He held up a hand before she could get on a roll. “Spare me the lecture on the needy children and how they could all be saved.”
Her response was a disapproving sniff. Chances were he had not won the heart or vote of the fair Diane.
“Thanks for bringing me this,” he said and set the folder on the desk.
She turned to leave, but he called her back before she could.
“I have a question,” he told her. “I would like you to be honest with me.”
She nodded regally. “I always am.”
“Good. Did you enjoy working for my uncle?”
“He was a fair employer.”
“Did you like him?”
Her gaze narrowed. “Liking or not liking isn’t part of my job.”
“Agreed, but you still have feelings and opinions. What did you think of him?”
“That you’re more like him than you think.”
It was the second time someone had said that to him in the past week, and Riley didn’t like hearing it this time any more than he had before.
GRACIE RETURNED to her rental house to find her cell phone on the table, where she’d accidentally left it. There was one message, which she listened to.
“Hi, Gracie. It’s Melissa Morgan from the Los Lobos Heritage Society. I’d really like to talk to you. Give me a call.”
The woman left her number, which Gracie reluctantly wrote down, before calling her back. Melissa Morgan had sounded far too chipper in her message and Gracie didn’t trust that for a second.
The woman picked up on the first ring and Gracie identified herself.
“Oh, you’re a doll for calling me back,” Melissa said in one of those high-pitched voices that could easily crack glass. “Here’s the thing. We all know your mom and have heard about your little cake-baking business and we were thinking it would just be so incredibly sweet if you made our cake for us. She suggested it, actually. We’re having a fund-raiser for the Historical Society. The old Strathern place has been completely redone, back to its original elegance. You know the Stratherns, don’t you. The judge and his daughter Jill. Of course she’s Jill Kendrick now that she’s married the sheriff and all. What a beautiful wedding they had. Anyway, about the cake. We were thinking something simple to serve about three hundred. How many sheet cakes would that be?”
Gracie felt her chest tighten in sympathy. The woman had barely stopped for breath. Then the reality of what she’d said sunk in. No, no, no. She didn’t want to do this. Yuck.
“You want sheet cakes?” she asked, hoping she didn’t sound as horrified as she felt. “You know I make wedding cakes, right?”
“Oh, sure. That’s what your mom said. But a little round cake wouldn’t serve very many, would it?”
A little round cake? Gracie thought about pounding her head against the wall until she caused enough brain damage to create amnesia. Wouldn’t it be great if she forgot this entire town existed? Because saying no wasn’t an option.
“I can do something a little nicer than a sheet cake and still serve three hundred,” she said. “Why don’t you let me work up some sketches.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” Melissa said. “Just something simple and yummy.” There was a slight pause. “Did you want us to pay you for this? Your mom said you wouldn’t and we don’t want to be rude or anything, but our budget is kind of tight.”
Of course it was, Gracie thought, eyeing the wall. Her mother might be disappointed by her Gracie’s behavior, but she thought nothing of volunteering her daughter’s time and energy. “Don’t worry. It will be my contribution.”
She would keep detailed records of her supplies and more importantly, her time, then submit it as a charitable deduction on her taxes.
“Aren’t you just the sweetest thing. The event is Sunday, June 5th. Oh, that’s only a couple of days before the election.” Melissa laughed. “I know this was ages ago and your mom really doesn’t like anyone talking about it, but I have to tell you that I was in Riley’s grade in high school. We all got a real kick out of some of the things you did. You sure knew how to get your man.”
Gracie was grateful not to have to fake a smile. She thought about pointing out that she’d never in fact gotten her man and that she’d probably emotionally scarred him for life.
Instead she made a few polite noises and quickly got off the phone.
“I have to kill myself now,” she murmured when she’d dropped her cell into her purse.
Instead of reaching for a sharp knife, she crossed to her baking schedule and figured out how, exactly, she was going to squeeze in a cake for three hundred right in the middle of wedding season. Despite Melissa’s desire for a sheet cake, Gracie simply couldn’t do that. She would have to come up with a simple, yet elegant design that would….
Someone knocked on her front door. Gracie glanced over her shoulder and thought about not answering it, but with her luck, the person in question wouldn’t go away.
She braced herself for another attack from a family member or an adorable child asking her to bake something for the local orphanage and pulled open the door.
It was worse than she’d imagined.
Fourteen years ago Gracie’s one goal in her small, teenaged life had been to get Riley to notice her. She hadn’t liked it when he’d dated all kinds of girls, but she consoled herself with the fact that no one had ever caught his attention. Until Pam. Once he’d started going out with that beautiful, blond cheerleader, he’d stopped dating the masses. Gracie had been crushed and had launched her campaign to keep the young lovers apart.
Obviously their getting married had proved how unsuccessful that campaign had been. Their divorce a few months later had been too little, too late.
Since then she’d done all that she could to put her past behind her. So coming face-to-face with it now didn’t make her want to hula for joy.
