“Why does Alexis think he’s having an affair?”
Gracie shrugged. “He’s coming home late and not saying where he’s been.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“About six weeks. At first she figured he really was working on the campaign, but the nights got later and later and when he wouldn’t talk about what was going on….” She stopped and glanced at him. “Why are you running for mayor? You don’t strike me as the political type.”
Riley ignored the question and pointed to her drink. “Do you want something different?”
Gracie sniffed the glass, then put it on the desk. “No, it’s great. It’s just stress makes my stomach unhappy.” She pulled a roll of what looked like antacids from her pocket and popped a couple in her mouth. “Terrific room.”
Riley followed her gaze as she glanced at the twelve-foot-high bookcases filled to overflowing. He didn’t bother telling her that the library was one of the few places he felt comfortable in the oversized house.
“Tell me about Zeke,” he said.
“You tell me.” She walked to the leather sofa across from the ornate fireplace and flopped down. “He’s your campaign manager. Is he having an affair?”
“Hell if I know.” Riley paced to the desk and leaned against it. “He talks about Alexis all the time. I would say he adores her.”
“But your meetings don’t run until three in the morning.”
He smiled. “I’m running for mayor, not president.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Well, I guess I have to tell Alexis that he wasn’t here. She’s not going to like that.”
Riley didn’t much like it, either. The election was only five weeks away and he couldn’t afford a scandal. Not when he was finally making progress with the good citizens of Los Lobos.
He set down his drink and tugged at the picture still hanging from the camera. After peeling off the protective layer, he stared at the Polaroid photo.
It showed the ceiling of the library and a few shelves, but nothing else.
“You’re not very good at this,” he told Gracie.
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not trying to be. Despite what you think of me, I didn’t grow up to be a spy or a professional stalker. I bake wedding cakes for a living.”
She was annoyed and indignant, but also embarrassed. Color stained her cheeks and her bottom lip trembled slightly. She’d grown up, filled out, but the basics were still the same. Big blue eyes, long gold-blond hair and an air of determination that had scared the bejesus out of him back then.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “For this and for all that. You know. Before.”
“Are we talking about the itching powder in my boxer shorts?”
“Yeah. I guess. I just….” She leaned forward and traced a pattern on the coffee table in front of the sofa. “Looking back, I can’t believe what I did to you. It was horrible.”
“Folks around here are still talking about it.”
She sat up and looked at him. “Tell me about it. Everyone else gets to leave their past behind, but not me. Noooo. I become a legend. I have to say, it seriously sucks.”
He thought about the laxative she’d managed to sneak into his soup the afternoon before the homecoming dance. “You were creative.”
“I was a menace. I just wanted…” Color flared again. “Well, we both know what I wanted.”
“Date much now?”
She tossed her head. “Some. I’m careful not to bring them here.”
“You don’t want them hearing about the time you lured a skunk into my car, then locked it inside for a couple of hours?”
She winced. “I paid for the cleaning.”
“My car was never the same. I had to sell it. At auction.” He raised his glass to her. “You were hell-bent on breaking up me and Pam.” Based on what had happened, maybe he should have listened.
Gracie’s knowing expression had him thinking she would agree with his assessment. But instead of commenting on that she said, “So what happens next?”
“I find out what Zeke’s up to. I don’t need any trouble right now. Can you get your sister to back off until I have some concrete information?”
When Gracie hesitated, he stared at her. “You owe me,” he reminded her.
She shivered. “I know. Okay—I’ll do what I can with Alexis. But I can’t promise more than a couple of days. She’s a woman on a mission.”
“And we all know what happens when you Landon women set your mind to something.”
“Exactly.” She stood and looked at him. “I’m really sorry, Riley. I know the apology is about fourteen years too late, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I never meant to make your life hell.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Do you want me to leave my cell number so you can get in touch with me about Zeke or do you want to call Alexis directly?”
Riley decided on the devil he knew. “Your number is fine.”
He handed her a pad of paper. She quickly wrote on it and passed it back.
“My camera,” she said.
He gave it to her.
“How long are you in town for?” he asked.
“A few weeks. My younger sister, Vivian, is getting married. I’m here to help out with all the details and to make the wedding cake. I rented a house at the edge of town. I need a kitchen to complete my other orders.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
She nodded, then turned the camera over in her hands as if she wanted to say something else. He waited, but she only shrugged, then walked toward the hallway.
He followed her to the front door. She stepped out into the night, then glanced back at him.
“I wasn’t wrong about Pam,” she said.
“I should have listened.”
Her lips curved up in a smile. “Really?”
“Sure. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn sometimes, Gracie. Good night.”
