Under normal circumstances, she would have imagined the worst—robbers or aliens or something—but right now she didn’t care.
Riley’s voice. The man didn’t give up.
“In here,” she called, her voice low and thick with pain. Everything hurt.
A light clicked on in the hallway. Seconds later he appeared in her room.
“What happened? Are you sick?”
“I wish. At least I could get better. Or die. Either way the problem would be solved.”
He sat on the edge of the mattress and brushed the hair out of her face. “Tell me what’s going on?”
She picked up the cell phone and pushed the buttons to replay the messages, then handed it to him.
He listened for a few minutes. When he turned off the phone, she found herself fighting tears.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “If I had, I could accept what they’re doing. But I didn’t, and no one will listen. My business is all about reputation. Now it’s gone. I get to keep the two cakes for this weekend because it’s too late for the brides to find someone else. Just about everyone else has canceled, except for the stupid sheet cake the historical society wants me to do and I’m sure the only reason they haven’t canceled is that I’m doing it for free.”
She saw anger tighten his expression. He bent down and kissed her.
“We’ll fix this,” he promised.
“Not to make trouble, but how?”
“We’ll figure something out. We’re a great team. Come on. We’re going to go stalk Pam. I’ve already got my detective working on learning everything we can about her. There are secrets in her past and we’re going to find them. In the meantime, let’s go get some incriminating pictures.”
Gracie shook her head. “You go.”
“Not without you.”
He grabbed her arms and pulled her into a sitting position, then he crouched in front of her.
“Come on, Gracie. Let’s go ruin Pam. It will be fun.”
The urge to simply curl back up in bed nearly overwhelmed her. She would have given in except she had the thought that if she did, she might never get up again, and that couldn’t be good.
“Okay. Give me a second to get changed.”
She stood and walked to her closet. The clothing choices seemed overwhelming. Riley moved next to her then reached inside for a pair of black jeans and a dark purple T-shirt.
“Very fashion forward,” he said, draping the clothes over her arm and pushing her toward the bathroom. “You have three minutes to get changed.”
“Where did you ever hear an expression like ‘fashion forward’?”
He grinned. “Are you kidding? The style network is really big on the oil rig. All those half-naked models draw us in, but the runway news keeps us riveted.”
She smiled, which felt weird, but nice. “I’ll be right out.”
Ten minutes later they were in his car and heading across town in the rapidly dwindling twilight.
She stared out the windshield and tried to keep her sighing to a minimum.
“You don’t have time for this,” she told him. “The election is in a couple of weeks.”
“I’ve got it covered. I’ll start going door-to-door in a day or two.”
“Are you behind in the polls?”
“I’m holding my own.”
She looked at him. “Tell me the truth.”
“Riley, I’m not a baby. I can handle it. What are the numbers?”
How much of that was her fault? If she hadn’t come back to Los Lobos, none of this would have happened.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “About all of it.”
“I’m sorry about the cake disaster, but not the rest of it.”
“What? Are you crazy? You could lose. Have you considered that? It’s ninety-seven million dollars.”
“I won’t lose.”
“But if you do. And what if I’m pregnant?”
That seemed to get his attention. “Are you?”
She slumped down in the seat. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I can take the pregnancy test in three days. But what if I am?”
“We’ll deal with it.”
He spoke calmly, which wasn’t what she expected. In his position, she had a feeling she would be both furious and screaming. But after the day she’d had, she appreciated the lack of dramatics.
“I’ll try not to be pregnant,” she said.
“I don’t think it works that way.”
He drove down a street she thought she recognized, then parked behind a minivan.
“Pam’s house is over there,” he said, pointing to a house on the corner. “We’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“Shouldn’t one of us be humming the theme from Mission Impossible?” she asked as she climbed out of his Mercedes.
“Only if it’s important to you.”
“I guess not.”
She followed down the sidewalk. Streetlights illuminated much of the area, but there were still puddles of darkness to hide in.
When Riley ducked into a side yard, she followed. They made their way into the backyard and crouched by some bushes.
“She didn’t close her blinds,” he whispered.
“She probably didn’t expect to be spied on. It’s not something I think about either. Although given what’s happening in my life, I guess I should.”
“There,” he said, pointing.
Gracie strained to see in the window. Pam stood in the kitchen, pouring something from a large bowl into a—
“That bitch has my baking pans!”
The loud words filled the silence of the night. Even as Riley grabbed her and pulled her down next to him, she slapped both hands over her mouth.
“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I didn’t mean to do that.”
“I know.” He spoke the words directly into her ear.
The soft sound was distracting enough, but when combined with the heat of his breath and the way his strong arms supported her, she started to go all gooey inside.
