Gracie wasn’t sure where her mother was going with this conversation. She wanted to believe that it was a slightly awkward peace offering, but she wasn’t sure.
“I think yours is more complicated than mine,” Gracie said. “You have employees and inventory, while I just have myself to worry about.”
“Still, you’ve made something of yourself. I’m not sure I understand how you can be so smart about everything else and so dumb about Riley.”
The arrow sailed straight and true, landing right in Gracie’s heart. She almost wasn’t surprised. “It’s probably best if we don’t talk about him. We’re going to have to agree to disagree.”
Her mother moved closer. “You’re not even trying. That’s what doesn’t make any sense. Your sister said you were over there last night.”
Gracie felt her mouth drop open. “Did Alexis mention she begged me to go with her so she could check on what Zeke was up to?”
Her mother ignored that. “Gracie, I only want what’s best for you. That’s what I’ve always wanted. I wish I could make you see what you’re doing. The whole town is laughing at you.”
“You know what, Mom? I think you’re wrong. I think the whole town is so busy with their own lives that they don’t have time for me. It’s been fourteen years and everyone needs to get over it.”
“You’re the one who can’t let go. You’ve never had any sense when it came to that boy.”
Gracie put down the water and crossed her arms over her chest. “Number one, he’s not a boy anymore. He’s a very successful man who’s made something of himself. I didn’t know him before, but I know him now. He’s great. He’s better than great. He’s amazing. He’s smart and sexy and fun to be with.”
Her mother flinched. “Oh, God. It’s worse than I thought.”
“It’s not anything,” Gracie told her flatly. “That’s my point. You’re upset about nothing. I’m not obsessed with Riley. I’m a completely different person. I’ve grown up, gotten a life. I’ve dated, had boyfriends and lovers and two years ago, I nearly got engaged. If anyone is lost in the past in this room, it’s you, not me.”
“You can’t see what’s happening,” her mother said, obviously distressed. “I don’t know how to help you.”
“Here’s a newsflash. I don’t need your help. Maybe I did, say fourteen years ago, but you weren’t interested. You sent me away. You were never there for me, even when I begged you to let me come home. You never cared about what I wanted, what I needed. I was desperate to be allowed to return to my family and you turned your back on me. So I got over it. I grew up, no thanks to you. So guess what? I don’t really care what you think about me or Riley or anyone else. The three of you asked me to come back for Vivian’s wedding. I said I would help and I will, but when this is all over, I’m leaving and I’m not coming back.”
Gracie walked out of the kitchen and back into the dining room.
“I think I know what I want,” Vivian said.
“Draw me a picture,” Gracie said as she grabbed her purse.
“Where are you going? Wait. I need to talk to you. I’ll tell you what I want and you can draw it. Gracie! Wait!”
But Gracie didn’t look back. She walked to her car, started it and drove away. Her heart pounded so hard she was afraid it would break. She felt shaky and sore, as if she’d just been run over.
Ever since she’d moved in with her aunt and uncle, she’d fantasized about what it would be like to come home. She’d waited and waited for her mother to call and say it had all been a mistake—that of course she was welcome to return. But the call had never come and eventually Gracie had stopped expecting it.
In time she’d told herself she’d stopped caring. She’d never come home for the holidays, instead meeting her family in L.A. or somewhere else. It had become a tradition.
Now Gracie wondered if the real reason she’d avoided Los Lobos, was the possibility of disappointment. If she came back, she would have to face what had happened. There wouldn’t be any room to hide.
Now that she was in the thick of it, she knew that staying away had been a fine idea.
She stopped at the red light and considered what to do next. There were several possibilities, including packing up her stuff and returning to L.A.
“I’m not going to run away,” she told herself, trying to sound fierce rather than broken.
She thought about going back to her rental house, but she didn’t want to be there, either. In the end, she found herself parking at the high school and walking into the auditorium to hear what Riley Whitefield had to say about civic responsibility and maybe join Eunice Baxter in ogling his earring.
INSTEAD OF HEADING for the front row, Gracie slipped in a side entrance and headed for a back corner. While she might want to convince her mother that no one in the town really cared what she did with her life or with Riley, she wasn’t willing to put that theory to the test.
She sat low in her seat and did her best to avoid eye contact. The strategy seemed to work and she didn’t even get a second look.
Thirty minutes later she found herself actually hanging on Riley’s every word. He spoke about the town and how each citizen was responsible for the direction it would go. How everyone could be an example, by supporting local businesses instead of chain stores, and throwing away trash instead of leaving it on the beach. He talked about how the tourists provided necessary income, but that they could not be allowed to define what the town would be.
Gracie found herself caught up in his words and actually wanting to get involved. She sat up straighter and applauded with her neighbors…right up until she heard someone whisper, “Is that Gracie Landon? The girl from the newspaper?”
