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"We are each of us angels with one wing. And we can only fly embracing each other."
Luciano de Crescenzo
Lousy, stupid horoscope.
Claire Bradford stood with one hand on the doorway and the other clutching her coffee go-cup as she stared at the chaotic mess inside her store.
According to the starsat least according to the horoscope in the Hope Gazette she'd scanned while standing in line at her friend Maura's coffee shop for her morning buzz after dropping the kids off at schoolshe was supposed to prepare herself for something fun and exciting headed her way today. She had been thinking more along the lines of a few dozen new customers at her bead store or maybe a big commission on one of her more intricate custom pieces.
Discovering that String Fever had been burglarized during the night didn't exactly fit her personal definition of either fun or exciting.
Beads covered the beige berber in a glittery, jumbled disaster as apparently someone had yanked out an entire vast display of tiny clear drawers and dumped their contents all over the floor. Her cash register drawer was open and the small amount of cash she kept on hand to make change was missing. Her office door had been left ajar, too, something she never did, and even from here, she could see a big, dusty, empty spot on her desk where her computer should be.
She could handle the material loss and her computer was automatically backed up off-site several times a day. The mess, on the other hand, would be a nightmare to clean up. Claire gave a tiny whimper and closed her eyes, dreading the hours and days of work ahead of her, re-sorting all those scattered beads into their hundreds of proper compartments. String Fever was hanging by a thread anyway in the uncertain economy. How could she afford the time and energy involved in setting things to rights again?
Chester whined beside her, his basset hound features even more morose than usual. He was uncanny at picking up her emotions. She scratched behind his acres-long ears. "I know, buddy. Sucks, doesn't it?"
She dug in her coat pockets to find where she'd stowed her cell phone so that she could dial 9-1-1. She had only punched in one number before the phone vibrated in her hand and suddenly the nuclear meltdown alert ringtone she had programmed for her mother sounded its death knell through the empty store.
Yeah, not much fun or excitement there, either. Rotten horoscope.
Chester whined again. He hated that ringtone as much as she did. Claire swallowed her groan and despite thirty-six years of better instincts, she hit the talk button to accept the call. Ruth Tatum had trained her daughter well. "Mom, I can't talk right now. Sorry. The store has been robbed. I'll call you back as soon as I can, okay?"
"Robbed? You've got to be kidding!"
"Really, Mom? You think I'd joke about something like this?"
"How would I know?" Ruth went on the defensive, as she did so well. "You've always had a weird sense of humor."
Yeah. That was her. Making up stories about her store being robbed just to go for the cheap laugh. "I'm not joking. The store really has been robbed."
"That's terrible! What did they take?"
"I don't know yet. I just walked in the door and barely had a chance to even react before you called. I need to go so I can call the police, Mom."
"Well, call me as soon as you can and tell me what's going on. Do you need me to come down there?"
Sure, like she needed to stick a couple dozen earring hooks in her eyeballs. "Not right now. Thanks for the offer, though. I'll call you later."
She hung up and quickly dialed the police.
"Hope's Crossing Emergency Dispatch. What is the nature of your emergency?"
She recognized the dispatcher as a neighbor and one of her frequent customers, Donna Mazell, though her voice seemed pitched a little higher than normal.
"Hey, Donna. This is Claire at String Fever. I need to report a crime. I just came in to open my store and discovered an apparent burglary."
"Oh, lordy be. Not another one!"
"You're the fourth store in town to report a break-in today. We've got ourselves a genuine crime spree! The guys are going crazy trying to stay on top of everything."
Hope's Crossing, Colorado, had a population of only five thousand year-round residents, although those numbers swelled in the wintertime to ten times that with skiers and those who owned vacation homes or condos in the canyon near the vast Silver Strike Ski Resort. Still, Claire knew the town's police force consisted of only eight officers, supplemented by deputies from the county sheriff's department when the need arose.
"Can you spare somebody to send here?"
