Jill patted her arm. “You’re legend, and you’re going to have to accept that.”
“Can I be something else, like a pillar? I’d be a great pillar.”
Mac grinned. “Maybe being seen with you will get Riley elected.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” Gracie said. “If anything, I’ve probably cost him points.”
“I’m fine,” Riley told her. “I didn’t come this far to lose the election. Don’t worry.”
“I can’t help it. Worrying is like a sport with me.”
“Then worry tomorrow. Tonight we’re here to have fun. Can you do that?”
The waitress arrived and asked for their drink orders. He and Mac each wanted a beer, while Gracie and Jill selected iced tea.
The reality of the situation struck him. She wasn’t drinking. In fact the night they’d made love and played with champagne at the same time, she’d barely had any of the alcohol. He’d noticed her nearly full glass the next morning. He knew that Gracie normally didn’t mind drinking, so the change had to do with the fact that she might be pregnant.
He’d known in his head it might be possible, but until that moment, the news hadn’t sunk down to his gut.
What if she was? What would he do? Marry her?
He waited for the panic and frustration he’d felt when he’d had to marry Pam to swamp him, but there wasn’t any. He wasn’t even angry. So what the hell did that mean?
NEDA JACKSON TURNED out to be a bright, attractive woman in her mid-twenties with fabulous braids hanging halfway down her back. Gracie eyed them and wondered if she could pull off a similar look.
“Good to meet you,” Neda said as she walked into Gracie’s rental house. “I’ve been doing my research and I have to tell you that all your brides are very happy with your cakes. One of them even invited me by after the wedding. Her mom had saved me a piece.” Neda’s dark brown eyes widened with pleasure. “Delicious. I love how the cake tasted, and I’m not a big cake eater. So what do you put in it?”
Gracie laughed. “Sorry. House secret. I played with various cake recipes for over a year until I perfected the one I use. It’s a white cake recipe that I modify for chocolate or yellow cake.”
“What are you working on now?” Neda asked.
“Staying sane. It’s the busy season. I have at least three cakes to make every week for the next eleven weeks. Then it drops off to just two cakes a week. Some of the designs are simple and only take twenty or thirty hours. Some take double that.”
“But you work alone, don’t you? There aren’t that many hours in a day.”
Gracie nodded. “Tell me about it. I save a lot of time by making the decorations in batches. A lot of them can be made in advance.”
“And you do it yourself. That’s so great. I have to tell you, I’ve met some wedding cake makers who really cut corners. As much as these cakes cost, that makes me crazy.”
Gracie led the way into the dining room where hundreds of leaves and individual flowers sat on stacked trays.
Neda moved close. “What are these? Plastic flowers you buy at a craft store.”
“No. I made them. They’re edible.”
“You’re kidding.” Neda moved close and stared. “They’re icing. Even the leaves. You made the leaves? You don’t buy those?”
“I make each one by hand.”
Gracie led her back into the kitchen where she had a two-layer shower cake on the counter.
“How do you get the frosting so smooth?” Neda asked. “It’s beautiful.”
“The cake is frosted in buttercream icing. Over that I’ve placed rolled fondant. That’s what makes it so smooth. The sides are decorated with little dots in two sizes.” Gracie showed her how to apply them. “Roses circle the base of the two layers.”
She picked up a premade rose and gently set it into place. “The process isn’t that difficult, but it’s time consuming.”
Neda laughed. “Not to mention that you have to be able to design the cake in the first place and make all the decorations.”
“I could never do that.” She set her notepad on a kitchen chair then dug in her bag for her digital camera. “Okay, let me take some general pictures, then I want to shoot you decorating this cake.”
Gracie worked on the shower cake while Neda circled her and took pictures. There was a partially assembled wedding cake on the other counter and Gracie worked on that as well. As Neda took photos, she asked questions.
“Why wedding cakes?”
“I like making them. I enjoy the challenge of coming up with a new design. I like being a part of a couple’s special day.”
Gracie sighed. “Someone dropped the top layer once. The bride’s brother had picked up the cake, which was in six boxes. I was going to assemble it later. I received a frantic phone call that the top layer, including the blown-glass antique ornament, had been destroyed.”
Neda stared at her. “What did you do?”
Gracie slipped three more roses in place. “I was making another cake for the following day and they were about the same size. I put a new top layer in the oven for bride number two and quickly changed the frosting on the one I already had. We still didn’t have an ornament, so I put a call in to the florist. By the time I arrived at the reception location, she had delivered five dozen miniature roses in the bride’s colors.”
Gracie shivered at the memory. “It was a three-layer cake with pillars in between, so everything was visible. I had less than an hour to make it all work. I pretty much pulled off most of my decorations, to make the bottom two layers more plain, then I cut the rose stems off and piled the buds on each layer. I used leftover petals to dress up the table and tacked a few decorations on the top layer. No one ever knew, except the immediate family.”
