“If I don’t get my baking career back, I’ll never make it as a photographer.”
“You’ll get your baking business back.”
“How do you know?”
“Because we’re going to solve this mystery, and then whoever did it will make it right. Even if I have to stand over him or her and physically force them.”
She liked the sound of that. “You can be so sweet.”
“Because I’m willing to beat people up for you?”
“Yeah. It’s great.”
He reached over and touched her cheek. “You need to rethink your standards.”
“Not even a little.” She turned her head so she could press her mouth to his palm. “Want to sleep over?”
She liked that he didn’t even have to think about it.
“You’re a good man, Riley Whitefield.”
“I’m a bastard. You can’t see it.”
“I don’t think so.”
Sure, he had his flaws, but who didn’t? The important thing was he’d been there for her, almost from the beginning, and this despite their rather odd and scary past. He’d obviously gotten over her being stalker girl. He was protective, caring, funny, smart and, when they made love, she touched a whole new dimension because of him. He made her feel safe. He made her feel sparks.
She watched him as they drove back to her place. After he parked in the driveway next to her car, he leaned over and kissed her. As she wrapped her arms around him and held on tight, she wondered if it was the least bit possible that she might very well have picked the man of her dreams at the tender age of fourteen.
RILEY WOKE to a sunny room and an empty bed. He brushed his hands against the rumpled sheets and figured Gracie had to be somewhere in the house and that she’d show up here eventually. Then he would grab her and pull her down next to him and have his way with her. Again.
He closed his eyes and smiled at the thought. He liked having her in his bed. He liked how she looked and smelled and how she made him feel. She was good for him, and he couldn’t say that about many people he knew.
“Whatcha smiling at?”
He opened his eyes and saw her approaching. She wore a long T-shirt and, from the way her breasts swayed with each step, very little else.
“Yeah?” She sat next to him and brushed the hair off his forehead. “Were you thinking about last night? You were an animal.”
“You weren’t bad yourself.” He turned his head to glance at his left shoulder. “I think you bit me.”
She grinned. “I know I bit you.”
“You left marks.”
“Only if you don’t do it again.”
She chuckled, then bent down and brushed her mouth across his.
“You’re violating the three F’s code and soon the three F’s police will come and arrest you. The good news is you won’t have to worry about being a daddy while you’re locked up.” She held out a white plastic stick. “I’m not pregnant.”
He’d forgotten it was time for her to take the test.
He reached for the stick, but she held it out of reach. “I peed on that. I don’t think you want to touch it.”
“Good point.” He studied her face. “You’re sure?”
“Yup. Not just from this.” She waved the test. “But I’ve been getting symptoms. I’ll be getting my period in the next day or so. I’m guessing it’s late because of all the stress in my life. That happens.”
“Are you okay with this?”
Her eyes widened. “I’m completely fine. Be happy. This is what we wanted. Isn’t it?”
“Of course.” An unexpected pregnancy wasn’t a part of his five-year plan.
“We’ve kept using protection after that first time, so no worries.” She stood and tossed the plastic stick into the trash. “I’ve made coffee. I have some eggs if you want. I’ll even scramble them for you.”
He sat up, then grabbed her hand and squeezed her fingers. “I only eat cake.”
She laughed. “You’re my kind of guy. Want to shower first?”
RILEY LEFT about thirty minutes later and drove home to change clothes before going to the bank. He’d promised to call later so he and Gracie could figure out their “Pam” strategy. He also had a meeting with Zeke about the campaign and a host of other responsibilities.
But all he could think about was Gracie and the fact that she wasn’t pregnant. A good thing, he told himself. So why wasn’t he more happy? Had he wanted her to be?
No way, he told himself. Then what? He would have had to marry her and be a husband and father. Neither were part of his game plan. He wasn’t the kind of man who settled well in one place and Gracie….
Well, all right, maybe Gracie was the kind of woman that if he had to settle down she would make it okay. But he wasn’t looking for a commitment. Not his thing. He didn’t care.
Except he did care about her. He didn’t want anything bad to happen to her and he was determined to make her life right. He liked being around her.
Interesting, but not important, he told himself. When the election was over, win or lose, he planned on walking away. Nothing about that had changed.
“WE’RE DOING girl bonding,” Alexis said. “Please say you’ll come.”
Gracie wasn’t sure she was in the mood for her family’s definition of togetherness, but she did want to see her mother. They hadn’t spent any time together since clearing the air on their past.
“All right,” she said. “What time?”
“Vivian has a half day today, and Mom and I are taking a long lunch, so say noon? We’re doing a potluck. Do you have any cake?”
“Of course. I’ll bring some. I have tuna salad, too.”
Gracie chuckled, then sighed. “Is Vivian’s wedding back on?”
Alexis hesitated. “To be honest, I haven’t a clue, and I’m not sure I want to even know. If we go back and forth one more time, I’m going to have to kill her.”
