Zeke nodded, then pulled back. Riley let him go. Zeke swallowed, then straightened his tie.
“Right. Okay. So we need new numbers.” He glanced at Riley, his expression wary. “Are you going to keep seeing her?”
“Gracie’s terrific. My sister-in-law. I’ve always liked her. But you know that Yardley’s claim is going to cost you votes. Maybe a few, maybe a lot.”
“We’ll deal with it.”
“Right. Sure. I’ll come up with a new strategy. Let me think on it for the next day or so.” He took a step back from the desk.
Just then Diane knocked on the door as she pushed it open.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but you asked me to let you know as soon as your father returned. He’s here.”
Riley wasn’t even a little surprised. He nodded. “Let me finish up here.”
Zeke’s eyes widened. “Your dad. That’s cool. Maybe we could use him in the campaign.”
“I’m just saying it would make you seem more approachable.”
Zeke opened his mouth, then closed it. “All right. I’ll get back to you by end of day tomorrow. By then I’ll have poll numbers and a new strategy.”
Zeke gathered his folders and ducked out of the room. Seconds later, his father entered.
“Morning, son,” he said cheerfully. “How are you?”
Riley studied the older man. Same suit, he thought. Different shirt. This one a little more worn than the one from the previous day. Riley didn’t know where his father had been or what he wanted the money for. Honest to God, he didn’t care.
“How much,” he said before his father could speak again. “How much do you want.”
The older man smiled. “I’ve been thinking about going into a couple of franchises. They seem to be doing well. Some of those sandwich shops really rake in the money.”
He continued talking, but Riley wasn’t listening. Instead, he studied the man who was his father and searched for resemblances.
The eyes, he supposed. Maybe the dark hair. Did they share a sense of humor? A taste for good Scotch? Obviously they both had no problem walking away from women.
At ten Riley had worshipped his father. The man’s disappearance had cut out his heart and it had taken years to recover. His mother never had. Oh she’d been brave, living her life, smiling, laughing, but there’d been a sadness underneath. As if she’d risked everything she had and then she’d lost it all.
“How much?” Riley asked again, interrupting him.
The old man stopped talking and blinked. “Two hundred thousand?”
Riley opened the top desk drawer and removed the personal checkbook he’d brought in that morning. He wrote the amount without saying a word.
“I appreciate this, son. Your generosity means a lot.”
Riley passed him the check. “Next time, don’t bother coming by. Just send me a letter.”
They looked at each other, then his father nodded. “If that’s what you’d prefer.”
“Don’t you want to know how I found you?”
“All right.” The old man looked at the check. “Oh. How’s your mother? Happy?”
Riley wanted to punch him then. Anger swelled inside of him until it threatened to burst out in a destructive wave.
“She’s fine. Thanks for asking.” He stared pointedly at the door. “I have a meeting.”
“Of course. Thanks for the money.”
The man who had been his father for the first ten years of his life walked out. Riley was fairly confident he would never see him again, although there would be a steady stream of letters requesting more money for more failed dreams.
When he was alone again, he pushed the button to ring Diane’s phone.
“I want to donate the money to the children’s wing of the hospital,” he said. “In my mother’s name.”
There was a brief pause. Riley imagined his unflappable secretary openmouthed in astonishment.
“I’ll call them right away.”
He disconnected the call, then slowly turned in his chair. He still hated his uncle, he thought as he stared at the portrait of the man. He would never give an inch on his desire for revenge. But for the first time Riley understood what it must have been like to be one man who had the money to solve everyone’s problems.
GRACIE TAPPED the cooling pan twice for good luck, gave it a quick twist, then pulled it up in one, quick motion. The cake fell out perfectly.
“Impressive,” Pam said with a sigh. “I can’t even get muffins to pop out of the pan. I end up using a knife and they get all bent and scrunchy on the edges.”
“Practice,” Gracie said with pride as she stared at the bottom layer of an oval cake. “Practice and a little bit of prayer.”
“How many layers will this one be?” Pam asked.
“Five, which means it’s huge and it’s heavy.” She reached for the next cake pan and tapped it.
“How do you keep the layers from sinking into each other?”
“Dowels. I stick them into the cake to provide support.” The cake pan lifted easily. She sighed. “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Pam leaned over the cake and inhaled. “I don’t know what it is you put in your mix, but your cakes always smell so good.”
“Thanks.” Gracie knew Pam wouldn’t mention taste, what with never having eaten a single bite. Gracie wasn’t sure she ate ever. She was unnaturally thin, which was very annoying.
“There are hundreds of flowers,” Pam said, pointing to the carefully stacked trays of fondant roses. “But they’re for the cake you made and iced yesterday, right?”
