“She lives here.”
“No, I mean why is she in Los Lobos? I would have thought she would head out for the big city.”
“I have no idea.” Nor did he care. Pam was firmly in his past and he was happy to keep her there. She’d lied her way into their marriage and as soon as he’d learned the truth, he’d been gone.
“It’s just I don’t know why they even asked me to be at the meeting,” Gracie said as she stared out the side window toward the house. “Obviously my opinions weren’t welcome. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Mom can’t be making that much at the hardware store. I’m sure she owns the house outright, but still.
“Vivian’s acting as if money is no object. A sit-down dinner at the country club? That’s insane.”
Riley didn’t want to ask. He held in the question as long as he could, but it finally escaped. “What are we talking about?”
Gracie sighed. “Nothing. My sister. My younger sister. She’s getting married in a few weeks. That’s why I’m back here. They said they wanted my help. But they don’t. Oh, Vivian wants a wedding cake, though. A big, heavily decorated one. Sure, I’m happy to give her that, but it’s as if she has no idea what she’s asking. We’re talking hundreds of hours. Plus, there’s the whole wedding party. I’m okay with it, but I don’t know why she lied. All she had to do was tell me the truth. So she wants Alexis in the wedding and not me. What do I care?”
Her pain was a tangible creature in the car. Riley wished he was wearing a tie so he could loosen it. Instead he touched her arm.
“It’s okay,” he said, feeling like a complete idiot as he spoke the words. How the hell did he know if it was okay or not?
She turned to him and he saw a hint of tears in her eye. In the glow from the streetlight, she seemed more frail, somehow.
“I’m telling myself I’ll be fine, but so far I know I’m lying. I’m not even a part of this family anymore. She and Alexis are close. That’s okay. I have to accept it. It’s just…” She swallowed hard, then drew in a deep breath and released it. “None of this is my fault. If I’m not a part of things, it’s because my mother sent me away. I never wanted to go.”
He felt both uncomfortable and awkward. Gracie being upset made him want to fix things, which was unfamiliar. But all these feelings—he didn’t like them at all.
“Go where?” he asked.
“After that summer.” She looked at him. “When you found out Pam wasn’t pregnant, you took off. But you weren’t the only one leaving town. I was sent away, too.”
“Right. I remember. To some relatives. Iowa, was it?”
The corners of her mouth turned up in an almost smile. For a second he wanted to move in and kiss one of those corners, which was insane. He leaned back against the door.
“My grandmother’s. I was sent away so I wouldn’t ruin your wedding. But after that, I didn’t come home.” She looked out the front window. “My mother said I had some issues, probably because my dad died when I turned twelve and that’s an impressionable age and you moved in next door and I fixated on you. She said I couldn’t stay in Los Lobos, even after you were gone. That people wouldn’t let me forget what had happened and I deserved a fresh start and maybe some help. So she sent me to live with my aunt and uncle in Torrance.”
She pressed her lips together and blinked several times. “I didn’t want to go. I felt like I was being permanently punished. I know what I did to you was wrong and twisted. I saw somebody, a counselor, for a while. She really helped me put things in perspective. But even after that, my mom said I couldn’t come home. So then I decided to stop wanting to. And now they’ve asked me to come back, and I thought it was because they missed me, but it’s just to do work on the wedding and it’s like losing my family all over again.”
It took him a second to realize she was crying. The tears fell silently down her cheeks. Riley felt a combination of compassion and anger. He knew all about being forced to do something he didn’t want to do. The only reason he’d married Pam fourteen years ago was because his mother had guilted him into it. But he knew that even if he’d refused, she wouldn’t have turned her back on him. At least not for long.
“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling stupid for the useless words.
She nodded, as if she couldn’t speak right then.
Riley reached out a hand toward her, then let it fall on the console. He swore silently, cursed himself for getting into this position in the first place, then leaned forward and pulled Gracie against him.
She resisted at first, then she sagged against him. He’d always thought of her as larger than life, but as he held her he realized she was kind of on the small side.
Her body felt warm against his. Her hands clutched at his shirt and her forehead pressed against his shoulder. He could smell the sweet scent of her body, along with a hint of maybe vanilla from her baking.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered as she trembled. “I’m actually more together than this.”
“I believe you.”
And he did. She’d grown her business from nothing, which meant plenty of hard work and talent on her part.
He rubbed her back and felt the smooth length of her hair brushing against his hand. She shifted and wrapped her arms around his waist. Then she was looking at him with tears in her eyes and her mouth was swollen and the need to kiss her got so big that he—
“Pam,” he said as some movement caught his attention.
“Pam. She just got in her car.”
“Oh. Oh!” Gracie straightened, brushed her checks, then turned to look out the window. “We have to follow her.”
“Already on that.”
He waited until Pam had pulled out and driven down the block before going after her. He nearly caught up with her at the stop sign, then drove more slowly as she headed into town.
