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The thickening afternoon traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard whizzed past her as she fought back another wave of nausea. The last thing she wanted during her much-needed month-long vacation was another bout of the flu that had plagued her weeks ago, which had followed on the heels of the most wicked cold she'd ever suffered. She'd been looking forward to this visit with her grandmother for over a month. Nothing, she thought determinedly, not the flu or even the mess her life had unexpectedly become, was going to put a damper on a visit with Grandy. Besides, she had some big decisions to make. The relative peace and quiet would provide her ample opportunity to take the steps necessary to set her life back on track.
She pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly in an effort to quell another bout of nausea. Tugging up the handle on the largest suitcase, she piggybacked the matching smaller case, then slung her carry-on over her shoulder. An acrid scent filled the air, like wood smoke or maybe burning charcoal from a neighbor's backyard barbecue, only nowhere near as pleasant.
Since the parking lot to the right of the building was vacant this late in the afternoon, Emily avoided the front entrance of the cooking school her grandmother had started nearly fifty years ago, and wheeled her luggage along the side to the house in back where Grandy still lived. The sight of chipped stucco and peeling paint on the side of the school building took her a little by surprise, as did the thin wisps of grass growing between the cracks in the concrete path. The Norris Culinary Academy had always been Grandy's pride and joy, and for as long as Emily could remember, had been kept in nothing but pristine condition.
She reached the wooden gate and pulled the handle with her free hand. The hinges creaked, as if unaccustomed to movement. Dragging her luggage behind her, she pushed through the gate and stepped into the courtyard. She frowned as she did a quick glance around the area. The acrid scent of burnt ... something, assaulted her. The wonderland where she'd played as a child retained a mere shadow of its former beauty.
Small patches of dark moss dotted the putti fountain in the courtyard's center, while the small pond below stood bone-dry. Weeds choked the flower beds running along the front of the house. Even the large white plastic urns, usually filled to overflowing with petunias, portulaca or begonias, housed nothing more than the shriveled remains of their original inhabitants.
Something was definitely wrong, but when she'd spoken to Grandy on the phone two days ago to reconfirm their plans, everything had appeared to be the same as always. Never had Emily expected to find the property in such a state of neglect.
She maneuvered her luggage up the two brick steps of the porch to the house and knocked on the door. The only sound came from the distant traffic on the boulevard behind her, and the gentle hum from the central air conditioning unit one of her uncles had installed for Grandy a couple of years ago. Emily didn't hear a sound from the television or one of her grandmother's Big-Band-era CDs, which Grandy often played while puttering around her house. Absolute silence.
Perhaps she'd gone out for the afternoon, but that, too, was highly unlikely. Her grandmother, a creature of habit, reserved errands and shopping for Saturday mornings. Emily decided to check the garage first, then she'd unearth the key hidden on the porch and let herself inside to wait.
She parked her luggage in the shade of the porch, then turned and found herself looking into the most stunning pair of sea-green eyes this side of heaven. Alarm skidded down her spine. She'd been so absorbed in her concern, she hadn't even heard anyone behind her, something a New Yorker never did. She must be more upset by the recent and completely unexpected turn of events in her life than she realized.
"Can I help you?" she asked cautiously. She took a good look at him, committing his features to memory. With her luck lately, anything was possible and she wanted to be able to give the police an accurate description. She might forget the way his eyes skimmed her body, and she could have a hard time remembering her name, but she doubted she wouldn't remember how his angular features seemed carved from granite. Too bad he wore a frown that would make Ebenezer Scrooge proud, she thought, because with this man's chiseled good looks and his slightly wavy hair the color of rich mink, he'd be nothing short of scrumptious if he actually smiled. Not that it mattered to her. She was through with men.
"I was about to ask you the same thing." He had one of those deep, smooth voices capable of coaxing a woman to do just about anything. Oh, she knew the type well. A charmer, and incredibly dangerous to women who made a habit of picking the wrong men. Not that she would ever fall for something so blatantly obvious again.
She smoothed her suddenly clammy palms down the skirt of her loose floral summer dress. "I asked you first." Okay, could she sound any more childish?
"I'm here on official business. And you are?"
Official business? He wasn't a cop. Cops didn't carry shovels around with them. He did wear a badge, though, and a crisp blue uniform that outlined a body spectacular enough for a blue-jeans ad campaign. The man was one-hundred-percent enticing. Well, maybe if she was interested she might call him that, only she wasn't. Much.
No, she firmly reminded herself. Men were a thing of the past for her. She was just too good at making the wrong decisions when it came to the opposite sex.
"What official business?"
He ignored her question. "Are you related to Mrs. Norris?"
"Yes," she said carefully. Her roiling stomach took another dip and swirl before settling back down. Feeling none too steady, she reached for the porch railing.
"I'm her granddaughter."
Excerpted from Heatwave by Jamie Denton Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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