The woman, late sixties with the wrinkled appearance of someone who had lived hard and was now tired, actually wrung her hands together. It was already dark and there was a cool breeze off the ocean. The last thing Gracie wanted to do was jump into a cold swimming pool, but she forced herself to nod.
“Let me grab my shoes,” she said. “I’ll be right there.”
She turned back to find Riley in the hallway. He finished tucking in his shirt.
“The neighbor’s dog fell in the pool,” she said.
“I heard. I’ll take care of it.”
She blinked at him. “Excuse me?”
“I’ll do it. It’s cold out there. I’d appreciate a towel or two, though.”
He walked past her before she could say anything. Her neighbor—Gracie still couldn’t remember her name—clutched his arm.
“Oh, thank you so much. I don’t know what I was going to do. Little Muffin seems to be losing strength. Plus the water is so cold and she’s so small.” The women gave a sob.
Gracie was about to head after them when she remembered the towels. She dashed into her bathroom, pulled out three, then hurried to the front of the house and over to her neighbor’s.
By the time she got there, Riley had already pulled off his shirt and shoes and waded into the pool. Muffin, a very small and wet Yorkie, paddled furiously, but not in the direction of her rescuer. As Riley approached the dog growled and paddled toward the deep end.
“Muffin, no!” the older woman cried. “The nice man is trying to help you. Go to him, honey. Go on. Mommy says it will be fine.”
Gracie crouched by the edge of the pool. Riley shot her an unamused glanced.
“Don’t say it’s my fault,” she told him. “You volunteered.”
“Next time stop me.” He muttered something under his breath that sounded fairly unrepeatable in mixed company, then he moved out toward Muffin.
The Yorkie might be tiny but she was a fine swimmer who zipped across the pool like a missile. Every time Riley moved within grabbing distance, she darted away.
In the lights from around the pool Gracie saw Riley shiver in the freezing water. She stuck her fingers into the pool, then quickly pulled them back. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a good idea for both of them to get chilled to the bone.
Riley finally cornered the small dog by the ladder in the deep end. As he treaded water, he reached out for Muffin. The dog moved left. Riley grabbed her and pulled her close. Man and dog instantly yelped, but he didn’t let go.
Still cursing under his breath, he swam the foot or two to the side of the pool and tossed Muffin to safety, then started climbing the ladder. Gracie hurried around to hand him a towel. It was only then that she saw the little dog had scratched up his chest.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it.”
“It hurts as much as if she did.”
The neighbor wrapped her dog in a fluffy white towel and cooed. “There’s a good girl. There’s a pretty girl. You need to stay away from the big, bad pool.” The woman looked up. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“It’s fine,” Riley said. He started to the gate that would take him out of her yard. “Good night.”
“Oh, wait. I could pay you something.”
Riley waved and kept walking. Gracie hurried after him.
“We need to get you cleaned up,” she said. “Those scratches look—”
She never got to finish her sentence. As Riley stepped out onto the driveway there was a huge flash of light. Seconds later Gracie heard the sound of running feet, then a car door slammed, an engine started and the vehicle sped away.
“THIS IS NOT HAPPENING,” Gracie said in a voice that was uncomfortably close to a shriek.
Rather than respond, Riley grabbed her hand and pulled her back inside her house. When the door was firmly closed and locked, he glanced down at the oozing scratches on his chest and swore.
Gracie spun toward him. “Yes, the dog was really bad, but did you see that? Did you see the guy with the camera? What’s going on? Who’s doing this? And why? I’m totally creeped out. Some man was lurking outside my house. He was obviously following one of us and—” She looked at his chest and winced. “Bathroom. Now.”
He followed her down the short hallway into an old-fashioned bathroom decorated in various and unappealing shades of green.
Gracie dug around in the cabinet, then straightened and held out a tube of something. “I don’t think this will hurt too much, but we’ve got to get something on those scratches. Should we wash them first?”
“I think the pool took care of that. It was cold as hell, but I could smell the chlorine.”
She glanced down at his soaked and dripping trousers. “So those will be ruined.”
He figured his clothes were the least of his concern. He didn’t much care about the marks on his chest either—what had his full attention was the man taking pictures. Gracie’s life hardly supported the idea of her having a lot of angry enemies trying to ruin her, which left only one alternative. Someone was setting him up.
But for what reason? Was someone unhappy about him running the bank? He figured that was possible, but not likely. Which left Franklin Yardley, mayor of Los Lobos—a man determined not to lose his election.
“Deep breath,” Gracie said as she opened the tube of ointment.
“I promise not to scream like a woman,” he said dryly.
“Good to know.”
As she smoothed on the medication, he considered possibilities. The only way the asshole photographer could have been there at the right moment was if he’d been hanging around, watching. So he was following Riley. Or someone had tipped him off.
He looked at Gracie as she worked. Of everyone in town, she knew the most about his comings and goings. She’d hesitated before coming to the door. Could she have made a phone call?
