He settled across from her. “Making cakes is a lot of work.”
“Tell me about it. Oh, guess what happened. You’ll never guess, so I’ll tell you. I got a phone call today.” She told him about her upcoming interview with Neda Jackson. “I can’t believe it. Do you know what this is going to do for my business?”
“Make it explode.”
“I’ve seen your calendar, Gracie. You’re already stretched pretty thin. Does this mean you’re ready to expand?”
“I don’t know. If I get much more work, I’m going to have to hire some help. So I guess, yes. It’s just I hate to give up the control. I love doing all the cakes myself.”
“You can only put in so many hours a day. It sounds as if you’re about to have to make a big career decision.”
“Do I have to?” she asked.
“Not if you don’t want to.”
She sighed. She knew he was right. She’d been building her business based on word of mouth for the past five years. Things were about to get complicated. There was no way she could do more cakes—not during the busy wedding season of late spring through summer. Which meant she either started saying no or she got herself a staff.
“I guess I’m about to expand,” she said slowly.
“Good for you. Where will you set up shop? Here?”
She made a strangling sound in her throat. “Not even for money. Los Lobos is not my idea of fun. I’ll head back to L.A.”
“I’m with you on that,” he said. “At least on leaving Los Lobos.”
“But you won’t be. Once you win the election, you’ll be mayor. Isn’t it a four-year term?”
“The will says I have to win, not that I have to serve.”
She dropped her veining tool onto the table. “You’ll just walk away from everything? What about the bank? Will you sell it?”
That would be okay, she told herself. Her mother’s loan would simply transfer to the next owner. No doubt the local bank would be bought out by some big multinational concern.
“I’d shut it down,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
He shrugged. “Once I own the bank, I can pretty much do what I want. I’ll close the doors. That damn business was the only thing my uncle cared about. I want it to disappear, as if it never existed.”
Revenge. Of course. She’d forgotten that’s what all this was about for him. Getting back at his uncle.
“But if the bank closes, what happens to all the people who have money in it?”
“They get it all back. The accounts are cleared out, the loans called, debts paid. Then nothing.”
Loans called? “What do those people do? The ones who owe the money?”
“Get other financing.”
“What if they can’t?”
“Not my problem.”
But it might be hers. Although she was pretty sure her mother would be able to secure another loan. The house was paid for and she’d only borrowed enough for Vivian’s wedding. At least Gracie hoped that was all she’d borrowed.
He smiled. “Pam’s loan on her bed-and-breakfast is through the bank. That’s got to be good news for you.”
“I guess, but I’m worried about everyone else. Riley, I know you want to get back at your uncle and I completely understand that, but what about the town? You’ll be destroying it.”
“Again, not my problem.”
She’d been so caught up in how he made her feel, how great he’d been to her, that she’d forgotten there was an angry man hiding inside. He’d been carrying his pain for so long, it had damaged his soul.
“I don’t believe you can harm innocent people for revenge on one man,” she said. “That’s a lot of guilt to carry for no reason.”
“I don’t plan to feel guilty. Besides, why do you care? You can’t wait to get out of here.”
“I know, but I feel badly for everyone who’s going to be affected by this.”
“They’ll get over it.”
She felt badly for him, as well. He might think he could do this and walk away without any guilt, but she had her doubts. Was his revenge going to be worth all the regrets?
“Are we still on for dinner?” he asked.
“Of course. Why?”
“You’re thinking too much. You don’t approve.”
“It’s not my place to approve or disapprove. I just hope you’ve thought it all through and that what you’re doing will be worth it.”
“Don’t worry. At the rate things are going, I won’t win the election and inherit the bank. Then the town will be safe.”
“You don’t give up so easily. I would say you still have a good chance.”
“You’re right.” He stood. “Can you be ready by seven-fifteen? We’re meeting Jill and Mac at seven-thirty at Bill’s Mexican Grill.”
“Sure.” She glanced at the clock. It was barely after four. She had plenty of time to work on her leaves, then dress to dazzle. If she was going to be the center of attention tonight, she wanted to give everyone something special to talk about.
“I’ll let myself out,” he said and headed for the door. “See you soon.”
She heard the front door close behind him, then sighed.
While she understood why he felt he had to shut down the bank to get his revenge, she knew in her heart it was wrong. But how could she convince him of that?
Just one more thing for her to sweat. Oh, and that her mother could have her loan called. Of course Gracie could help out with that if necessary. At least she could let that worry go.
Which left her time to deal with her possible pregnancy, why Pam was being so nice, who was following her and/or Riley and taking pictures, the election, her sister’s on-again-off-again wedding, her relationship with her sisters and her mother, and what kind of cake she was going to make for the heritage society. Oh, and the fact that she and Riley were going out on a date. In public.
