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Formula for Danger

Sonoma series, book #2

(Steeple Hill Love Inspired Suspense, September 2010)

HER LIFE WAS ON THE LINE

Someone wants dermatologist Rachel Grant's latest research, and they'll do anything to get it. Including trashing the plants needed for her breakthrough scar-reducing cream--and trying to run Rachel down. Desperate for help, she turns to Edward Villa, the only man she trusts. But the greenhouse owner knows too much about Rachel's research, and now he's a target, too. Break-ins, muggings, murder...the would-be thief is getting desperate--and getting closer. Edward vows to protect Rachel at all costs. Yet with time ticking away, Edward knows they have to uncover the madman shadowing Rachel before their chance for a future is destroyed.

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Excerpt from Chapter One

Dr. Rachel Grant had walked only a few feet out the back door of her family's Sonoma day spa, Joy Luck Life, when the patter of running footsteps behind her made her turn.

She had only a glimpse of a dark hoodie and a tall, lanky figure before a shove sent her sprawling onto the sidewalk. Thwack! Her left cheekbone collided with the cement, sending pain lancing through her head.

Snow clouded her vision and she struggled to open her eyes. Her heart pounded in her throat, making it hard for her to breathe. Frantic, she opened her mouth wide but no sound came out.

She glanced up. The backsides of dirty sneakers filled her field of view as they trotted away from her. Then a hand scooped up the bag strap of her sister Naomi's laptop computer, which had flown from Rachel's grip to land on the edge of the pool of light from the parking lot streetlamp. The sneakers hustled away.

Breathe! Rachel forced her wooden lungs to fill and tried to scream, but only a harsh croak came out. Where were the security guards? They should have seen the attack thanks to the outside video cameras. How long would it take for them to run out here?

Even worse, Naomi would be devastated to lose that laptop, which she'd bought barely five hours ago.

She heard the creak of the spa's back door, then more footsteps. "Rachel! Rach, are you okay?" Naomi fell to her knees beside her, hands on Rachel's shoulders. "I was talking to Martin, and we saw it all on the security camera." Martin, one of the security guards, raced past them, pursuing the stranger and the laptop.

In the distance, a woman's voice screeched, "What are you doing? Don't leave me!" It sounded as if it had come from the front of the spa.

Who was that? What was going on?

Rachel pushed herself up, her cheekbone throbbing as she rose. She squeezed her eyes shut to the wave of pain and paused on her knees, her head bowed.

Naomi put her arm around her. "Where are you hurt?"

"Just my cheek."

Naomi pulled Rachel's hair away from her face to look at her. Rachel had a hard time opening her eyes again as the pain splashed across her forehead, trickling back inside her skull. "How bad is it?"

"You'll have a black eye, that's for sure. We need to get you to the hospital."

"No, I'll have Monica look at it first. If the family nurse says so, then I'll go to the hospital." Just the thought of all the people in a crowded emergency room made Rachel cringe. She only wanted a quiet place to lie down and recover. "I'm sorry about your laptop."

"Forget the laptop, I'm worried about you."

"I only took a fall, nothing worse. But that laptop was new--"

"I can buy a new one. Besides, I'm almost glad it was new because it didn't have anything on it, so the spa didn't lose any sensitive information. That would have been worse." Especially since Naomi still managed the spa while their father recovered from his stroke. Naomi had bought the computer to help her with the spa's accounting.

"We should call the police and report it stolen."

"We should call Dad and Aunt Becca first." Naomi dug her cell phone out of her pocket.

"Call Aunt Becca. Aren't she and Detective Carter out to dinner tonight?" The two of them were dating again after an argument that had kept them apart for a few months. It was almost 10:00 p.m., but they might still be together at a movie.

As Naomi talked to Aunt Becca--who indeed was with Detective Horatio Carter--Rachel managed to sit up, although the evening sky spun around her. She clutched her hands together, trying to stop their shaking. She'd been attacked in the spa parking lot!

Clicking heels made Rachel look up. Gloria Reynolds, one of Naomi's massage clients, tripped toward them. "Dr. Grant, are you all right? Did that man hurt you?"

"Ms. Reynolds, you're still here?" Not the most tactful thing to say, but her headache was making it hard for her to be polite.

"Ms. Reynolds was my last client for tonight," Naomi told Rachel as she ended her call with Aunt Becca.

