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Monica Grant reached for a final book to add to the stack in her arms. She picked it up, skimmed the back-cover copy, then replaced it on the shelf. It was set in the Caribbean. She'd already chosen one story set there, plus several others that were set abroad. No, she mused, pensively studying the display before her, she was in the mood for something American, something contemporary, something dramatic. She pondered two other books before settling on a third and tucking it into the crook of her arm with the rest. Then she stole a glance to either side of her.
To her relief the aisle was still empty. The bookstore itself was nearly deserted. There was a browser one row to the left in Games and Hobbies, another two rows to the right in Psychology, and several others scattered along the far Non-Fiction rack, She had Romance all to herself.
With a smile of satisfaction she snapped up a magazine to camouflage the selections nearest her heart, then at a more leisurely pace she ambled toward the best-sellers. A first and a second, each by authors she hoped to interview during their forthcoming publicity stops in Boston, topped the pile. Then, with another cautious glance around, she headed for the cash register.
Luck was on her side. There was only she and the clerk, a studious-looking young man who tactfully rang up her sales without commenting on either her choices or the sheepish look she was trying so hard to suppress. She half-wished he'd ask, then she might tell him the tale of her friend in the hospital who was hopelessly addicted to love stories. But he didn't ask, and she left well enough alone.
It was only when thebooks were all safely tucked into a bag and hidden from public view that she dared look the clerk in the eye. "Thank you." She smiled more comfortably.
He nodded. "Come again." "I will," she said and knew that she would. Next week, next month, the month after ... whenever her supply ran out, she'd be back.
Clutching her treasures to her breast, Monica stepped out into the bright midmorning sunshine, took a deep breath of pleasure, and turned to head for home. But just as quickly the breath was knocked from her lungs when a body barreled into her, throwing her against the concrete wall of the building. Stunned, she slid to the sidewalk, oblivious to the shouts around her until one deep voice came through, close by her ear.
"Are you all right, miss?"
She gasped in the struggle to catch her breath but didn't move from where she sat slumped against the wall, her legs curled beneath her, her arms gripping herself and her belongings protectively. Her head was bowed, sending curled ribbons of light brown hair cascading over her face like a screen, behind which she slowly regained her composure.
"Miss?" The deep voice came again, and a gentle hand drew back her hair. "Are you hurt?"
Eyes still closed, Monica shook her head.
"I don't think so," she whispered, but already she felt a stinging in her forehead, another in her shoulder.
"Can you stand up?
Again she shook her head. "Give me a minute."
Her rescuer held her arm lightly as he reached into his shirt pocket. "Here, press this to your head." Without a pause he did it himself. "You've scraped your temple. It doesn't look serious. Anything else hurt?"
Lifting a shaky hand, she relieved his hand and pressed the handkerchief to her temple. "My shoulder." Only then did she open her eyes to examine the damage herself. It might have helped if it had been winter and she had been bundled up to the hilt. But this was the middle of June, it was hot, and she wore a bare sundress that had offered no protection when she'd hit the wall. Her shoulder was badly scraped, and she could begin to imagine what her forehead looked like.
"Can you move your arm?
She gave it a try and grimaced but succeeded. "It's okay. Just messy, I guess." Then she caught sight of the crowd gathered around in a semicircle and winced with distaste.
"Okay, folks." Her attendant understood instantly that she needed privacy and gestured toward the crowd. "Move on now. She's all right."
When she heard the note of authority in his voice, Monica looked up for the first time at the man who'd come to her aid. He had crouched down beside her, one knee braced on the sidewalk. He wore navy-blue pants, matching navy shirt with a badge on the breast pocket and the departmental insignia on its sleeve, and the standard patrolman's hat. Had it not been for the surprisingly warm depth of his brown-eyed gaze she might have stiffened on pure reflex. Instead she could only stare for a perplexed moment before gathering her strength to stand up.
He was right beside her, lending his firm support with a hand at her elbow, an arm a her waist. When it appeared that her legs would hold her, he released her. "Better?" His voice was as deep and as warm as his gaze.
"A little shaky ... but, yes." She dabbed her forehead with the clean handkerchief he'd given her, folded it over, then replaced it on the swelling bruise. "I suppose I'll have a whopper of a headache later." She laughed weakly, feeling strangely self-conscious. "What hit me, anyway?" Chancing a glance past him, she saw that the crowd had dispersed, leaving no sign of a guilty party.
"A pickpocket" came the quiet reply.
Monica's eyes widened in disbelief as she raised them to meet the more penetrating gaze of the policeman. "The pickpocket?"
His lips twitched. "Unless my buddy catches him, we'll never know, will we?"
She followed the link of his sight up the street ...Passion and Illusion. Copyright © by Barbara Delinsky. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.