Gracie could relate to that. “What about Tom? Has she talked to him?”
“I don’t know that, either. I guess we’ll find out. See you in a couple of hours.”
“I’ll be there.”
Gracie hung up the phone, then wandered into the kitchen. Selfishly, she wouldn’t mind if her sister’s wedding was back on simply to have a cake to make. Right now the only thing on her calendar was the cake she was making for free for the historical society. While she planned to give them more than just the sheet cake they’d asked for, the event wasn’t appropriate for something too fancy.
Not that she had her actual design. She’d left that at Pam’s along with all her really good pans. At some point she was going to have to go back and get them, but not today. In the meantime, she would recreate the design and figure out her work schedule. At least now she didn’t have to worry about fitting it in around other cakes.
At a little before twelve, Gracie drove over to her mother’s house. In some ways, she actually felt better about everything. One by one her problems were being resolved. She wasn’t pregnant and she wasn’t fighting with her mother. Now if she could just get her career back on track, she would be pretty darned close to perfect.
She parked behind Alexis’s car. Her sister waited while Gracie collected a pink bakery box from the passenger seat and stepped out.
“How’s it going?” Alexis asked, looking especially happy and cheerful.
“Good. What about you?”
“I’m great. Zeke and I have spent the past few nights talking.” She grinned. “And doing other things. Did Riley tell you about him wanting to do stand-up?”
Gracie nodded. “How do you feel about that?”
“Honestly, I was shocked at first and I pretty much went crazy. Then I thought about it and I realized that Zeke deserves the chance to follow his dreams. Plus I kind of like the idea of being married to someone famous.”
Gracie nodded, as if that made perfect sense to her, even as she realized however much she might want to be emotionally close with her sisters, it was probably never going to happen. And the reason had nothing to do with being raised by her aunt and uncle. Instead it was because they were completely different people.
“After the election, he’s going to quit his job,” Alexis said as she knocked once, then opened the front door. “I’ll be supporting the two of us.”
“You’re kidding.” Gracie couldn’t imagine Alexis taking that on.
“Doing my best to be the supportive wife. He can repay me later with really great jewelry.”
“It’s an interesting plan,” Gracie said as she tried to keep an open mind. While she could appreciate that Alexis wanted to help Zeke out, she wasn’t as comfortable with the payback mentality. But then she’d never been married. Obviously it worked for them.
“You guys made it,” Vivian said as she walked out of the kitchen. “Gracie, is there lots of cake, because I’m doing a real sugar thing right now.”
“A ten-inch triple-layer cake with chocolate filling.”
Vivian sighed. “Perfect.”
Gracie watched as her baby sister took the bakery box, then peeked inside. Somehow Vivian seemed older than when she’d last seen her, and thinner. There were circles under her eyes and a sad set to her mouth.
“What’s up?” Gracie asked.
“The sex thing didn’t work?” Alexis asked with a grin. “Coulda told you that.”
Gracie winced. “Are you okay, Vivian?”
“No, but I will be. This gets better, right? Heartache.”
“Tom will come around,” Alexis said. “A couple of weeks without him getting any and he’ll be yours to command.”
Vivian shrugged. “I don’t think so. He’s been pretty clear about it. Come on. Mom’s in here.”
She led the way into the kitchen where their mother had set four places at the large round table.
“All my girls together,” she said. “This is lovely.”
She hugged them all in turn. When she gathered Gracie close, she whispered, “I’m so glad to see you.”
“Me, too,” Gracie murmured back and was pleased to know she actually meant it.
They sat down. Vivian passed on the sandwiches and salad and cut herself a piece of cake. But instead of eating, she chased crumbs around her plate.
“So what happened with Tom?” Alexis asked as she picked up a chicken salad sandwich and took a bite.
“Not much. We’ve talked a couple of times. He’s standing firm. I just….” She swallowed and looked at Gracie. “I guess you were right. I should have been honest. It’s just I never have been. Not with a guy. I thought being mysterious and unpredictable was the way to keep them interested. Plus Mom, remember how you’d never tell Dad stuff. You’d buy us all new shoes, then make us promise not to say anything for a few weeks.”
Her mother looked at Vivian. “I didn’t want him angry because I’d spent too much money, but that has nothing to do with being honest. Is that what you remember?”
“I was only nine. I don’t remember very much at all.” Vivian turned to Alexis. “Do you tell Zeke everything?”
“Of course not, but that’s different. We’re married.”
Gracie did her best not to react to Alexis. “I wonder if your threatening to call off the wedding time after time made Tom feel that you didn’t love him enough.”
Vivian straightened. “Yes. That’s what he said. He wasn’t sure of my feelings. He was afraid I’d run off every time there was a problem. I wouldn’t. Once we were married, I’d be committed.”