They walked toward the house. As Alexis pulled open the front door, Gracie realized she could hear shouting inside.
“That can’t be good,” she said.
“Sounds like Vivian.” Alexis shook her head. “I hope the wedding isn’t off again.”
“What? Off?” But before Gracie could press for details, her sister had stepped into the house. Gracie trailed after her.
Vivian stood in the center of the room, her face streaked with tears and bleeding mascara, her hands on her hips, her mouth petulant. Their mother sat on the sofa, several brides magazines open on the coffee table.
When she saw Gracie and Alexis, their baby sister sniffed. “I hate Tom,” she said defiantly. “He’s selfish and mean and I’m not going to marry him.”
“Of course you are,” Alexis said soothingly. “You just had a fight. Now tell me what you were arguing about.”
“The bachelor p-party,” Vivian said over a sob. “He said I couldn’t come. But if I’m not there, how will I know what he’s doing? I don’t care about movies and drinking and stuff, but I don’t want him to have s-strip-pers.”
“Does he want to?” Alexis asked.
Vivian hiccupped. “He s-said it wasn’t up to me. He s-said until we were married, he didn’t have to do what I said.”
Gracie wanted to be anywhere but here. She didn’t know if she should simply excuse herself and make a quick dash for her car or pretend an urgent need to use the bathroom. Then she stunned herself by opening her mouth and talking.
“Did you explain that your being at the bachelor party isn’t so much about you telling him what to do as it is about making sure you can begin your marriage in a state of love and trust? I’ve never understood the need for men, or women for that matter, to have a big party where plenty could go wrong that could potentially destroy the relationship they’re trying to celebrate with a wedding.”
Everyone turned to stare at her. Alexis shook her head, as if trying to discourage a not-very-bright child, her mother rose and walked over to Vivian who had started a fresh storm of sobbing.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Gracie murmured, feeling more out of place by the second.
“It will be fine,” her mother said as she pulled Vivian close. “You and Tom will talk in the morning and things will be better.”
“I g-guess,” Vivian mumbled against her mother’s shoulder. “I j-just want him to love me.”
“Of course you do. It’s all right. Everything will be all right.”
Gracie waved toward the door. “I should leave you to deal with this. I’ll just be going.”
“Good idea,” her mother mouthed.
Gracie did her best not to feel as if she’d made a difficult situation worse and headed back out into the night. She drove across town to her rental house and gratefully walked into the dark quiet.
A few clicks of light switches took care of the gloom and a glance around the kitchen restored her spirits.
She’d already put away her special cooking pans, slipping the ones that wouldn’t fit anywhere else into some open shelves meant for cookbooks. Her cooking schedule was magneted to the refrigerator and she’d used poster tape to tack up her two-page spread from People magazine. The one with the headline What’s Gracie’s Secret?
She crossed to it now and traced the picture of the popular sitcom star from Olive’s Attic as she fed a piece of luscious Gracie-made wedding cake to her husband at the wedding. The second page showed several of Gracie’s cakes, along with a picture of her carefully decorating one of them.
That was her world, she reminded herself. Her house in Torrance, her orders, her perfect kitchen with three full-sized ovens, built-in cooling racks and southern exposure. It was a world she understood—where she was just Gracie. Not anyone’s sister or daughter. She didn’t mess up there. She didn’t feel as if she didn’t belong.
Had it been a mistake to try to come home? The decision had been made and there was no unmaking it.
“Just a few weeks,” she reminded herself. Then she could walk away from all of this and never look back.
GRACIE WALKED into Bill’s Mexican Grill promptly at noon only to find her friend Jill already seated and waving her in.
“You’re always early,” Gracie said as she approached.
Jill stood and hugged her. “I know. It’s a disease. I’m thinking I need a twelve-step program.”
Gracie stepped back from her friend and looked her over. “Very fabulous,” she said. “Would I recognize the designer?”
Jill wiggled her hips as she turned in a slow circle, modeling her tailored shirt and trim pinstripe slacks before she took her seat.
“Armani. I’m still working through my big-city lawyer clothes. Tina, my assistant, keeps ragging on me about dressing too fancy for Los Lobos, but if I don’t wear them to work, where will I?”
Gracie sat next to Jill and fingered the sleeve of her silk blouse. “I’m guessing not for cleaning the bathroom.”
“Exactly.” Jill leaned forward and grinned. “I’m so happy to see you. It’s been ages. What? Five months?”
“Just about. We were last together at your wedding up in Carmel, where I have to say you were far more interested in the groom than in me. This despite the fact that I made you a pretty fabulous cake. What is up with that? I’m your oldest and dearest friend. He’s just some guy.”
Jill laughed. “You’re right. He’s some guy. Some great, amazing, hunky—”
She broke off when the waitress approached to take their drink orders. Gracie asked for diet soda while Jill chose iced tea.
