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It was only when she saw the dancing swirl of cherry-colored lights in her rearview mirror that Edie Burnett glanced down at her speedometer. She was going forty miles an hour. As she eased off the gas pedal and pulled to the side of the street in front of a little dress boutique, she caught sight of a sign that indicated the speed limit was twenty-five.
Muttering a curse beneath her breath, she came to a stop at the curb. This was just the icing on the cake of crud that had become her life.
The official car pulled up behind her and she watched in her rearview mirror as the driver got out. Tall and lean, his khaki shirt tugged across broad shoulders as he walked toward her driver window with purposeful strides.
An errant curl of dark hair flopped onto his broad forehead and it only took that single glance in her mirror to know that the man was a hot piece of hunk.
Still, at the moment she didn't much care what he looked like. She needed to figure out the best way to talk him out of giving her a ticket. She wasn't sure she could afford lunch, much less a fine for speeding.
Cute or pathetic? She quickly decided to reach for cute and clueless and then resort to crying if necessary. It had worked for her more than once in the past.
"In a hurry?" His deep, pleasant voice resonated inside her and she looked up to see long-lashed eyes the color of rich, dark chocolate gazing at her.
"Oh, wow, I'm so sorry. I had the radio on and it was a really good song and I guess my speed just kind of got away from me." She gave him a bright bewildered smile. "I didn't notice the speed limit sign until I saw your lights flashing in my rearview mirror."
"But surely you noticed you'd entered the heart of town," he countered.
"I'm such a dunce," she agreed, once again giving him her friendliest grin.
"Driver's license please," he said, no returning smile curving his sexy lips.
Her own smile faltered as she dug into her oversize purse for her wallet. Damn. He was obviously going to give her a ticket. She handed him her license and watched in her mirror as he returned to his car, unable to help but notice that he looked just as good going as he had coming.
Now was the time she'd usually summon up fake tears and hope she could find a soft spot in his heart. But as she stared blindly out the front window the tears that blurred her vision were achingly real.
The past seven months of her life had been an utter nightmare, culminating in the call from somebody here in town that her grandfather needed help.
It had been two years since she'd last seen her grandfather, Walt Tolliver. At that time she'd come back to the small town for her mother's funeral. That particular trip back had been brief and so filled with grief she now scarcely remembered it. Since that time she'd tried to call the old man every weekend, yet in the past six months with her own life falling to pieces, Edie hadn't talked to her grandfather.
A sob escaped her and was quickly followed by another. By the time the deputy returned to her car window, she was blubbering like a baby.
"Hey, there's no need for that," he exclaimed as he held her license out to her. "I'm just going to issue you a warning."
"It's not that," she replied, the words choking out of her between sobs. She grabbed the license and tossed it into the dark recesses of her purse. "It's my life. It sucks. A year ago I was too stupid to live. I thought my creep of a boyfriend loved me and I wanted to do something special for him for his birthday so I gave him my credit card and told him to buy himself the stereo system he'd been drooling over. He bought the stereo all right, and half the store. He maxed out my card and disappeared.
I used most of my savings to pay off the card and then I lost my job."
The words tumbled from her lips as if of their own free will as tears continued to cascade down her cheeks. "Then this morning as I was packing up to drive here, my landlord appeared with a thirty-day notice for me to get out. He's selling the house where I rent an apartment and I have to go."
She suddenly looked up at him, appalled by the gush of her personal problems to the handsome stranger. God, how embarrassing was this? She swiped her cheeks with the back of her hands. "I'm sorry, this isn't your problem. I'm sorry I was speeding and I appreciate you just giving me a warning."
"Are you okay to drive the rest of the way to Walt's house?" he asked.
She nodded. "I'm fine."
He stepped back and motioned for her to pull away from the curb. It was only when she was back on the road that she wondered how he knew she was headed toward her grandfather's place.
How embarrassing, to totally break down in front of a stranger and spill the sordid details of her life. She hadn't cried a tear with each bad thing that had occurred over the past year. It seemed unfathomable that she'd had a mini-breakdown in front of a stranger.
At least she hadn't told him everything. She hadn't told him that the credit card debt Greg had left her with had been the least of the heartache he'd left behind.
She dismissed both Greg and the hot deputy from her mind as she turned off Main and onto a tree-lined residential street. Black Rock was typical of many small Kansas towns, with the business section taking up two blocks of the main drag surrounded by picturesque side streets lined with mature trees and pleasant, well-kept homes.
When she'd been young she and her mother had often visited her grandparents for a week or so each summer. Her mother and her grandmother would spend much of that time in the kitchen and Walt would entertain Edie by teaching her to play chess, bird-watching in the backyard and gardening.
Those had been some of the happiest days of Edie's life. But when she'd been a teenager, she'd opted for spending time with her friends instead of visiting grandparents. Then the years had slipped away and everything had changed.
Her grandmother had passed away, her mother was gone and now the only family she had left was her Poppy, and according to the brief phone message she'd gotten from somebody here in town, he needed her. The problem was she wasn't in a place where she could be much help to anyone.
As she pulled up in front of the familiar two-story house, her heart fell. Even the forgiving glow of the late afternoon sun couldn't take away the air of neglect that clung to the place.
The lawn needed a good mowing and the house itself screamed for a fresh coat of paint. Weeds had choked the last of the fall flowers in the beds that lined the walkway to the front porch.
She got out of her car and tried to ignore the sense of being overwhelmed. Was he ill? Poppy was seventy-one years old. Was he too old to be living on his own? How was she going to help him when she could barely help herself?