Gloria flipped her highlighted hair with a manicured hand. "The security guard was walking me to my car when he saw that person running away. Miss Grant," Gloria said to Naomi, "you really should talk to that guard. He ran after the person and left me by myself. Even when I called to him. And it was obvious the other guard was after the man, too, so there was no need for him to give chase."

Naomi smiled politely and responded with amazing courtesy when Rachel knew she must be rolling her eyes inside.

A flash of car headlights made Rachel wince as a vehicle headed down the spa driveway.

Then alarm jolted through her. The spa was closed, and the security guards, running after the thief toward the drive way, would have stopped the car from entering. Were the guards okay?

The car maneuvered into the staff parking lot, then stopped right next to them. A door opened and slammed shut. "Rachel!"

Edward Villa's voice made her heart leap into her throat, then settle back down in her chest, racing. Edward was here. Suddenly everything seemed okay.

No, she had to stop reacting this way to him. He didn't think of her as anything other than a client.

"Are you all right?"

She smelled him--pine, a hint of the orchids he worked with at his greenhouses and earthy musk--before her eyes registered that he was crouched in front of her, edging out Ms. Reynolds.

"The guards told me what happened when I drove in."

She had been able to keep it together when talking to Naomi, but somehow, his concern for her undermined her control over her emotions, and she steeled her jaw against a sudden onslaught of wild sobbing. Casting herself into his arms would only solidify his cool opinion of her, which he had made abundantly clear a couple months ago.

"Rachel." He reached out for her.

She held up a hand to stop him.

He grasped her hand, engulfing her fingers. His callused fingers rubbed her knuckles. His touch made her head spin.

"I'm fine," she whispered, breathless. She pulled her hand away.

The security guards walked up to them. "I'm sorry, Miss Grant, he got away. He ran up the driveway, and there was a car waiting for him at the end of it. They took off."

"Dr. Grant, are you okay?" the other guard asked, peering at Rachel.

She felt like a bug on display. "I'm fine." She heaved herself to her feet, but it made the blood pound painfully in her head. She swayed.

Edward's arm wrapped around her, making the earth stand still again. It felt good to be held by him. It felt...

Too good. She pulled away from him.

Edward paused a moment, then he bent down and collected her purse, which had dropped and scattered its contents when she fell. As he handed it to her, his eyes were calm, but somehow she could sense a fire burning behind them. As if other emotions ran deeper.

She didn't understand. While they had been working together for the past year on Rachel's new product for the spa, they had gotten closer, and she had felt free to be herself with him. But then, in the past couple months, he had withdrawn from her, become distant and polite.

Maybe he had seen who she really was...and he hadn't liked what he saw.

The thought was like a punch to her gut, every time she thought it. Which had been often in the past two months.

No, maybe he had never been interested in her, and he'd suddenly become aware that he was leading her on. Regardless, recently he had been clear in showing that he had no interest in her beyond a good business relationship.

She was just imagining the emotion in his eyes was deeper than natural concern. "Thank you." She took her purse from him, avoiding touching his hand again.

The silence was thicker than cold cream.

"Rachel--" he began.

"Here you go, Miss Rachel." Martin, a security guard who had been with them for years, handed her an ice pack he must have gotten from inside the spa. "That'll keep the swelling down from that shiner."

His light words made her smile, made the situation not seem so horribly violating. "Thanks, Martin." She pressed the cold pack to her eye, and found that it enabled her to avoid looking at Edward.

"Ms. Reynolds," Naomi said, "let me escort you back inside. We can wait for the police in one of the lounge rooms."

Rachel stayed outside and watched them reenter the spa. She tried not to remember what had happened, but it came to her in flashes. She shivered. She'd been bullied in grade school because she'd been a geek and a bit odd, but no one had ever assaulted her. Even bickering with her sisters Naomi and Monica had never gone beyond a little hair-pulling.

But tonight, someone had deliberately hurt her. It made her feel weak and vulnerable. Not in control.

And she didn't like it.

She especially didn't like that it had happened here, at the spa.

She suddenly realized that Edward had no reason to visit her here. They usually talked on the phone about the basil plants he was growing for production of her new spa product and met at his greenhouses. Why was he at the spa this late at night? "Edward, what are you doing here?"

His eyes were deep obsidian pools as they studied her, then he surprised her by looking away.

"Edward?"

He sighed. "I called your home and your sister Monica said you were still here."

"Did you try calling my cell phone? Did I not hear it ringing?" She fumbled in her purse and grasped the rubbery edge of her rugged waterproof cell phone--a necessity since she'd ruined two phones by using them while working in the lab with chemicals.