“Oh, yeah. That’s what comes next. Assembly.” She glanced at the clock. The groom’s father would arrive to pick up the cake in six hours. Eek! “I have to let the cake cool completely or the heat will mess up the icing. That’s the tricky part. Everyone gets married on the weekend, which makes it tough to stagger the work. I can prepare all the decorations in advance. In any case, it’s easy because the cake I’m finishing today doesn’t have any fancy trim or piping. I just have to put on the decorations I’ve already made. I’ll decorate this one tomorrow.”
She carried the cooling racks over to the far counter and lifted the protective box off the three tiered cake she’d frosted the previous day.
“It looks perfect,” Pam said, sounding impressed. “It’s so smooth.”
Her cell phone rang. Instantly her body went on alert. She’d reached that unfortunate stage where every call was either Riley or not Riley. A quick glance at the display screen told her she didn’t recognize the number.
“Hi. My name is Neda Jackson. I freelance for several bridal magazines and I’ve just been given an assignment to do a feature on you. They want me to come up and take pictures of you working, along with several of your cakes. We’ll do an interview, I’ll talk to former clients, that sort of thing. They’re hoping for about a six-to eight-page spread.”
“I…They…” Gracie forced herself to breathe. Six to eight pages in a bridal magazine? “I’m excited.” More than excited. Giddy. Thrilled. Willing to do the happy dance in public.
“Me, too,” Neda said. “Our deadline’s tight. How’s the first part of next week?”
“Great. I’ll have two cakes in progress. Are you in L.A.?”
“Good. Let me get in touch with a couple of brides and see if you can take pictures this weekend.”
Neda gave Gracie her number, then confirmed the time of the meeting. When they hung up, Gracie shrieked as she twirled through the kitchen.
Pam laughed. “I take it that was good news.”
“Better than good. In terms of career highlights, this is a grand-slam home run.”
GRACIE WAS STILL floating later that afternoon when she returned to her house. She had more decorations to make and she seemed to do those best in a quiet place without Pam watching.
She set up her supplies in the dining room, then pulled out sketches for the next three cakes she had to make. Five minutes later she had her list of decorations required, with a few extras for breakage. It was daunting, but she was sure she was up to the task. She was going to have to be, now that she’d hit the big time.
“A six-page spread,” she said aloud, just to hear the wonderful words herself. Talk about a good life.
While the People magazine spread had made her known to the world, a feature in a major bridal magazine put her in front of her actual clients. With this free advertising coming her way, the decision to expand had just been made for her.
She started work on the leaves. After rolling out the gum paste to an even thickness, she used a tulip petal cutter, then trimmed each flower into individual petals. Using a sharp veining tool, she drew in lines and points on the leaves, then carefully placed them on a flower form dusted with cornstarch so they would dry in a curving shape. According to her calculations, she would need about three hundred and sixty leaves for the cakes. When those were done, she would start on the flowers themselves. Good thing she enjoyed working late into the night.
She’d just settled into a steady rhythm of making leaves when she heard a car outside. She stood and walked toward the front door just as someone rang the bell.
But it wasn’t any someone, she thought as she opened the door. It was Riley.
“Hi,” he said. “I was driving by and I saw your car.”
She felt giddy and nervous and a little bit melty on the inside. “I’m glad you stopped.” She stepped back to let him in. “What brings you to the low-rent side of town?”
“A couple of things.”
He pushed the door closed, then pulled her close and kissed her. The melty sensation spread to her entire body. She closed her eyes and let herself get lost in the kiss. This was actually turning out to be a very good day.
“Feel free to stop by for that anytime,” she said when he’d straightened.
He grinned. “I will. But that’s not the only reason. I wanted to ask you out to dinner.”
Her insides gave a little lurch. “Really?”
“Really. Mac called me earlier and suggested the four of us go out to eat tonight. I thought it would be fun.”
Her first thought was that she’d never made it over to Jill’s and that they could talk over dinner. Her second thought was….
“Fun? Fun?” She stared at him. “Have you been taken over by those aliens from Pam’s place? Fun? It won’t be fun. The four of us in a restaurant together? Us on a date? In public? Have you forgotten the ‘Gracie Chronicles’? Do you have any idea what people will say? The scandal? You’re running for mayor and I’m trying to have a normal life here. That is not going to happen if the four of us go out to dinner.”
He looked at her. “Is that a no?”
“What? Of course not. I’m just ranting. What time should I be ready?”
He narrowed his gaze. “You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you? You’re trying to make me freak out.”
“Not at all.” She grinned. “Okay, maybe a little. But people will talk. Walk with me. I have to work. I’m falling behind and that’s never good.”
She led the way into the dining room and motioned to the chairs around the table. “Have a seat. I have to do leaves.”