“I had an interview with a reporter from a bride magazine a few days ago.”
Gracie told her what had happened.
When she’d finished, her mother looked stunned. “Who on earth would have planted those cake boxes?”
“I haven’t a clue. No one really knew about the interview. Just me, Riley, Jill and Pam.”
Her mother’s lips curled. “Pam’s a bitch. How did you get messed up with her?”
Gracie couldn’t help laughing. “Talk about a snap judgment.”
Her mother dismissed the comment with a flick of her wrist. “I never liked Pam. No one does. She’s only out for herself. But why would she want to set you up?”
“That’s the question of the hour.”
“I’ll ask around,” her mother said. “Maybe someone has heard something. Too bad Vivian didn’t plan the wedding at Pam’s little B&B. I would enjoy constantly canceling and upsetting her plans.”
Gracie winced. “About the wedding….”
“Not your problem,” her mother said. “And except for making the phone calls, it’s not mine, either. I’m tired of running interference for Viv. She needs to grow up and accept the consequences of her actions.”
“Cross my heart.” Her mother hugged her again. “Any leftover cake?”
“Absolutely. Come on.”
RILEY READ through the detective’s report again. Nothing. No sign of a mystery reporter, no hint that the mayor was up to anything. Riley had even asked the man to keep tabs on Pam for a few days and so far she’d been a model citizen.
It was all frustrating, he thought as he drove through Los Lobos. He was no closer to figuring out what was going on than he had been before he’d hired the detective. Worse, he had no motive for anyone to set up Gracie.
As he couldn’t fix that problem, he’d decided to deal with another one. Which was why he parked in front of Zeke’s insurance office just before closing and strolled inside.
“Is he in?” Riley asked the woman at the front desk.
“Yes. May I say who’s…Oh. Mr. Whitefield. I’ll announce you.”
Riley gave her a quick smile. “Not necessary. I’ll find my way back.”
He walked down the short hallway and opened Zeke’s door without knocking.
Zeke looked up. “Hey, boss. What are you doing here?” He glanced at his calendar. “Did we have a meeting I missed?”
“Nope.” Riley walked to Zeke’s desk and perched on the corner. “Did you know that when I left Los Lobos I headed north?”
Zeke frowned. “No. Should I have?”
Riley shrugged. “Not really. I crewed on fishing boats in Alaska. It’s hard work. Long hours. I was a kid from a small town. I didn’t know shit about the world. But I learned fast. Got into a lot of fights with guys bigger and older. After getting the crap beat out of me, I learned to hold my own.”
Zeke shifted in his chair. “Probably not good campaign material.”
“But it’s interesting. Oil rigs are even worse. Confined quarters, a lot of independent men. When fights start there, they can go on for hours.”
“You want to beat up the mayor?”
“No. I was thinking more of taking you on.”
Zeke’s eyes widened. He scrambled to his feet. “Me? What did I do?”
“You’re keeping secrets and I gotta tell you, I don’t like it. They upset your wife, which doesn’t matter to me, but then she tells Gracie and Gracie gets upset. Gracie does matter. This whole mess with the pictures started because of you. I can’t solve the other problems in Gracie’s life, but I can solve this one. Where the hell are you going at night and what are you doing when you get there?”
GRACIE STOOD in front of her schedule and wondered how long it would be until it all hit the fan. While she wanted to believe that Neda Jackson would simply keep the news to herself, Gracie knew her luck wasn’t that good. If Neda couldn’t write her article for the bridal magazine, she would be out some serious money. Which meant the reporter would have to make up the money elsewhere. As tabloids had a reputation of paying big for a scandal, Gracie had a feeling that was where Neda would go.
But how long would it take? Gracie didn’t know anything about the world of weekly publishing. Was it days? Weeks? When would it hit?
Not that it mattered. She still had cakes to bake and decorate. Since the debacle with the cake mixes, she hadn’t been back at Pam’s place. Somehow she couldn’t shake the feeling that the other woman was involved and until Gracie figured out how to prove it, she didn’t want to confront her.
A car pulled up in her driveway. Since reconciling with her mother, Gracie felt less worried about visitors. With luck, she would really like this one.
She hurried to the front door and smiled when she saw a familiar Mercedes next to her car and a handsome man walking toward her.
“Don’t you have a bank to run?” she asked, trying to ignore the fluttering she felt inside. Liking Riley was one thing, but really liking Riley could be a big mistake.
“I have a staff,” he said as he approached, then bent down to lightly kiss her. “It’s one of the perks of being the boss.”
“A staff, huh? I might have to get me one.” She stepped back to let him in, then led the way to the kitchen. “What’s up?”
He moved close and put his hands on her shoulders. “I have good news about Zeke. He’s not having an affair. Not even close.”
She’d been expecting him to say about a thousand other things. “What? You talked to Zeke?”
“I can’t solve your really big problems, but I knew I could take care of this one.”
Which was really sweet, she thought happily. “Okay, what’s he doing on his nights when he disappears.”
