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THE PAVEMENT ahead of Evie Gaynor's Chevy Malibu shimmered hot in the sultry Florida sun. Two days after leaving Detroit, she'd clocked thirteen hundred miles and experienced a twenty-degree spike in the temperature. Since entering the state, she'd gone from her air-conditioned automobile to a chilled fast-food restaurant and a convenience store to pay for gasoline. And with each stop, she'd removed another article of clothing until now she wore only a camisole, capris and sandals.
The road she was driving was nearly deserted, but Evie had expected that. Claire Hogan, the town mayor, had told her Heron Point was a weekend tourist destination. On Friday afternoons the population swelled with Gulfside visitors who came to sample the fine food and browse the upscale gift shops. Since this was only Thursday, the influx had yet to begin.
Once she'd turned off the main highway onto the thirty-mile stretch to Heron Point, Evie had enjoyed a lush, green landscape. Taking advantage of the quiet drive, she picked up her cell phone and punched in the number from her notebook, propped open beside her. A woman answered on the first ring. "The Pink Ladies Cottages," she practically chirped.
Evie introduced herself as the new principal of the elementary school and confirmed her reservation for one of the cottages which she assumed would most probably be pink.
"Oh, yes, dear, we're expecting you." The woman gave directions and verified Evie's assumption by adding, "You can't miss us. Our buildings are true baby-girl pink, just like our delightful beds of impatiens."
Evie disconnected and rolled down her window, fully expecting another blast of steaming air to hit her face. Instead, an undercurrent of cooler, salty freshness promised a respite from the stifling heat. She ran her fingers through her hair and enjoyed the feel of it whipping against her cheeks.
After a few miles, the panorama changed. Dense hummocks of cedar trees dotted the horizon and the ground rolled with gentle hills identified as Indian Burial Grounds. She crossed a narrow bridge spanning a wide inlet. At the end a placard announced her arrival in Heron Point, population just over two thousand.
She passed a marina, a tavern and a small grocery before turning onto Gulfview Road. She had every intention of driving straight to her pink-painted destination. But when she saw a sign pointing down a road that read Heron Point Elementary School, she simply couldn't resist. She drove by the entrance of the clean, freshly painted parsonage-turned-schoolhouse. The dazzling white exterior had just enough sage-green Victorian trim to give the building an air of whimsy. And Evie fell in love with it.
She pulled around to the parking lot in back and got out of the car. She didn't have a key, but she walked up to the rear entrance and gave the knob a firm twist. The door opened with a subtle creak. Stunned, since no one seemed to be on the property, Evie looked around, waited a few seconds and then stepped over the threshold.
The back foyer smelled of old books, cleanser and something unmistakable to buildings where children gathered. Evie called it the smell of learning, and it varied according to the age of the student body. In this school, it was a pleasant mixture of crayon and pencil shavings.
She walked down the central hallway and looked into rooms identified with numbers on the doors. Desks were scattered haphazardly, waiting for a maintenance crew to finish the summer spruce-up and set them back in rows. The last door before the front entrance made her feel at home. The sign on the panel read Principal. There was no name under the title, but she anticipated seeing her own in a few days.
She entered her office much as a new student might enter his classroom for the first time, with an exhilarating rush of uncertainty. Reaching up to her ear, she twisted the diamond stud earring in her left lobe, a habit she'd developed over the years whenever she felt apprehensive. The smooth metallic finish of 14-carat gold and the slightly rough edges of the rose-cut stone were familiar, and she relaxed. She took a deep breath, comforted by the realization that she belonged right here in this eclectic hodge-podge of bookshelves, supply cabinets and wooden chairs.
The principal's position she'd seen advertised a few months ago in an educational journal had been her wake-up call, her chance to stop spinning her wheels as an assistant administrator working for an impassive school board. Here, in tiny Heron Point, she could truly have a positive impact on America's next generation. And maybe make a difference in her own stagnant life, as well.
Careful not to disturb anything, she progressed to the inner office—hers. It was smaller than the reception area and well-organized, with a desk in the center, a credenza behind and file cabinets along one wall. She walked behind the desk to a corner window that afforded a view of flowering shrubs and towering pines. It was paradise, a sunny, inspiring space that caused Evie's eyes to well with tears.
And then she heard a gentle ping, much like a tiny pebble ricocheting off a smooth surface. "What was that?" she asked the otherwise still air. She spun around, expecting to see that someone or some thing had disturbed her solitude. But she was quite alone in the stuffy office. A trickle of perspiration ran between her breasts. She again felt for her earring and discovered it was missing. Ah. The ping. She dropped to her knees and began searching frantically.