“Wow! Gracie. Hi!” Pam Whitefield grinned like a Cheshire cat. “You look great. Welcome back to Los Lobos. How are you?”
Pam’s obvious delight and bright, cheery voice made Gracie want to turn around and see who stood behind her, because there was no way Pam could have all this enthusiasm for her.
“Uh, Pam. Hi.”
“Can I come in?” Pam asked, breezing past her and walking into the small living room. “How have you been? Oh, I saw that article in People magazine and I was just thrilled for you. You’re famous. Isn’t that fabulous?”
“I was excited.”
Gracie spent her life in the kitchen and she dressed casually—khakis, polo shirts, comfortable shoes. Pam was four years older, but didn’t look it. Her elegant tailored slacks fit her in such a way that she seemed to be about as big around as a pencil. A silk sweater clung to a narrow waist and slightly oversized breasts.
Gracie fit right in with the California cliché of a blue-eyed blonde, but compared with Pam’s gleaming hair and perfectly made-up face, she was positively dull. Pam’s short blond hair moved with the easy elegance of a movie star’s. There wasn’t a wrinkle anywhere—not on her face or her outfit—and her shoes screamed designer. If Pam was the ideal, then Gracie fell right in line to be the cautionary tale.
As Gracie had spent enough of the past two days feeling badly about herself, she decided the best way to break the mood was to get Pam the hell out of here.
“So you stopped by why?” she asked with a smile, trying not to think that there was a very small chance this woman was having an affair with her brother-in-law. Gracie still didn’t completely believe Alexis, but she couldn’t dismiss the fact that Zeke had lied about where he was and had disappeared for long periods of time with no explanation.
“I have a proposition for you. I know you probably have dozens and dozens of cakes to bake. I know you’re just back for a few weeks and I thought….” Pam squeezed her Coach bag and shrugged. “It’s a long story.”
It was the cue to invite her to sit down and serve refreshments. Gracie resisted as long as she could before motioning to the sofa and excusing herself so she could dash into the kitchen and rustle up a slice of cake and some diet soda.
“I’m going to be opening a bed-and-breakfast in a few weeks,” Pam said. “I had to do a lot of remodeling, which is nearing completion. I started with the kitchen and it’s finished now. Not that I have any use for it. So I was thinking, if you want to come out and take a look at it, that would be great.”
Gracie stared at her. “Why would I be interested in your kitchen?”
Pam, who had only moved crumbs around on her plate and had yet to take a bite, laughed. “Oh, silly me. I didn’t get to the proposition part. I want you to rent my kitchen. I have two industrial ovens and plenty of counter space. With all the cakes you have to bake, I thought you might be interested. I won’t be opening until after your sister’s wedding, so you could have the run of the place at all hours.”
Gracie’s first thought was to ask how Pam knew about Vivian’s on-again, off-again wedding. Then she remembered this was Los Lobos, where everybody knew every little thing about everyone else.
Her second thought was complete oven-envy at the thought of new large appliances that didn’t cook hot and never quite got the left side of the cake exactly right without her turning the pan every ten minutes.
“How much do you want?” she asked.
“Why don’t you come take a look and if you’re interested, we can negotiate terms.”
Pam smiled with just the right amount of casualness, as if willing Gracie to trust her. Gracie didn’t trust anyone who wouldn’t even take a bite of her cake. Okay, yes, there were calories, but a taste wouldn’t hurt. Still, new ovens and a chance to keep a close eye on Pam really tempted her.
“I’d like to take a look,” she said. “What time is good for you?”
“I’M SURE there’s an explanation,” Jill said as she slid into the booth at Bill’s Mexican Grill.
“For almost everything except those magic twenty numbers they’re always talking about in string theory, and why socks can escape from the dryer,” Gracie told her.
“I was actually talking about this.”
Her friend put a copy of the newspaper on the table.
“Oh, that,” Gracie said. “I wondered why I didn’t hear from you when it came out.”
“I thought you might be flooded with well-wishers.” Jill raised her eyebrows. “Please tell me you weren’t in a motel with Riley Whitefield.”
“We weren’t technically in anything except their parking lot. You can see from the photo that we’re clearly outside.”
“You know what I mean.”
“It’s complicated.” Just like her life.
“I don’t have any appointments until three,” Jill said, leaning back in the booth. “I had Tina clear my calendar.”
Gracie quickly filled Jill in on the ill-fated attempt to follow Pam.
“So you followed Pam and the guy with the camera followed you,” Jill said after they’d placed their order. “Who sent him?”
“No idea. I want to say Pam because I never liked her, but why would she care? The mayor, of course. If he’s trying to discredit Riley in the election by stirring up the past. But how would the mayor know where we were going to be or that we’d be doing something photo-worthy? It’s so confusing. To complicate the situation, Pam came to see me.”
Jill paused in the act of picking up a chip. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope. She wants to rent me her kitchen in the new bed-and-breakfast she’s building or refurbishing. I can’t remember which. I’m supposed to go see her this afternoon. She says she has professional-grade appliances and I can rent from her while I’m here.”