“She could be going anywhere,” Gracie said. “I hope she doesn’t get on the freeway. It’s already dark and I don’t think I could take losing her.”
“We won’t lose her. Pam never paid much attention when she was driving. I doubt that has changed. I’m going to stay close enough to keep her in view.”
They drove through Los Lobos, coming out on the ocean side. When Pam pulled into the parking lot of a small motel, Riley pulled up on the street in front of the low, one-story building.
“Why would she come here?” Gracie asked.
Riley just looked at her. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.
“No,” she moaned. “Don’t even think that she’s meeting Zeke here. A motel? It’s tacky. Plus, why couldn’t he just go to her house?”
“His car would be recognized.”
“Oh, right. Because no one will notice it here?”
Gracie had a point. Still, there had to be a reason Pam had gone inside.
“We need to check it out,” he said.
Gracie nodded. They stepped out of the car and moved toward the long, skinny building. He noticed Gracie had her damn camera with her, but he knew better than to suggest she leave it behind.
They moved slowly, cautiously, staying in the shadows and stopping to listen before stepping through the carport to the main office. Pam’s car sat at the far end of the parking lot, but she couldn’t be seen.
“She’s gone into one of the rooms,” Gracie whispered. “We have to find out which one.”
Riley debated going to the manager’s office and bribing the guy into giving them the information. But with him running for mayor, he wasn’t sure that was a good idea.
“We could go look in all the windows,” Gracie said. “A lot of them have open curtains.”
“I’m guessing Pam’s in one where the curtains are closed.”
“Oh. Good point.”
Before they could make a decision, there was a loud pop and all the lights went out. Darkness descended with a suddenness that disoriented.
“Don’t move,” Riley said, instinctively reaching for Gracie’s hand. “We need to get back to the car. Stay close.”
His fingers closed around hers. He felt her other hand on his back.
“Lead on,” she said quietly. “I’ll be…” Her hand tugged his and he heard a thunk. “I’ll just be tripping behind you.”
Despite their pressing need to get out of here, Riley wanted to turn around, pull Gracie close and kiss her until she went boneless. If he hadn’t had a bad feeling about the sudden blackout, he would have given in to the urge. Instead he walked in the general direction of the car.
“It’s through here,” he said and rounded a corner.
Just then the night exploded with a brilliant flash of light. Riley instinctively raised his arm to ward off the attack, only to realize whoever had been there was gone. He heard the sound of someone running, then a car door slammed. All the lights in the complex came on just as the car raced out of the parking lot.
“What was that?” Gracie asked.
“Someone took our picture. What I want to know is who would do it and why.”
“IT WASN’T ME,” Gracie said quickly, waving her Polaroid.
“I know that,” Riley said with a tone of impatience that made her wonder how much she really bugged him. “The flash came from in front of us.”
He frowned, as if considering possibilities, then led the way to the car.
She wondered if he noticed they were still holding hands. She liked the way his fingers laced with hers and how warm and strong he felt. If she was interested in him, this could be a significant development and more than a little thrilling. Except she wasn’t intrigued or thrilled. She was mildly interested in how nice he was to her and occasionally thought of him as good-looking, but that was it.
They drove back to her place. Riley followed her inside without being asked, which could have been another mark in the thrilling column, but, of course, wasn’t.
“I want to know what that was,” he said as they moved into her kitchen and she put on a pot of coffee. “Were we set up? Was it some jerk out for a good time by turning off the lights and taking pictures?”
She pulled out a small cake very much like the one she’d taken to Riley earlier that day only this wasn’t decorated. “Both sound really crazy. How could we be set up?”
“Maybe Pam led us to the motel for a reason. It’s the picture. It has to be. But so what?”
He paced the length of her kitchen and came to a stop in front of the schedule she’d taped up on the wall. “What’s this?” he asked, then read aloud. “Three hundred and sixty point-two dots. Seventy gum paste roses, seventeen small, twenty-three medium, thirty large.”
“What I have to do for a cake I’m making this week.” She walked into the dining room and came back with a large portfolio, then pulled out a sketch of the cake. “It’s really simple. Just three tiers with these little dots scattered and a wreath of roses at the base of each tier. I make all the decorations in advance, even the dots.” She smiled. “To be honest, making the cake is the least of it. All the time is in the decorating.”
“Speaking of your cake,” he said with a smile as he moved toward the one she’d left on the counter. “Are you saving that for a special occasion?”
She grinned. “Knives are in that drawer.” She pointed. “Help yourself.”
She grabbed a couple of plates and two coffee mugs, then pulled out two forks.
“You seem calm,” he said when they both had dessert and coffee and were seated at the small table in the corner.
“About what happened?” she shrugged. “I’m not sure there’s anything to get upset about. The Pam thing is weird, though. Why would she go to a motel in town? I still think she could meet the guy at her house. It was dark. If he pulled into her garage and they shut the door, who would have known he was there?”