FRANKLIN YARDLEY enjoyed his mornings. The quiet, the perfect cup of coffee and the fact that his wife, Sandra, rarely came downstairs before ten.
This morning, however, had been particularly invigorating. The picture on the front page of the paper had put a bounce in his step.
“Good morning,” Holly said as he entered the reception area outside of his office.
She rose, took his coat and briefcase, then followed him into his office where a fresh pot of coffee awaited.
“Did you see the paper?” he asked.
“Yes. What was Whitefield up to? I read the whole article,” she said. “Gracie Landon was one scary teenager.”
“I know.” Franklin rubbed his hands together. “An odd girl. But she very well may turn out to be an unexpected asset. With the ‘Gracie Chronicles’ reprinted, everyone will want to take her side in whatever happens with Riley.”
Holly frowned. “She sounds mentally unstable.”
“It doesn’t matter. She’s recently returned to town, she and Riley have become an item. I’m going to have to think how to use this to my advantage.”
He settled into his custom-made leather chair. Holly perched on the desk, the skirt of her navy suit sliding up to the top of her thigh. He allowed himself a moment of distraction as he rubbed his hand against her smooth, young, warm skin.
“Lunch?” he asked.
“I’d like that.”
So would he. Not that either of them would be having a meal.
She picked up the paper. “If this Gracie person had a thing for him and she’s a legend, does that mean people won’t like him if he isn’t interested in her?”
Franklin leaned back in his chair and let the moment of contentment wash over him. Of course. It could be just that simple.
“You’re even more intelligent than you are beautiful,” he said sincerely. “I’m a lucky man.”
“You can use that?”
“Absolutely. I can challenge Riley Whitefield to a debate and insist we discuss the family values that are so important to the good citizens of this town.”
GRACIE SLID the cake into the oven and set the timer. She’d barely begun collecting her dirty utensils when she heard someone knocking on the front door.
Her hormones immediately sent up a “yes” vote for it to be Riley. Most of her body agreed. But the sensible part of Gracie’s brain knew that seeing him again so quickly after last night would be nothing but a mistake. She needed time to come to terms with what had happened. She needed to put it behind her, to focus on her future and not on a dark, handsome, former bad-boy who made her toes curl.
Fortunately, when she opened the door, she realized that worrying about Riley wasn’t going to be a problem. Unfortunately, the visitor was her mother.
Lily Landon stood on the wrong side of fifty, but she had great genes and a fabulous hairdresser who kept the gray at bay. She worked hard and worried, which showed around her eyes, but the rest of her could easily pass for a much younger woman. Gracie thought about mentioning how great her mother looked in her trim jeans and brightly colored T-shirt, but the other woman’s forbidding expression told her to keep her compliments to herself.
“Grace Amelia Louise Landon, how could you?” her mother asked as she stomped into the house. “I’m speechless. I’ve had the entire morning to figure out what I was going to say to you and I still can’t think of a single thing.”
Gracie hated the disappointment in her mother’s voice more than the actual words themselves. She was still feeling frail about the whole not-being-asked-to-be-in-the-wedding thing and she didn’t need this.
“It’s not what it looks like,” she said, knowing it sounded totally feeble.
“I see. You weren’t sneaking around at some motel last night with Riley Whitefield.”
Gracie closed the front door and led the way to the kitchen. “We were, but it was because of Alexis. Have you talked to her? She’s convinced Zeke is having an affair with Pam and asked me to help find out if it’s true.”
“What does that have to do with anything? Alexis has been crazy about what Zeke does with his time since they got married. So don’t use that as an excuse.”
“But I…She didn’t…” Gracie felt like a fish gasping on a dock. “Are you saying Alexis made it up?”
Her mother dismissed the question with an impatient shrug. “I don’t know. She’s always been overly concerned. Zeke adores her, although sometimes I question how he can stand her, what with her dramatic proclamations.”
Gracie sank into the nearest chair and tried to take it all in. This couldn’t be true, could it? “I’ve been running around like a crazy person in a misguided attempt to help my sister and you’re informing me that she’s making the whole thing up?”
“That isn’t my point.”
“Maybe not, but it’s mine. The picture in the paper, trying to follow Zeke….” If this was her new life, she wanted a chance to exchange it for someone else’s. She clutched her suddenly churning stomach. “Riley’s going to kill me when he finds this out.”
“He’d better find it out from someone else.”
Her mother glared at her. “It’s been fourteen years. I had hoped with all the time away and some therapy that you’d get over him. Obviously that hasn’t happened.”
The unfairness of the accusation cut Gracie like a knife. “That’s not true. I’m not chasing around after Riley.”
Her mother pointed at the newspaper on the counter. “All evidence to the contrary. You never had any sense where he was concerned. It was bad enough we had to send you away so he and Pam could have a normal wedding without anyone worrying that you would somehow destroy it. But that wasn’t the worst of it. You were all anyone talked about for weeks. You were a joke. That’s why I sent you away. The newspaper isn’t helping by reprinting those old stories. Do you want to have to go through that again? Haven’t you learned anything?”