She glanced around and saw several people looking in her direction. Wives nudged their husbands. Older people leaned in to neighbors, then turned back to her.
Gracie felt trapped and in the spotlight. Should she run out of the auditorium? Pretend she didn’t notice? Smile and wave?
Riley wrapped up his speech before she could decide and everyone stood to applaud. As the meeting broke up, Gracie tried to duck out a side door, but the crowd carried her down to the stage where she found herself in line to shake hands with the man himself. They were face-to-face before she could slip away.
“I shouldn’t have come,” she said when he turned to her and raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t think anyone would notice.”
“You’re welcome, as long as you promise to vote for me.”
“I’m not registered in this county.”
“We could change that.”
She was aware of several interested listeners moving close enough to overhear every word. She knew people would talk and report back to her mother. Maybe some of them were even silently laughing. But in her heart, at that second, she didn’t care.
“I liked what you had to say,” she told him honestly. “You’re right about the local citizens defining what Los Lobos will be rather than letting the tourists do it.”
She tried to figure out what he was thinking, but she couldn’t. Not with so many people trying to get his attention. She excused herself and stepped away, only to run into Zeke.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Listening to your candidate.”
Her brother-in-law was a good-looking guy with an easy smile. He seemed nice and funny and she understood why Alexis had married him.
Zeke glanced around. “You’re making a bit of a splash. We should probably get you out of the way, so folks will concentrate on Riley and the campaign rather than your legendary past.”
She allowed him to lead her out a side door and into the parking lot. Gracie told herself none of this was her business, but she couldn’t help grabbing his arm before he went back inside.
“Why won’t you tell Alexis what you’re up to? She’s making everyone crazy with her concerns, and I’m guessing you’re getting the worst of it.”
“I’m not doing anything wrong.”
“But you are doing something.”
“Why is this your business?” he asked.
Gracie stared at him. “You’re kidding, right? Your wife has had me following you around town, sneaking around, taking pictures and showing up where I’m not wanted, just to find out what you’re up to.”
Zeke shuffled his feet. “Okay. Fair point. The thing is—” He shrugged, then turned away. “I’m not doing anything bad. I’m not cheating on her or trying to leave, or spending money or any of that. I just need a little more time. I swear I’ll tell her soon.”
It wasn’t good enough, but it would have to do. “I can’t make you tell me,” she admitted. “I wish I could.”
“Your sister is a little high-strung. I’m not saying I haven’t been acting weird in the past few weeks, but before that if I took an extra five minutes at the grocery store, she was convinced I’d run off with a checker.”
Not exactly Gracie’s idea of perfect happiness. “Does that worry come from her or from you?”
“I haven’t a clue. Honestly, I love your sister more than anything. She’s crazy, but she’s also sweet and caring and never boring. You know.”
His warm smile made Gracie feel better about the situation, even if his words made her uncomfortable. She didn’t know what Alexis was like. Not really.
“I gotta run and take care of my candidate,” Zeke said. He bent down and kissed her cheek. “Thanks.”
She wasn’t sure what he was thanking her for. She stared after him as she thought about all he’d said about her sister.
The sense of having lost her family was still there, but for the first time she considered that while she’d been sent away against her will, she had chosen to stay away. She could have come back, if she’d wanted to. Yes, she’d felt rejected by her family, but it wasn’t as if she’d bothered to reach out overly much.
Something to consider.
THE NEXT MORNING Gracie collected her various ingredients, baking pans and other supplies, loaded up her car and drove up to the bed-and-breakfast on the bluff.
She remembered this old place from when she’d been a kid. Rumors of an alien landing some time in the 1950s had made the location both irresistible and terrifying. Some of the high school kids used the place as a make-out point, while the younger ones tested their bravery by being willing to run up to the front door and knock.
In her youth, Gracie had made it all the way to the porch, which had been pretty darned impressive. Now she parked in back with the expectation of actually stepping inside and working. Aliens be damned, she had cakes to bake.
She knocked once as a courtesy, then used the key Pam had given her to let herself in.
As it had when she’d first seen the kitchen, her heart fluttered with all the foolishness of young love. This time, however, it wasn’t a man who got her blood to racing. Instead it was gleaming stainless steel appliances, yards and yards of counter space and big windows that let the morning light spill in.
Gracie mixed up her first cake batch and carefully poured everything into the pans. She added the heating core to the larger pans and slid them into the waiting oven.
As she set the timer, she heard another car pull up next to hers and looked out in time to see Pam stepping out of her Lexus.
Unable to escape due to cake-bakeage, she plastered a smile on her face and hoped for the best.
“Hi,” she said cheerfully as Pam entered. “How’s it going?”
“Great.” Pam dropped several books of wallpaper samples onto the counter. “I’m down to the details with the rooms, which is fun.”