Word travels fast, he thought as he walked onto the second floor. He would guess the live radio broadcast was responsible. Zeke was going to be screaming tonight. They were going to have to come up with a great recovery plan and he didn’t have a clue as to what it would be. Beating up Yardley might make him feel better, but wouldn’t help the election. Same with suing the old bastard.
Riley moved into his office and closed the door behind him. He stared at the portrait of his uncle.
“You’re not winning,” he told the long-dead figure. “Not now, not ever. I’ll find a way.”
He would do what he’d always done when the odds were against him. He would put his head down and work harder than everyone else around him. He wouldn’t let anything get in his way. Not the town, not the past, not the damn mayor and not even Gracie.
He heard a knock on his door.
“Go away,” he called.
“Mr. Whitefield, you have someone here to see you.”
“This is important.”
Riley knew he’d cleared his schedule for the day of the debate, so she wasn’t talking about a meeting. Had Yardley come by to gloat?
He figured that wasn’t the mayor’s style. Curious, and more than a little interested in a distraction, he crossed to the door and pulled it open.
“Who is it?” he asked, even as he found himself hoping Gracie had stopped by to explain herself.
Rather than answer, Diane stepped back. Riley looked behind her, expecting to see a familiar, curvy blonde with a quirky disposition and a ready smile. Instead he saw a man in his mid-to-late fifties, dressed in a worn suit and a stained white shirt. The hair was grayer, the lines in his face deeper. Somehow he seemed a whole lot smaller than Riley recalled.
It might have been over twenty years, but Riley remembered everything about the man who had abandoned his mother and himself.
The old man gave him a twisted smile. “Hello, son. How have you been?”
GRACIE DROVE halfway to Los Angeles before pulling off the freeway in Ventura and turning around to head back to Los Lobos. She gave herself the “I am a grown-up” lecture and reminded herself she couldn’t run away from all her problems, even if it seemed like a good idea at the time.
She even believed herself—sort of. But if someone had offered her a one-way ticket to help colonize one of the moons of Jupiter, she probably would have signed right up.
There were too many emotions swirling inside of her for her to know what she was feeling. Sick, mostly. Sick and sad and angry at whomever had betrayed her. Except she hadn’t told anyone what was going on, so where had the mayor gotten his information?
Her cell phone rang again. She grabbed it and glanced at the display screen, then tossed it back on the seat. So far she’d had three calls from Jill, two each from her sisters and about six from her mother. She wasn’t in the mood to talk to any of them, and she hadn’t heard from the one person she wanted to. Riley.
What was he thinking? Did he know she hadn’t been the one to spill his secrets or was he right that second making a little doll that looked like her with plans to stick pins in it? Worse, did he hate her? Because she could stand him being angry, but not him turning away from her without giving her a chance to prove her innocence. Not that she had any kind of plan on how she was supposed to do that.
What she didn’t understand was how this had happened in the first place. Who had set them up? And how? She had a hard time believing her neighbor had spied on her until she’d seen Riley come over, then waited until she was pretty sure they were having sex, only to throw her precious dog into a cold pool and then go pound on Gracie’s door and beg for help.
Which meant it was someone else. Which left her back where she’d started, wondering who and why and how and all the other question words.
An hour later she saw the sign for Los Lobos and turned off the freeway. At the bottom of the off-ramp, she hesitated, then turned right instead of left and drove to the chichi side of town. She drove past Riley’s house and carefully parked around the corner so as not to fuel the gossip mill, then walked back to his front door and braced herself. She might have to stand there pounding for a really long time before she convinced him she wasn’t going away and that he had to talk to her.
“I’m going to make him listen,” she told herself as she raised her hand to knock.
The door swung open.
The movement was so unexpected, she actually stumbled forward and nearly tripped over the threshold. Riley raised his eyebrows.
“Have you been drinking?” he asked.
“What? No. I didn’t think you’d let me in. I was prepared to keep pounding until you did.”
“Are you disappointed?”
He looked good. No, he looked great. Jeans, a plain white shirt and Nikes. Faint stubble darkened his jaw.
She wanted to step into his embrace and have him pull her close. She wanted to tell him that she hadn’t been the one, that he could trust her, that she cared about him and would never betray him. She wanted to offer proof or at least a plan to get proof. She wanted him to say it was going to be all right.
Instead she opened her mouth, closed it, then grabbed the front of his shirt with both hands and did her best to shake him.
“It wasn’t me,” she said as he stood there as immobile as a rock. “I didn’t tell anyone what we did and I certainly didn’t say I thought I might be pregnant. I don’t know where he got the idea. It wasn’t me.”
She still held on to his shirt. He raised his hands to cover hers. His dark eyes watched her.
“I know,” he said simply.
She blinked. “Really? You believe me?”
One corner of his mouth turned up. “Can’t you just accept it?”
