Tears trickled down her sister’s cheeks. Pain darkened her blue eyes. Alexis personified agony and Gracie didn’t know how to fight that. But she tried.
“It will only lead to disaster,” she said firmly. “I won’t be a part of that.”
“I u-understand,” Alexis said as her mouth quivered.
“Good. Because I’m not going with you.”
LATE THAT NIGHT, Gracie found herself following her sister along a trimmed hedge just east of a massive old house. Not just any house, either. The Whitefield family mansion, home to umpteen generations of wealthy Whitefields and now Riley’s main residence.
“This is insane,” Gracie whispered to her sister as they paused to crouch a few feet from a back window. “I stopped spying on Riley when I was fourteen. I can’t believe I’m doing this again.”
“You’re not spying on Riley, you’re spying on Zeke. There’s a big difference.”
“I doubt Riley will see that, if we’re caught.”
“Then we won’t be caught. Did you bring your camera?”
Gracie grabbed her trusty Polaroid from under her arm and held it out. Light from the streetlamp glinted off the narrow lens.
“Get ready,” Alexis said. “The library window is around the corner. You should be able to get a really good picture from there.”
“Why aren’t you getting the picture?” Gracie asked as dread made her legs feel as heavy as bronze.
“Because I’m going to stay here and see if any floozy bitch runs out the back way.”
“If Zeke were having an affair, wouldn’t he just go to a motel?” Gracie asked.
“He can’t. I pay the bills. Besides, when we were dating, he let some guy use his apartment for a lunchtime rendezvous. I’m telling you, Riley’s doing the same for Zeke. Who holds campaign meetings until two in the morning?”
It sounded logical in a twisted psychotic way, Gracie thought as she inched toward the side of the house. Especially if one ignored the reality of sneaking onto private property to snap pictures through an open window.
“We don’t even know if they’re in the library,” Gracie said in a low voice.
“Zeke says they always meet there. If he’s really at a campaign meeting, that’s where it should take place.”
“Can’t I just look through the window and tell you what I see?” Gracie asked.
“I want proof.”
What Gracie wanted was to be far, far from here. But she recognized Alexis’s stubborn expression and her own guilt. Even if she wanted to turn her back on her sister, she couldn’t. Better to simply take the pictures and get out than stay crouched and arguing.
“Get ready,” Gracie said as she once again moved toward the house.
The bushes under the building were thicker than they first appeared. They scratched her bare arms and tugged at her khakis. Worse, the library window was higher than her, which meant she had to hold the camera above her head, point down into the room and take a picture without being sure what, or who, was in there.
It would just be her luck to focus the camera just as someone looked out the window.
“Here goes nothing,” she muttered as she stretched up on tiptoes and pushed the red button.
Hot, bright light exploded in the night. Gracie instantly dropped to her knees as she swore under her breath. The flash! How could she have forgotten about the flash?
“Because I use the camera to take pictures of wedding cakes, not to spy on people,” she muttered as she scrambled back to her feet and started running toward the car.
There was no sign of Alexis, nor did Gracie know if she’d actually gotten a picture of anything. Not that it mattered. She just wanted to get out of here before—
As the forceful command was accompanied by something hard and very gunlike being jabbed between her shoulder blades, Gracie did as instructed. She froze.
“What the hell are you up to? If you’re a thief, you’re a piss-poor one. Or do you always announce yourself with a flashbulb?”
“Not if I can help it,” Gracie said as she sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry if I startled you. I can explain.”
As she spoke, she turned, and as she turned she saw the man holding the shotgun and he saw her.
Both of them jumped back. While Gracie wished the ground would open up and swallow her, he looked as if he’d seen a ghost.
“Sweet Jesus,” Riley Whitefield breathed. “Gracie Landon, is that you?”
AS THE GROUND-SWALLOWING was taking too long, Gracie began to wish for a large, people-eating dinosaur to rise from the grave and devour her whole. Or aliens. She would accept aliens swooping her up into their visiting craft if she didn’t have to stand here and stare at Riley’s gorgeous face. She would even endure the medical experiments without complaining.
She hadn’t seen him since the summer she’d turned fourteen. He’d been all of eighteen, caught in that half-boy, half-man stage that was both appealing and awkward. He’d grown up, filled out and gotten sexier and more dangerous looking. But the disbelief in his eyes made her want to die right there on the spot.
“I can explain,” she said, then wondered if she really could. Were there any words that would convince him she wasn’t still crazed stalker girl recently released from a mental institution?
“Gracie Landon?” he repeated.
She noticed he’d lowered the shotgun so it wasn’t pointing directly at her. That was something.
“This isn’t what you think,” she said and took a step back. Maybe it would be better for both of them if she just disappeared into the night. And where was her sister? How just like Alexis to fade away when the going got tough. She’d always let Gracie take the fall for things.
“You weren’t lurking outside my house, taking pictures?” Riley asked.