Gracie felt small and broken. She wanted to curl up and disappear. Instead she stood and reached for her bottle of Tums.
“I’ve changed,” she said quietly. “If you’d spent any time with me in the past fourteen years, you would know that. Of course if I’d grown up here, I would have known that Alexis is a drama queen and not fallen in with her plans.”
Her mother’s gaze narrowed. “I see. Now it’s my fault. That’s just so typical. When in doubt, blame the mother. I did what I did for you. Not that I expect any gratitude. That would be too much, I know. But maybe, just maybe you can have a little compassion for my position in town here. Do you know what it’s like to go to the store day after day and listen to my customers making fun of my daughter? It’s humiliating.”
Lily turned and walked toward the front door. “I mean it, Gracie. Stay away from Riley. Give the poor man a chance to live his life without you always getting in the way. It was sad enough when you were fourteen, but now it’s just pathetic.”
GRACIE WENT TO BED. It seemed the safest place. So for two days she didn’t get dressed, shower or even answer her phone. Aside from the occasional scoop of tuna salad and using the bathroom, the only time she got up was to pack up the wedding cake she’d just finished for the delivery guy late Thursday.
But on Friday morning, she couldn’t stand herself anymore. Self-pity had never been all that interesting and she’d just put in her limit for the decade. So she cleaned up, ate a good breakfast and headed out to the brightly painted offices of Dr. Rhonda Fleming, DDS.
Dr. Fleming specialized in pediatric dentistry, so the waiting room was filled with several anxious children and their reassuring moms. Gracie ignored them, the underwater mural and the shiny copies of Sports Illustrated for Kids. She walked to the reception desk and asked to speak to her sister.
Two minutes later she’d been shown back into Alexis’s tiny office where she spent her days battling with insurance companies and assuring coproviders that little Johnny did indeed need braces.
“What’s up?” Alexis asked.
Gracie studied her sister’s face looking for similarities and differences. At one time she and Alexis had been the close sisters. Vivian had seemed young and not very bright, so the two older girls had always played. But after Gracie left, that had changed. Somewhere along the way, she’d become the odd one out.
“I spoke with Mom a couple of days ago,” Gracie said, doing her best not to remember how horrible and humiliated she’d felt after that visit.
“She’s really fried about that newspaper picture,” Alexis said. “Honestly, Gracie, it was really stupid of you to get caught.”
Gracie held on to her temper with all her will and did her best not to lose track of her purpose for being here.
“Let’s not talk about that right now. What interests me is that Mom told me you’ve always been high-strung where Zeke is concerned. That you’ve been worried about him having an affair for years when, in fact, he adores you.”
She watched emotions skitter across her sister’s face, as if Alexis couldn’t decide what to say.
“I’m tired,” Gracie said. “So far my visit back here makes me wish I was an orphan. Just tell me the truth.”
Alexis pressed her lips together. “There are some charges on e-Bay, and I did see him with Pam.”
“There could be another woman. He’s always gone and—”
Gracie grabbed her sister’s arm. “Dammit, Alexis, be straight with me. Were you just off having a tantrum?”
“Of course not.”
Her sister tugged free and folded her arms over her chest. “Okay. Maybe sometimes I sort of overreact, but not this time.”
Gracie groaned. “Great.”
“I mean it. I really think there’s somebody else.”
Gracie stood. “Whatever. I’m not going to help you anymore. Don’t ask me, don’t even hint at it. If you have a problem with your husband, take it up with him and leave me out of it.”
Alexis sniffed. “You’re my sister. I would think you’d be more understanding.”
“Then you’d be wrong.”
ONE OF THE BEST parts of being the boss was that nobody screwed with him. Riley knew he could walk through the bank without hearing a whisper directed at him. He figured all his employees were having a field day with the newspaper picture behind his back, but he didn’t care about that. As long as they didn’t say anything to his face, he was fine.
The one person who might have the balls to confront him hadn’t said a word in the past two days. But when Diane appeared in his office late that morning, he wondered if his good fortune had run out.
“Good news or bad news?” he asked, pointing at the folder in her hand.
“I’m not in a position to claim either,” she said. “Zeke Bridges sent this over. Mayor Yardley is challenging you to a debate.”
“Really? Could be fun.” Riley took the folder and flipped through the contents. He scanned the mayor’s press release.
“Mayor Yardley thinks we should discuss the issues, along with the morals so near and dear to the hearts of our citizens.”
Respectability. Why was that always at the center of everything?
He looked at his secretary, taking in her stern expression and unyielding posture.
“Think I have a chance?” he asked.
“People around here would like you more if you’d donate the money for the new children’s wing for the hospital.”
He grinned. “You don’t give up, do you?”
“Not when it’s this important.”