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"Is this because I'm an outsider?" said the petite, new and clearly fuming visitor in town. She'd jaywalked Main Street in broad daylight, far, far from the pedestrian crosswalk. As if it was merely a street decoration or a pair of useless lines. Did she really think Gunnar wouldn't notice?
Dressed as if she belonged in New York City, not Heart-landia, she wore some high-fashion fuchsia tunic, with a belt half the size of her torso, and slinky black leggings. Sure, she was a knockout in that getup, but the lady really needed to learn to blend in, follow the rules, or he'd be writing her citations all day long.
He took his job seriously, and was proud to be a cog in the big wheel that kept his hometown running smoothly. Truth was he'd wanted to be a guardian of Heartlandia since he was twelve years old.
"I won't dignify that slur with an answer," Gunnar said, though she was an outsider. He'd never seen the pretty Asian woman before, but that wasn't the point. She'd jaywalked!
With the often huge influxes of cruise-line guests all disembarking down at the docks, and now with the occasional tour bus added to the mix, he had to keep order for the town's sake. The tourists rushed to the local stores for sweet deals and to the restaurants for authentic Scandinavian food without having to fly all the way to Sweden or Norway. If he let everyone jaywalk, it could wreak havoc in Heartlandia. The town residents had to come first, and it was up to guys like him to regulate the influx of visitors. Plus, jaywalking was a personal pet peeve. If the city put in crosswalks, people should use them. Period.
He kept writing, though snuck an occasional peek at the exotic lady. Shiny black hair with auburn highlights, which she wore short, her bangs pushed to the side, and with the pointy and wispy hair ends just covering her ear-lobes and the top of her neck. Interesting.
Most guys he knew preferred long hair on women, but he was open to all styles as long at it complemented the face. The haircut and outfit were something you might see on a runway or in a fashion magazine, but not here. And those sunglasses
She had to be kidding. Did she want to look like a bee?
Even though her eyes were shielded by high-fashion gear, he could sense she stared him down waiting for his answer to her "Is it because I'm an outsider?" question. Not wanting to be rude by ignoring her, he came up with a question of his own.
"Let me ask you this. Were you or were you not jaywalking just now?"
"I'm from San Francisco, everyone jaywalks." She leaned in to read his name tag. "Sergeant Norling."
"You with the cruise ship?" It was too early for a new batch of tourists to set foot on the docks, though there was no telling when those buses might pull up.
She huffed and folded her arms. "Nope."
"Well, you're in Heartlandia now, Ms
." He stared at his citation pad waiting for her to fill him in. She didn't. "Name please?" He glanced up.
"Matsuda. Lilly Matsuda. Can't you cut me some slack?"
"I need your license." Gunnar stared straight into where he imagined her eyes were, letting her absorb his disappointment at her obvious lack of regard for his professional honor. Something he held near and dear. Honor.
She wouldn't look away, so he motioned with his fingers for her to hand over the license and continued, "Did you jaywalk?"
She sighed, glanced upward and tapped a tiny patent-leather-ultrahigh-heeled foot.
For the record, he dug platform shoes with spiky heels, and hers looked nothing short of fantastic with the skintight silky legging things she wore. Didn't matter, though. She was a jaywalker.
His mouth twitched at the corner, rather than letting her see him smile. The way she'd said yes, turning it into two syllables, the second one all singsongy, sounded like some of the teenagers he mentored at the high school.
She lowered her sunglasses, hitting him dead-on with deliciously almond-shaped, wide-spaced, nearly black eyes. Hers was a pretty face, once he got past the Kabuki killer stare.
He tore off the paper, handed it to her and waited for her response.
Snagging the notice for jaywalking she frowned, then glanced at it, and the discontented expression broke free with a surprisingly nice smile. "Hey, it's just a warning. Thanks." She suddenly sounded like his best friend.
"Now that you know the rules, don't jaywalk again.
Ever." He turned to head back to his squad car, knowing for a fact she watched him go. He'd gotten used to ladies admiring him from all angles. Yup, there was definitely something about a man in a uniform sporting a duty belt, and he knew it. Just before he got inside he turned and flashed his best smile, but instead of saying have a nice day he said, "See you around."
She had to know exactly what he meantif she was sticking around this small city, he'd be sure to run into her again, and he'd be watching where she walked.
The petite Matsuda lady stepped closer, her flashy colorful top nearly blinding him. He gave his practiced magnanimous professional cop smile, the one he hoped to perfect one day when he ran for mayor. "Yes?"
"Know any good places to eat in town? Bars for after hours?"
"Just about any place here on Main Street is good. Lincoln's Place does a great happy hour." Was she planning on sticking around? Or better yet, was she trying to pick him up?
"You go there? Eat there? Drink there?"
His bachelor radar clicked up a notch.
She dug into her shoulder bag and brought out a small notepad and pen. "I'm looking for the best local examples of everything Scandinavian."
What was she doing, writing a book? Maybe she was one of those travel journalists or something. Gunnar stopped dead, hand midway to scalp for a quick scratch. Or maybe she was one of those annoying type A tourists, who had to know it all, find the best this or that, snap a few pictures while never actually stepping inside or buying anything, just so they could impress their friends back home. She looked like the type who'd want to impress her friends.
"Yeah. My favorite lunch joint is the Hartalanda Café. And you can't beat Lincoln's Place for great dining. Got a crack new lady pianist named Desi Rask playing on the weekends, too, if you like music."
She didn't look satisfied, as if he'd failed in some way at answering her querythe question behind the question. Too bad he hadn't figured it out. Maybe she was a food reporter for some big magazine or something and wanted some input from a local. "Well, thanks, then," she said. "See you around."