She scraped her fingers over the rubber mat under the chair and mumbled threats to the earring. She never heard anyone enter the room until a deep voice commanded, "Come out from under that desk right now. And don't try anything funny."
Evie gulped back a gasp, sat up and bumped her head on the desk drawer.
"Police officer," the mean-sounding man said.
"Come out of there."
Police officer? Well, that was good, wasn't it? Evie curled her fingertips around the top of the desk and said, "Okay, I'm coming out." She almost laughed. She sounded like the lone hold-out in a hostage crisis. Slowly rising to her knees, she stopped when her nose was level with the desk blotter and stared across the top.
The gruff voice belonged to a tall, formidably built man whose face was set in a scowl. He was definitely a cop—blue uniform, lots of stuff attached to the belt, the whole package. And he didn't look happy. Clearly he wasn't welcoming her to town with a big ol' Heron Point grin.
She spoke into the middle of the lap drawer. "You don't have your gun drawn, do you?"
"No, but hear this sound?" She flinched at a muffled pop. "That's me unsnapping the holster just in case."
She stood and held her hands high enough so he could see them, figuring submissive and obedient was her wisest course of action. "I don't have a weapon," she said, "so, if you don't mind, I'd prefer it if you'd snap up again."
He did. "What are you doing in here?"
She felt the back of her head where a small bump had formed. "I lost my earring," she said. "It was a gift from my father, and I would be heartbroken to lose it. It rolled..." She stopped when she realized that was probably the least significant part of the story to this man in blue.
He frowned, obviously lacking any sympathy for her. "Looks like a case of breaking and entering to me."
She checked her fingertips. No blood from a head injury, thank goodness. Just a dull pain behind her eyes. "You're wrong. I did enter, but I didn't have to break anything to do it. The back door was unlocked."
"I don't buy that," he said. "This building is a school. It's closed for the summer and is locked every night."
Okay, forget submissive. No one had ever called Evie a liar to her face, and she was running out of patience with this guy, cop or not. "I'm well aware this is a school, and I'm telling you I opened the back door and walked in."
"You shouldn't have," he said. "It's nearly dark. No one has any business being in this building this time of night. You're violating public property even if you didn't pick the lock."
She released a frustrated breath. "Oh, for heaven's sake. I'm not violating anything. Besides being part of that public you're sworn to protect, I'm the new principal of Heron Point Elementary. And this is my office, or soon will be."
He cocked his head to the side and studied her. His frown deepened. Was he drawing a conclusion based solely on appearance? Did he find her lacking in stature at five feet four inches? She followed his gaze downward and sighed. A jersey-knit camisole was definitely inappropriate for the head of a school. She tugged its thin strap back up to her shoulder. Give me a break, she thought. I've been driving all day. She was glad he couldn't see her feet. One flat, flowered sandal had slipped off somewhere under the desk.
A corner of his mouth twitched. He rubbed his jaw and continued staring. "You're the new principal?"
She squared her shoulders. "I am. And you'll pardon me for saying so, but with your attitude, I'd guess you've spent more time in a principal's office than I have."
He folded his arms over his chest and grinned. She detected a dusting of fine dark hair on his left forearm, broken by a patch of white where his wide leather watch strap began. His ball cap covered most of what appeared to be thick black hair.
"That's a pretty good guess," he admitted.
She relaxed, one hand on the desk. "Can I assume you're not going to arrest me?"
"Yes, you can. We don't have a law against just entering."
"Fine, but I still have an earring to find."
"I guess I could help you." She started to protest, imagining a large, polished boot crunching the delicate gold mounting. "No need..."
"It's okay. Firemen get cats out of trees. I suppose I can do jewelry recovery." He started to bend in front of the desk when they heard a beeping sound from outside.
Evie spun around to the window and stared at a small vehicle racing toward the school at perhaps a wicked fifteen miles per hour. She turned back to the officer. "What's that?"
"Oh, shi—shoot. I forgot to cancel Lou." He pressed a button on a radio attached to his shoulder, and the device crackled to life. "Lou, it's Billy. Never mind. False alarm. Everything's under control."
Too late. Whoever Lou was, he was arriving amid a blaze of flashing lights attached to the top of his vehicle. "Are you kidding me?" Evie asked. "Your backup is arriving in a golf cart?"
The man who had just identified himself as Billy joined her at the window. "He had to. I have the squad car."
"The squad car? As in, there's only one?"
"It's all we need. You can see how fast Lou got here in the golf cart."
At this moment Heron Point and her hometown seemed more than thirteen hundred miles apart. They could have existed in different galaxies. Imagine golf carts fighting crime in the Motor City!