Gracie had sort of dressed for her day. She wore a cotton blouse over black pants, but felt frumpy next to Pam’s Ultrasuede pants and matching jacket, with a little camisole underneath.
“I drove by the high school,” Pam said. “There was a crowd there for Riley’s speech.”
“Really?” Gracie pretended she hadn’t been there. “Is his campaign going well?”
“I hope so,” Pam told her.
Gracie tried not to react, but the surprise must have shown because Pam grinned.
“I mean it,” she said. “Hey, it’s been years and years. I was young and foolish and I sure don’t hold a grudge against Riley. Besides, Franklin Yardley gives me the creeps. He’d just been elected mayor when I was a senior and he was at graduation handing out some award. I swear he patted my butt when he gave it to me.”
Gracie pressed both her hands on the counter. She remembered Jill telling her a similar story. “You’re kidding! He did the same thing to a friend of mine. She was totally grossed out.”
“Do you blame her? He was old and it was just too disgusting. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t think anyone would believe me. So Riley gets my vote.”
She sounded sincere and Gracie sort of wanted to believe her, but she couldn’t. Not completely.
“You never remarried.”
Pam leaned against the counter. “I know. I thought about it, but I really prefer being single. I’m seeing someone now. He lives in Santa Barbara, which is pretty perfect. We’re close enough to get together on a regular basis, but he’s not in my face all the time. I like that. I’ve been on my own for so long, I don’t think I could get used to living with a man. What about you?”
Gracie was more than willing to get used to living with a man, but the only one who made her feel sparks wasn’t interested in her. Besides, he was the last guy on the planet she should be with. It made no sense. And they wanted really different things. He might find her attractive and kiss like a dream, but she knew he wasn’t the settling-down type.
She shook her head and realized Pam was staring at her. “I’m sorry. What did you ask me?”
Pam laughed. “Never mind. I can see you’re distracted. I’ll just grab my light reading and get out of your way.”
Pam picked up the wallpaper sample books and left the kitchen. Gracie stared after her and wondered if maybe she’d been wrong to judge Pam so harshly all those years ago.
RILEY STOOD outside in the late afternoon. He’d canceled his last two meetings with the intent of going for a drive. But instead of heading up the coast or even south to L.A., he’d traveled a short distance across town to find himself parked outside of Gracie’s rental.
He knew she was home—her Subaru Forrester sat in the driveway and he could hear music. As he stood beside his car, he stared at the front door and wondered when he’d left the world of normal behind.
There were a thousand other places he could be and a handful he should be, and Gracie’s house didn’t fall into either category. She was nothing but trouble—not the way she used to be by stalking him and making his life hell. No, this trouble was worse. He liked her.
He enjoyed her company, her humor, her craziness and right now he wanted to be with her in every sense of the word.
He told himself he was only here to talk, that she wasn’t his type and he was a man who was cautious about where he laid his head. He’d always been careful to pick women who were content to be part of the three F’s. Gracie wasn’t like that.
If he had a brain in his head, he would walk back to his car and drive away. Instead he stepped forward and pressed the doorbell.
“Just a sec,” she yelled from somewhere inside the house.
He heard something slam, some mild cursing, then running footsteps and the front door flew open.
She stood in front of him with a smudge on her cheek and a dish towel in one hand. She’d pulled her hair back in a ponytail. Her T-shirt fit snugly, emphasizing curves that haunted him, while her slightly loose khakis hung low on her hips. She was barefoot, not wearing a speck of makeup and he wanted her with a hungry desperation that made it impossible to speak.
She grinned. “Thank God you’re not my mother or one of my sisters. I’m all familied out right now. I can’t even tell you the forty-seven ways they’re making me crazy.”
She stepped back. “Come on. I have a cake in the oven and I have to turn it every ten minutes to keep it baking evenly. I know, I know, I could have gone back over to Pam’s but I was there before and she was actually nice and it kind of freaked me out.”
She shut the door behind him and led the way into the kitchen. “So what’s going on with you?”
The sway of her hips called him. He wanted to grab her, pull her close and take her right there in the hallway. He wanted to tug the rubber band from her hair, pull off her clothes and have her on top, wet, ready and panting his name as she demanded he give her more.
“I wasn’t in the mood to work,” he said instead. “Thought I’d stop by.”
They reached the kitchen. She bent over the oven, pulled it open and used the dishcloth to protect her fingers as she gave the large cake pan a quarter turn.
“I appreciate the company. Oddly enough, you’re the most normal person I know these days. Who would have thought?”
She straightened and walked to the refrigerator. “Do you want anything to drink? I have soda and milk and some sparkling water.” She glanced at him. “Let me guess—macho guys don’t drink sparkling water.”
“Not unless we open it with our teeth first.”
“Figures.” She held up a can of soda. “This okay?”
