“You’ve been out of it ever since I got here. Riley said he got a couple of Tylenol down you and I guess they kicked in. Or you beat the fever. You were burning up for a while. How do you feel now?”
“Like I just fell into a pool.”
Alexis stood and walked to the bed. “That means the fever’s broken. Good for you.” She touched her sister’s forehead. “Yup. Cool to the touch. Are you hungry?”
Gracie considered the question. “Starving. I don’t remember falling asleep. I don’t remember much of anything. Oh. The cake for the historical society.”
“Riley’s taking care of it. You called him. Remember?”
“Not really.” She had a few hazy images that were more dreamlike than anything else. “Whatever bug I picked up was strong, but short-lived. I think I’m okay now.”
“Why don’t you take it easy? I’ll go fix some soup and toast for you.” Alexis fingered the damp sheets. “Can you move to the sofa? You can lay down there and I’ll change these later.”
“You don’t have to do all that for me. It’s the weekend. What about Zeke? Shouldn’t you be with him?”
“Don’t worry about it. He’s working all day on Riley’s campaign then picking me up about six so I can go with him to see him do stand-up at a club in Ventura tonight.”
“Sounds like fun.”
Gracie sat up and tested her equilibrium. The walls and floor stayed exactly where they were supposed to. She felt tired and a little weak, but otherwise, fine.
Alexis helped her to her feet, then led her to the sofa in the living room. As she went to work in the kitchen, Gracie had the thought that she wouldn’t have expected her sister to come through for her like this. Which just went to show that she’d pretty much been wrong about every member of her family. Maybe in the future she should simply let them be and not try to predict or assign value judgments.
“What does Zeke have to do today for Riley?” she asked as Alexis puttered in the kitchen. “Are they still going door-to-door?”
“Why not? The election is in a few days.”
There was a long silence, as if Alexis was considering what to say. The longer her sister was quiet, the more Gracie began to wonder what she didn’t know.
“Alexis,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Everything is great. Really.”
Uh-huh. As if Gracie would believe that high, tight voice. “You’re not a good liar. Tell me.”
Alexis appeared in the doorway. “Zeke wasn’t supposed to say anything to me. If Riley knew I knew, he would never have asked me to come over.”
Gracie’s stomach tightened and it had nothing to do with acid or lack of food. “What do you know?”
Her sister shifted her weight from foot to foot. “Just that Riley’s poll numbers are really down. They went up when everyone thought the two of you were together, but since the debate, they’ve been falling. The people in town are taking your side in this, which is really nice for you. But they hate Riley because, well, you know.”
Gracie didn’t know but she could guess. Because of those stupid newspaper stories, half the town felt as if they knew her. Now, all these years later, Riley was the bad guy for not falling in love with her and giving her what they thought was her happy ending.
Of course the irony of the situation was that she really was in love with Riley and she wanted to be with him, but that was her business, not theirs.
“Is he going to lose?” Gracie asked quietly.
Ninety-seven million dollars gone because of her.
“I have to fix this,” she said.
“I don’t know. I’ll go talk to him when he’s done delivering the cake and we’ll come up with something.”
“It’s going to take a miracle,” Alexis told her.
Gracie wished she had one of those in the corner of her suitcase. As she was fresh out, she would have to think of something else.
THERE WERE SEVERAL security guards on duty at the large house on the hill. Riley had never paid much attention to the historic value of some of the older homes in Los Lobos, but now as he walked up the wide front steps, he felt as if he were stepping back in history.
The Victorian mansion had been restored to its original fussiness. Rockers and tables were scattered across the long front porch. Flowers decorated the pillars.
“Can I help you?” a rent-a-cop said from his position by the front door.
“I’m delivering the cake for the fund-raiser tonight,” Riley said, motioning to the large box in his arms. “There are four more of these in my car.”
“Sure thing. Go on up. Then drive around back and use the rear entrance. It’ll be closer for you.”
“Thanks.” Riley jerked his head to the three guards by the driveway and the two security vans set up by the fence. “Why all the firepower?”
“A lot of items are on loan,” the guard told him. “Apparently they’re worth so much, the insurance company insisted.” He grinned. “So don’t try anything.”
“Not me. I’m just the guy with the cake.”
Riley followed his directions to the main reception area in the ballroom on the second floor. As he walked into the huge open room, he saw the tables set up for the buffet, two bars and a lace covered table complete with several pink bakery boxes.
“What the hell?” he muttered as he walked closer.
He set down his box and looked at the others. It was a cake. One that looked amazingly similar to the one Gracie had baked. Nearly identical. The same basket weave on the side, the same flowers. Except, now that he looked more closely, he saw the weave was crooked and the individual pieces of it were poorly done and broken. The flowers looked as if they’d spent one too many nights out on the town.
