“Do you want to?”
“Have anything to do with her? No. Have access to her kitchen? You bet. I can barely fit my largest pan in the oven I have now. The heat isn’t even, it runs hot. Sure, I’m tempted, but this is Pam. I don’t like her and I don’t trust her. Is she setting me up? Did she set Riley up?”
“You know what they say—keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
“Good point. I’m not sure I can work around her, though. She creeps me out.”
“You could overfeed her and make her fat. That would be fun.”
“Ha. She sat in my house with a slice of cake in front of her and didn’t take a bite. That’s just not natural.”
“Agreed. What are you going to do?”
“Look at the kitchen and see if I can be bought. I suspect I can be.”
Jill watched her. “There’s something else. What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing. I…” Gracie shook her head. “Except for seeing you, I’m really sorry I came back. There’s so much family stuff.”
“I feel weird, like I don’t fit in.” She reached for her diet soda. “Makes sense, I know. I’ve been gone forever and Vivian and Alexis grew up without me. We’ve had different life experiences, different memories. Technically, I’m still their sister, but emotionally I don’t think I’m a real member of the family.”
Jill looked distressed. “I don’t think that’s true. They care about you and you care about them.”
“True. Although I’m rapidly losing patience with both of them. Sometime while my back was turned, Alexis turned into a drama queen and Vivian seems to be following in her footsteps.”
Gracie told her about the on-again, off-again wedding. “Vivian’s fighting with Tom every fifteen seconds, apparently Alexis has been crazy, and not in a good way, about what Zeke does with his time since they got married. My mother seems borderline normal, but she came over and read me the riot act after she saw the newspaper picture.”
Gracie didn’t go into detail about what her mother had said—she was still dealing with that herself.
“My life has become complicated.”
“Sounds like.” Jill leaned forward. “What can I do to help?”
“You’re already doing it. Having you to talk to is great. And I’m now officially bored with me being the topic of conversation. What’s going on in your world?”
“Emily is counting the days until school is out. I think there are officially thirty-four, but I would have to check the calendar in the kitchen to be sure. We’re making all kinds of plans for summer, including a trip to Florida to visit my dad. He and Em get along great. I’m not sure which is more exciting to her—a visit with her favorite, and only, grandfather, or a chance to go to Disney World.”
“Ah, tough choice.”
Jill picked up her iced tea, then set it down. She traced a pattern on the brightly colored paper placemat.
“What?” Gracie asked with a smile. “You have a secret you’re dying to spill. I can tell. Come on. You can trust me.”
Jill nodded. “I know. It’s not that, it’s just…” She bit her lower lip, then blushed. “Mac and I are thinking we’ll start trying for a baby.”
Gracie laughed. “Really! That’s so cool. Is there a timetable?”
“We’re going to start this month. I’m excited, but a little nervous.”
“You’ll be a great mom. You’re terrific with Emily.”
“I adore her,” Jill admitted. “But by the time I met her, she had all the basics down. I’m not sure how I’ll handle a baby.”
“Pretty much like every other new mother. With a lot of love, patience and fear.”
“Good point. Mac’s hoping for a boy.”
“I could go with either. So I’m excited and scared, which is an interesting combination.”
Gracie held up her glass. “Congratulations.”
Jill grinned. “I’m not pregnant yet.”
“I know, but you will be. Yeah. I finally get to be an aunt.”
LUNCH WITH Jill had gone a long way to brighten Gracie’s spirits. Even a visit to Pam’s bed-and-breakfast and a fast-paced negotiating session hadn’t upset her mood. She thought about driving directly back to the rental house, but she still had one thing she needed to do, even if she would rather have a root canal.
But it couldn’t be put off much longer, so she drove to the center of town and parked her car on a side street. After locking it, she walked down First Avenue, past the bank building. She eyed the well-kept building, noted the entrance and carefully ignored it.
Over the next five minutes, she paced in front of the bank three times more, trying to gather the courage to actually go inside. She’d been here once before, but this was different. Just when she’d convinced herself to deliver the information by phone, a well-dressed woman in a tweed suit walked out of the bank and directly up to her.
Gracie froze in midstep. Oh, please, oh, please let it not be someone wanting to talk about her, or her past or the newspaper picture.
“I’m Mr. Whitefield’s secretary. He asked me to come out and escort you into his office.”
Gracie winced as she glanced up at the square three-story building. “Let me guess—his office faces this way and he saw me loitering.”
She sighed. Wasn’t that just her life?
She followed Riley’s secretary through the bank and up the elevator to the top floor, where she was shown into a large office dominated by a massive painting of an older gentleman in an uncomfortable-looking suit.
Gracie figured it was safer to keep her attention on the portrait, rather than the man sitting behind the desk in front of her. She pointed.
