To think he’d come so far only to lose it over something like this.
“You must want to kill her, huh?” Zeke said.
Riley knew it was probably the logical reaction, but he couldn’t bring himself to blame Gracie. She hadn’t done anything wrong. Oh, sure, he was past angry. It was ninety-seven million dollars and more importantly, a chance to screw his uncle. But the disaster wasn’t Gracie’s fault.
Which brought him to an interesting question. Why wasn’t he blaming her? If she hadn’t come back to Los Lobos, none of this would have happened.
And that was the kicker, he thought as he stared at the bookshelf across from his chair and finished his drink. He didn’t want to take back what had happened. Not the part that included her.
“So what are they saying?” Zeke asked. “That you should treat her better?”
“That I should marry her.”
“So why don’t you?”
Riley turned to his office manager and glared. “Marry her?”
“For the election. Listen, it’s not a crazy idea. You could work something out with her. A temporary marriage to win the election. You wouldn’t even have to marry her. You could just get engaged. Gracie’s a sweetie. She’ll say yes.”
She probably would, he thought. Knowing Gracie. She would feel horrible about what had happened and do everything in her power to make it right.
Zeke stared at him. “What? No? Just like that? You’re not even going to ask her?”
“Why not? It’s the perfect solution. What’s the problem?”
Interesting question, and one Riley couldn’t answer. He would have married Gracie if she’d been pregnant, but he wouldn’t do it this way. Not even a fake engagement. Besides, with his luck, an engagement wouldn’t be enough. He’d have to go through with it.
“I won’t screw with her life like that,” Riley said. “Leave it alone. We’ll come up with another solution.”
“I don’t have another solution.”
“Then you’re going to have to find one. That’s why I pay you the big bucks.”
Zeke looked cornered. “Riley, the election is in less than a week. I can’t fix this in a week without using Gracie. You have to know that.”
“Find another way.”
“But…” Zeke closed his mouth and nodded. “I’ll see what I can come up with.”
IT HAD BEEN forty-eight hours and Gracie still had trouble grasping the truth of the situation.
She loved Riley. Loved him. Crazy or not, he made her heart beat faster, her body tingle and when they kissed, she saw sparks. Even better, he was a great guy. She could imagine being with him always, growing old with him, having kids with him. The only thing she couldn’t picture was how she was going to tell him the truth.
“After the election,” she reminded herself as she stretched the rolled fondant onto the last of the cakes. “He’ll be able to deal with me then.”
Until that time, she would simply bask in her newfound feelings and work on the cake for the historical society.
Her plans, and her good pans, were still at Pam’s, but Gracie remembered the basic design. She’d planned on a square three-layer cake in the center with smaller layer cakes spread out around. Almost like houses in a town. She’d gone with a white fondant and a basket weave pattern on the sides. Simple flowers would decorate the top.
She’d made a duplicate sketch from memory and consulted it now as she began decorating the cakes. Her head felt a little fuzzy, as if she hadn’t been getting enough sleep. Which was partially true, but not enough to make her feel so weird.
Maybe it was Riley withdrawal, she thought with a smile. They’d been talking several times a day on the phone, but he’d been so caught up in election stuff that he hadn’t been able to stop by. Too bad—she was going to need another fix soon.
The strips of basket weaving went on easily. Gracie had created cakes like this dozens of times before. The roses were all prepared. When she finished the basket weave, she would anchor them in place.
Over the next few hours, the cake came together, even as her body seemed to be falling apart. Her head ached, her body felt heavy. Putting on the final roses seemed to take every bit of her concentration.
Finally she had the separate cakes in pink boxes and ready for delivery. She carefully put the boxes in the refrigerator so that she could take them over in the morning. She closed the door and felt the room tilt. Not a good sign.
Gracie checked to make sure the oven was off, then made her way to the bedroom where she collapsed onto the bed. A voice in her head said she should at least kick off her shoes or get under the covers, but then she got very, very sleepy and very, very weak and the whole world just faded away.
GRACIE WASN’T SURE what time it was when she woke up. The room wouldn’t stop spinning and she couldn’t believe that she was both burning up and shivering. Her mouth was dry, her body ached and she really wanted someone to shoot her and put her out of her misery.
Instead she did her best to stare at the clock and try to figure out if it was the next day or not. There was sunshine. Had it been sunny when she’d taken a header on the bed?
When the swirling numbers refused to focus, she forced herself to her feet where she staggered through the house until she found her cell phone and called a number she’d only recently put in her directory.
“Riley?” It hurt to talk. Her throat felt as if she’d been snacking on fire.
“Gracie? Is that you? What’s wrong?”
“I just…” She shuffled to a chair and sank onto the seat. “I don’t feel very good. I have a bug, or something. I can’t….” Rational thought faded. What was her point? Oh, yeah. “The cake. Is it Saturday?”