Even as he considered the question, he wanted to dismiss it. There was no way Gracie would set him up.
His refusal to seriously consider her as a suspect told him two things—first, that he was in more trouble where she was concerned than he’d first realized. And second, that she was probably guilty as hell.
GRACIE STOOD in the center of her driveway and told herself to keep breathing. It had been one of those nights, where the churning in her stomach had kept her up past midnight and her whirling thoughts had taken care of the rest of the hours. She felt sluggish and crabby and completely and totally furious.
There was a huge “above the fold” picture of Riley on the front page of the local paper. He had a towel over his head, as if trying to hide from the camera, when she knew darned well he’d just been drying off his hair. Worse, there were scratches on his chest. In the picture, they didn’t look as fresh and angry as they had in person. Instead they looked as if they could have been caused by a night of wild sex.
The headline didn’t help: Mayoral Candidate’s Secret Life.
Gracie wanted to stomp her foot and scream. She did neither, mostly because it was very early and she was barefoot.
So now what? Where could she go to complain? A letter to the editor? A banner across Main Street? Could she just find Mayor Yardley and smack him upside the head?
She squinted at the picture again, then groaned. She was there. In the background, but still clearly visible, looking shocked and more than a little disheveled.
Gracie crumpled the paper in her hands and slowly made her way back to the rental. She did not need this in her life. She had cakes to bake and a meeting at lunchtime at her mother’s to discuss a wedding that may or may not still be on and…“I need a vacation,” she mumbled as she stepped back into the house and slammed the door behind her.
GRACIE HOVERED on the front porch of her mother’s house. She didn’t want to be here. After what had happened just a few days ago, she never wanted to walk inside again.
To be honest, she wasn’t sure how she’d found herself agreeing to yet another planning meeting. Alexis had called and insisted and somehow Gracie had said yes.
“Talk about stupid,” she muttered, then stepped up to the front door and knocked.
The door opened instantly. Alexis smiled. “Good. You made it. Come in.”
Gracie followed her inside. Her sister moved into the living room where Vivian sat by the window.
“Where’s Mom?” Gracie asked.
“She’s not coming,” Alexis said, turning toward her and folding her arms across her chest. “She doesn’t know about this.”
Gracie didn’t like the sound of that. “Want to explain yourself?”
Vivian stood and smoothed the front of her flower print dress. “You really hurt her feelings the last time you were here. She wouldn’t tell us what you two fought about, but she’s still upset. You can’t do this, Gracie. You can’t make everything about yourself.”
“You’re right,” Gracie said, unable to believe they’d set her up to attack her. “That’s your job.”
Vivian’s mouth dropped open. “That is so not true. Alexis, can you believe she said that? Make her apologize.”
Gracie shook her head. “I’m out of here.”
“No.” Alexis grabbed her arm. “Gracie, wait. We have to talk about this. Please. We’re worried about you.”
Which sounded great, Gracie through grimly, but she’d learned enough about her sisters in the past couple of weeks to be wary of just about everything her family had to say.
Gracie pulled free of Alexis and walked to the sofa where she perched on the edge of a cushion. She had a bad feeling she knew what was coming. Vivian sat across from her, while Alexis took the other end of the sofa.
“We’re worried about you and Riley,” Alexis said.
“I knew it.” Gracie wanted to spring to her feet and run screaming from the room. “I knew that was exactly what you were going to want to talk about.” She glared at her sister. “I’ll accept it from my mother, because of who she is, but there is no way I’m going to take it from you. Need I remind you that you are the reason I had to deal with him in the first place. You’re the one who had me sneaking around his house and taking pictures.”
“I understand that I had some small part in it,” Alexis said primly.
“Some small part?” Gracie had the sense of being in an alternate universe where logic no longer existed. She turned her attention to Vivian. “Are you here to lecture me about Riley, too, or do you have something else?”
“No. It’s Riley.”
“Great. Then let’s get one thing straight. I don’t care what you think or say. I’m going to do what I want. But for the record, we are not involved. There is absolutely nothing between us. We’re—”
Sleeping together. Oh, yeah. In her outrage, she’d forgotten that one simple fact.
“Then explain this,” Alexis said, pulling the newspaper out from under the coffee table and slapping it on the surface. “What exactly were you two doing?”
“My neighbor’s dog fell in the pool. She came over in a complete panic. Riley went in after her dog, despite the fact that the water was freezing cold. Unfortunately Muffin didn’t understand the whole rescue concept and scratched him. I can get you her phone number if you’d like. She’ll confirm everything.”
Alexis didn’t look convinced. “Why was he at your house in the first place?”
Interesting question, Gracie thought. She realized she had no clue what had made him stop by.
“Why does that matter? You don’t get to tell me who my friends are.”
“Are you friends?” Vivian asked. “Or is it just the illusion of friendship?” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Gracie, honey, we’re so worried. You’re in a really fragile state right now.”