“We’re going to have to start prepping for the debate soon,” Zeke said. “How’s next week?”
“Fine. Have we decided on a format?”
Zeke snorted. “I don’t think the evening is going to be that formal, but I’ll ask.”
“Are you sure helping me won’t interfere with your secret life?”
“I told you. I’m not having an affair.”
“As long as Alexis believes that,” Riley said, just as the doorbell rang.
He placed his beer on the coffee table in front of his chair, then stood and walked into the foyer. Zeke followed. When he opened the front door, he stared at the two women standing there. One made him want to grin. The other made him want to reach for one of Gracie’s antacids.
“It’s for you,” he told Zeke.
“I’M SORRY,” Gracie said for possibly the forty-seventh time in less than two minutes.
“It’s fine,” Riley told her and meant it.
“It’s not fine. It’s terrible. I need to leave you in peace.”
He and Gracie stood together at the far end of the foyer while Zeke and Alexis had a heated, although whispered, conversation.
“I didn’t want to come,” she told him. “Basically she guilted me into it. I’m a complete wiener dog who can be guilted into anything.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.” He could imagine her giving in to a request from a friend or a family member, even when it wasn’t in her best interest.
“He said he was going to be here tonight and she wanted to be sure.”
“I gathered that.”
Gracie stared at the black-and-white tiles. “Did I say I was sorry?”
“You did and you can stop now. None of this is your fault.”
“I know, but I still feel bad. I was really trying to stay out of your way. If you’ll notice, you haven’t seen me in two days. I figured that would be best for both of us.”
He’d noticed. What he wouldn’t admit to anyone and barely wanted to believe himself was that he’d missed her.
“You still getting flack about the newspaper picture?” he asked as he tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“What?” She looked at him, then away. “No. I’ve been avoiding all contact with my family. Pretty much with everyone. I thought this would be a good time to lay low. Then Alexis came looking for me.”
“We’re going to go.”
Riley turned and saw Zeke with his arm around Alexis.
“Maybe we can finish this up tomorrow,” Zeke added.
Alexis looked at her sister. “Gracie, I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
“Sure. Fine. Night.”
The front door closed behind them. Gracie sighed.
“I can’t decide if they’re going home to have makeup sex or fight some more.”
“I don’t want to think about either.”
He wasn’t interested in anyone’s sex life except possibly Gracie’s and his own. Memories of the last kiss they’d shared still lingered and while he knew it would be a damn stupid idea to pursue the matter, his brain wasn’t necessarily in charge.
“You’re being really nice about this,” she said as she gazed at him.
He liked looking at her. He liked her blue eyes and the way the curve of her mouth, or lack of curve, gave away her feelings. He liked how she stared at his earring with equal parts fascination and fear. He liked that she made cakes, loved storms and could be bought for the price of a restaurant-grade oven.
“I’m glad you stopped by,” he said.
“What?” She blinked. “Oh, yeah. Right. Me stopping by. With Alexis.”
Her cheeks turned pink and she dropped her attention back to the floor.
“Well, Alexis is gone and I should probably head out, too.”
He didn’t want her to go. Even though they weren’t going to have sex—despite how much he wanted her—he wasn’t ready to be alone.
He frowned. No, that wasn’t true. He was fine with being alone. He wasn’t ready to be without Gracie. Not yet.
“Want a tour of the old place?” he asked.
Gracie had expected Riley to say a lot of things, from “Get out of my house,” to “Come upstairs with me and let’s get naked.” She hadn’t expected him to want to play tour guide.
While she knew the most sensible course of action would be to leave, she smiled her acceptance.
“I’d love it.”
He put his hand on her shoulder, then slid it under her hair so he cupped the back of her neck.
“This is the foyer,” he said.
“I figured that. The tiles are a giveaway. It’s big.” She glanced up at the elegant, crystal chandelier hanging down from the two-story ceiling. “How do you dust that?”
“Not a clue.”
His fingers moved against her skin, making her even more aware of him. The touching made it difficult to think or speak or do anything but purr and rub against him.
“Living room,” he said pointing to the left with his free hand.
She walked in that direction. He kept pace with her, although he dropped his hand to the small of her back.
Carved double doors led to a large room with hardwood floors and old, but beautiful, Oriental rugs. Old-fashioned furniture filled the space. Heavy velvet draperies covered the windows.
“How dark is this room during the day?” she asked. “Those drapes wouldn’t let in a speck of light.”
“No idea,” he said. “I don’t get in here much.”
Beyond the living room was some kind of parlor, then a bedroom suite with a sitting room and bath.
“For the maid,” Gracie said.
“I have a cleaner who comes in twice a week.”