“Talk about pressure,” Neda said.
“It got my heart racing.”
Neda took several more pictures, asked a couple more questions, then announced that the interview was finished.
“I’m so impressed,” the reporter said. “I love your work and I’m going to say that in my article.” Neda loaded up her bag. “I’m engaged. We’re thinking of a Christmas wedding. Do you still have room in your schedule for my cake?”
Gracie smiled. “Absolutely. Let me give you a card. You can call me in the next month or so and we can talk about what you’d like. Holiday wedding cakes can be so beautiful. All those jewel tones.”
“Good. Thanks. You’ve been terrific.”
Gracie led her to the front door, then walked her out to her car. As they approached Neda’s Mustang, Gracie noticed a couple of boxes lying on the driveway next to her own car.
“What are those?” she asked as she moved closer.
When she caught sight of the familiar cake mix logo, she froze in place.
“What is it?” Neda asked.
Gracie couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. She could only stare at the two boxes that had obviously fallen out of her Subaru. No wonder, what with the back end of the vehicle being jam packed with what looked like hundreds of cake mix boxes.
“Are you kidding?” the reporter asked, sounding disgusted. “You use cake mix? That’s your secret ingredient?”
“No! These aren’t mine. You didn’t see them when you drove up. I haven’t used a cake mix since I was twelve. Someone did this.”
Neda shook her head. “Oh, sure. Someone knew I was coming and just happened to figure out when so they could plant this on you. Forget what I said about you making my wedding cake.”
Gracie picked up the boxes. They were full. “You have to believe me.”
“I don’t think so. You’re not special after all. I should have known.”
Neda opened her car door and tossed in her bag. When she turned around, Gracie saw the digital camera in her hand. Before Gracie could stop her, she’d already taken half a dozen pictures.
“Oh, and never mind about the article. We’re a reputable magazine,” Neda said as she climbed in her car. “I can’t believe you did this. Don’t you realize you’re spoiling people’s weddings? That’s so low. You seemed so nice, too, but I guess that was as much a lie as your cakes. You probably didn’t even make those decorations yourself. That’s why they were all stacked like that. You bought them somewhere.”
With that Neda slammed her door and sped away. Gracie stared after her. This couldn’t be happening, she told herself. It just couldn’t.
But it was, she thought as she stared at the cake box in her hand. Someone had set her up. And there was only one name she could think of:
But even as she told herself no one else would bother, she honestly couldn’t think of a single reason as to why Pam would do this to her. The woman had been nothing but friendly and pleasant since Gracie moved back. She’d even rented out her kitchen.
Gracie fought tears as she dropped the boxes in the trash. Then she walked in the house, grabbed her purse, made sure the oven was off, then hurried to her car.
RILEY WRAPPED UP the meeting and walked back to his office. As he crossed in front of the elevators, they opened and Gracie stepped out. He took one look at her face and knew the worst—whatever that might be—had happened.
“What?” he asked as he put his arm around her and led her into his office. “Is someone hurt?”
She shook her head and gulped in a breath. “The cakes. I don’t understand how it happened. I told a few people, but no one knew when exactly. I think it’s Pam, but why? She’s been nice. It can’t be Jill, and I want to suspect my sisters but I never even told them. God forbid we talk about anything but them.”
He ushered her inside and closed the door. When they were alone and in private, he pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her.
“Start at the beginning,” he said gently. “Tell me what happened.”
Instead, she began to cry. His first clue was the long silence. Then her body began to shake and finally he heard the soft sobs.
“I’m ruined,” she managed after a few minutes. “Completely ruined.”
“Not possible,” he said and kissed the top of her head. “What happened?”
Her answer was to cry harder. Riley had never been a fan of tears on a woman—they’d always seemed like a manipulation. But with Gracie, he felt differently. She didn’t want anything from him—except possibly for him to ease her pain.
She sniffed. “I need a tissue.”
He pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to her.
She blotted her face, then turned from him and blew her nose.
“I’m not attractive when I cry. You should look away.”
He pulled her close again. “Right. Because I’m just in this because of how you look. Tell me what happened.”
“I had my interview with the bridal magazine person today.”
“Okay and then what?” He led her over to the sofa in the corner and tugged her down next to him. After angling toward her, he cupped her face. “I know you were charming and brilliant and you made a fan.”
Tears filled her blue eyes. “You’d think, wouldn’t you? She even asked me to bake her wedding cake. She’s getting married in December. But now….”
Her voice wavered and her shoulders slumped.
“Now, what?” he asked gently as he wiped her cheeks with his thumbs.
“She was leaving and I walked her outside. One of the things she wanted to talk about was the secret ingredient. I don’t tell anyone what I put in my cakes. I worked on the recipe forever and it’s really good.”