He glanced around at the small kitchen. Even though she was a short-term tenant, she’d still made the space her own. There were cake pans and racks covering the space. She’d tacked up sketches of cakes, a calendar and the article from People magazine. The small table held all kinds of delicate-looking tools he couldn’t identify.
The room felt lived in, comfortable. No ghosts here.
He settled on a bar stool by the counter and took the drink she offered.
“What terribly important meetings are you missing out on?” she asked as she set the timer for ten minutes.
“One about the direction the Federal Reserve will probably take. A recap on our lending ratios. Banking stuff.”
She leaned against the counter across from him. “Are you enjoying being a banker? It has to be different from living on the oil rig.”
“Shorter hours, and everyone smells better.”
“That has to be nice. But do you find it interesting or boring?”
He frowned as he popped open his soda and took a drink. “I never thought about the banking job as more than something I had to do to inherit.” When he’d either satisfied the terms of the will or failed, he was walking away.
“Would you consider it as a career?”
“Maybe. There are aspects I like.” He loosened his tie, then unfastened the top button on his dress shirt. “The clothes can be a pain.”
“I know what you mean. I like baking days when I don’t have to get all fancy for my meetings.” She glanced down at her T-shirt and brushed a smudge of flour. “When I’m in the kitchen I make sure everything is washable. I seem to be the kind of baker who has a lot of accidents with ingredients.”
He could smell her. Something soft and feminine that had nothing to do with the sweet scent of baking cake. Need nearly drove him to his feet, but he pushed it down and did his best to ignore it. After all this time, Gracie had turned out to be an unexpected pleasure in his life. They were friends, and he wasn’t about to screw that up with sex.
“My secretary keeps pressuring me to give money for the new children’s wing of the local hospital. She suggests it be in my uncle’s name, which I’m not willing to do.”
Gracie tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and glanced at the timer. “Give the money at all or give it in your uncle’s name?”
“I don’t want anything named for him.”
“Then give it someone else’s name. Or no one’s. Why do wings always have to have names?”
“Good point. I may do it just to get Diane off my back. The woman defines stubborn.” He picked up his soda and grinned. “There’s a reason to give to charity.”
“I doubt the hospital board will really care what drives you to donate. I think they’ll just be happy to cash the check.” She tilted her head. “Where exactly does the money come from? You don’t have the inheritance yet, do you?”
“Thinking of asking me for a loan?”
“If I remember correctly, it was ninety-seven million dollars. If you had that kind of money, I’d be more on the lookout for a grant rather than a loan.”
“Fair enough. This money comes from the bank. A certain percentage of profits are earmarked for charity.” Riley couldn’t escape the irony of his uncle being willing to give millions to charity, but leaving his own sister to die.
“And you get to pick where they go? That’s kind of cool.”
“Diane does most of that. I sign the checks.” He smiled. “I have to admit, she’s someone I wouldn’t mind taking back to my other business with me. Talk about efficient.”
“The other business being your partnerships in the oil business.”
He nodded. “We have over fifty rigs now.”
She straightened just as the timer dinged, then walked to the oven and rotated the cake. “Amazing how you left here with nothing and did so well. That’s pretty cool. Your mom would be really proud of you. Did she know you were a success before she passed away?”
“Some. I sent her money when I could.” Not that it had been enough. If only, he thought grimly. If only he hadn’t still been angry at her for making him marry Pam. If only she’d told him the truth. If only he’d come back.
“So you’re already rich,” Gracie teased as she closed the oven and turned back to him. “That kind of makes you really attractive.”
He shook his head. “You’re not into guys with money. If they have it you won’t say no, but otherwise you don’t care.”
She stared at him. “How do you know that?”
“Am I wrong?”
“No, but we’ve never talked about it. You barely know me.”
“I know enough. Besides, I married someone who wanted my money. I learned to recognize the signs.”
“Makes sense,” she told him. “So now you keep your wealth a secret?”
“I never get close enough for them to know. As far as the women in my life are concerned, I’m just a guy who works on an oil rig.”
“Women?” She raised her eyebrows. “Like a herd?”
“My own personal harem. But I’m always open to new applicants.”
“As intriguing as that sounds, I’m not very good in a crowd.”
He agreed. She was a woman who wanted a conventional life. “So why aren’t you married with three kids?”
“I really only want two. Maybe a dog. I don’t know. I never met the right one.”
“Dog or guy?”
She laughed. “Guy. I’ve dated, I almost got engaged. Most of them were really nice men. Smart, good jobs, dependable.”
“It’s dumb and ridiculous.” She stacked several dirty bowls together then carried them over to the sink. “I want…sparks. You know? That wild, chemical attraction. I want my stomach to clench when the man in my life touches me. I want to hold my breath when the phone rings in case it’s him.”