“Looks that way.”
“She tried to poison me and it worked. I can’t believe that.”
“I’m sure the sheriff will want to talk to her about that.”
She glanced at him as he walked them out of the house. “You’re not really lousy in bed.”
He grinned. “Thanks.”
BACK AT HIS HOUSE, Riley fixed a pot of coffee and then spread the pictures out on the long kitchen counter. There was plenty of evidence—unfortunately it wasn’t the kind he could use.
“You’re going to call Mac, right?” Gracie asked as she took the mug he offered and sipped. “He can arrest Yardley today. And Pam, although I care less about her. We’ll ignore the sexual stuff, because sleeping with his assistants is gross but not illegal, but he’s been stealing money for years. Isn’t that great?”
He turned his back on the pictures and stared out the window at the large backyard.
Funny how he’d hated this house when he’d first arrived in Los Lobos. The big space had represented everything he’d hated about his uncle. But in the past few months, he’d grown to like the house. The room, the quiet. Just as he liked the bank. He enjoyed working with numbers, making things right for people. He enjoyed the challenges of playing the funding market, getting the best deal for his customers. He would miss it.
Gracie shook his arm. “Are you listening to me?”
“I didn’t think so.”
He looked at her face, at the dark blue of her eyes, the easy smile, the way she lit up when they were together. He couldn’t think of a single thing he didn’t like about her. She was…perfect. Or at least perfect for him.
“I was saying that as soon as the mayor is charged, you have to go on the radio and talk to the town. You can tell everyone it will be a smooth transition and they’ll really like having you as mayor.”
“It won’t work,” he said.
“Yardley’s accused me of some things. Now I’m going to accuse him of worse things. Who are the voters going to believe? Someone they’ve known for sixteen years, or me?”
“But the charges.”
“It’ll take a couple of days to get him formally charged by the D.A. It’s Sunday. Nothing’s going to happen until well into next week and the election’s Tuesday. Yardley can stall long enough to tell everyone the truth about my uncle’s will. Once they know why I’m running, do you think they’ll care about what he’s been doing? It’s all true, Gracie. I was only doing it for the money.”
“But…but…No! We have to come up with a way.” She set down her coffee and grabbed his arm. “You’ve worked so hard. I won’t let this happen to you. Can’t you want to stay and be mayor? You could say you’ve had a change of heart.”
He smiled at her. “I have, but who’s going to believe me?”
“I will. I’ll—” She opened her mouth, then closed it. Color flooded her face. “Marry me. That’s what the town wants. Their happy ending. So marry me. We’ll have Jill draw up some papers right now. I don’t want any of your money and I’ll say that in writing. We’ll get married today. We can fly to Vegas and be back tonight. Then we make a big announcement tomorrow. You’ll win for sure. Then we can split up later. It could work.”
She was so damned earnest, he thought. Bright and willing to do anything to help.
“It’s ninety-seven million dollars,” she said.
“I know the amount.”
He’d been feeling something for a long time. A vague feeling he couldn’t identify until just that second.
He tucked her hair behind her ears and kissed her.
“I love you, Gracie Landon,” he said quietly.
She stared at him. “W-what?”
He grinned. “I love you. You’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever met. You lead with your heart and I admire that. I want to marry you, have babies with you and grow old with you.”
She opened her mouth to speak and he pressed his fingers against her lips.
“But I won’t agree to anything until after the election.”
“What?” The word came out as a yelp. “Are you crazy? Why are you waiting?”
“Because I don’t want you to ever wonder if I just did it for the money.”
She covered her face with her hands. “This is not happening,” she said, then dropped her hands. “Riley, listen to me. We can announce our engagement.” She grabbed him by the shoulders. “I love you, too. I have for a long time. Maybe fourteen years, I don’t know. I love you so much, I will not let you throw this away. It’s ninety-seven million dollars. It’s this house and the bank and I know you’ve started to care about the town. You want to stay here and settle down. We can do that.”
“I have money.”
“It’s not about the money.” She grabbed him by his shoulders and tried to shake him. “It’s about your heritage and belonging and having roots.”
“I have money from the oil rigs.”
He loved her intensity and how much she wanted to convince him. Funny how she hadn’t figured out she was all he needed.
“It’s not about the money,” she repeated. “I have a good business. At least I had one. I can rebuild it. I’ll make Pam issue a statement or something. I know I can do it. Anyway, that’s not the point. It’s about having choices. Don’t walk away from this without trying.”
“It’s not about trying,” he said. “I meant what I said. I love you and I don’t want you to ever have to question that.”
She couldn’t believe it. She had water on her brain or something. “It’s ninety-seven million dollars. No one is worth that.”
He pulled her close and kissed her. “You are. I’ll come find you Tuesday night, after the polls close. I’ll get down on one knee and propose and you’d better be prepared to say yes.”
