“So what’s going on with you?” Jill asked, keeping her voice low. “How’s the cake business?”

“Good. Busy. It’s that time of year. The Pam thing is difficult.”

Jill grinned. “Are the cakes taking one look at her and falling?”

Gracie chuckled. “Actually not. It’s more creepy than that. She’s…nice.”

Jill raised her eyebrows. “Not possible.”

“I know. That’s my feeling, too. But it’s true—she’s pleasant and friendly and accommodating. She even said nice stuff about Riley. I can’t decide if I should just accept her at face value or continue to be wary.”

“You know what my vote would be.”

“Yeah. To keep my distance and carry a cross at all times.”

“Exactly. Everything else okay?”

Gracie nodded. As much as she would like to talk about her family, this wasn’t the place. Nor could she tell Jill what had happened with Riley. Eventually she would come clean, but not in a crowd.

Maybe she should regret what had happened, she thought. But she couldn’t. The pregnancy thing was a little troubling. She pressed a hand to her stomach and told herself it wasn’t possible. Statistically, the odds were seriously against it. Although she had to respect the irony of the situation if she was pregnant, what with Pam faking her pregnancy all those years ago so Riley would marry her.

Gracie had a feeling that even if she turned up pregnant, he wouldn’t be making an honest woman of her. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. While she’d never planned to be a single mother, she wouldn’t turn her back on her baby. If Riley wasn’t willing to participate, that was okay. But it made her sad to think he would walk way from his own child. Still, getting married just because of a pregnancy seemed like a recipe for disaster. She didn’t want a relationship based on “have to.” She wanted heart-stopping, bone-melting, forever and till death do us part love.

“What are you thinking about?” Jill asked. “You have the strangest look on your face.”

“How did you know Mac was the one?”

Jill sighed. “I just did. At first we were just friends.” She smiled. “Okay, he was just friends and I was crazy about him. He’s so sexy. Anyway, we spent time together and it was always great. The more I got to know him, the more I wanted to know him. One thing led to another and then I was in love with him. Why do you ask?” Her gaze narrowed. “Are you—”

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” the moderator said. “Welcome to our first and only mayoral debate between our current mayor, Franklin Yardley, and his opponent, Riley Whitefield.”

“Don’t think I’m going to forget what we were talking about,” Jill murmured in her ear as she turned her attention to the front of the room.

Gracie figured she would simply appreciate the interruption and deal with her friend later. She listened to the introduction of both candidates. Franklin Yardley looked as slick and polished as ever, but he was much older than his rival. Riley had the advantage of youth, size and mystery. There was something very appealing about the dark-haired stranger sitting on the mayor’s left. Gracie had a feeling she wasn’t the only woman in the audience who felt the pull.

The moderator explained the format. Each candidate would make an opening statement, then they would answer questions from the panel of newspaper reporters and professors from U.C. Santa Barbara. Finally, there would be a four-minute closing statement. Before the debate, the two men had drawn straws and Riley would be going first in the opening and closing statements.

He stood as he was introduced. Gracie found herself leaning forward, as if anticipating what he was going to say. He looked good, she thought. The dark suit flattered his strong, hard body. He wore his hair relatively short and brushed away from his face. His diamond stud glittered in the harsh overhead lighting.

Would the good citizens elect a man with an earring? Gracie wondered.

“Mayor Yardley has served our community for sixteen years,” Riley began with a smile. “That’s half my life. He’s seen Los Lobos through good times and bad, strong tourist seasons and weak ones. He’s learned the ins and outs of the job. I would guess after this many years, there aren’t any surprises. He’s a professional and a man of many talents.”

He looked around the room. For a second, Gracie would have sworn their eyes met, but she was pretty sure she was sitting too far back for him to see her.

“I’ve spent the last fourteen years traveling around the world,” he continued, “but in the end, there was only one place I could call home. While the sentimental side of me appreciates that Los Lobos has barely changed in all that time, the businessman inside of me wonders if that’s really for the best. If we want our children to have a superior education that allows them to have a better standard of living, we need money to pay for schools. If we want a community that can stand on its own and not always be at the mercy of the tourist dollar, we have to come up with a thoughtful, innovative plan that will take us forward without forcing us to lose touch with the very values and philosophies that make us what we are.”

“He’s good,” Jill whispered. “I’m impressed.”

“Me, too.”

Riley might have started his bid for mayor because it was a condition of his uncle’s will, but he’d obviously embraced the idea and made it his own.

Riley finished his opening statement to the sound of loud applause. Mayor Yardley spoke, outlining his accomplishments in office. Next to Riley, he looked uncomfortable and out of place—as if he’d overstayed his welcome at a party.

The trend continued through the questions. Riley seemed to have a fresh take on every issue, while Yardley reiterated what he’d done before. Even from the back of the room, Gracie could see the older man starting to sweat.

“Riley’s going to win this,” Jill murmured. “He’s really going to pull it off.”

