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Oliver Sullivanwho had been called only Sullivan for so long he hardly remembered his first namedecided he disliked Sarah McDougall just about as much as he'd ever disliked anyone.
And he'd disliked a lot of people.
Meeting dislikable people was a hazard of choosing law enforcement as a profession, not that Ms. McDougall fell into the criminal category.
"Though I have dealt with criminals who were more charming," he muttered to himself. Of course, with criminals he had the advantage of having some authority over them.
All this naked dislike, and Sullivan had yet to even speak to her. His encounters had all been filtered through his voice mail. He'd never seen her, let alone met her, and he would have been only too happy to keep it that way.
But she 'd gone to his boss.
Her voice on the phone had been enough to stir his dislike of her and her bulldog-like persistence had cemented it.
Not that her voice was grating. It was what she wanted from him that was the problem.
Call me back. Please.
It's so important.
We have to talk.
Mr. Sullivan, this is urgent.
When he'd managed to totally ignore her, she'd eventually gone to his boss. Sullivan mulled that over with aggravation. Which was worse? The fact that she had gone to his boss? Or the fact that his boss had ordered him to comply?
At least go talk to her, the chief had said. In case you haven't figured it out, you're not in Detroit anymore.
Oh, Sullivan had figured that out. In about his first five minutes on his new job.
Being a cop in small-town Wisconsin was about as different from being a homicide detective in Detroit as Attila the Hun was different from being Mother Theresa.
"What moment of insanity made me choose Kettle Bend, Wisconsin?" he growled.
Of course his moment of insanity had a name, and her name was Della, his older sister, who had discovered this little pocket of American charm and chosen to come here with her orthodontist husband, Jonathon, to raise her two boys. She'd been trying to convince Sullivan to join their happy family ever since his whole life had gone sideways.
Sullivan shook that off, focused on the town instead. He took in the streets around him with a jaundiced eye.
It looked like the kind of town Walt Disney or Norman Rockwell would have imagined, wide, quiet streets, shaded by enormous trees that he, hard-bitten product of some of Detroit's worst neighborhoods, had no hope of identifying.
Still, there was no missing the newness of the leaves, unfurling in those tender and vibrant shades of spring, the sharp, tangy scent of their newness tickling his nose through his open car window.
Nestled comfortably in the leafy shade were tidy houses, wearing their age and their American flags with equal pride. The houses, for the most part, had a pleasant sameness about them. White with pale yellow trim, or pale yellow with white trim, the odd sage-green and or dove-gray thrown into the mix.
All had deep porches, white picket fences around postage-stamp yards, splashes of spring color in the flower beds lining walkways that welcomed.
But Sullivan refused to be charmed.
He disliked illusions, and he knew this particular illusion to be the most dangerous: that there were places left in the world that were entirely safe and uncomplicated, porch swings and fireflies, cold lemonade on hot summer afternoons.
That there was a place where doors and windows were unlocked, where children rode their bikes unescorted and unafraid to school, where families laughed over board games. That there were places of unsullied innocence, places that whispered the word home. He kept trying to warn Della all was probably not as it appeared.
No, behind the windows and doors of those perfect and pretty houses, Sullivan was willing to bet he would uncover all kinds of secrets that belied the picture he was seeing. Behind some of those closed doors were probably booze bottles hidden down toilet tanks. A kid with a crack problem. Unexplained bruises and black eyes.
It was this cynicism that was making him a poor fit for Kettle Bend.
Certainly a poor fit for Sarah McDougall's plans for him.
Her message on his voice mail chimed through his head, making him shudder. We need a hero, Mr. Sullivan.
He wasn't about to be anybody's hero. This wasn't how he wanted to be spending his day off. He was about to make one Sarah McDougall very, very sorry she'd gone after this bear in his den.
Checking addresses as he went, Sullivan finally pulled over, stepped out of his car and steeled himself against the sleepy appeal of the street he found himself on. On principle, he rolled up his car window and locked his door. The people of Kettle Bend might want to pretend nothing bad ever happened here, but he wasn't going to trust his new car stereo to that notion.
Then he turned to look at the house that sat at 1716 Lilac Lane.
The house differed from its neighbors very little. It was a shingle-sided, single-story bungalow, painted recentlywhite, naturallythe trim a deep, crisp shade of olive. Vineshe guessed ivy because that was the only name of a vine that he knewshowed signs of new growth, and would shade the wide porch completely in the heat of summer.