GRACIE DIDN’T REMEMBER driving home. Luckily there weren’t many other cars on the road and she arrived unscathed. She felt battered and numb and in total and complete shock.
Riley loved her. He’d said so about fifteen times and had promised to propose. She felt all warm and happy inside. They were going to be together.
But at the same time, she battled outrage and indignation. How could he be willing to walk away from everything just to prove he wasn’t marrying her for the money? She knew that. She would always know that.
It was completely stupid and pigheaded and male for him to turn his back on his inheritance.
She walked into the house and pulled her cell phone out of her purse, then she pushed in a number. Dealing with Pam’s poisoning attempt and the sheriff’s office would come later. First, she had important business to deal with.
“Hi, Mom, it’s me. I need your help. Vivian’s and Alexis’s, too, and we don’t have much time. Can you get them to come over in half an hour? I need to call Jill and a few other people. Uh-huh. I’ll explain it when I get there. Oh, do you know anyone at the newspaper office?”
RILEY SPENT the rest of Sunday by himself. Gracie had called to say she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest. Although he’d wanted to go over and see her, he wanted her better more so he’d stayed away.
In the afternoon he’d driven down to Santa Barbara and looked at engagement rings. He’d wanted to find just the right one for Gracie. Something beautiful and special.
He’d found it in the fourth store he’d gone to and now it sat on his dresser until after the election when he could propose for real.
Funny how he’d never thought he would get married. He’d assumed he would live his life alone. Two months ago if someone had told him he would fall in love with Gracie Landon, he would have punched the guy. But she’d swept into his world and had changed everything—most of all, him.
Monday morning he woke up early and collected the paper. The mayor’s arrest was front-page news. Riley grinned as he read the start of the article. He might have lost the election but at least Yardley would be doing some serious time in jail. He had a feeling things wouldn’t go so well for the mayor once he was there.
There was a separate article on Pam where she confessed to messing with Gracie and planting the cake boxes in her car. If Riley knew the good citizens of Los Lobos, they would make sure Pam wasn’t ever able to live here again.
So they would all be leaving, he thought as he drank his coffee. He would miss the town. It had finally begun to feel like home to him. But without the bank, he didn’t have anything to keep him here. It wasn’t as if he could set up an oil rig in the center square.
He studied the picture of the mayor being led into the sheriff’s office. No doubt the news would lose the older man a few votes, but not enough. If Riley had taken Gracie up on her offer and married her, he would have had the election nailed. Not that he would have. Yeah, it was a lot of money, but she was more important. He’d never been in love before and by God, he was going to do it right.
He turned to the second page and nearly spit the coffee he’d just sipped. Instead of a recap of local, state and national news, there was a two page ad with Gracie’s face smack in the middle. Across the top, huge print proclaimed: I Need Your Help To Get My Man!
Riley swore. What had she done now? He scanned the text, which was a letter addressed to the town.
Dear Los Lobos,
It’s me. Gracie. I know most of you remember me from those articles in the paper, both fourteen years ago and recently. The ones about my crush on Riley Whitefield. You followed the tragic story of my unrequited love and felt my pain when it ended with Riley marrying another woman.
So here’s the thing. I’m still in love with Riley and I want to marry him. And you know the best part? He loves me, too. But he has this crazy idea he can’t propose until after the election.
Riley is a great guy. He’ll be terrific for this town and honestly, I want to be with him here…in Los Lobos. But for that to happen, I need your help. I need you to vote for Riley on Tuesday.
You’ve always been proud of the fact that I loved with my whole heart. That hasn’t changed. The only thing different this time is I’d like you to be part of that. I’m pulling off the biggest stunt of my life and I can’t do it without you. If you’ve ever rooted for me and Riley, please vote for him on Tuesday.
He read it twice, then set his coffee on the counter and picked up the phone. Of course Gracie didn’t answer.
Five minutes later he was dressed and out of the house. As he drove toward her place, he saw hundreds of Gracie Says Vote For Riley posters and flyers plastered everywhere.
He made it to her house in record time, but she wasn’t there. He tried her mom’s house, then headed to the bank. Could she have done this and then left town?
But as he drove up to the bank, he saw a huge banner hanging from the side of the old building. Gracie Says Vote For Riley flapped in the morning breeze. Waiting in front were all his employees, Zeke, Gracie’s mom and sisters and Gracie herself.
She walked to his car, then stood on the sidewalk while he shut off the engine and stepped out.
“What do you think?” she asked, sounding more than a little nervous.
God, she looked great. “That you’re crazy.”
“Good crazy or bad crazy?”
“There’s a difference?”
“Oh, sure. I was bad crazy before, when I stalked you. I like to think I’ve changed.”
He reached for her hands. “Don’t change for me. I love everything about you.” He nodded at the banner. “Why did you do this?”