Riley was touching her. The only thing she really wanted to do was get closer and purr like a well-fed cat.
“He’s doing stand-up.”
Gracie stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“That was my reaction. Apparently Zeke has always dreamed about being a stand-up comedian. Then he met Alexis and fell in love. He put the idea aside, but lately it’s been bugging him. He doesn’t want to live his whole life with regrets, so he’s trying to make it now.”
Stand-up? “I never thought of Zeke as that funny. Why didn’t he tell Alexis?”
“Beats the hell out of me. Part of it is they’re talking about starting a family and he didn’t think quitting his job would make her feel secure. He’s been going to clubs in Santa Barbara and L.A. working on his act. A couple of weeks ago, some guys from Leno saw him, so he’s been waiting for a phone call.”
Gracie couldn’t believe it. Not only that her brother-in-law’s secret life was something she never would have thought of but that he and Alexis were thinking of having a baby. There was a lot of pre-pregnancy going around these days.
“Is he going to tell Alexis?” she asked.
“I convinced him that was the best plan.”
“Do I want to know how this convincing took place?”
Riley looked pleased with himself. “I threatened him.”
“With physical violence?”
She chuckled. “Was it good for you?”
“The best. I haven’t been in a fight in years, but I was willing to take him on. Zeke never was a real physical guy. He backed down right away.”
“I’m so proud of both of you.” She stepped closer to Riley and he wrapped his arms around her. “One problem down, fifty million to go.”
“Is that how it feels?” he asked as he stroked her back.
“Every minute of every day.”
“So we’ll tackle the next one. Pam and the cake boxes.”
She didn’t want to think about that. “Why would Pam be involved?”
“Not a clue, but she makes sense as a suspect. We just have to figure out what’s going on with her.”
Gracie winced and thought longingly of an antacid. “Tell me we’re not going to watch her house.”
Riley stepped back and grinned. “I’ll be here at eight. Dress in black. Oh, and bring your camera.”
WHEN RILEY LEFT, Gracie went to work on baking. As she had to turn the pans every ten minutes, the job was far more labor intensive than it should have been. She’d just pulled layer one from the oven when her cell phone rang. She grabbed it and pushed the talk button.
“This is Gracie.”
“How could you?” Fury filled the unfamiliar female voice. “I can’t tell you how horrible I think you are. Bitch doesn’t even come close.”
“What?” Gracie blinked. “Who is this? I think you have the wrong number.”
“Oh, you wish. I hate you. I’ll never forgive you. And dammit, I want my deposit back right now. How dare you pass yourself off as a professional? You’re a hack. You’re a liar. My father’s a lawyer and I’m going to talk to him about suing you for…for I don’t know what, but something. You’re disgusting.”
Gracie’s stomach turned over as the room seemed to get very, very cold.
“Who am I speaking with?” she asked as calmly as she could.
“Sheila Morgan. You’re supposed to be making my wedding cake next month. You lied, Gracie. You lied about everything. Now I have to find someone else. I hope you rot in hell. Oh, I’m so mad, I can’t think of bad enough things to say to you.”
The phone call ended abruptly. Gracie pushed the end button and stared at her phone. Then she turned it off.
Twenty minutes later she stood beside the checkout line of the local grocery store. The weekly tabloids were still stacked together, tied in bundles. She scanned the headlines of the first two before seeing the teaser on the third.
Wedding Cake Planner To The Stars Stirs Things Up With Bad Baking.
Next to the headline was a crumpled box of cake mix.
She pulled the tabloid out and flipped through it until she found the article. It wasn’t very big, maybe half a page, but there was a picture of her car filled with cake mix boxes and another shot of herself looking more than a little upset.
The text damned with innuendo. No one came out and said she used the cake mix, but the way it was written, no one had to.
By six, eighty percent of her cakes had been canceled. She’d been on some of the bridal Internet bulletin boards and had seen the angry posts there. Even the editor of the bridal magazine that had commissioned the story in the first place had called to yell at her.
Gracie lay curled up in bed, staring at her cell phone. Every time she turned it on, there were more messages from brides canceling their orders. They were all furious and she had no idea how to tell them she’d been the one betrayed, not them.
This couldn’t be happening, she told herself. It was a really, really bad dream. She’d worked so hard for so long to build up her reputation and now it was gone. Just like that. No one cared about how many nights she’d stayed up making sure each cake was perfect. No one wanted to hear the truth.
The room got dark and she told herself she had to get up and do something, but she didn’t have the energy. Instead she pulled the pillow over her head and willed the world to go away.
Sometime later she heard pounding on her front door. She ignored it, even as she remembered she and Riley were supposed to go watch Pam’s house. What did it matter if Pam had done this to her? The damage was irreparable. Gracie’s career was ruined.
After a few minutes, the pounding went away. Gracie dropped the pillow onto the other side of the bed and stared at the ceiling. Shadows filled the room. In the distance, she heard a door open, then footsteps.