"No, I didn't call."

Avoidance wasn't Edward's style--neither was this vague evasiveness. "Then what...?"

He didn't answer immediately, and his face was grave. "I came to the spa to tell you something you're not going to like."

Her heart beat hard, once. But really, how could her day get any worse? "Lay it on me. I'm ready."

"Earlier tonight, someone broke into greenhouse four."

"Greenhouse four? My greenhouse?" Technically, it was his greenhouse, but the only things in it were her Malaysian basil plants. "Were you there? Are you okay?"

He paused, and his searching gaze made her stomach flip. But she lifted her head and tightened her muscles to keep her molten insides in place.

"I'm fine. I wasn't there when it happened."

"Oh. Good." She tried to slow her racing heart. "Did you call the police?"

"Yes. I left my brother, Alex, to meet with them while I came to talk to you. On the way, I called Horatio Carter, who said he was also headed here with your aunt, so that was fortunate. I'm hoping he'll come back to the greenhouse with me tonight."

"How did you find out about the break-in?"

"I left my cell phone in greenhouse six, so I went to get it. I noticed movement in the yard, and when I went to check the greenhouses, I found yours unlocked."

Her headache became a jackhammer against her skull. "Was everything okay?"

The lines deepened around his mouth. "No. Someone trashed it--all your plants."

She gasped.

"Don't panic too much. Alex is moving the plants to greenhouse seven right now, and I can salvage most of it."

"Most of it?" She needed Edward to cultivate a certain number of plants so she could make the extract for her scar-reduction cream, scheduled to launch in only five months. She couldn't be late. The spa depended on her new product launch. "Will you be able to grow more? I need..." She faltered at the shadow that crossed his eyes.

He replied evenly, "Your research will be fine, Rachel."

His distant tone confused her. What had she said? She switched tactics. "You left your cell phone in a greenhouse? You never do that. If you hadn't forgotten it..."

A half smile twitched at his mouth. "God was watching over your plants, I think."

The familiar way he said it made something squirm inside her. Edward had always had such a different relationship with God than she did, and it seemed to widen the gap between them. "Why didn't the alarm go off? I thought the greenhouses all had security alarms in place."

"They do--to monitor temperature and humidity, and also to alert when a window or door is opened. But the system in greenhouse four didn't go off. I checked it, and it looks like the thief tampered with it."

"Aren't those security alarms top-of-the-line? High-tech?"

He nodded. "Whoever did this was a professional, not your average thief."

The mild California fall breeze was suddenly frosty against her skin. "How about the other greenhouses?"

"I checked them all. Only yours was broken into."

"Only mine?" This was a blow she didn't know if she could bear, not on top of everything that had happened tonight. She bit her lip.

It almost looked as if he didn't know what to do with his hands, finally resting them on his slim hips. "I don't understand it. Some of the plants in my other greenhouses are extremely rare and valuable, but whoever came by didn't even touch them."

She'd seen those plants--exotic orchids and rare rain-forest species, mostly commissioned by wealthy clients because of Edward's reputation for cultivating delicate tropical plants. "None of them were taken?"

If the burglar could have dismantled the security alarm for one greenhouse, surely he could have dismantled the security alarms for the others. Or maybe he hadn't had time to because Edward had discovered the thief's activities. But why bother with destroying her plants when he could have more quickly gotten into the other greenhouses and stolen the rarer species?

Edward's eyes pinned her with concern and gravity. "The thief entered only greenhouse four, Rach--the thief was only after your plants."

Chapter Two

Edward hated chaos, and it surrounded him in greenhouse four--broken pots, torn leaves and potting soil dusting everything. He stood in the midst of the destruction and sighed.

It wasn't actually that bad. He'd discovered the open door before the temperature had dropped too much, and now Rachel's plants were all in greenhouse seven. He was also planning on paying for an evening guard to walk the greenhouses--at least until the person responsible for this was caught.

Detective Carter glanced up from where he surveyed some toppled tables. "It would have been better for me if you'd left the scene as is, Edward."

"Sorry, Detective, but Malaysian basil is extremely sensitive to temperature and humidity. The plants could have died within the hour."

Detective Carter shrugged and went back to taking notes.

"Thanks for convincing Rachel not to come out here tonight, Horatio," Edward said.

The detective shook his head, his thinning red-gold hair glinting dully in the fluorescent light. "She didn't need to see this. She's had a bad night already. How many plants survived?"

"Almost all of them, actually."