“I know. I’ve had your cake.”
She sniffed again. “There were boxes everywhere. Someone planted cake mix boxes in my car. They were spilled out onto the ground. She got mad. She took pictures and called me a liar and now I’m ruined.”
She covered her face and began to sob. He drew her close and settled her against his side.
The typical male side of him wanted to promise that everything would be all right, but he didn’t actually know that and he wasn’t about to pretend to Gracie. Her business survived on reputation and word-of-mouth. He knew what the mention in People had done for her career. If word got out that she was a fraud, clients could disappear overnight.
Frustration bubbled inside of him. He didn’t have a clue as to how to fix the problem and the need to do so burned hot and bright inside.
“Who would do this?” he asked. “Who would want to set you up? Are other cake decorators mad because you’re doing so well?”
She kept her head on his shoulder and wiped her face with the handkerchief. “I don’t know. We’re not exactly a close-knit group. No monthly meetings or any of that. I’ve met a few at wedding expos. They seemed nice enough. How would any of them know what I was doing or even where I was?”
“Who knew about the interview?”
“You, me, Jill. I’m sure she told Mac, but he would never do anything like this. And Pam.”
“Pam, my ex-wife?”
“Uh-huh. She was there when I got the call. She was really excited for me.”
“Yeah, right. Pam’s never been happy for anyone but herself in her entire life. Okay, she’s a prime suspect.”
Gracie straightened and looked at him. “I agree that of all the people who knew, Pam is the only one I don’t trust. But why would she do it? What does she care if I get a write-up in some bridal magazine? It’s a big deal with me, but not to anyone else. It’s not as if she has a rival bakery. My success, or lack of success, doesn’t impact her at all.”
“Good question. But there isn’t anyone else.”
“I know.” Gracie sighed. “I just don’t get it. Why? And what do I do now?”
“Do you want to confront Pam?”
“Not really. I want to crawl back home and have this never have happened. Can we do that?”
He stroked her hair. “Gracie, I know it’s horrible, but what’s the worst-case scenario? You don’t get the nice spread in the bridal magazine. You were doing well before—is not getting the notice going to be all that bad?”
She sat up and looked at him. “No, that’s not so bad. But I’m afraid that’s not the worst of it. I’ve made cakes for famous people—that makes me loosely linked to them. And there’s nothing anyone likes more than a scandal related to movie and television stars. If Neda just bad-mouths me at the magazine, I’ll be okay. But if she sells the story and the photos to a tabloid, then I’m completely and totally screwed.”
Pain darkened her eyes. Pain and a kind of hopelessness that made him want to lash out at someone—anyone, so long as it would make her feel better.
“What can I do?” he asked.
“Nothing. But I appreciate the thought.” She stood.
“You’ve been great, but I have to get going. There are more cakes to finish before my career flushes down the toilet.”
He rose. “You don’t know that will happen.”
She nodded. “Maybe I’ll get lucky, but I don’t think so.”
As he watched her leave, he tightened his hands into fists. There had to be something he could do, some way he could fix the problem. Or if not this problem, then another one. Because he had to do something. He couldn’t leave Gracie in that much pain.
GRACIE LOST HERSELF in work. Home seemed the safest place to be and with the worry that she could be trashed in some tabloid at any second, she desperately needed to work while she still could.
She avoided everyone, even Riley. She talked to Jill by phone, but didn’t mention the botched interview, and she stayed away from Pam and her bed-and-breakfast. Better to have to turn the pans every ten minutes than risk that encounter, she thought, still not sure why Pam would have done it.
Three days later, the world came calling in the form of someone knocking on her front door. She walked out to the small foyer and looked out the window.
“Just what I need,” she murmured as she saw her mother standing there. “Another emotional beating.”
But there was no way to hide, not with her car parked in the driveway, she so braced herself for the forthcoming lecture and opened the door.
“Hi, Mom,” she said with a cheerfulness she didn’t feel. “How’s it going?”
“Okay.” Her mother stepped into the house. “Not great.”
Gracie drew in a deep breath. “I’m sorry to hear that. Honestly, I didn’t come back here to make trouble, but that seems to be what’s happening. Apparently, there are forces at work I can’t control. In truth, while I appreciate your concern, I can’t handle one more lecture. I don’t want to talk about my relationship with Riley, my past, my issues or any of that.”
“That’s not why I’m here.”
“Okay.” Great. More wedding talk. Had Vivian’s plan of nakedness worked?
Gracie led the way into the small living room and motioned to the sofa. “You want anything?”
“No. I’m fine.”
Her mother settled on a sofa and waited until Gracie took a club chair before speaking.
“I’m sorry,” her mother said. “I’m more sorry than I can ever say. I’ve been a horrible mother and a worse person. I’m disgusted with myself.” Tears filled her eyes.
Gracie figured that was four-for-four on the Landon women sobbing in the past couple of weeks. It had to be a record.
