during the day, and what time she went to sleep. He knew she read in bed at night, propped up on pillows. He knew the title of the book she was reading, and that she laid it facedown on the nightstand to keep her place before she finally turned off the lamp.
He knew her thick blond hair was natural and that the startling blue-violet color of her eyes was not the result of the contact lenses she wore. He knew she bought her makeup at the drugstore and that she spent exactly twenty-five minutes getting ready to go to work in the morning. Obviously, she was more interested in being clean and neat than in enhancing her physical assets. He, however, was very interested in her considerable physical assets. But not urgently and not for the "usual" reasons.
At first, he'd taken great care to keep her in sight while ensuring that she didn't notice him, but his precautions were more from habit than necessity. With a population of 150,000 people, 15,000 of them college students, the little city of Bell Harbor on Florida's eastern seaboard was large enough that a stranger could move unnoticed among the population, but not so large that he would lose sight of his prey in a jumble of metropolitan expressways and interchanges.
Today he'd tracked her to the city park, where he'd spent a balmy but irksome February afternoon surrounded by cheerful, beer-drinking adults and shrieking children who'd come there to enjoy the Presidents' Day picnic and festivities. He didn't like children around him, particularly children with sticky hands and smudged faces who tripped over his feet while they chased each other. They called him, "Hey, mister!" and asked him to throw their errant baseballs back to them. Their antics called attention to him so often that he'd abandoned several comfortable park benches and was now forced to seek shelter and anonymity beneath a tree with a rough trunk that was uncomfortable to lean against and thick knarled roots that made sitting on the ground beneath it impossible. Everything was beginning to annoy him, and he realized his patience was coming to an end. So was the watching and waiting.
To curb his temper, he went over his plans for her while he turned his full attention on his prey. At the moment, Sloan was descending from the branches of a big tree from which she was attempting to retrieve a kite that looked like a black falcon with outstretched wings tipped in bright yellow. At the base of the tree, a group of five- and six-year-olds cheered her on. Behind them stood a group of older adolescents, all of them boys. The young children were interested in getting their kite back; the adolescent boys were interested in Sloan Reynolds's shapely suntanned legs as they slowly emerged from the thick upper branches of the tree. The boys elbowed each other and ogled her, and he understood the cause of the minor male commotion: if she were a twenty-year-old coed, those legs of hers would have been remarkable, but on a thirty-year-old cop, they were a phenomenon.
Normally, he was attracted to tall, voluptuous women, but this one was only five feet four with compact breasts and a slender body that was appealingly graceful and trim although far from voluptuous. She was no centerfold candidate, but in her crisp khaki shorts and pristine white knit shirt, with her blond hair pulled up in a ponytail, she had a fresh wholesomeness and prim neatness that appealed to him for the time being.
A shout from the baseball diamond made two of the older boys turn and look his way, and he lifted the paper cup of orange soda toward his mouth to hide his face, but the gesture was more automatic than necessary. She hadn't noticed him in the past three days as he watched her from doorways and alleys, so she wasn't going to find anything sinister about a lone man in a park crowded with law-abiding citizens who were enjoying the free food and exhibits, even if she did notice him. In fact, he thought with an inner smirk, she was incredibly and stupidly heedless whenever she was off duty. She didn't look over her shoulder when she heard his footsteps one night; she didn't even lock her car when she parked it. Like most small-town cops, she felt a false sense of safety in her own town, an invulnerability that went with the badge she wore and the gun she carried, and the citizens' sleazy secrets that she knew.
She had no secrets from him, however. In less than seventy-two hours, he had all her vital statistics her age, height, driver's license number, bank account balances, annual income, home address the sort of information that was readily available on the Internet to anyone who knew where to look. In his pocket was a photograph of her, but all of that combined information was minuscule in comparison to what he now knew.
He took another swallow of lukewarm orange soda, fighting down another surge of impatience. At times, she was so straight, so prim and predictable, that it amused him; at other times, she was unexpectedly impulsive, which made her unpredictable, and unpredictable made things risky, dangerous, for him. And so he continued to wait and watch. In the past three days he'd collected all the mysterious bits and pieces that normally make up the whole of a woman, but in Sloan Reynolds's case, the picture was still blurry, complex, confusing.
Clutching the kite in her left fist, Sloan worked her way cautiously to the lowest branch; then she dropped to the ground and presented the kite to its owner amid shouts of "Yea!" and the sound of small hands clapping excitedly. "Gee, thanks, Sloan!" Kenny Landry said, blushing with pleasure and admiration as he took his kite. Kenny's two front teeth were missing, which gave him a lisp, both of which made him seem utterly endearing to Sloan, who had gone to high school with his mother. "My mom was scared you'd get hurt, but I'll bet you never get scared."
Actually, Sloan had been extremely afraid during her downward trek through the sprawling branches that her shorts were snagging on the limbs, hiking up, and showing way too much of her legs.
"Everyone is afraid of something," Sloan told him, suppressing the urge to hug him and risk embarrassing him with such a show of public affection. She settled for rumpling his sandy brown hair instead.
"I fell out of a tree once!" a little girl in pink shorts and a pink-and-white T-shirt confessed, eyeing Sloan with awed wonder. "I got hurted, too, on my elbow," Emma added shyly. She had short, curly red hair, freckles on her small nose, and a rag doll in her arms.
Butch Ingersoll was the only child who didn't want to be impressed. "Girls are supposed to play with dolls," he informed Emma. "Boys climb trees."