“Okay, yes, I was doing that, but it wasn’t about you. Not technically.”
His eyes were the color of stormy midnight. At least that’s how she’d described them when she was a teenager. She’d written really bad haiku about his eyes and his mouth. She’d imagined how he would kiss her when he finally came to his senses and realized they belonged together. She’d even written poems to his various girlfriends—after he’d dumped them—commiserating with their pain.
Yes, my dear Jenny, I alone can understand, the magic of the moment, when he takes your hand.
Gracie placed her palm on her stomach where she could feel the acid churning. Most days she couldn’t remember where she’d left her car keys, but she could recall lines of horrible poetry written a lifetime ago?
“There’s something seriously wrong with me,” she muttered.
“I’ll second that,” Riley said.
She narrowed her gaze. “You’re not helping the situation. You know that? I know this looks bad, but here’s a news flash. I’m not here for you. My brother-in-law, Zeke, is supposed to be helping you with your campaign for mayor tonight. That’s what this is all about.” She waved the camera in his face.
He frowned. “You have a thing for your brother-in-law?”
“What?” she yelped. “No. Yuck. Of course not. My sister, Alexis, asked me to—” She pressed her lips together and turned away and started for the car—assuming Alexis hadn’t driven off in it after slinking away. “Just forget it.”
“Not so fast,” Riley said as he grabbed her arm. “You can’t show up like this, take pictures, then walk away. How do I know you haven’t put a bomb in my car?”
Gracie jerked free of his grip, then squared her shoulders before turning around to face him. “I never tried to hurt you,” she said as calmly as she could when what she wanted to do was run screaming into the night. This was so not fair. “When I had a crush on you, I tried to keep you from seeing your girlfriend, but I never actually hurt anyone.”
“You threw yourself in front of my car and begged me to run over you.”
Heat exploded in her cheeks. Why couldn’t everyone just leave the past where it belonged? Why did every humiliating detail of her life have to be dissected in public?
“That was about my pain, not doing injury to you.” She drew in a deep breath. Peaceful thoughts, she reminded herself. And a couple of antacids. That’s all she needed. “I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’m sorry I let my sister talk me into coming here. I knew it was a bad idea. It won’t happen again. Whatever her problems with Zeke, I’m not getting involved. Ever.”
His gaze narrowed. “What problems with Zeke?”
“Look, lady, the second you started taking pictures in my windows, it became my business.”
He had a point. Not a very big one, but still…“Zeke has been acting funny—staying out late, not talking about things. He says he’s busy with your campaign all the time but Alexis thinks he’s having an affair.”
Riley swore and grabbed her arm again. “All right. Come on.”
“Let go of me.”
He didn’t and he started walking, dragging her along with him.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Inside. We have to talk. If my campaign manager is cheating on his wife, I want to know about it.”
“I don’t think he is. He just doesn’t seem the type. What time did your meeting with him end tonight?”
Riley stopped on the front porch. Light from the big fixture by the front door illuminated his perfect features—dark eyes, high cheekbones and the kind of mouth that made normally reasonable women want to run out and do something really, really sinful. He still wore an earring, but a diamond stud had replaced the gold hoop she remembered so well.
“We didn’t have a meeting,” he said flatly. “I haven’t seen Zeke in three days.”
The churning got worse. Gracie pulled free of Riley’s grip and rubbed her stomach. “That can’t be good.”
“My thoughts exactly. So come inside. I want you to start from the beginning and tell me everything you know about Zeke and his affair.”
“For one thing, I don’t know if he’s even having one. Alexis could be overreacting.”
“Does she usually?” he asked as he held open the front door and motioned for her to step inside.
“I don’t think so. Maybe. I live in L.A. I don’t actually spend all that much time with her.”
She walked into the house and came to a complete stop in the foyer. The place was huge. Old, but beautiful with high ceilings, carved moldings and enough furniture, knickknacks and artwork to monopolize an entire month of Antiques Roadshow.
“Wow. This is pretty cool,” she said as she turned in a slow circle. “I think my entire house would fit in the foyer.”
“Yeah, it’s big. The library’s in here.”
Once again he grabbed her arm and dragged her along. She caught a glimpse of a formal dining room and a parlor or living room before he pulled her into the library. He released her and walked to a liquor tray set up by the window. After setting the gun on the desk, he poured what looked like Scotch into two glasses. She set down her Polaroid.
“Let me say for the record—ouch,” she said as she rubbed her arm again. “I don’t remember you manhandling women before.”
He glared at her, then handed her a drink. “I don’t trust you.”
“It was fourteen years ago, Riley. You really need to let go of the past.”
“I was happy to until you showed up again. You tortured me for two years. They wrote about it in the newspaper. The ‘Gracie Chronicles.’”
Embarrassment made her want to squirm. “Yes, well, that part wasn’t my fault. Can we talk about something more relevant? Like Zeke.”