“Mom, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I know.” More prepared than Gracie had been during her meltdown, her mother withdrew a small package of tissues from her purse. “I’ve tried to ignore it all, but I can’t. It’s just like it was all those years ago. I know what I did and I refuse to do it again. Those bitches can just go to hell.”
Gracie blinked. She wasn’t sure she’d ever heard her mother swear before. “I’m all in favor of bitches in hell. Really. But who are we talking about and what did they do?”
“It’s not them. It’s me.” Her mother drew in a deep breath. “Oh, Gracie, you were always such a bright, happy child. Then your father died and your world collapsed. You were his favorite.” She gave a shaky smile. “Parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, or if we do, we aren’t supposed to say, but everyone knew your father loved you best. And when he died, you were so lost.”
Gracie swallowed. She remembered her father. How he’d always made time for her, how they’d done things together. “I missed him a lot.”
“I know you did. I was worried, but I thought you’d be fine. Then that Riley boy moved in next door and you fixated on him. I knew it had to do with you losing your father and needing a man in your life. I thought it would blow over. But it didn’t.”
Gracie’s warm fuzzy feelings faded. “We’ve been over this, Mom.”
“I know. Here’s my point. Things got out of hand so quickly and soon everyone knew you had a crush on him. People talked. There were those stories in the paper. You became legend. A lot of people thought it was sweet, but some women around town weren’t so kind. You were so creative and they were cruel. They laughed at you and at me. I felt exposed and humiliated. As if I couldn’t control my own daughter. Every week there was a new Gracie story.”
Gracie felt her cheeks get hot. She’d never considered her actions from her mother’s point of view. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t be. You were young and it was your first crush. I should have been able to handle it. I should have told them you were my daughter and I would stand by you. Instead I tried to make you stop, which didn’t work. Then Pam turned up pregnant and there was the quickie wedding. I knew I had to get you out of town so nothing happened.”
Gracie nodded as she remembered the pain of being sent away.
“But it didn’t matter,” her mother continued. “At Pam and Riley’s wedding, you were all anyone talked about. They placed bets on whether or not you would show up. They recounted their favorite Gracie story and talked about how you loved that boy with your whole heart. Some people admired that, but others were less kind.”
Gracie winced. “I didn’t know that.”
“I’m not telling you now to be cruel, just to explain. The fault is mine. I didn’t think I could face the ridicule anymore. When my sister offered to take you, I let you go because I was selfish and weak. And I’m sorry.”
Her mother started to cry again. “I missed you so much. Every day I reached for the phone to tell you to come home. But then someone would say something and it all came back to me. In time the talk died down and it was such a relief to me. But on the inside I felt so guilty for being a coward. I let my so-called friends influence me and because of that, I lost a daughter.”
Gracie didn’t know what to think. She was numb. “You didn’t lose me.”
“Yes, I did. You and I aren’t close. You’re angry with me for what I did, and I deserve that. I have no excuse. I was spineless and foolish. I’m sorry, Gracie. I’m so sorry.” She pressed a hand to her mouth. “And I’m a bad mother because of my three girls, you’re the one who turned out the best. Vivian is spoiled and selfish and Alexis is a drama queen. I think I did that. I think it’s my fault.”
Gracie moved to the sofa and hugged her mother.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“No, it’s not. I lost you and I only have myself to blame. I’m so sorry.”
Gracie held on. “I’m sorry, too. I never meant to embarrass you.”
“That was me, not you. You were a little girl in a lot of pain. I should have seen that.”
Gracie supposed it was true, but she still felt self-conscious about it all. “Remind me to never have a crush on a guy again,” she said.
Her mother gave a strangled laugh. “I think you’re over all that now.”
Gracie pulled back and eyed her suspiciously. “That’s not what you were saying a couple of weeks ago.”
“True, but I know better now. If Riley Whitefield makes you happy, then you go on seeing him.” Gracie half expected the earth’s crust to open and gnomes in pointy hats to appear. “Really?”
Her mother nodded. “I don’t want to lose you again, Gracie. I know we can’t recover what’s lost, but I want us to try to be close again. I’m willing to be patient and earn your trust.”
Gracie felt her heart opening and stretching. “Oh, Mom. It’s okay.”
“It’s not now, but I want it to be.” They hugged again.
“What changed your mind?” Gracie asked.
“Alexis and Vivian were over the other night and I realized that part of our family was missing. I felt so sad, I couldn’t stop crying. I want us to be together again. I hope you can want that, too.”
Gracie nodded. It might take her a little while to shift her thinking, but she was willing to make the effort.
Her mother squeezed her tight, then let go. “All right, now that I’ve dumped all over you with my problems, how are you? How’s the cake business?”
“There are a few bumps in the road.”
She hesitated for a second, not sure if she wanted to say anything, then drew in a deep breath.