See me around? That's what I said. So is she new in town, planning to stay here, or just here on assignment? His outlook took a quick turn toward optimistic without any specific reason beyond the possibility of Ms. Matsuda sticking around these parts. An exotic woman like her would be a great change from the usual scenery.
But wait. He wasn't doing that anymoreplaying the field. Nope. He'd turned a new page. No more carefree playboy, dating whoever he wanted without ever getting serious. If he wanted to be mayor of Heartlandia one day, he'd need to settle down, show the traditional town he knew how to commit.
Gunnar slipped behind the steering wheel, started the engine and drove off, leaving her standing on the corner looking like a colorful decoy in a Where's Waldo? book.
Lilly stood at the corner of Main Street and Heritage, watching the officer drive away, having to admit the man was a knockout. Yowza, had she ever seen greener eyes? Or a police uniform with more laser-sharp ironed creases? This guy took his job seriously, which was part of the appeal, and he'd already cut her some slack on the citation.
Hmm, she wondered, slipping her sunglasses back in place. What's his story?
She'd been in town exactly three days, started her new job yesterday at the newspaper, and was already hatching her plan to buy out the owner, Bjork, and breathe new life into the ailing local rag. She'd taken a huge risk moving here, leaving a solid jobbut one without room for advancementback at the San Francisco Gazette in a last-ditch attempt to finally win her parents' respect. Somehow, despite all of her efforts to overachieve, she'd yet to live up to their expectations. Why at the age of thirty it still mattered, she hadn't quite figured out.
In her short time in Heartlandia she'd noticed things from her extended-stay apartment in the Heritage Hotelthings like a nighttime gathering at city hall of an unlikely handful of residents. Oh, she'd done her homework long before she'd moved here all right, because that was what a serious reporter and future newspaper mogul did.
She knew the newspaper was on its last breath, mostly copying and pasting national news stories from the Associated Press, instead of doing the legwork or being innovating and engaging. She recognized an opportunity to start her own kind of newspaper here, for the locals. The kind she'd want to read if she lived in a small town.
Before arriving, she'd gotten the lay of the land, or should she say landia? She snickered. Sometimes she cracked herself up.
She'd spent several months getting her hands on everything she could about Heartlandia. Their city website told a lovely, almost storybook history that didn't ring completely true. Could everything possibly be that ideal? Nope, she'd seen enough of life, how messy it could get, to know otherwise. Or maybe San Francisco had jaded her?
She'd memorized the city council names and faces, noting they'd appointed a new mayor pro tem, one Gerda Rask. She'd also scoured old newspaper stories and dug up pictures of the locals, including police officers, firemen and businesspersons. The Heartlandia Herald used to focus on those kinds of stories, and there were many to choose from. Not anymore.
She knew more about this town than the average resident, she'd bet, which, if it was true, was kind of sad when she thought about it.
Turn and walk, Matsuda. Don't let on to that taller version of a Tom Hardy lookalike that you 're watching him drive off. A man that size, with all those muscles, a cop, well, the last thing she wanted to do was get on his bad side.
Once the light changed, Gunnar drove on with one last glance in his rearview mirror. Lilly hadn't budged. It made him grin. That one was a firecracker, for sure.
He'd heard old man Bjork had hired a new reporter. It was to save his sorry journalistic butt since running the Heartlandia Herald into the ground with bad reporting and far too many opinion pagesall Bjork's opinion. He'd also heard the new hire was a big-city outsider and a she. Could the she be her?
Maybe the Herald did need a complete overhaul from an outsider since the newspaper he'd grown up reading was failing. Sales were in the Dumpster, and it bothered him. Over the past few years he'd watched his hometown paper slowly spiral into a useless rag. It just didn't seem right. A newspaper should be the center of a thriving community, but theirs wasn't.
Truth was old man Bjork needed help. Who cared what other people thought about world politics? Everyone got enough of that on cable news. Keep it local and engag- ing. That's what he would have told the geezer if he'd ever bothered to ask for advice since they worked across the hall from each other, but the guy was too busy running the paper into the ground.
What with the new city college journalism department, why couldn't they save their own paper? Heartlandia had always stood on its own two metaphorical feet. Always would. Fishermen, factory workers, natives and immigrants, neighbors helping neighbors. The town had remained independent even after most of the textile and fishing plants had closed down.
Only once had the city been threatened from outsiders, smugglers posing as legitimate businessmen. His own father had fallen for it. Once the original fish factory had closed, he'd been out of a job. Gunnar had been ten at the time and had watched his mother take on two part-time jobs to help feed the family. His father's pride led him to take the job as a night watchman for the new outside company, and he'd turned his head rather than be a whistle-blower when suspicious events had taken place. The shame he'd brought on the family by going to jail was what made Gunnar go into law enforcement, as if he needed to make up for his father's mistakes.
It had taken two years before the chief of police at the time, Jon Abels, had taken back the city. Gunnar had been twelve by then, but he remembered it as if it had just happened, how the police had made a huge sweep of the warehouse down by the docks, arresting the whole lot of them and shutting down the operation. That day Chief Abels had saved the city and became Gunnar's personal hero.
He drove back to the station in time to check out, change clothes and grab a bite at his favorite diner, the Hartalanda Caféhe hadn't lied to Ms. Matsuda about thatbefore he hit city hall for another hush-hush Thursday-night meeting of the minds. It had been an honor to be asked, and joining this committee was the first step on a journey he hoped one day to take all the way to the mayor's office.
Sleepy little Heartlandia's history lessons had recently taken a most interesting plot twist, and he was only one of eight who knew what was going on. The new information could change the face of his hometown forever, and he didn't want to see that happen. Not on his watch.