"My teacher said Sloan is an honest-to-goodness hero," she declared, hugging the rag doll even tighter, as if it gave her courage to speak up. She raised her eyes to Sloan and blurted, "My teacher said you risked your life so you could save that little boy who fell down the well."
"Your teacher was being very kind," Sloan said as she picked up the kite string lying on the grass and began winding it into a spool on her fingers. Emma's mother had been another classmate of Sloan's, and as she glanced from Kenny to Emma, Sloan couldn't decide which child was more adorable. She'd gone to school with most of these children's parents, and as she smiled at the circle of small faces, she saw poignant reminders of former classmates in the fascinated faces looking back at her.
Surrounded by the offspring of her classmates and friends, Sloan felt a sharp pang of longing for a child of her own. In the last year, this desire for a little boy or little girl of her own to hold and love and take to school had grown from a wish to a need, and it was gaining strength with alarming speed and force. She wanted a little Emma or a little Kenny of her own to cuddle and love and teach. Unfortunately her desire to surrender her life to a husband had not increased at all. Just the opposite, in fact.
The other children were eyeing Sloan with open awe, but Butch Ingersoll was determined not to be impressed. His father and his grandfather had been high school football stars. At six years old, Butch not only had their stocky build, but had also inherited their square chin and macho swagger. His grandfather was the chief of police and Sloan's boss. He stuck out his chin in a way that forcibly reminded Sloan of Chief Ingersoll. "My grandpa said any cop could have rescued that little kid, just like you did, but the TV guys made a big deal out of it 'cause you're a girl cop."
A week before, Sloan had gone out on a call about a missing toddler and had ended up going down a well to rescue it. The local television stations had picked up the story of the missing child, and then the Florida media had picked up the story of the rescue. Three hours after she climbed down into the well and spent the most terror-filled time of her life, Sloan had emerged a "heroine." Filthy and exhausted, Sloan had been greeted with deafening cheers from Bell Harbor's citizens who'd gathered to pray for the child's safety and with shouts from the reporters who'd gathered to pray for something newsworthy enough to raise their ratings.
After a week, the furor and notoriety was finally beginning to cool down, but not fast enough to suit Sloan. She found the role of media star and local hero not only comically unsuitable but thoroughly disconcerting. On one side of the spectrum, she had to contend with the citizens of Bell Harbor who now regarded her as a heroine, an icon, a role model for women. On the other side, she had to deal with Captain Ingersoll, Butch's fifty-five-year-old male-chauvinist grandfather, who regarded Sloan's unwitting heroics as "deliberate grandstanding" and her presence on his police force as an affront to his dignity, a challenge to his authority, and a burden he was forced to bear until he could find a way to get rid of her.
Sloan's best friend, Sara Gibbon, arrived on the scene just as Sloan finished winding the last bit of kite string into a makeshift spool, which she presented to Kenny with a smile.
"I heard cheering and clapping," Sara said, looking at Sloan and then at the little group of children and then at the kite-falcon with the broken yellow-tipped wing. "What happened to your kite, Kenny?" Sara asked. She smiled at him and he lit up. Sara had that effect on males of all ages. With her shiny, short-cropped auburn hair, sparkling green eyes, and exquisite features, Sara could stop men in their tracks with a single, beckoning glance.
"It got stuck in the tree."
"Yes, but Sloan got it down," Emma interrupted excitedly, pointing a chubby little forefinger toward the top of the tree.
"She climbed right up to the top," Kenny inserted, "and she wasn't scared, 'cause she's brave."
Sloan felt as a mother-to-be someday that she needed to correct that impression for the children. "Being brave doesn't mean you're never afraid. Being brave means that, even though you're scared, you still do what you should do. For example," she said, directing a smile to the little group, "you're being brave when you tell the truth even though you're afraid you might get into trouble. That's being really, really brave."
The arrival on the scene of Clarence the Clown with a fistful of giant balloons caused all of the children to turn in unison, and several of them scampered off at once, leaving only Kenny, Emma, and Butch behind. "Thanks for getting my kite down," Kenny said with another of his endearing, gap-toothed smiles.
"You're welcome," Sloan said, fighting down an impossible impulse to snatch him into her arms and hug him close stained shirt, sticky face, and all. The youthful trio turned and headed away, arguing loudly over the actual degree of Sloan's courage.
"Miss McMullin was right. Sloan is a real-life, honest-to-goodness hero," Emma declared.
"She's really, truly brave," Kenny announced.
Butch Ingersoll felt compelled to qualify and limit the compliment. "She's brave for a girl," he declared dismissively, reminding an amused Sloan even more forcibly of Chief Ingersoll.
Oddly, it was shy little Emma who sensed the insult. "Girls are just as brave as boys."
"They are not! She shouldn't even be a policeman. That's a man's job. That's why they call it policeman."
Emma took fierce umbrage at this final insult to her heroine. "My mommy," she announced shrilly, "says Sloan Reynolds should be chief of police!"
"Oh, yeah?" countered Butch Ingersoll. "Well, my grandpa is chief of police, and he says she's a pain in the ass! My grandpa says she should get married and make babies. That's what girls are for!"
Emma opened her mouth to protest but couldn't think how. "I hate you, Butch Ingersoll," she cried instead, and raced off, clutching her doll a fledgling feminist with tears in her eyes.
"You shouldn't have said that," Kenny warned. "You made her cry."
"Who cares?" Butch said a fledgling bigot with an attitude, like his grandfather.
"If you're real nice to her tomorrow, she'll prob'ly forget what you said," Kenny decided a fledgling politician, like his father.
Copyright © 1998 by Eagle Syndication, Inc.