"Oh, sure. No problem. The new chief is just down the street at Pinecone Property Management, but I think he's wrapping things up there. I'll give him a holler and tell him to head over to the store first chance he has."
"Tell me they didn't take those gorgeous Czech crystals you bought for Genevieve Beaumont's wedding gown."
Her stomach took another dive. "Oh, I hope not. It took me two months to import those through Customs. I don't know if I'll have time to get more and finish the design before the wedding."
"Keeping my fingers crossed here. I'll call Riley right now and tell him to head over there when he's done over at the real estate office."
"You bet. Give me another call if somebody doesn't show up in the next ten, fifteen minutes or so. And don't touch anything."
"Yeah, I watch television. I know that much. I'll wait outside with Chester until Riley can get here."
"It's freezing, darlin'. You can't wait outside in this weather and neither can that dog. He's not as young as he used to be. The chief won't care if you grab a chair inside and sit down until he can make it, just as long as you keep Chester close so he doesn't go mucking around the crime scene."
Too much restless energy zinged through her for her to sit calmly and wait for the police, so she remained standing in the doorway, horrified all over again that someone would be so malicious. Stealing from her was one thing. They could have the money and her computer, she didn't care about that. But why make such a mess? This blatant vandalism was intended to gouge and woundcausing trouble for trouble's sake, something she had never understood.
Why would someone want to be so hurtful? And why her? She tried hard to be kind to most people she came in contact with. Sure, she had a few disgruntled customers at the store who seemed to think it a crime that she expected to make at least some profit for all the resources of time and energy she poured into String Fever. But she couldn't imagine any of them being so vindictive as to trash her store just for the fun of it.
She forced herself to do a little of the circle breathing her best friend, Alex, was always trying to convince her to practice and shifted her gaze out the wide store windows at Hope's Crossing's Main Street. The morning seemed gray and cheerless, a dreary sort of day.
Even though it was mid-April, spring took its dear sweet time arriving in the Colorado high country.
The weather forecasters were predicting a late snowstorm would be moving in later that evening. The ski resort would appreciate a few more inches for the diehard skiers who opted to spend their spring break hanging on to the last struggling days of winter instead of heading to the beach. By this time of year, she was heartily sick of more snow, but at least a little fresh powder would cover the tired, gray piles out there.
Despite the cold and the promise of a storm, she could see a pretty good Monday morning crowd at the Center of Hope Café across the way. She'd noticed the same story at Dog-Eared Books & Brew.
Of course, none of those shoppers would be heading her direction anytime soon, not with the Closed sign still firmly turned in the doorway.
The thought had barely formed in her mind when the door behind her opened with a musical chime. Claire opened her mouth to explain the store was still closed and then shut it again, her spirits sinking even more.
Her fun and exciting morning only needed this, she thought as she watched her ex-husband's new wife burst through, looking pert and cute and glowing with pregnancy hormones.
"Hi, Claire!" Holly Vestry Bradford chirped, beaming the smile her orthodontist father had worked tirelessly to perfect as she unbuttoned her red wool peacoat and stamped snow off her black UGGs.
Chester grunted and plopped onto his belly, never a big fan of Holly's.
"Um, this really isn't a good time," Claire began.
She wasn't at all in the mood to be sociable right now, especially not to Holly, who seemed to bring out the worst in her, despite her best efforts.
"Oh, my word!" Holly exclaimed. "What happened in here?"
Claire had made a firm policy for the last two yearssince Jeff moved out and put an official end to their marriage that had been broken for much longer than thatto be as gracious as she could stand to Holly. "I think we were robbed," she said, without a hint of the sarcastic retort she wanted to make.
"Oh, no! Have you called the police?"
"I just did. They're on the way."
"Oh, Claire. I'm so sorry."
She didn't know which she disliked more: the sense of invasion from the robbery, contemplating the endless work putting the store back in order, or being on the receiving end of Holly Bradford's pity.