Sullivan passed through an outrageously squeaking gate and under an arbor that he knew would drip the color and fragrance of climbing roses in a few more weeks.
He shrugged off the relief it was not happening now, as if there was something about all this charm that was nattering away at his defensesnot like a battering ram, more like an irritating humming, like being pestered by mosquitoes. The scent of roses would have been just one more thing to add to it.
Peripherally, he made note that the concrete walkway was heaved in places, but lined with an odd variety of spring flowersdeep purple, with a starburst yellow interior.
He noticed only because that was what he did.
Sullivan noticed everything. Every detail. It made him a great cop. It hadn't helped him be a better human being, as far as he could tell.
He went up the wide stairs to the front door, crossed the shaded porch to it. Before he rang the bell, he studied the outdoor furnishings.
Old wicker chairs, carefully painted the same olive-green as the house trim, held impossibly cheerful plump cushions, with red and yellow and orange flowers in the pattern. Just as the town painted a picture, so did this porch.
A place of rest. Of comfort. Of safety. Of peace.
"Ha," Sullivan snorted cynically, but was aware of setting his shoulders more firmly against the buzzing of all the pesky details working at convincing him he could maybe try letting this woman down softly. He could try being a nice guy.
"Ha," he said again. So far, subtleness had not worked on her. When you phoned a person sixty-two times and they didn't return your calls that did not mean, Go to the boss.
It meant, Get lost. Go away. Find yourself another hero.
He turned deliberately away from the invitation of the porch, not prepared to admit for even one small moment, a fraction of a second, that he had imagined himself accepting the invitation.
He shook his head, and turned to the door, found the bella key type that needed to be turnedand twisted it.
The exterior door was a screen door, white with elaborate carvings around the edges framing the oval of the screen in the middle. The green interior door was open, and he could hear the bell echo through the house.
No one answered, but he figured leaving a door hanging open was an invitation, plain and simple, for prying eyes.
So, unlike the invitation to rest, he took this one, peering in at the house.
The door opened directly into the living room, though a handmade rag rug designated a tiny entry area, and suggested the owner liked orderand wiped feet.
Afternoon sunlight spilled through the open door and through the picture window, slanting across wood floors that were golden with the patina of age.
Two small couches, a shade of sunshine-yellow that matched the interior of the flowers that marched up the front walk, faced each other over a scarred antique coffee table. Again, there was a sense of order: neatly stacked magazines and a vase of those flowers that had lined the walkway, dipping low on slender stems.
Sullivan had not formed a mental picture of his stalker.
Now he did. Single. No evidenceand there was always evidenceof a man in residence.
No children, because there was no sign of toys or mess, though his eyes caught on a wall of framed magazine covers, hung gallery-style, just inside that front door.
They were all covers from a magazine called Today's Baby.
They did nothing to change his initial impression of her. No life.
Sullivan was willing to bet the resident of this house was as frumpy as her house was cute. She was no doubt a few pounds too heavy, with frizzy hair and bad makeup, busy making her house look pretty as a picture while she fell into middle-aged decline.
Now that there was nothing left to do on her houseobviously it was magazine photo shoot readyshe'd turned her attention to the town.
Mr. Sullivan, Kettle Bend needs you!
Yeah, right. Kettle Bend needed Oliver Sullivan the way Oliver Sullivan needed a toothache.
He could smell something faintly, drifting through that open door. The scent was sweet. And tart. Home cooking. The sudden, sharp feeling of yearning took him totally by surprise.
He felt it again, like a whisper along his spine.
Again, he shook it off, along with annoying yearnings. He had rested. For a whole year. Tying flies and wearing hip waders. It wasn't for him. Too much time for thinking.
Sullivan rang the bell again, impatiently this time.
A cat, a gray puffball with evil green eyes slid out of a hallway, plunked itself in the ray of sunshine and regarded him with slitted dislike, before dismissing him with a lift of its paw and a delicate lick. The cat fit his picture of her life exactly.
Still, that cat knew he didn't like animals.
Which was what made the whole situation that had gotten him to this front door even more irritating. A hero? He didn't even like dogs. And so he didn't want to answer the questionnot from her and not from the dozens of other reporters and TV stations that were hounding himwhy he had risked his life for one.
Sullivan gave the handle of the screen door a firm tug, let the door squeak open a noisy inch or two before releasing it to snap shut again.
Come on. An unlocked door?
It made him feel grim. And determined.
This cozy little world was practically begging for a healthy dose of what he had in abundance.