Questions crowded his brain. Who had done this and why?
Riley moved his box to the edge of the table and crossed to the window overlooking the rear of his property. Just then a familiar Lexus sped down the driveway.
Pam! He swore long and loud, then reached for his cell. Gracie picked up on the first ring. “How you feeling?” he asked.
“Better. The fever’s gone. Alexis has fed me and I just had a shower. I think I’ll live.”
“Good to know. I have a situation here. I’m delivering the cake, but there’s already one here. I also just spotted Pam heading away from the scene of the crime.”
Gracie gasped. “Is that what she was doing with my cake pans? Making a cake for the benefit? But why? And how does it look?”
“Like crap. I don’t get it. What’s the point? This can’t be to get her business. No one will know she baked it.”
“No, but they’ll think I did. Taste it.”
“Taste it. I have to know if it’s horrible.”
Riley eyed the pink boxes, then grabbed a fork from the pile by napkins and stuck it into the small layer cake close to him. He sucked in a breath, then took a bite.
“Jesus,” he said as he spat it out. “What’s wrong?”
“Salt instead of sugar. At least I think that’s it.” He grabbed a paper napkin and wiped off his tongue. The horrible flavor lingered.
“Riley, you have to get her cake out of there. She’s trying to make sure I can never recover from the scandal about my cakes. Get hers out and put mine in its place.”
“Can you call me when you’re done? I have something I’d like to talk to you about.”
Normally those were words to make him head out to sea, but not this time. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just want to talk about the election.”
Damn. “What do you know?”
“That you’re in trouble.”
“I’ll be fine.”
He eyed the table. “Look, I need to get the cakes changed. I’ll call you when I’m done, then come by. Fair enough?”
“That’s great. Thanks.”
He clicked off his cell phone and dropped it into his pocket. Then he collected two of the small boxes from Pam’s cake and carried them back to his car.
It took him three more trips to get Gracie’s cake inside. He set it up as best he could and was leaving with the largest layer of Pam’s cake when a guard met him at the top of the stairs.
“Not so fast,” the burly man said. “What have you got there?”
“A cake. Two were delivered by mistake.”
The other man didn’t look convinced. “We just got a call that someone would try to trade out the cakes as a joke. Something about the election and one of the candidates wanting to make a fuss.” His eyes narrowed. “Funny how you just happen to look like that guy running for mayor.”
Riley couldn’t believe it. Pam had sure as hell covered her bases on this one.
“This isn’t what you think,” Riley said as he tried to inch his way around the guard. “The new cake is in place and it’s delicious. Take a bite of it if you don’t believe me. This is the bad cake.” He held out the box in his hands. “Big mistake to eat this one.”
“You just hold it right there. I’m going to have to call this in.” The guard reached for his walkie-talkie and pushed a button.
Riley tried to judge the distance to the front door and wondered if he could make a run for it. When he heard the guy on the other end of the conversation say “Hold him,” he knew he didn’t have a choice.
He started down the stairs, noticing too late that someone was coming up the stairs—a big guy carrying a case of wine. Riley went left, the guy went right. They ended up on the same step and tried to avoid the crash.
It happened anyway. The impact knocked Riley off his feet. He grabbed for the railing, slipped and reached for it again. The cake went flying. The other guy lost control of the box of wine. Riley and the other man fell at the same time, bouncing down the stairs in a tangle of arms and legs.
When they hit the ground, they landed onto wine-soaked cake and a floor full of glass.
Every part of him hurt. Riley knew this couldn’t be good, an opinion that was confirmed when he heard sirens in the distance and getting closer.
THE CELL PHONE woke Gracie early the next morning. Her first thought was that whatever bug had gripped her had been firmly squashed. The second was that Riley had never called or come by. Was this him?
“Gracie, it’s Mom. Have you seen the paper?”
“Huh? No.” She rolled over in bed. At least she knew this time whatever scandal it was couldn’t be about her. She hadn’t left the house in two days.
“It’s Riley,” her mother said. “He was arrested.”
“What? Are you kidding?”
She scrambled out of the bed and hurried to the front door. After flinging it open, she raced to the edge of the porch where the morning paper waited. A quick glance at the headline had her cringing.
“Mayoral Candidate Arrested for Drunk and Disorderly Conduct.”
The picture showed Riley covered with cake and surrounded by broken wine bottles in the foyer of the historic mansion.
“I’m going to throw up,” she whispered as she walked back inside and closed the door. “This is all my fault.”
“You were sick in bed. Alexis told me.”
“Exactly. I got sick so Riley took the cake over for me. Only Pam had already been there to put a nasty-tasting cake in its place. He was helping me out and somehow things went wrong.”