This was neither the time nor the place, she reminded herself as she dropped to her knees and shoved her hands into her pockets.
“She has my baking pans.”
“I gathered that.”
“Why would she take my baking pans?”
“Not a clue.”
Gracie considered the possibilities. “To make her own cakes? But why?” She rose up slightly so she could see in the window again. Pam bent over the oven, positioning the cake.
“The rack’s too high,” she murmured. “The edges are going to burn. If she was planning to steal my business, she should have asked more questions.”
She turned to him. “Is that it? Is Pam going to steal my business?”
“Why would she want to? She seems to have enough money of her own.”
“You’re right. Someone is paying for very expensive clothing,” Gracie said. “And there’s the bed-and-breakfast. That wasn’t cheap. Okay, now I’m completely confused. What is she doing?”
They stayed out in the bushes for nearly two hours in an attempt to find out. The only thing they discovered was that Pam was a really bad baker. Gracie felt some small measure of satisfaction when the cake turned out lopsided and burned on the edges. The pleasure peaked when Pam attempted to remove the cake from the pan and only about sixty percent of it fell onto the cooling rack.
“It was a complete disaster,” Gracie said cheerfully as they headed back to the car. “My first cake was much better than that and I think I was all of ten when I made it. I guess I don’t have to sweat her stealing my clients anytime….”
Her voice trailed off as she realized she didn’t have any clients to steal.
“We’ll figure it out,” Riley said as he put an arm around her and drew her close. “We’ll watch her for as many nights as it takes.”
“Good thing sweeps month is over on television and there’s nothing to watch.”
He looked at her and raised his eyebrows. “You would rather watch television than spy on Pam with me?”
She smiled. “Never! Did I say that? Absolutely not. You sure know how to show a girl a good time.”
THE NEXT two nights of spying produced similar results. Pam baked. Badly, Gracie thought with some measure of satisfaction. Pam also didn’t take good care of the pans, which were getting dark and scratched, but that was the least of Gracie’s problems.
But on the third night there wasn’t a cooling rack in sight. Pam barely came into the kitchen and when she did it was to pop a cookie sheet of store-bought appetizers into the oven and pull a bottle of white wine out of the refrigerator.
“Company,” Riley said with satisfaction. “Let’s see who Pam hangs out with these days. Maybe we’ll get some answers there.”
“The only possibly interesting person could be the mayor,” Gracie whispered. “And it can’t be him. She thinks he’s just as creepy as everyone else.”
“Are you sure?”
Gracie realized she wasn’t sure about anything except that she was getting a cramp in her leg.
“We’ll go around to the side yard,” Riley said. “We’ll be able to see who’s arriving.”
Gracie followed him, making sure to stay low. When they were in position in the side yard, she fumbled with her camera. Might as well get a picture of Pam’s visitor.
A car drove down the street. Gracie rose so she could brace herself against a small tree. She raised her camera to her face and squinted to see out the tiny viewer. The car got closer.
“Come on, big guy,” she murmured.
Riley chuckled. “Big guy?”
“Just an expression.”
“Okay. The car’s pulling in.”
She wasn’t sure what happened next. Maybe it was wet grass or leaves. Maybe it was just being clumsy. Maybe it was fate. Whatever the cause, just as she prepared to snap the picture of Pam’s visitor, Gracie’s foot slipped. She found herself sliding and falling. As she instinctively reached out to grab something, she squeezed the button on the camera. The flash exploded in the darkness. The tired mechanism pushed out a picture and whoever was in the car backed up and sped away.
Riley grabbed her free hand and dragged her out of the yard and toward their car. Lights popped on in Pam’s house. The front door opened.
“Who’s out there?” Pam yelled. “What’s going on?”
Gracie threw herself into Riley’s car and ducked down below the dashboard.
“Drive. Drive!” she insisted.
He started the engine and made a U-turn. It was only when they were a couple of blocks away that he turned on the lights. Gracie slowly straightened.
“I’m sorry,” she said, afraid to look at him and see how mad he was. “I didn’t do that on purpose.”
A strange sound made her stiffen. Was he…laughing?
She turned her head and stared at him. “What is so funny?”
“You,” he said with a chuckle. “I know you didn’t do that on purpose. I watched you start to slide, but I was too far away to prevent it. You were like a cartoon or something. Slow at first, then faster and faster.” He glanced at her. “I’ll give you this, Gracie. You’re never boring.”
“Great. You can put that on my tombstone. In the meantime, we still don’t know what Pam’s up to or who she’s hanging out with. Did you see the car?”
“No. It was too dark to figure out make or model.”
Gracie pulled the covering off the picture and stared at a section of Pam’s roof and a bunch of darkness she figured had to be the sky.