He had the information he needed now. He would bide his time until she either got her period or he had proof she was pregnant. While he didn’t want a repeat of Pam’s performance, he also wasn’t willing to walk away from his responsibilities. His father had walked out twenty-one years ago, but Riley still remembered everything about the day. He wouldn’t do that to any kid of his.
“It’s just the odds are so against me being…you know.” She swallowed. “Honestly, I can’t take on one more thing. I’ve got wedding cakes, my family, you, whoever is following one of us, the newspaper pictures. I just can’t deal with any more.”
As she spoke, she reached for her purse, then dug out her bottle of antacids. After popping two and chewing them, she sighed.
“I’m such a rock, huh?” she asked softly.
“You do okay.”
“I’m not so sure. I thought coming back here would be easy, but it’s not. Who was that guy last night? Is he after me or you? I’m guessing you, because of the election. Plus you have the debate in a couple of days. But it’s creepy. And I hate the newspaper thing. The picture. I feel so bad about it, but it wasn’t my fault. Still….”
She pulled up a bar stool and sat down. She rested her elbows on the counter and her head in her hands.
“I’m being a lousy hostess,” she said. “There’s cake in the cupboard and stuff to drink in the refrigerator. Help yourself.”
She didn’t look like someone planning his demise, he thought. If he had to put money on it right now, he would say Gracie wasn’t involved. But was that his gut talking or his dick? Because even now he wanted her. Slumped shoulders and pouty expression, it didn’t matter.
“Don’t you have any real food?” he asked.
She turned her head so she could stare at him. “What?”
“You’re always offering me cake. What about a sandwich or meat loaf?”
She straightened. “I don’t keep bread in the house. What kind of insanity would that be?”
“But you have cake.”
“I make cakes. It’s tough not to have them in the house when I actually bake them. But I don’t really cook, so you’re not going to find meat loaf ever. I think I have a few cans of soup. And my tuna salad. That’s a staple in my life.”
“Do you eat anything other than cake and tuna?”
“Sure. Salads. Fruit. I have some soy-based granola in the cupboard.”
He grimaced and claimed the stool next to hers. “No thanks.”
“It’s really good.”
“You’re really lying.”
“A little.” She turned so she faced him. “You still mad at me?”
“I was never mad.”
She sighed. “Yeah, you were. When I first got here. Are you thinking….” She shrugged. “I guess I don’t know what you were thinking, but it can’t have been good. I didn’t…. I’m not the one doing all this.”
“I know,” he said, because he wanted to believe her. “I hired a private detective from L.A. He’s coming up in the morning and he’ll find the photographer. Once we know who’s taking the pictures, we’ll find the person behind it.”
He watched her as he spoke, looking for hints of panic or concern. Instead she held his gaze and when he’d finished said, “I can’t wait to get to the bottom of this. We’ll both feel better with some answers.”
Which meant what? That she wasn’t the one setting him up? He wanted Gracie to be innocent, which bugged the hell out of him. He didn’t get involved—not ever. He’d yet to see the purpose of anything longer than a night with a woman. Keeping his distance meant he didn’t get betrayed. So why was he still here?
“My sisters had an intervention today,” she said. “It was pretty horrible. Alexis thinks I’m obsessing about you. She seems to have completely forgotten that I only got involved because of her. Vivian is convinced I had a completely horrible time in high school, that I was a social misfit with no friends and no boyfriend. Where do they get that? I was normal. I was a cheerleader.”
“Yeah. I can see that shallow perkiness in you.”
Her gaze narrowed. “I’m not shallow and I’m not especially perky.”
“You’re a little offbeat.”
“I can accept that. My world view is slightly skewed, but I like that about me.” Her shoulders slumped again. “Pam is confusing.”
“Pam? My ex-wife?”
“That would be her. I’ve been using her kitchen at the bed-and-breakfast, which means I run into her. She’s been really…nice.”
He’d expected a lot of words, but that wasn’t one of them. “Are we talking about the same Pam?”
“Sure. Tall, skinny, blond. Great clothes.” Gracie leaned back on the bar stool. “It’s annoying, let me tell you. But the thing is, she’s been really sweet. Saying nice stuff about you, even.”
“What a humanitarian.”
“It’s kind of creepy. I almost want to like her, but I can’t. Still, I don’t know why she’s acting this way. Jill told me she was still really bitchy, but she hasn’t been to me. You think she’s up to something?”
“You don’t want to take her at face value?”
“I should, huh? I mean it’s totally horrible of me to judge her, but I can’t help it. I want to like her but every time I try a little voice in my head starts screaming. Which means either she’s faking me out or I’m a really bad person.”
“You’re not a bad person.”
“You don’t know me well enough to decide.”
“Sure I do.”
