He straightened and released her hair. “You should probably go now.”
“What?” Go? Leave? She shook her head and stepped back. “Right. Good idea. Excellent idea.”
She felt like a small bird being charmed by a swaying snake. The side of her brain in charge of personal preservation told her to run. But the rest of her wanted to find out how it would feel to be seduced by the likes of Riley Whitefield.
She stared into his eyes. He was so gorgeous, and a great kisser. Maybe he could just kiss her one more time. Maybe…
“If I start, I’m not going to stop,” he said flatly.
She jumped with the realization that he could read her mind, then turned and dashed out of the kitchen.
The trip home happened in record time. She longed for some quiet and a cup of tea as she sorted through what had just happened. But when she pulled into the driveway of her rental, she saw it was not to be. Vivian stood on her front porch.
“ANOTHER FIGHT with Tom?” Gracie asked as she got out of her car and walked toward the front door.
Vivian actually looked shocked. “How did you guess?”
“Gee, I don’t know. I guess I took a stab in the dark.”
She figured her comment was sarcastic enough, although what she really wanted to say was “I knew something was wrong because the only time you ever bother with me is when you want something.”
Gracie opened the front door and led the way inside. While her rental was light and bright and more than served her needs, she couldn’t help remembering Riley’s amazing house. Ah, well. One day, if she was ever rich and willing to live in Los Lobos again. Of course she figured the odds of the latter happening were even more slim than winning the lottery.
“So,” she said as she filled the kettle with water, then set it on the stove. “What happened?”
Vivian sat at the kitchen table where she immediately poked at several decorative flowers drying there.
She picked up a rose and promptly crumbled it in her fingers.
“Sorry,” she said, and set the bigger pieces back on the table. She rubbed her fingers on her jeans. “It’s Tom, like you said. He’s graduating with his MBA and we’re getting married.”
“I think I knew that,” Gracie said as she pulled out a plastic container filled with loose tea and set it next to two mugs.
“He’s interviewed for a few jobs in L.A. and I thought he was going to take one, but I just found out he’s thinking about accepting a position at the bank.”
There were several banks in town—branches of large multinational conglomerates, but when a local referred to “the bank” there was only one. Riley’s.
“That’s interesting,” Gracie said, wondering if Riley knew. She doubted he worried about entry-level hiring, even in management, so he might not know about Tom.
“It’s not interesting, it’s horrible,” Vivian wailed. “I don’t want to stay here for the rest of my life. I want to leave and see other places. You got to go. Why can’t I? I can’t believe he would consider the job after all we’ve talked about.”
Vivian began to cry. Her sharp, high-pitched sobs competed with the whistle on the kettle and won.
Gracie didn’t bother pointing out that she hadn’t exactly wanted to leave Los Lobos, that instead she’d been sent away in disgrace. After all, Vivian wasn’t looking for logic.
Gracie scooped tea into two steeping spoons and dropped one in each mug. She carried them to the table and sat across from her sister.
“So call off the wedding,” she said, not all that interested in the outcome of the conversation.
Vivian dropped her hands to her side and stared at her. “What?”
“Call off the wedding. If you’re so unhappy, don’t marry Tom.”
“But I have to marry him. We’re engaged. We’ve ordered invitations. Do you know how much this is costing?”
Gracie had a good idea. “You’re still at the deposit stage. Most of it is refundable.”
Vivian looked at her as if she were a complete idiot. “I’m not canceling the wedding.”
“Then you need to talk to Tom about his plans. His job is about more than just him if it affects where you live.”
Her sister shrugged, then touched one of the roses. “Will you make flowers like this for my cake?”
“If you’d like. I haven’t decided. I’ll sketch up something in the next couple of days.”
“They’re really beautiful. You must be super talented.”
“I work hard.”
Vivian sipped her tea. “Tom says I don’t work hard enough. He says we both have to be saving to buy a house, but right now I’m saving to pay for my wedding dress. Teaching just doesn’t pay that much, which is why I’m working part-time in the hardware store.” She sighed as if life were too much for her.
“Would you teach if you moved to L.A.?” Gracie asked.
“I guess I’d have to. But if Tom got a good enough job, I could just stay home.”
“You’re going to start a family right away?”
“No. What does that have to do with anything?”
Gracie didn’t have an answer for that. In her world, husband and wife were partners, pulling equally toward a mutual goal. Obviously that wasn’t Vivian’s idea of a good time.
Maybe Gracie was old-fashioned and outdated. Maybe that was why Vivian and Alexis had men in their lives and she didn’t.
“I’m not the right person to come to for advice,” Gracie said.
“I guess I need to talk to one of my friends, then,” Vivian said. “Mom is completely crazed about the wedding and Alexis is so self-absorbed she can’t see anyone else but herself.” Her baby sister leaned close. “You’re not like that, Gracie. You think about other people.”
Gracie didn’t know what to say. “Gee, thanks. I’m so glad you think so.”