The massive kitchen hadn’t been remodeled since the 1950s but was big enough to host banquets. Rows and rows of cabinets stretched to the ceiling—some of them fronted by the original leaded glass. There seemed to be about fifty acres of counter space. It was old, chipped tile, but if replaced with granite it would be beautiful. Double sinks stood on both sides of the kitchen and there was a walk-in pantry that would comfortably house a family of four. Talk about heaven.
“This needs some serious fixing up,” she said. “Let me know if you need suggestions. I have been known to spend a whole afternoon drooling over appliance catalogues.”
“I’m more into take-out or heating up something in the microwave.”
She supposed that made sense, what with him being a guy and all, but the possibilities made her envious.
“I can ignore the however-many bedrooms this house has, and the library and the antiques, but the kitchen is tough to walk away from.”
“Make me an offer,” he said.
She leaned against the counter. “I don’t think I have enough in my checkbook.” She tilted her head. “You’re not kidding, are you? You’d sell this place.”
“Sure. It’s not my home.”
“Where is home?”
“Whatever rig I’m on at the moment.” He pulled up a bar stool by the large island and offered it to her. He took the second stool for himself. “I’m used to sleeping in cramped quarters with six other guys working rotating shifts. An oil rig is a twenty-four-hour-a-day operation.”
She couldn’t imagine such a place. “You said something about the South China Sea. How did you get there from here?”
“When I took off, I headed north and ended up in Alaska working on a sports fishing boat. I met a couple of guys in a bar. They were looking to hire a crew for a rig they’d just bought from an oil company. The big guys said there wasn’t any more oil. These two didn’t agree.”
“You went with them just like that?”
He grinned. “For a piece of the action. Lucky for me, they were right. The work is damn hard, but it’s worth it. I learned all I could and took over the second rig they bought for a bigger share. Ten years later I was a partner and we were a company to be reckoned with.”
“Bad boy makes good. You must be proud.”
He shrugged. “It’s how I make my living.”
“But you’re running the bank now.”
“Right. The bank.”
She glanced around at the large kitchen. “This isn’t anything like you’re used to, is it?”
“There’s a lot more square feet. I don’t know. The old house is pretty empty. There are dozens of rooms I’ve never seen.” He rubbed his fingers across the island countertop. “My mom would have liked it, though. She grew up here.”
“Really? I didn’t know that. Why didn’t….”
Gracie pressed her lips together. Not her business, she reminded herself.
Riley looked at her. “You can ask. The reason she and I didn’t come here when we moved back to Los Lobos is that her brother, my uncle, never forgave her for marrying my father. Her parents had passed away when she was pretty young and her brother, Donovan, had raised her. She ran off with my father when she was maybe seventeen. Donovan told her to come back or she would be cut off without a cent. She chose love over money.”
She wanted to say that sounded so romantic, but there was something in Riley’s voice. Something that made her hold back.
“What happened?” she asked.
“She got pregnant and lived in a run-down house in some dusty town in Arizona for ten years. The love of her life never bothered to marry her and one day, when I was nine, he disappeared. We came back here. I think she wanted to reconcile with her brother, but good old Donovan wouldn’t have any part of it.”
His expression tightened and his mouth thinned.
“You can’t forgive that,” Gracie said softly.
“It’s one item in a long list.”
“It all happened a long time ago.”
“But still.” She slipped off the chair and moved close enough that she could rest her hand on his forearm. “I wish I could make it better.”
In a matter of seconds, everything changed. Gone was the wounded guy and in his place was a predator. His eyes darkened, his body tensed and she would swear that the temperature in the room climbed about twelve degrees.
Riley stepped down and reached for her, but instead of pulling her close, he coiled his hand around her hair.
“Not a good idea,” he told her.
She had to swallow before she could speak.
“Um, what’s not a good idea?”
“Making me feel better. You’re not my type.”
He wasn’t pulling her hair, but he wasn’t letting her go, either. She felt completely in his control, which was kind of thrilling.
“So what is your type?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Volunteering?”
“Sure you are. Okay—I like women who are easy. What I call the three F’s.”
“Three F’s?” What? “I can probably figure out one of them,” she said, assuming it had to be the F word. “What are the other two?”
His dark eyes seemed to invite her closer. She felt compelled to move toward him until they were almost touching. Almost, but not quite. Funny how Riley had been so nice to her that she’d forgotten he could also be dangerous.
He leaned into her until he could whisper in her ear. “Are you sure you want to know?” he asked, his breath tickling her.
“Find her, fuck her, forget her.”
“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say or even what to think.
“You’re not someone I could forget,” he murmured. “You’re the kind of woman men buy flowers for, and rings. You’re the kind of woman a man wants to make love with. That’s not my game, Gracie. Never has been.”