STOLEN IN LOVE


STOLEN IN LOVE (Love and Lawbreakers, Book 2)

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Kim Xavier steals things. She can’t help it. Recovering from her shoplifting addiction has never been easy, but she’s giving it a shot. When she comes home to a ransacked apartment, Kim knows she’s finally taken the wrong thing from the wrong person. And she can’t tell the police–especially not the cop whose heart she broke months ago.

Scott Culpepper wants Kim Xavier. He can’t help it. Ever since he met the smart-mouthed woman while on patrol in New Haven, he hasn’t been able to get her or her red lips out of his mind. Unfortunately, she’s also got a police record, and the single dad has learned the hard way not to get involved with unpredictable women.

But when Kim is threatened by someone selling information used to harass women online, Scott steps up to keep her safe–even if it means spending more time with her than he should. The two work to unravel the case, which leads them from the dirty underbelly of the Ivy League to posh preschool parties to a drug dealer who can quote Kerouac. Though the biggest danger may be Kim stealing the very thing Scott can’t afford to lose: his heart.

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EXCERPT:

Chapter One

Kim

Kim Xavier was already wishing she was anywhere but her parents’ neighborhood when her situation got much worse. He showed up.

Usually the sight of any police officer, uniformed or not, struck a bolt of fear through Kim’s body. Anyone with her particular brand of addiction carried visceral memories of being questioned, cuffed, and arrested. Her heart hammered in her chest.

Officer Scott Culpepper had never cuffed her. She would’ve remembered.

Scott was out of uniform, but that was even worse. Because he was hot, and he hated her.

“Hurry up, Bixie,” she said, tugging on the leash attached to her mother’s dog, which was the whitest, fluffiest, most ridiculous dog on the block, and also crapped too much. Which was what the pet was doing right now, in front of her parents’ neighbor’s immaculate expanse of green lawn while Kim held a bag of reeking dogshit in her free hand and wished that she’d just stayed at a hotel last night. Also, why hadn’t she put on something beyond yoga pants and a hot pink shirt with a mustard stain on it? Some lip gloss wouldn’t have killed her either.

The sun shone brightly this early in the morning, and Scott Culpepper was out jogging. He was coming from the direction of the sunrise, the light at his back like he was some kind of freaking Greek god.

But he hadn’t seen her yet, which meant hope was still alive.

Kim looked down at Bixie, who was daintily squatting, unconcerned about the holdup she was causing.

“Do you need a paperback or something?” Kim whispered. “We’ve got about fifteen seconds before he spots us.”

Scott wore navy shorts and a sweat-stained gray shirt that clung to his muscles. As he slowed to a walk near his home, he pulled the shirt over his head, mopped his forehead with it, and tucked it into his waistband.

The April morning was sunny but still a little chilly, but if you were the type of healthy, productive citizen who did things like jog in the morning, it probably got hot quick.

Or maybe it was just that she was getting hot quick.

Scott Culpepper was tall and trim, and kept himself strong for his work as a police officer. His hair was blond, and from a few houses away, Kim could see it was damp around the edges.

“Damn.” Her parents’ neighborhood was hella stuffy, but the views were great.

Then he saw her and stopped as if he’d hit a wall.

Kim put on her brightest, bravest voice. “Hey, Officer Culpepper.” She waved her dogshit-carrying hand in his direction. “Good morning!”

He raised a hand slowly, and stiffly said, “Good morning.”

“Just taking Bixie here for a walk,” she continued cheerily, suddenly aware that Bixie had done her business and in taking the past minute to gawk at the officer, Kim had probably missed her chance at escape. And now she had to pick up feces in front of the hottest guy in probably all of Connecticut.

“Seriously, Bixie?” she whispered to the dog. “How can you possibly have that much crap inside you, anyway?” Bending over, her brown hair falling down around her face, she scooped up Bixie’s business into the bag. When she straightened up, Scott was walking to her.

“So…” He cleared his throat. “You visiting your parents today?”

“Something like that.” Kim twisted the bag closed to keep the crap smell from wafting over to him.

He looked down at her outfit, and if Kim had been the blushing type, she would’ve flushed then.

God, don’t let him see the mustard stain.