Gracie felt a fierce flush of pride, as if she had something to do with Riley’s success. When he finished his closing statement, everyone in the room rose and cheered. It took several minutes for the crowd to settle down enough for Franklin Yardley to speak.

“You seem taken with my opponent,” the mayor said slowly. “I can see why. He’s new and shiny. Lots of big ideas. But it takes more than ideas to keep a city running smoothly. It takes practice and experience. And it takes character. You all know me. You’re my neighbors, my friends. You’ve served on committees with my wife, gone to school with my children, played golf with me.”

Yardley stared out at the crowd and smiled. “You know my secrets—the good and the bad about me.”

A few people chuckled. “You’re lousy at poker, Franklin,” someone yelled.

The mayor nodded. “That I am. I’ve never had a good face for it. I can’t tell a lie to save my soul. Things matter to me. My family. This town. I’ve been here all my life. Four generations of Yardleys have served in Los Lobos.”

He paused and drew in a deep breath. “Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe I’ve done all I can do. But is Riley Whitefield really the man you want? He’s young. Inexperienced. He’s been traipsing all over the world when he had business right here in town. Most of you know he took off to make his fortune while his own mother lay dying of cancer. Never even came back to see her. Not the example I want set for my children.”

Gracie stiffened. “That’s not what happened,” she whispered to Jill as people began to stir in their seats. “He didn’t know.”

“You think Yardley cares about that?” Jill asked.

Gracie stared at the stage, looking for some reaction from Riley. He remained seated, his expression calm.

But the mayor wasn’t finished. He leaned forward at the podium. “Riley was just a boy then. Barely eighteen. He’d had a difficult time, getting a local girl pregnant, marrying her, then divorcing her. But people grow up. The boy becomes a man. They change. Well, some do. I’m not so sure about Riley.”

Gracie felt her stomach start to churn. She had a feeling this was going to be very, very bad.

Mayor Yardley glanced at Riley, then at the crowd. “Who do you want as the leader of your community? A man you know and trust? A man who has never lied or misled you? Or Riley Whitefield who is a stranger to us all? Not only did he walk out on his dying mother, he’s returned to take advantage of our own Gracie Landon. She has loved him faithfully for years and he has repaid her with betrayal and scorn. Not only is she pregnant right this minute, but Riley is refusing to make an honest woman of her.”


GRACIE FELT the room tilt. For a second she thought she might faint for the first time in her life. A rushing sound filled her ears, her body felt both too heavy and too light and she couldn’t seem to focus on anything. Then her vision cleared and she watched Riley spring to his feet and stare at her in fury and shock.

“Gracie?” Jill asked. “Did you—”

Gracie didn’t wait for Jill to finish her sentence. She could feel people looking at her, pointing, staring, talking. But none of that mattered. She didn’t care about anything but Riley and what he must be thinking.

“I have to go,” she said as she stood and ran to the door. She heard someone calling her name, but she didn’t stop, didn’t turn around.

“Is it true?” someone yelled. “Did Riley knock you up?”

Gracie felt burning in her stomach, but this pain had nothing to do with her usual acid issues. Instead this ache came from the realization she had gotten very close to something special and it had all just been ripped away from her.

RILEY CONSIDERED returning to the bank. It was just after five so he could easily head home, but for some reason he didn’t want to be alone.

The debate had been a disaster. Yardley had been so damn cheerful at the outset that Riley had begun to suspect he was up to something. But he never would have guessed what. Yardley had struck hard and in exactly the right place. The good citizens of Los Lobos might be willing to overlook a lot of flaws but no one would forgive him messing with a town legend.

How had Yardley known? Had he taken a few facts and put them together? Or had someone told him what had happened? He hadn’t said a word to anyone and he doubted Gracie had been spreading rumors. Which meant the information could only have come from her.

He parked in his designated spot behind the bank, then climbed out of his car. There were still a few people heading inside to conduct their business before closing. He saw a woman pushing a stroller along the sidewalk. The air was warm, the sky clear. Everything was completely normal. Yet he felt as if he’d been beaten up and left on the edge of the road.

How could she have done that to him? Why? He would have bet a considerable portion of his soon-to-be-lost inheritance that Gracie didn’t like Mayor Yardley. So why would she help him? Bitterness over the past? Was this all an elaborate plan of revenge?

As he walked into the building, he told himself it might not be her. That whoever had followed them and taken the pictures could have seen enough to know what had happened. Until he had the report back from the private detective, he couldn’t be sure of anything.

Except he didn’t want it to be Gracie. Fourteen years ago, he would have sold his soul, or even his car, to get her out of his life. Now…Now he didn’t know what he wanted.

He rounded the corner and headed for the elevator. Several employees stood together, talking quietly. As he approached, one of them nudged another. They all turned to look at him.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Whitefield,” a young woman said. She didn’t quite meet his gaze.

He nodded and stepped onto the elevator. They were talking again before the doors closed and all he heard was “Do you think it’s true that he really—”

Tags: Susan Mallery Los Lobos Romance
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