“Most of the day.”
“Okay. Good. I haven’t missed it.”
I haven’t missed it. Why did that line sound familiar? It was from a movie, she thought hazily. Yeah. A movie she liked. She closed her eyes and concentrated.
“A Christmas Carol,” she said triumphantly. “I haven’t missed it. The spirits have done it all in one night.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone.
“How sick are you?” Riley asked.
“Not a clue. But the cake has to go to the historical society. I can’t take it. Can you take it? Can you take it and set it up? Can you take it and set it up and make sure it’s okay?”
“Yes. Stop trying to talk. Do you have any food? Are you eating?”
“My tuna salad, but I had a bunch yesterday and I don’t want any more.”
“Are you drinking?”
“Not sure liquor’s the answer.”
“Obviously not. I’ll stop and bring by supplies. Give me an hour.”
“I’ll just be here.” She closed her eyes. “Maybe I’ll go back to bed.” She touched her hot face. “I don’t think I look very good. I might have to throw up.”
“I can handle it. Just try to rest.”
“Sure. No problem.”
The phone slipped from her fingers. Gracie thought about trying to pick it up but the ground was so far away. When had it gotten so far away?
“Last week,” she said as she pushed to her feet. She swayed for a second, then made her way back to her bedroom where she did her best to get out of her clothes. The shirt was easy, as was the bra. But her pants proved insurmountable, so she left them on, along with her socks. She’d already lost her shoes somewhere.
She dug a nightgown out of a drawer, although the act of bending over nearly had her passing out. She managed to pull the nightgown over her head, then she had to fall onto the bed and sleep.
She came awake to the sound of someone pounding on the door. The loudness of the banging, along with the semi-frantic speed told her that whoever it was had been at it for a while.
“I’m okay,” she said, though her voice sounded faint and scratchy. She pushed into a sitting position, then forced herself to her feet. Once there it wasn’t too hard to sort of walk and bump her way along the hallway wall.
“It’s like pinball,” she said with a giggle as she reached for the front door. “I want extra points.”
That statement was made as Riley pushed inside. “Points for what?” he asked as he looked her over, then touched her face. “You have a fever.”
“Huh.” She pointed at the bag in his arms. “Whattcha got? Something for me?”
She took a step forward, intending to look inside the bag. But somehow her feet got caught or didn’t move or something because she was falling and falling and there didn’t seem to be a way to stop herself.
Then big strong arms scooped her up and she was flying down the hall and into her bedroom.
“Tylenol for fever,” Riley said as he set her on the mattress. “I called Diane and asked. Then I bought some. And soup. But I don’t think I should leave you alone.”
She sank back on the bed and sighed. “Then you should stay. It’s fine with me.” Her eyes slowly closed for a second, before she forced them open again. “The cake. You have to take the cake. It’s Saturday, right?”
“Still. Yes.” He sat down next to her and brushed the hair off her forehead. “I’m going to call your sister. Give me her number.”
“She has more than one phone number?”
“What? No. Which sister. Alexis. Call Alexis. But don’t bother her. I’m fine.”
She read off the number. Riley punched it into his cell phone and started speaking. Gracie did her best to listen. She wanted to tell him not to bother, that she would survive on her own. Had he brought soup? Was there soup?
“She’ll be here in a couple of hours,” he said. “I’ll wait.”
That sounded good to her, except…“The cake. Just take it over now, please. They’ve got to be worried. It’s in boxes.”
“More than one?”
She nodded, then wished she hadn’t when her head began to ache. “Five. I was going to connect them like a street thing. You know. A map or whatever, but just set them out so they look nice. There are five boxes. Did I say that?”
“Yes. Why are you wearing your jeans under your nightgown?”
“They were too hard to get off.”
“I can help with that.”
He bent over her and quickly removed her jeans, then pulled down her nightgown.
“Slide under the covers,” he said. “I’ll tuck you in.”
She liked the sound of that. She liked having him around. In the back of her mind, a thought nagged, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. Was she supposed to tell him something? Or was she keeping a secret?
“How’s the campaign going?” she asked.
He didn’t look at her as he spoke, which made her wonder if he was telling the truth. Was there—
Oh! She loved him! That was it. The secret. She found herself wanting to blurt it out right now. To say the words and see how he reacted. If he cared about her, maybe it would be a good thing. Maybe—
She heard him speak her name, but the sounds came from far, far away. Her eyes were far too heavy to open. Everything was heavy. And hot. And just too…
GRACIE ROLLED OVER and found herself drenched. Her body was cold and chilled, her nightgown soaked. Her eyes popped open and she looked around, half expecting to see the ocean in her bedroom.
Instead Alexis sat on a chair in the corner. She looked up and smiled. “Are you sane again?”
Gracie blinked at her. “When wasn’t I?”