He shook his head and looked her in the eyes again. “You stayed over…with your parents?”

Kim smiled, but it was tight. “Yes.” She didn’t add that she didn’t have a better option. When you come home to your apartment ransacked and a note saying, Give it up bitch. Put the thing you took in your mailbox sitting on your kitchen table, you just want to get the hell out. It wasn’t exactly the home sweet home she’d expected after her shift at the coffee shop. Her grip tightened on the dog leash.

She’d freaked out and drove to her uptight parents’ house, even though it meant spending hour upon hour with her mother, whose every response came pre-baked with disapproval.

She wasn’t about to admit that to Officer Culpepper, though.

“Oh. Well.” Scott shifted his weight.

She would rather have stayed in a hotel than be under her mother’s ever-critical eye, but she wasn’t exactly living with much to spare on her barista paycheck, and most of the trinkets she’d pilfered the past few years hadn’t amounted to much. Too bad she’d never felt compelled to commit grand theft auto.

The guy who’d trashed her apartment had probably felt the same, because she hadn’t noticed anything missing. He hadn’t found what he’d been looking for, whatever the hell it was. The thing she apparently took. When she failed in her ability not to dwell on it—dwelling, her psychologist said, was bad for her recovery—she wondered, with a shiver of ice in her veins, if he would come back. Especially if she didn’t figure out what it was.

But she was still smiling at Scott, like an idiot, and trying not to ogle his bare, sweaty chest. Being attracted to him was so last year, and it also had been a disaster.

Scott cleared his throat. “You’re staying just for the one night?”

Her smile fell. “Maybe. Not really sure of my plans yet.”

The thing was, Scott Culpepper was the type to hold grudges. Like the big ol’ grudge he held against her for lying to him about her sister’s involvement with an international criminal last fall. Especially after Scott had seemed to be getting a crush on her.

Kim knew she’d taken advantage of him, used his attraction to her to distract him from the fact that her sister was not only sleeping with a graffiti artist who’d been working in New Haven, but protecting him from the law. But Laurel had never been in love before, at least not like she was with the British man they’d known as KaveMan. After having to grow up with a kleptomaniac as a younger sister, Kim figured she owed her one.

She hadn’t told the police yet about the break-in, and she didn’t intend to. Officers like Scott would probably think the same thing, if they didn’t say it out loud: Runs with a bad crowd. Probably took something valuable from the wrong person. Something-something drugs.

Kim had run with a bad crowd, but she was trying to put that behind her. Still, she didn’t know who could’ve done this, or what they were looking for, and it upset her more than she’d like to admit.

But fear or not, she’d figure it out on her own.

“How’s Lily?” Kim asked quickly to change the subject. She didn’t know why she was trying to have a conversation with him—they hadn’t talked at all since that stuff went down last fall; she’d just caught him staring at her a few times when he’d seen her come to the obligatory Sunday night dinner, a tightening of apprehension around his eyes.

Because she was a menace to society.

“She’s fine. She stayed over with her grandmother. Should be home any minute.”

“Oh, great.” At least his young daughter liked her and seemed excited to see her, waving and calling her name the few times she’d spotted Kim. Innocence in the youth and all.

“So…” Scott glanced over his shoulder, probably to make sure the other neighbors hadn’t caught him speaking with that troublesome Xavier middle child, the one who hadn’t amounted to anything like her siblings, etc.

Their eyes met again.

“So…good talk?” she suggested.

He nodded, and, without another word, turned and walked to his house.

She took the opportunity to check him out from behind, Bixie be damned.

 

Chapter Two

Scott

What was she doing here?

Kim Xavier was many things: one of the sexiest women he’d ever seen, not to mention a smart-ass. And, as he unfortunately learned last November, she was also a liar and a thief.

But the kind of daughter who’d spend the night at her parents’ just because? That didn’t fit.

Scott reached his door and opened it, then shut and locked it behind him like there was a zombie apocalypse outside. But he couldn’t resist peeking through the curtains of the front door.

The only thing worse than having Kim Xavier roaming his neighborhood was having Kim Xavier roaming his neighborhood in those pants. They were those stretchy cotton kind, the kind that hugged a perfect ass like Kim’s like they were specifically designed for her.