He closed the door, but didn’t step away. Sure enough he heard a thud, as if she’d just kicked the door.
“That was a low blow, Riley,” she yelled. “A real low blow.”
Despite everything that had happened and everything he had yet to do, he found himself grinning as he returned to the library.
GRACIE FUMED as she stalked away from Riley’s house. “A blind squirrel,” she muttered. “My opinion on Pam wasn’t based on dumb luck. Talk about ungrateful. If he’d listened to me, he wouldn’t have married her in the first place. But no.”
She stomped her foot once for good measure, then stopped on the sidewalk. No sign of Alexis or the car. While Los Lobos wasn’t huge, the distance from the Whitefield manor side of town to her mother’s more middle-class neighborhood would definitely qualify as a serious workout.
She turned left and started walking. The night was pleasantly cool with a hint of brine in the air. Even though she’d been gone forever, the town felt familiar. She liked the closeness of the ocean and the quiet residential streets. She might live in a suburb back in Los Angeles, but it was a whole lot louder than this.
At the corner, she glanced back at Riley’s house. He might have grown up poor, but he fit in there now. As she walked across the street, she smiled. Man oh man, had he looked good. She supposed she could take comfort in the fact that even at thirteen she’d had fabulous taste in men. Riley had only gotten better with age. He had the brooding, dark, good looks of a fallen angel. An angel with a diamond stud earring.
Despite her shock and embarrassment at seeing him again, she’d felt something. Sparks. Attraction. No doubt as completely one-sided as it had ever been, which meant she had to make sure she didn’t even pretend to act on it. No way was she willing to be stalker girl again.
A car pulled up beside her. Gracie glanced over and saw Alexis’s Camry. Her sister rolled down the window.
“You got away,” she said quietly. “I’m glad. Get in.”
“What do you mean I got away?” Gracie asked as she opened the door and slid onto the passenger seat. “Were you seriously concerned Riley would take me prisoner and torture me for information?”
“I didn’t know what would happen. I can’t believe your flash is that bright and loud.”
Gracie glanced at her aging camera. “Me, either. Guess it’s really not what I should use for my undercover work.” She returned her attention to her sister. “You left me back there. What’s up with that?”
Alexis hunched over the steering wheel. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t risk being caught.”
“Oh, and I could? Do you have any idea what Riley thought when he found me lurking outside his windows?”
“Nothing he hasn’t thought a million times before.”
That hurt, Gracie thought. “I would like everyone to remember I’ve grown up since then.” She sighed. “It doesn’t matter. I have the information you wanted.”
Her sister looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“I asked Riley about Zeke.”
Alexis slammed on the brakes, making Gracie grateful she’d fastened her seat belt securely.
Gracie braced her hands against the dashboard. “I talked to him about the problem. He has answers. Why is this a big deal?”
“Because it’s private,” Alexis shrieked. “I didn’t want anyone to know. It’s family stuff and supposed to be a secret. Not that I would expect you to understand that.”
Gracie flinched. She didn’t know if her sister meant the family part or the secret part, and she wasn’t sure it mattered.
“You dragged me into this,” she reminded her sister. “I went along to help you.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just…” Alexis sighed. “What did he say?”
“That to the best of his knowledge, Zeke loves and adores you. But he wasn’t working on the campaign tonight.” She thought about mentioning that Riley was going to talk to Zeke about his extracurricular activities but wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the screeching again.
Alexis pulled up in front of the Landon family home and turned off the engine. “What?” she demanded.
“Riley is going to talk to Zeke about where he goes.”
Alexis dropped her head to the steering wheel and moaned. “Tell me you’re kidding.”
“I’m not, but it’s not such a bad idea. You’re not willing to talk to your husband about it and someone has to get the truth. Once you know he’s not running around, you’ll feel better.” Gracie touched her sister’s arm. “If you’d just talk to him yourself,” she began.
Alexis opened the driver’s door. “You don’t understand. It’s not that simple. I’m not sure I want to know what he’s doing. If he is fooling around…” She swallowed. “I don’t want to have to leave him, but I will.”
Gracie didn’t want to be having this conversation or any other, at the moment. She had only been home a couple of days and already a week of root canals seemed so much more pleasant.
“Why don’t you wait and find out the truth?” she asked softly.
“Good point. I will. Are you coming in?” Alexis jerked her head toward the house.
At this point Gracie was more than ready to escape to her rental, but she nodded and stepped out of the car. She would duck inside, yell out a greeting and leave. She could rationalize the decision by saying she had to unpack, but the truth was she wanted to be gone because she needed some distance. Too much family stuff too quickly, she thought.