“I do.” Vivian patted her arm, then stood. “I gotta run. I still don’t have the shoes to go with my dress and I’m going into Santa Barbara to check out that new bridal shop. Don’t forget the family meeting tomorrow. We have a lot to discuss. Have a good one.”
She practically bounced out of the room.
Gracie collected the mugs and carried them to the sink.
What had just happened? How could Vivian go from fighting with Tom to shopping for their wedding in less than five minutes? Gracie might not be an expert on the subject, but she was willing to go out on a limb and say the girl wasn’t grown-up enough to be marrying anyone.
Not that it was her decision.
She returned to the table and carefully moved the flowers, then pulled out her sketch pad. She might as well get the cake design done. Even if the constant on-again, off-again wedding ended up being officially off, she could always put the design in her portfolio.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON Gracie drove to her mother’s house. She had sketches for several wedding cakes, along with some ideas about pretty but inexpensive centerpieces. As she pulled up in front of the house, she wondered if she was trying too hard. Should she continue to participate, even when it was clear she was only free labor, or should she walk away? Riley had said that family would screw her every time, but she didn’t want to believe it. With her aunt and uncle gone, her mom and her sisters were all the family she had. If she didn’t belong with them, she would be well and truly on her own.
She collected her portfolio and stepped out of the car. She’d barely started up the walkway when she heard someone call her name.
“Gracie! Oh, Gracie!” Eunice Baxter walked off her porch with a speed that belied her eighty-plus years. “I saw the picture in the paper the other day.”
Gracie’s shoulders slumped. Of course she had. “Hi, Mrs. Baxter.”
The old woman beamed. “You looked so pretty. And Riley, my oh my, he’s a fine male specimen. That earring.” The beam turned into a giggle. “Very sexy.”
Gracie blinked. Mrs. Baxter thought Riley was sexy? Gracie didn’t know if she should be impressed or completely grossed out. She figured she could decide later, and maybe use the information for ammunition.
“Are you going to listen to him talk?” Mrs. Baxter asked. “I’m thinking I will. Maybe go early and sit in the front row.” She winked. “That way I can look all I want.”
“He’s speaking somewhere?”
“At the high school later this afternoon. Something about civic responsibility, not that I care about what he’s saying. I generally vote for whoever is most attractive, and I have to say that Riley beats Franklin Yardley hands down.”
Gracie didn’t want to think about Eunice Baxter participating in their democratic system of government by voting based on looks, but there it was. The founding fathers would be so proud.
“You should stop by,” the older woman told her, then winked.
Gracie was tempted, although the reality of her showing up in the same place as Riley wasn’t something she wanted to consider. Talk about trouble.
“Thanks for the information,” she said and turned back to the house. “I need to get these designs for the cake to my sister.”
“That girl,” Mrs. Baxter said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “She and her boyfriend go at it like cats and dogs. I don’t give them a year. Alexis isn’t much better. Mark my words, Gracie, you’re the best of the lot.”
The compliment brightened Gracie’s morning. “I appreciate that, Mrs. Baxter.” Even if right now she didn’t feel all that special. She waved and hurried into the house.
Fifteen minutes later she was sorry she’d bothered. Vivian dismissed all her centerpiece ideas, saying they were too unimpressive and not one of the three cake designs had been approved.
“I like them,” Tom said. “They’re all beautiful.”
Obviously the bride and groom had made up, Gracie thought, liking Tom even more for liking her designs.
Vivian looked at him and rolled her eyes. “Honey, this is girl stuff. I know you want to be involved in the wedding, but I’ve been planning this since I was six.”
Gracie looked at Tom. He met her gaze and shrugged, as if to say, “I tried.”
Gracie felt more than a little sympathy for the man. If he really wanted to marry Vivian, he was going to have his hands full.
“The cakes are just so…I don’t know. Small, I guess,” Vivian said with a sigh as she touched the pages spread across the dining room table.
“These aren’t to scale,” Gracie told her, speaking between clenched teeth. “They’ll serve three hundred.”
Vivian pointed to a simple, but elegant design, with a cascade of orchids trailing down one side. “What if it was more like this, but all covered with flowers. Like a giant bouquet.”
“It’s not very defined. You want your guests to know there’s a cake buried under there.”
“Do they have to?”
“I like the one that looks like a present,” Alexis said, bending over the sketches. “What if there were flowers instead of bows?”
“I could do that,” Gracie said, reaching for her bottle of antacids.
She walked into the kitchen for a glass of water. Her mother followed.
“I’m sure Vivian will pick something,” she said. “I’m glad Tom wants to help.”
Gracie nodded and turned on the tap.
“It’s nice of you to do this for free. I read that article in People. I know your cakes are really expensive.”
Gracie felt some of her bad mood drain way. She smiled at her mother. “She’s my sister. I’m happy to help.”
“So we’re both running our own businesses. Who would have thought.”