She bent down to clean up another mess from her mother’s dog, and a wave of heat washed over him.

Yoga pants? Yoga pants. That’s what they were called.

He mopped his forehead with his shirt, because even though he’d stopped jogging minutes ago, he’d broken out into a sweat again.

Whatever. She shouldn’t be wearing them. She should be arrested for wearing them.

A voice inside his head suggested he be the one to put the cuffs on her for that particular violation.

But no. He was through with women like her.

As if reminding him of the reason why, a car pulled up his driveway. Bette with Lily, who’d let her granddaughter stay the night since Scott had ended up working so late. Lily slammed the car door shut and skipped to the sidewalk, her pale blond hair bouncing with each step. Bette trailed behind much slower, limping for some reason.

He tugged on his shirt, unlocked the door, and opened it. “What happened?” he called to Bette as Lily crashed into his legs, smelling of sugar and speaking a mile a minute.

“Grandma let me eat two donuts. One of them was chocolate!”

He raised an eyebrow at Bette. “Really?”

The older woman shrugged. She stood tall like her daughter—if memory of Lily’s mother was accurate; he hadn’t seen her in some time—but Bette had a sagging bosom and auburn hair that was cut short and spiky, hinting at her irreverent personality. She was also definitely favoring her left leg. “She’s a growing girl. Plus, her father’s a cop.”

“Those rumors aren’t true,” he said. “I never eat donuts. What’s wrong with your leg?”

Bette stopped before she reached the steps, her breath a little heavy. “Just pulled it the other day carrying a load of groceries up those g-d steps to the apartment. Carried too much at once, should’ve zigged instead of zagged.” She waved a hand dismissively as she took a deep breath. “No big deal. Needs some time is all.”

“Okay,” Scott said, but he still stepped down to offer Bette an arm to navigate the steps.

“Grandma said because her leg hurt, she got to eat two g-d donuts too,” Lily sang.

Scott raised his eyebrow at her again as they stepped inside and the girl ran towards her room, riding out her donut high.

“What?” Bette asked, mock-innocently. “She doesn’t know what ‘g-d’ means. For all she knows, it could stand for ‘Golden Delicious.’”

“Huh. Right.” Scott guessed Lily probably knew what ‘g-d’ meant, or would soon, and he was bracing himself for future parent-teacher conferences discussing his daughter’s rampant potty mouth. He pondered how to explain the origins of Lily’s newfound language without pointing the finger at a sixty-year-old woman who was his would-have-been mother-in-law.

Despite her colorful vocabulary, Bette was great with Lily. He appreciated her all the more since he no longer had any family left. Scott had been a menopause baby, and his parents had both died six years ago, when he was only in his mid-twenties. They’d tried having kids for years, and when he’d been born, they’d been as loving parents as he could’ve asked for. He had no siblings, so Lily had no aunts nor uncles nor cousins. And since her mother had split right after she was born—if he was honest, even before then, mentally—she had no other family but him.

Bette had stepped up, and she convinced him to move to Connecticut to be near her. Unlike her daughter, she loved kids, and though her child-rearing methods bordered on unconventional, Lily was over the moon for her. So he’d taken some of the inheritance his parents left to buy a house in a neighborhood way above his pay grade, to give Lily the opportunities and upbringing she deserved.

Bette trudged towards the kitchen. “I need more coffee. Maybe another g-d donut too. Too bad you don’t have any.” She waved a hand under her nose. “And you could stand to take a shower.”

Scott lifted his shirt to sniff when a knock came at the door.

When he peeked through the glass, he saw someone he didn’t expect.

Diane Xavier. Kim’s mother.

Scott cleared his throat and opened the door.

“Uh, good morning, Mrs. Xavier.” He nodded. “Something I can help you with?”

“Yes. It won’t take long.” Diane gestured towards his living room. “Do you mind if I come in?”

“Uh, sure.” Scott stepped aside as she passed by him. “Have a seat.” Conscious of his smell, he added, “I just got back from a jog and was about to take a shower…”

Diane turned to face him without sitting down. Outwardly, she resembled her older daughter, Laurel, much more than Kim. A prosecutor for twenty years, she held her body erect, wore her dark hair straight and smooth and her face perfectly made up. The handful of times they’d spoken, however, Scott had seen a gleam of something in her eyes that reminded him of Kim’s stubbornness.

