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The Girl Least Likely to ...The Deputy Get Her Man
By Dorien Kelly
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Dorien Kelly
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHallie Brewer liked to think of herself as a sophisticated woman - calm, cool and collected. Of course, she also liked to think the freckles marching across the bridge of her nose weren't very noticeable, and that her hair didn't go haywire in humid weather. One glance in the rearview mirror told her none of this was true.
It didn't help that her car's air-conditioning had given up the ghost in Nevada, and that she'd lost her courage somewhere around Chicago. Hallie shifted uncomfortably, trying to unstick her legs from the vinyl upholstery. She wasn't quite sure who had said you could never go home again. She was living proof you could, not that the trip was necessarily a comfortable one.
She passed a broad wooden sign that said, Sandy Be d Welcomes You. The n in Bend had first gone missing when Hallie was in sixth grade. After a few years, the Men's Club had given up on replacing it. They'd also given up on removing the magically reappearing red flag that read BANG! from the barrel of the old tank parked in front of the high school.
Hallie supposed she should take comfort from the fact that some things never changed, but that was also why she had stayed away for the past seven years. As much as she wanted to believe she had changed, maybe she hadn't. Coming back to Sandy Bend meant putting herself to the test, finding out whether beneath her glossy new exterior, she was still Horrible Hallie, stuff of Sandy Bend legend.
Horrible Hallie, who caught the village picnic shelter on fire while painting it.
Horrible Hallie, who at least once a summer, managed to sink a sailboard and simultaneously lose her bathing suit top.
Horrible Hallie, semicoordinated tomboy bane of the boys and favored insult target of the girls.
Nothing short of three thick-skulled, closemouthed men could have hauled her back from California to Michigan. Now that she was here, she didn't plan to stay one second longer than she had to.
Sandwiched between Lake Michigan and the broad, slow-moving Crystal River, Sandy Bend couldn't have grown if it wanted to - which it didn't. It appeared to be the same quaint, "no stop light, leave your doors unlocked" town she had fled after graduation. Luckily, it was also packed with its customary mid-June throng of tourists. Hallie pulled into one of the few open spots on Main Street. She pulled a brush from her purse and tamed her hair the best she could. Just to bolster her self-confidence, she applied lipstick and mascara, too. Better. If she wasn't quite Ms. Cosmopolitan, at least she wasn't the humiliated eighteen-year-old who'd hightailed it out of here a lifetime ago.
After detaching herself from her car's upholstery, she tried to camouflage herself by blending into a cluster of passersby. The more time she could buy before someone recognized her, the better.
"You're not the same person," she reassured herself, then headed into town.
As she walked down the block, Hallie noted a trendy clothing boutique where the hardware store used to be, and a coffee house offering iced lattes and Italian sodas in place of the pharmacy. There wasn't a vacant storefront to be found. It looked as though even Sandy Bend wasn't immune to progress.
"Hallie? Hallie Brewer, is that really you, all grownup?"
So much for camouflage. Hallie focused on the elderly woman closing in on her with amazing speed. Olivia Hawkins had been tiny seven years ago. Now she was working her way down to sparrow-size. Still, Mrs. Hawkins had always ruled Hawkins' Foodland with an iron fist. She was no one to mess with.
Hallie stepped to the curb and pinned on a polite expression. "It's really me, Mrs. Hawkins."
"Well, this ought to put a little kick back in town." She chuckled, then fluffed the pink lace collar to a dress so small it had to have been purchased in the children's department. "I'll never forget that punch you made for the village holiday dance a few years back -"
"Twelve years," Hallie cut in. "A really, really long time ago."
"Substituting ketchup and water for red pop -"
She'd been desperate and not thinking very clearly. Only minutes before they were due at the dance, she'd discovered her brothers had chugged the pop she thought she'd hidden from them.
"Never saw people send punch out their noses before."
It was time to cut the reminiscing. If Mrs. Hawkins decided to dredge up every insane thing Hallie had ever done, they'd be standing there well past sunset. "Well, it was great seeing you, Mrs. Hawkins. You take care of yourself."
"And how about the time you ..."
Hallie gave a catch-you-later wave, then slipped back into the stream of tourists and hurried down the sidewalk. At the police station, she broke from the pack and stepped inside.
Really, "station" was too generous a term to describe the little building with its two desks and minuscule lockup. One of the local lawmen was napping in a fifties-style wooden office chair. He looked wonderfully comfortable, with his feet propped up on the desk and an old issue of Angler's Paradise magazine draped over his eyes to shield them from that pesky daylight. It seemed almost a shame to disturb him. Except she'd sweated her way across the United States to do just that.
"Explain this," she demanded as she smacked a newspaper clipping onto the desk.
Angler's Paradise took flight and landed next to the clipping. Her brother Mitch scrambled to his feet. "Hallie? Wha - what are you doing here?"
She tapped one manicured nail on the article. "Explain."
Once, twice, Mitch's mouth opened and closed. The part of Hallie's mind that wasn't occupied by being furious with her big brother noted just how much he looked like the largemouth bass gaping up from the neighboring magazine page. Not that it detracted from the good looks all the males of the Brewer clan had.
"Here," she offered ever so sweetly, "let me help you with the tough words. It says 'Chief Brewer on the Mend."'
"Uh ... uh, yeah," he stammered. "It's no big deal. Really."
Wrong answer. "And I suppose it was no big deal that I found out Dad had a heart attack and surgery by way of an anonymous clipping in the mail from the County Herald?"
Mitch dragged his hand through his hair - a family gesture equal to an S.O.S. "Dad didn't want to worry you. He figured it would cost too much for you to come home, and -" He paused and blinked. "Have you gotten taller or something?"
Actually, it was the "or something" that seemed to have gained his attention. Mitch had never made it out to California to visit her, and Hallie had been the classic late bloomer. The curves she'd always yearned for had arrived in her sophomore year of college. Better late than never, she guessed.
"They're called breasts, Mitch."
Color climbed her brother's face. "Aw, jeez, Hallie. You're my sister."
"Yeah, and as long as we're on the topic of family relations, Dad's my father. You'd think either Cal or you could have picked up the phone and said something like, 'Dad's not feeling too good. Maybe you'd better come home for a while.' Or when I called last week, you might have dropped a hint - just a hint, mind you - of what was going on."
Mitch took a cautious step backward, as if he didn't have a good six inches and eighty pounds on her. "It's not like they cracked open his chest or anything."
It was Hallie's turn to wince. "A bit less graphic, okay?"
"It was just a little heart attack and some angioplasty. Cousin Althea's been taking care of him -"
Peachy. Althea Brewer Bonkowski was Hallie's dad's cousin, and one wild number. She was also a pretty sharp lady. At least now Hallie had a good idea who'd mailed her that clipping.
"Althea left the commune?"
The corners of Mitch's mouth curved upward. "Well, you know what they say ... you can take Althea out of the commune, but you can't take the commune out of Althea."
Excerpted from The Girl Least Likely to ... by Dorien Kelly Copyright © 2003 by Dorien Kelly
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.