"I'm sure everything will be okay. My insurance should cover any losses. But I have to ask you not to touch anything, okay? We can't mess up the crime scene."
"Crime scene. That sounds so scary! Right out of CSI: Miami! Where's Horatio?"
Was she ever this young when she was twenty-five? Claire wondered, then answered her own rhetorical question. No. By then, she'd already been married for over a year, had given birth to Macy and had been working two jobs to put Jeff through medical school.
"I'm sorry things are in such disarray." She tried on a smile and found she still had one or two in reserve.
"Maybe you can come back later today after I've had a chance to start cleaning things up."
"Don't you worry about that. I didn't need anything urgent. I guess Macy probably told you about our crazy shopping trip to Vail, didn't she?"
"She might have mentioned it." Twenty or thirty times. Her twelve-year-old daughter adored her stepmother. Why wouldn't she? Holly was the big sister Macy had always wanted. She was fun and young and hip. Holly had read all the Twilight books and had MySpace, Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Claire tried hard not to resent their bond. Macy loved her mother, too, although sometimes she didn't act very much like she did as she tested her wings on her way to adolescence.
"That girl is a shopping maniac!" Holly gushed. "Jeff just cut us loose with his credit cards while he and Owen went snowboarding and Macy helped me buy a whole new maternity wardrobe. When we got back home and I started opening all those bags, I realized what I really need now are some killer accessories to distract people from my big fat belly."
Right. Although she was five months along in her pregnancy, Holly could still probably fit into a size 4 pair of jeans, at least if they were low cut.
"You know you look beautiful, no matter what you're wearing. But new jewelry is always nice." Particularly when it was handcrafted out of the pricey Venetian glass beads Holly liked, the ones that netted String Fever a healthy profit. "I'll be glad to help you with some ideas after the store opens later today, if you don't mind coming back."
"No problem. I've got nothing else on my schedule today."
Oh, that she could say the same. Claire summoned another smile. "I'll try to call you after the police clear the store for me to reopen."
"You're so sweet to me. Thank you so much, Claire."
Before she quite knew what she intended, Holly grabbed her in a hug and Claire had no real choice but to endure it and even hug her back a little before she quickly eased out of the embrace.
She didn't really dislike Holly. The situation was just so awkward, living in the same town with her and Jeff, bumping into each other all the time, sharing concentric circles of friends.
No matter how much Jeff claimed Holly had nothing to do with his unilateral decision to leave the marriage and no matter how much Claire knew she bore equal responsibility for the problems and the distance that had grown between them those last few years, Jeff had started living his little clichedating the young, beautiful receptionist in his orthopedic surgery practice just a few weeks after their divorce was final. He'd married her six months after that and now they were starting their own family.
Whether Claire liked the situation or not, they were all three coparenting the children. When Owen and Macy were with their father, Holly was a major influence in their lives and for the sake of her children, Claire couldn't afford to be bitter or spiteful. Nor could she move away from Hope's Crossing, not when she had a business here and not when Macy and Owen needed their father in their lives more than just on weekends.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Holly asked. "Maybe I should stay with you while the police come. You know, for moral support."
"That's really not necessary," she started to say, but the last word was barely out when the bells on the door chimed out again. She and Holly both turned at the sound and despite everythingespecially whatever shred of good sense she had leftthe day suddenly seemed far less bleak.
The town's brand-new chief of police stood in the doorway, dark-haired and gorgeous and almost ridiculously male looming over the glittery beads strewn across the floor. He wore jeans and a light blue dress shirt and tie and beneath his unzipped official Hope's Crossing Police Department parka, she saw a badge flash on one hip and a handgun at the other.
The chief took a long look around at the carnage and shook his head slowly. "What am I going to do with you, Claire? I turn my back for fifteen years or so and just look at the trouble you get yourself into."
In spite of everything, she had to laugh. Apparently Riley hadn't lost his uncanny ability to tweak that weird sense of humor her mother had been talking about. He stepped toward her, his arms wide, and without even thinking, she walked into them.