That’s what he saw now, a steely spark in her blue irises, and his mind briefly drifted back to yoga pants.

“I’m here to ask for your help,” Diane said without preamble, breaking him out of his reverie.

“Okay.”

“Kimberly came to us last night. She had a break-in at her apartment.”

Scott’s jaw dropped. “Oh?” So that’s why she was there this morning.

“She was working at the coffee shop, and she came home and found her things everywhere.”

Scott swallowed. “Is she—is she okay?” She’d certainly seemed okay this morning, but his cop instincts told him Kim also covered herself in a candy shell against the world: pretty and hard.

“Yes. She didn’t encounter the intruder.” Diane’s voice was the one she’d probably used to win countless court cases. Clear, calm, presenting the facts. “She doesn’t know who did it, and this person didn’t seem to take anything, which makes it all the more perplexing.”

“Maybe somebody looking for drugs, any cash lying around.” Scott rubbed his jawline, shifting into cop mode. “She file a report?”

“No.” Diane shook her head once. “She didn’t want to.”

“She should file a report.”

“She won’t.” Diane swallowed. “And she won’t listen to me. We need your help.”

“Why isn’t she here asking me herself?” Scott asked, though he knew the answer. The handful of times he’d seen Kim last fall, before he knew her record, they’d flirted back and forth.  By the second time he’d seen her—stumbling upon her at the mall like it was meant to be, her bright red mouth smiling at him, that crimped brown hair he wanted to run his fingers through—he’d been near crazy to get her number.

It had been a boon when he’d discovered her at the neighborly Xavier Thanksgiving meal Diane had invited him to, not realizing the woman who’d been guest-starring in his every fantasy was their daughter. But then, the very next day on Black Friday—which, last year, had been pretty black indeed—he realized her flirting had been nothing more than a distraction to keep him from discovering her sister was in cahoots with a notorious graffiti artist working in their area.

Diane stared at him. “She doesn’t know I’m here.”

No, Kim Xavier didn’t want his help. She had a police file as thick as one of Bette’s paperback westerns, and Kim knew he knew it. She wasn’t a fan of cops.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked. Kim had been found guilty of theft numerous times, and she probably hung with a bad crowd. He wasn’t surprised someone had broken into her place.

“Come to our home this morning. Go with her to the apartment, see if you can discover any clues to find out who did this and apprehend them.”

Scott scrunched up his lips, trying to summon a response.

Diane took a step towards him. Her blue eyes shone a bit glassy and her self-possession slipped a moment, her voice growing slightly tremulous around the edges. “She’s scared, Scott. She might not show it to the world, but she is. They left a note.”

“A note?”

“Yes.” Diane took a deep breath. “Calling her a—a bitch, and saying to ‘give it up,’ whatever it is.”

“Hmm.” Scott’s jaw tightened. As untrustworthy as Kim was, something in him hardened at the idea of someone threatening her. A note like that? It was a threat.

“I’ll come over,” he said.

She inhaled and took a step back, her composure sliding back into place. “She’s here this morning, but she’ll be working later. She’d just gotten into the shower when I slipped out. If you could come soon…”

He cast a glance behind him, wondering if Bette was listening from the kitchen. “I need to grab a shower too and make sure Lily’s grandmother can take her to preschool.”

“Yes. Of course. That’s completely understandable. Just come by when you’re available.” Diane moved to exit, but turned back to him before she reached the front door. “Thank you,” she said, the tremor back in her voice.

His front door closed again.

“Shit.”

Scott wanted to see Kim Xavier again about as much as he wanted to experience a nuclear holocaust or a Sex in the City marathon. Because despite her long-ass police record, her lies, and her smart mouth, this morning’s run-in had shown him he wasn’t over her.

Maybe if he figured out who’d broken into her place and put the guy behind bars, she’d return back to her apartment. Which would be the best thing for everybody involved. Because if history had proven anything to him, it was that falling for women like Kim only spelled disaster for him.

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