“No. Not really. If I were you I’m not sure I’d believe me. Why do you?”
He shrugged, which wasn’t a very satisfying answer, but it seemed to be all she was going to get.
He loosened her hands from his shirt and stepped back. “I’m going for a walk on the beach. Want to come?”
IT WAS CLOSE to sunset when they arrived. Riley parked his Mercedes in one of the public lots, then took Gracie’s hand as they crossed to the sand. She’d kicked off her shoes. Without the heels, she barely came up to his shoulder. Her hair hung loose, her shirt was untucked. She should have been a mess, but he found her sexy as hell.
Was that why he’d told her he believed her? Because he wanted to sleep with her? He supposed it was as good a reason as any, because there wasn’t any logic in the entire situation.
He didn’t want her to be the guilty party. It was as simple as that. If it turned out he was a fool to trust her, it could cost him ninety-seven million dollars and the revenge he’d been after.
Later he would listen to his head, he told himself. Later he would come up with plans that would help him recover from what had happened at the debate. Later he would tell Gracie to get lost and forget her. But not right now.
“I used to come here a lot when I was a kid,” Riley said. “As soon as I got my driver’s license, it became one of my favorite places. I would walk along the beach and try to make sense of my life.”
“I didn’t think that was possible for a teenager.”
He looked at her and smiled. “It’s not.”
“At least you made the effort. My way to try to make sense was to write really bad poetry. I mean seriously bad. Trees should come after me seeking revenge for their death so that I could have the paper to write my bad poetry.”
“Trees aren’t much into organizing.”
“Color me happy.”
She glanced at him as she spoke. A hint of a smile caused her blue eyes to crinkle at the corners. He nearly pulled her close and kissed her, but the smile faded and she sighed.
“How did he know?”
“He had us followed. Or maybe just me.”
“Is that what your detective told you?” she asked.
“He’s been on the job all of a day. I doubt he knows anything yet.”
“Oh. Good point.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “The guy the mayor or whoever hired did a much better job following us than we did following Zeke. Maybe we should have hired him.”
Despite everything, he chuckled. “I like your logic.”
“So the guy was just there to take pictures, but somehow he figures out what we’re up to and tells the mayor?”
“Or Yardley takes a wild stab in the dark and gets lucky.”
She squeezed his hand, then stepped in front of him.
“I didn’t do it, Riley. I swear.”
“Gracie, you don’t have to keep telling me that. I believe you.”
“I hope so. It’s just it looks so bad. I’m the only one who knows we made love and I’m the only one who knows that we didn’t use anything and that there’s a teeny, tiny chance I’m pregnant.”
“You’re not the only one,” he reminded her. “I know.”
“Oh, right. Because you’re the one telling the mayor.” She squeezed his hand tighter. “I mean it. I need you to believe me. It’s desperately important. I don’t lie. I can be a little anal about getting my cakes exactly right and I don’t have as much patience with my family as I probably should and I never get my checkbook to balance to the penny. I figure, hey if it’s within five dollars, fine. But I don’t lie and I would never set you up. I’m not afraid of the truth. Remember? I’m the girl who put a skunk in your car. I tend to do things out in the open so the world can see.”
The sun had slipped below the horizon. As the light faded, her skin took on a luminescence, as if she glowed from within. At that moment, staring into her beautiful face, he would have believed anything. Not so much because he wanted her—although he did—but because she was there.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, someone was there for him. Someone who was interested in him, his day, his opinions, his feelings. Guy friends were never that involved and he didn’t let women get close.
He believed Gracie because he didn’t have a choice.
He reached for her free hand and laced his fingers with hers, then he pulled her close, so they touched from shoulder to thigh.
“How did we get here?” he asked.
“The highway and then Beach Drive.”
He grinned, then he chuckled, then he started to laugh. She wiggled her shoulders.
“I’ve always had an excellent sense of humor,” she said.
“Yes, you do.”
He bent down and kissed her nose. Her mouth beckoned, but as much as he wanted to be in her bed, he wasn’t willing to give this up. Not yet.
He released her left hand and tugged her along so they were walking again.
“Any other directional questions I can answer?” she asked.
“Not right now.”
“You could get a GPS system.”
“Yes, I could.”
She drew in a deep breath. “I love the smell of the ocean. Where my aunt and uncle lived in Torrance, we were about five miles from the beach, so we could go there a lot. I’ve always lived close to the water. I’m not sure I could live anywhere else. How do people survive in the mountains or the desert?”
“It’s what they know. I didn’t see the ocean until we moved here when I was nearly sixteen.”
She glanced at him. “Where did you grow up?”
“Tempe, then finally here.” He remembered the trailer he and his mom had lived in. “I never asked her why we stayed so long after my dad left. Maybe she was waiting for him to come back.” His mother had always been a dreamer.