“Your uncle?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m told I’m a lot like him.”
“That can’t be good.” She gave up on her mini art-appreciation course and looked at Riley. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“I doubt that.”
“I wasn’t stalking or doing anything like that. I was nervous about coming to see you so I was trying to make up my mind.”
“What did you decide?”
“That it would be better if I phoned.”
“You’re here now.”
“I know.” She sank into the leather chair in front of his desk and set her purse on her lap. She dug around inside until she found her travel bottle of antacids, then popped two in her mouth and chewed.
He looked good, she thought mournfully. She didn’t know if it was the elegant suit, the contrast between his dark hair and his white shirt, or the power tie, but he was definitely the man in charge.
“You take a lot of those,” he said, pointing at the small bottle in her hand.
“I have a sensitive stomach. It reacts to stress.”
“Have you seen a doctor about the problem?”
She dropped the bottle back into her purse. “Are you kidding? Any doctor would want to do all kinds of really gross tests. Plus, what if there’s something wrong? I don’t want to know.”
“But then you could get it fixed.”
“Or I could find out I have some horrible, disfiguring disease.”
“How could this be disfiguring?”
“Not a clue, but if it’s possible, it will happen to me.” She set her purse on the floor. “Look, this isn’t why I stopped by. Can I talk about that?”
He leaned back in his chair. “Be my guest.”
“Good.” Although now that she had his attention, she wasn’t sure what to do with it. “I just…” She drew in a deep breath. “I thought….”
He pushed a pad of paper in her direction. “Would it help to write it down?”
“No. Okay. I have a couple of things. First, about my sister. I found out that she tends to exaggerate things. Especially where Zeke is concerned. I’m not sure anything is going on with him.”
“Of course there is.”
She’d expected Riley to be annoyed or accuse her of making the whole thing up, not that he would disagree. “How do you figure?”
“He told me. When I confronted him about what he was doing, he admitted being up to something but swore it had nothing to do with his marriage and that it wasn’t illegal. He said there wasn’t another woman.”
“Oh. Right.” She’d forgotten that. “But the no-affair thing means we don’t have to follow him anymore, right? Or if you want to, that’s fine. I just don’t want to. I hope he’s not sleeping with Pam. That would be too…Yuck. And speaking of Pam, she came to visit me today and offered to rent me her new industrial kitchen in the bed-and-breakfast and even though I really don’t want to be involved in any of this anymore, I figured I could use the kitchen and maybe keep an eye on her. From a distance. Sort of.”
Riley stood and walked around his desk. He might not have understood half of what Gracie said, but he recognized a bruised spirit when he saw one. Someone, somewhere, had done a number on her.
He perched on the edge of the desk close to her chair. “Tell me about Pam.”
“She knows I bake cakes and she offered me her ovens. For a price. I went over and saw the layout. It’s pretty fabulous. So we agreed on rent and I’ll be baking there. I can sort of keep an eye on her.”
“Okay. Sounds like a plan. Who rained on your parade?”
She looked at him. Pain tightened the lines around her mouth and darkened her eyes.
“No one. I’m fine.”
“Gracie, don’t bullshit a bullshitter. Something happened.”
She swallowed. “I just…” She sighed. “My mom came to see me a couple of days ago. She wasn’t happy about the picture in the paper or the article rehashing our past. She said it was going to start up talk again and that me chasing after you when I’d been a teenager had been bad enough, but now it was just pathetic.”
She dropped her chin and stared at the ground. “I was thinking it would better if we didn’t try any more investigating together. You know. So people won’t talk. I can handle a lot of things, but pathetic isn’t one of them. Between being back here and my cake orders and my sisters and everything….”
She wound down like an old-fashioned music box. Riley did his best to avoid emotions—especially those belonging to Gracie, but he could no more ignore what she was going through now than he could have run her over when she’d thrown herself in front of his car fourteen years ago.
He leaned down and grabbed her hands, then pulled her to her feet. Before she could speak, he drew her close and wrapped his arms around her.
“Families will screw you every time,” he murmured into her hair. “Look at what my uncle’s doing to me.”
She shuddered, then rested her forehead on his shoulder. “I never thought that before, and I don’t want to think it now, but maybe you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right.”
That made her chuckle.
As much as he liked holding her close, he let her go and reached up to cup her face in both his hands.
“You’re not pathetic,” he said. “No one thinks you are. If your mom is telling you that, she’s wrong. I don’t know what bug got up her ass, but it’s not your problem. Understand?”
She nodded without speaking. He had a really bad feeling she was seconds from bursting into tears. He tried to be strong, but like every other guy in the universe, he would do just about anything to keep a woman from crying. So he did the only thing he could think of to distract her.