Her friend had changed, Gracie thought. In the past few years Jill had been on the legal fast track at a huge law firm in San Francisco. She’d worn stiff suits, worked impossible hours and had tamed her fabulous curly hair into a sleek, painful bun at the nape of her neck. Now she looked…Gracie smiled. Soft. All feminine and comfortable in her skin. Long cascades of curls tumbled down Jill’s back. The shadows were gone from under her eyes and she seemed to glow.
“You like married life,” Gracie said.
“I love it. Mac is amazing. I was a little nervous about being a stepmother, but Emily is wonderful and very patient with my mistakes. My only regret is that we have to share her with her real mom. I wouldn’t mind having her around all the time.”
“Wow. That’s so cool.”
“It’s just how I feel. I adore them both.”
Gracie grabbed Jill’s left hand and studied the diamond ring guards surrounding an impressive solitaire.
“I like a man who isn’t intimidated by a good-sized rock,” Gracie said with a grin.
“Mac knows how to do it right,” Jill admitted. “In many ways.”
Gracie held up both hands. “If you’re going to talk about sex, I’m not listening. I can be blissfully happy for your newly married self, your great husband and perfect stepchild. I won’t even begrudge you a dog, but I draw the line at sex.”
Jill patted her hand. “Because you’re not getting any?”
“Exactly. David and I broke up three months ago and I haven’t been inspired to start the whole dating nightmare again.”
The waitress returned with their drinks and chips and salsa, then asked if they were ready to order.
“What’s good?” Gracie asked.
“They make a delicious taco salad,” Jill said.
“Works for me.” She had her antacids in her purse for the inevitable attack later.
“Make it two,” Jill told the waitress. “Thanks.” She turned back to her friend. “I thought you really liked David. What happened?”
“I don’t know. Nothing. Everything. He was great, but…” She sighed. “I want sparks. Is that so horrible? Not an actual fire event but a few singes would be nice. I want to be excited when I know I’m going to see the guy I’m with. I want to use words like amazing and heart-stopping, not nice or very pleasant. David was very pleasant. We got along. We never fought. We never…anything. How can I get serious about a guy when I barely notice if he’s there or not?”
“Despite your earlier attachment to a man we will not name, you’re not a drama queen,” Jill said.
“Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I’m so concerned about reverting to stalker girl that I’m not letting myself care about anyone.” She picked up her drink. “I could be a drama queen if I wanted.”
Jill smiled. “Sure you could.”
The idea had appeal, except Gracie knew that she actually preferred order in her world. Surprises were all good for presents, but in the rest of her life, she liked predictability. Which might explain a long series of really dull guys.
Besides…“I think Vivian got all the drama queen genes in our family. She and Tom had a huge fight yesterday over the bachelor party and she was threatening to call off the wedding.”
Jill’s eyes widened. “Do you think she will?”
“I haven’t a clue. But if she does, I’m going to be very cranky about coming up here and renting a house for six weeks. I have orders lining up like crazy.”
“I thought you would have stayed with your mom,” Jill said. “Couldn’t you use her oven?”
“It’s not just the oven. It’s the refrigerator and freezer, not to mention an entire dining room table for decorating and most of the cupboards for my supplies. Plus I like to stay up late and work. The cake part is easy—it’s the individual decorations that take forever.”
What she didn’t mention was how uncomfortable she felt in her mother’s house. She hadn’t lived there in so long, it had ceased to be home. She was trying to fit in and not doing a very good job of it so far.
“Is it weird to be back?” Jill asked.
“Yes and no. I feel different, but no one sees me that way. I’m still Gracie Landon—in love with Riley Whitefield.”
Jill picked up her iced tea. “You know he’s in town.”
Gracie narrowed her gaze. “Don’t you start in on me. I’ve already heard that from my mother’s neighbor, my landlord, the clerk at the grocery store and some woman on the street whom I don’t remember at all. It’s more than scary—it’s a Twilight Zone moment.”
“It’s the articles in the newspaper,” Jill said. “Even people who’d never met you felt they were a part of the romance.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Have you seen him?”
Gracie hesitated. She didn’t know how to say she had without spilling Alexis’s private business.
“You have!” Jill leaned forward. “I want to know everything. Start at the beginning and talk slowly.”
Gracie sighed and picked up a chip. She turned it over then bit into it. “You can’t say anything,” she told her friend when she’d chewed and swallowed. “I was checking out something for Alexis and no, I can’t tell you what.”
“So you ran into him at the store or something?”
“Not exactly. I was sort of lurking around his house.”
Jill’s brown eyes widened. “You have to be kidding. You were spying on him?”
“No. I was spying on someone else. But he caught me and it was horrible and awkward and I think he’s going to be getting a restraining order against me.”
Jill grabbed a chip. “What did you think? Isn’t he still amazing looking?”
“Oh, yeah. Dark, brooding, dangerous.”
“Sexy,” Jill added. “I love the earring. I tried to talk Mac into getting one, but he’s pretty much ignoring me on that.”