HOLLY SLID OFF the desk and adjusted her skirt. She bent down and kissed Franklin Yardley before straightening and walking out of his office.
Franklin leaned back in his chair. Damn, he was going to miss screwing her. Just knowing she walked around his office in those short skirts and no panties was enough to get him hard.
He’d always had willing assistants, from his first year in office. They’d fit the same profile—young, intelligent, sexual. He’d taught them everything he’d known and eventually they’d moved on with no hard feelings.
He would miss the variety, the youth, the willingness to do anything, anywhere. But a promise was a promise and he’d vowed to give them up. The idea of sex with just one woman for the rest of his life was a little daunting, but it would be worth it.
He would also miss this office and the perks that went with it. After he won the election, he would clean up the books, close the private account he’d used to skim money from the city for the past fifteen years and make sure the paper trail went up in smoke.
He would divorce Sandra, of course, leave the country and settle into his life of luxury. His private line rang and as he reached for it he thought how much he loved it when a plan came together.
“Yardley,” he said briskly.
“Hey, lover. How’s it going?”
Franklin glanced at the closed door and knew Holly sat on the other side. Less than ten minutes ago, he’d been screwing her brains out right here on his desk.
“Good. Happy. You were magnificent at the debate.”
“Thank you. I have to admit I was worried about Riley gaining in the polls. I thought we might have to hire our photographer friend again, but not anymore. Riley is going to lose the election without me having to try.”
“I know. I can’t believe he’s stupid enough to mess with Gracie Landon.” Her voice tightened. “What a bitch. But it’s our gain. In a couple of weeks you’ll be reelected and Riley Whitefield will have lost everything.”
“Including his uncle’s ninety-seven million dollars.” Franklin sighed with satisfaction. “You know we won’t be getting it all.”
“That’s okay,” she said easily. “I can accept forty million as a consolation prize. It was so sweet of Donovan Whitefield to leave the bulk of his estate to the Grand Cayman Association for the Advancement of Orphans.”
Franklin nodded. “He always liked to help those less fortunate than himself. Especially his friends. He’s the one who suggested the Grand Cayman Islands. The rest of the estate will go to real charities to make everything seem on the up-and-up.” He chuckled. “I wonder what Riley would say if he knew his uncle had set him up to fail?”
“He’s never going to know,” she said. “Instead he’s going to lose the election and leave town with his tail between his legs.”
“Then you and I will pack our bags and be gone.”
“I can’t wait,” she breathed. “I want to be with you.”
“I love you, Franklin.”
“I love you, too, baby.”
BILL’S MEXICAN GRILL had fabulous food, but it wasn’t known for its ambiance. The restaurant was casual, bordering on tacky, which left Gracie in something of a clothing dilemma.
She wanted to look fabulous. After all, she and Riley were about to be the center of attention for the entire evening. People who saw them together would talk about it with their friends and she wanted to make sure that one of the things they said was how great she looked.
It was only fair. The last time she’d generated this much talk with her crush on Riley, she’d been fourteen and, as her mother’s neighbor Mrs. Baxter had mentioned, unfortunate-looking. All arms and legs with a completely flat chest, hair that never looked good, no matter what she did to it, braces and acne that had defined her face. Yuck.
Time and growing up had changed all that. She might not be a beauty queen, but she had left “unfortunate-looking” far behind. She wanted to celebrate her curves, her glossy hair and perfectly blemish-free complexion.
She stared in the mirror, ignored the electric curlers piled on her head and considered the blue sleeveless dress she held in front of herself. While it was pretty and had a low cut front, she thought it was a bit too obvious. Sort of an “oh, look, I’m on a date” dress. But she did want to wear a dress or at least a skirt because pants just seemed too—something. Wrong, maybe. Plus she’d not only shaved her legs, she’d fake-tanned and the color had come out really nice.
“Khaki skirt?” she mused aloud. “Khaki skirt with my pale blue twin set?”
The twin set in question was kind of fun with a little beading and appliqué work. She’d bought it for pennies on the dollar at a consignment store up in Palos Verdes the previous fall when all the rich women were getting rid of their summer wardrobes.
She dug through her closet, searching for the skirt, then stopped when she heard someone pounding on her front door. A quick glance at her watch told her it couldn’t be Riley. It was barely after six.
Gracie grabbed the skirt and tossed it on the bed, then headed for the front of the house. She pulled open the door and had to hold in a groan when she saw Vivian standing there.
Tears poured down her sister’s face. She stood hunched, as if she’d been battered one too many times.
Gracie’s first instinct was to offer sympathy. Then she remembered this was the sister who wanted the uber expensive wedding, but refused to actually commit to getting married.
“What’s up?” Gracie asked.
Vivian stepped into the house and choked on a sob. “It’s over. With Tom.”