He stood and reached for her hand, then pulled her to her feet and drew her into his arms.
“It’s okay not to like Pam,” he said, his lips pressing against her forehead. “I won’t tell.”
“Thanks.” She snuggled closer, pressing her body against his.
She felt good, he thought. Warm. Soft.
“You’re not supposed to be doing this,” she told him. “What about the three F’s?”
He stared into her blue eyes. At that moment he would swear he could see down to her soul. There weren’t any secrets, any dark places. Which meant one of two things—either he was a complete sap and she was a great actress, or he was messing where he didn’t belong.
“I already told you, I can’t forget you,” he said.
Her gaze held his. “We didn’t do the other F either. You know that, right? We made love last night.”
It wasn’t something he liked to think about, but he nodded in agreement. “Yes, Gracie, we made love.”
The words came from a place deep inside. He wasn’t sure he’d ever said them before and he knew he’d never meant them. Until Gracie.
What the hell was he doing?
He released her and stepped back. “I gotta run,” he said.
“Okay. Thanks for stopping by.”
He waved, then turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.
Priorities, he told himself. He had them and he couldn’t forget them. He didn’t get involved, he didn’t care, he didn’t stick around. Nothing was going to change that. Not this town and certainly not Gracie.
RILEY SPENT the morning of the debate in his office at the bank. The loan department had just sent up its weekly report, which Diane handed to him.
“Business is up,” she said as he flipped through the file. “A lot of home loan refinancing.”
“I can see that,” he said, aware she was making a point that he was just as determined to ignore.
“Those people—the customers—are going to expect to have the thirty years to repay. What’s going to happen to them?”
Riley didn’t answer. They both knew what would happen. If he closed the bank, the loans would be recalled. Every single customer would have less than three months to secure new financing. If they couldn’t, they would lose their house.
“I know you think your uncle was a bastard, Riley, but are you sure you’re making the right person pay for that?”
The soft words couldn’t have been more shocking if Diane had written them in blood. He stared at his secretary, wondering which was more surprising—that she’d called him by his first name or that she’d used foul language.
“You’re walking a thin line,” he told her.
She smiled. “Are you going to fire me?”
“Then I fail to see the danger.” Her smile faded. “You could do some good here,” she told him. “You’ve taken to the work. You like it. This is much bigger than your grandfather. This is about the community.”
“Want to know that I don’t give a rat’s ass?”
She stared at him for a long time. “Then expecting more from you was my mistake.”
She left without saying anything else. When he was alone again, Riley turned in his chair and stared at the portrait of his uncle.
“Sorry, big guy,” he said. “I’m not interested in saving your town. You thought you’d won this round—that I would do what you said to get the money. But things aren’t going to turn out the way you expected. I’m going to win—my only regret is that you’re not alive to watch me screw you.”
GRACIE ARRIVED at the community center just before three. She had a lot of memories of the old building—many school events had been held there, along with her Girl Scout meetings. There were smaller classroom-size spaces on the second floor and a larger open area on the first. She knew the debate would be held in the largest space, but she didn’t head in that direction. Instead she circled around back and came in a rear entrance, so as not to cause a stir. She found Jill hovering by the heavy door. Her friend waved her in.
“I saved us a couple of seats,” Jill said in a low voice. “Hurry. They’re about to start.”
Gracie followed her inside. The lights over the audience had dimmed a little, leaving the two candidates in bright light up on stage. People were still settling and talking.
Jill led her to two seats on the far right side, three rows from the back. Gracie let Jill go in first, so she could be on the end and duck out quickly if she had to.
“It’s a big crowd,” Jill said quietly as she glanced around. “I doubt anyone will notice you’re here.”
“That’s the plan,” Gracie said. “I didn’t expect this many people.”
“Me, either. They’re broadcasting the debate live on the radio.”
Gracie slumped down in her seat and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. “I probably should have stayed home and listened to it there.”
It would have been the sensible decision, but in truth, she’d really wanted to see Riley. Being around him seemed to set her world back on its axis. She supposed she should be upset about them making love, but she wasn’t. It had felt too right to be in his arms. And last night…when he’d held her…she couldn’t help wanting him to never let go.
She did her best to ignore the red flashing Danger signs in her head. Yeah, yeah, she knew the drill. Getting involved with Riley was a mistake on too many levels to count. Even if she was willing to ignore the humiliation of falling for a guy she’d once stalked, there was the whole two different lives thing. His idea of a long-term relationship was one that lasted two nights. She wanted forever. Until recently he’d lived on an oil rig and traveled the world and she rarely left her neighborhood. They had nothing in common and….
She frowned. Except for his seeming inability to commit to a woman for more than twenty-four hours, what was the problem? He was a great guy, she liked him, they had fun together. Was she overanalyzing this? Was there—