She knocked on the door, hoping he was at least well enough to open it. "Who is there?" The deep voice resounded with energy from the other side of the door.
"Poppy, it's me, Edie."
The door flung open and Edie breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of her grandfather, looking older, but robust and healthy. "What a surprise! If it isn't my favorite girl in the whole wide world." He pulled her into the foyer and into the loving embrace of his arms.
He smelled of cheap cologne and menthol rub, of early autumn air and sweet childhood memories, and as she hugged him back she wondered why she had stayed away for so long.
He finally released her and motioned her to follow him inside. "Come on, then. I need to check on my dinner."
As she followed behind him toward the kitchen she noticed that the inside of the house was neat and tidy and the scent of a roast cooking emanated from the kitchen.
Maybe it had been a cranky neighbor who had called her because of the condition of the exterior of the house and the yard. She couldn't remember the caller giving his name but it was obvious that he had overreacted. Thank God her grandfather seemed fine.
She'd take the next couple of days and mow the lawn, weed the flower beds and maybe get a couple gallons of paint to spruce up the place. She made a commitment to come visit every two months and resume her weekly phone calls.
"Got roast and potatoes for supper," he said as he went to oven and opened the door. "And green beans from the garden. Go on, sit down while I stir these beans and add a little bacon grease."
"Are you expecting company?" she asked, noticing that the table held two place settings. Unless Poppy had suddenly become a psychic, the extra plate hadn't been set for her.
"Benjamin is coming over. He stops by two or three times a week for dinner and some chess." Walt smiled at her. "It will feel like a regular party with you here." He finished stirring the beans and then grabbed a plate from the cabinet and added it to the table.
"I was beginning to think you'd forgotten all about your Poppy," he said with a touch of censure in his voice.
"You know the phone lines go both ways," she replied.
"I know, but I figured if a young girl like you wanted to talk to an old coot like me, you'd call." He eased down in the chair next to her at the table. "What are you now, twenty-three or twenty-four?"
"Twenty-nine, Poppy." Although the past year of her life, she'd made the mistakes of a teenager and suffered a woman's grief.
One of his grizzly gray eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Twenty-nine!" He swiped a hand down his weatherworn face and shook his head. "Seems the past couple of years have plum gotten away from me. That means it's been almost ten years since I lost my Delores and over two years since we lost your mama." For a moment he looked ancient, with sadness darkening his blue eyes and his paper-thin lips turned downward.
The sadness lasted only a moment and then his eyes regained their usual twinkle. "I hope you're going to be here long enough for me to teach you a lesson or two in chess."
She laughed. "I'm not leaving here until I win at least one game."
"Good," he said, obviously delighted. "That means it's going to be a nice long visit."
Although Edie was glad she was here, again she was struck by the thought that he seemed just fine and whoever had called her saying he needed help had definitely overreacted.
He jumped out of his chair and walked over to the oven and opened the door. "Benjamin should be here soon and we'll eat. Are you hungry?"
"Starving," she replied. Her lunch had been a bag of chips she'd eaten in the car. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"There are a couple of nice tomatoes in the refrigerator. If you want to, you can slice them up and put them on the table."
As she sliced the tomatoes, they chatted mostly about the past, playing a game of remember when that created warm fuzzies in Edie's heart.
She shouldn't have stayed away for so long. Poppy was the only family she had left in the world. Her home in Topeka was just a three-hour drive to Black Rock but somehow her personal drama and heartbreak had taken over and the last thing on her mind had been her Poppy.
"You'll like Benjamin," Poppy said as he took the roaster out of the oven and set it on hot pads in the center of the table. "He's a good guy and a mean chess player."
And probably eighty years old, Edie mentally thought, although she was grateful her grandfather had a friend for company. Maybe this big house was just too much for Poppy. Maybe it was time for him to think about an apartment or someplace where he didn't have to worry about maintenance and upkeep. Time to talk about that later, she thought as the doorbell rang.
"That should be Benjamin," Walt said and left the kitchen to get the door.
Edie wiped off the countertop and then pasted a smile on her face as Walt came back into the kitchen. The smile fell as she saw who followed at his heels, not an old, gray-haired man with stooped shoulders and rheumy eyes, but rather the very hot deputy who had pulled her over and witnessed her mini-breakdown.
"Edie, this here is my friend, Benjamin Grayson. Benjamin, this is my granddaughter who surprised me this evening with a visit," Walt said.
"Hello, Edie, it's nice to meet you." He stepped forward and held out a hand, obviously deciding to play it as if he'd never seen her before.
He'd looked great earlier in his khaki uniform but now with worn tight jeans hugging his long lean legs and a blue cotton shirt clinging to his broad shoulders, he was pure sin walking.
"Nice to meet you, too," she replied as she gave his hand a short, curt shake.
"Go on, sit down," Walt said. "Let's eat before the roast gets cold."
Edie slid into a chair at the table and tried not to notice the clean, male scent mingling with a woodsy cologne that wafted from Benjamin.
He might have smelled good and he might have looked great and in another place and time she might have been interested in him. But Edie had sworn off relationships and men and sex for the rest of her life. Besides, her intention was to be in Black Rock for only two or three days.
As the men joined her at the table and filled their plates, Walt and Benjamin made small talk about the weather and the forecast for a harsh winter to come.
Although Edie was glad she'd gotten the phone call that had prompted her to come for a visit, she still didn't see any real issue where her Poppy was concerned.
"Any word on that missing girl?" Walt asked.