“I’ll admit the earring is appealing.”
“And his butt. The man has a fabulous butt.”
“I didn’t get a chance to check it out, but I’ll put it on my to-do list.”
Jill threw the chip across the table. “Oh, please. Don’t get all superior with me. We’re talking about Riley. I refuse to believe you can stand in the same room as him and not feel something.”
“I felt humiliation and a burning desire to be somewhere else.”
“That’s not what I mean. Come on, Gracie. There had to be some attraction between you.”
No way she would admit to that, Gracie thought. Too dangerous with the potential to make her look far too foolish. Plus it would be all one-sided. “He’s firmly in my past where he will stay. Do you think I’m proud of what I did to him? I hate that everyone remembers it and talks about it. The last thing I’m willing to do is fuel the fire. What’s he doing here, anyway? And running for mayor? What’s up with that?”
Jill straightened. “I can only discuss things that are public knowledge.”
Gracie stared at her friend. She was careful to keep her lips pressed together so her mouth didn’t hang open, but she was pretty sure her eyes had bugged out.
“You’re his lawyer?”
“I’m handling some things for him.”
Gracie didn’t know what to say. “How long will he be in town?”
“You’re not being the least bit helpful.” Gracie took a sip of her drink. “Do you know why he’s running for mayor?”
“Are you going to tell me?”
“You’re not very much fun, you know that?”
Jill grabbed a chip. “I know. I just can’t.” Her expression turned wicked. “But if you see him the next time you’re spying at his house, you could ask him yourself.”
“Not even for money. I don’t want to have anything to do with Riley ever again. The humiliation would be too great.”
“Fair enough. As long as you’re sure he’s not the one.”
Gracie looked at her and laughed. “If he’s the one, I’m converting to Catholicism and taking my vows.”
FRANKLIN YARDLEY liked watches. He had an impressive collection he stored in a custom-made drawer in his dresser. Every morning after picking out a suit and tie, he carefully chose the watch he would wear for the day. Omegas were his favorite, but he had three Rolexes because everyone expected a man in his position to wear one.
“It’s all about perception,” he reminded himself as he glanced down at the Omega partially concealed by the cuff of his monogrammed cotton shirt.
Still, he wasn’t interested in a watch for himself today. He turned the page of the jewelry store catalogue and paused when he saw the display of ladies’ watches. No, he was shopping for a very special someone.
A simple but elegant Movado caught his eye.
It was fancy enough to impress the lady in question, but not so flashy as to call attention to itself.
He made a note of the jewelry store and then checked his calendar. He would need a day or so to get the twelve hundred dollars he would need to buy the watch. It wasn’t as if he could put it on his credit card. Sandra, his wife, might never have worked a day in her life, but she kept track of every single penny. Somehow he’d assumed the daughter of a self-made millionaire wouldn’t care about things like budgets and spending, but Sandra did. She believed that since the wealth in their marriage came from her, she had the only say on how it was spent.
Still, after twenty-eight years of marriage, Frank had made his peace with her tight purse strings and had figured out more than one way around them.
She often commented on his nice things, the ones she hadn’t bought for him, but he never explained, not even when she told him to his face she didn’t trust him. He didn’t particularly care what she thought—she would never leave and she looked good at parties. It was more than enough.
Frank slipped the catalogue into his leather Tumi briefcase, then unlocked the desk’s bottom drawer. Under the city seal and several other important documents was the checkbook for the account especially set aside for the mayor’s discretionary funds. Frank liked to think of it as his private play money. He tucked the checkbook next to the catalogue and pushed the buzzer that would summon his assistant.
The door to his private office opened and Holly walked in. Tall, blond, raised in San Diego and all of twenty-four, she had the perfect pretty looks of a third-generation surfing family. But behind those big blue eyes and high cheekbones was a brain of extraordinary sharpness.
“I have the figures you requested,” she said as she put a folder on his desk.
Hers was the figure that interested him the most. He imagined how pleased she would be when he gave her the watch later this week.
“It’s not good,” she added. “Riley Whitefield is gaining in the polls. People are starting to listen to his message.” She frowned slightly, drawing her perfect eyebrows together. “They’re saying we should discuss the issues more. I think you should give a few more speeches.”
He adored everything about her. The way she talked, the way she worried, the way she said “we” as if they were a team.
“What issues do you consider most relevant?” he asked.
Delight widened her eyes. “You really want my opinion?”
“Of course. You’re my connection with the good citizens of Los Lobos. They’ll tell you things they would never tell me.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. I guess being the mayor sort of separates you from everyone.”
“Why don’t you close the door and we’ll brainstorm some topics,” he suggested.
She did as he requested, then took the seat across from his. “Taxes are always an issue,” she said. “But there aren’t any bond measures on the ballot.”
“What’s Whitefield discussing?” he asked.
“Zoning, more money for schools, ways to bring tourists to town in the winter.”
“I’m not sure I want more tourists around,” Frank said.
Holly nodded. “They’re a pain, but they dump lots of money into the economy.”
“Sounds like we have our work cut out for us.” Frank paused as if considering something, even though he’d long since made up his mind. “I don’t suppose…” he began.
Holly leaned forward, her expression eager, her firm, young breasts swaying gently under her blouse.
“I was thinking you’d like to draft a couple of speeches for me.”
She sprang to her feet and stared at him. “Are you serious? You’d let me do that?”
“I think you’d do a terrific job. You’re bright, talented, ambitious. Are you interested?”
She laughed. “Absolutely. I could have two drafts to you by the end of the week. Is that soon enough?”
“Of course.” Even better, he had a feeling her “drafts” would be word perfect. He rose. “Thank you, Holly. This means a lot to me.”
“I’m really excited by the opportunity.”
“I’m the one who’s excited. I’m taking advantage of you. You’re the kind of woman who makes a man go far.”
Her smile turned knowing as she walked toward him. When she was only a few inches away, she reached for the waistband of her skirt.
“You’re the kind of man who makes a woman want to do almost anything.”
Her skirt dropped to the floor. Unable to tear his gaze away, he gave silent thanks.
She wasn’t wearing any panties.
GRACIE TURNED the cake onto the cooling rack and expertly tapped the bottom with just enough force to let everyone know who was in charge. A challenge, considering the moody, temperamental oven she had to work with. One of the joys of renting. She counted to five, tapped again, then lifted in one clean motion that left no room for second chances.
The pan slid off perfectly, leaving the golden cake resting on the rack.
“I love it when a plan comes together,” she said with a grin as she studied the multiple cooling layers that would make up a simple but elegant bridal shower cake.
Her exposure in People magazine, not to mention a couple of raves in the wedding issue of In Style had turned her small cake business into a growing concern. For reasons not clear to her, celebrities now considered her a “must have” for their weddings and sometimes their showers. Sort of like wearing a Vera Wang original.
“I’m not about to complain,” she said happily as she crossed to the refrigerator where she’d carefully stacked all the fleurs-de-lis she’d made in advance of decorating the cake. All three hundred and fifty. She would actually need about three hundred and thirty—the rest were for breakage.
The design—an elegant creation in white and gold—was a replica of a cake featured in a renaissance painting. The bride-to-be, a popular actress with a career of movies on Masterpiece Theater, loved all things old. Gracie loved the challenge of something other than flowers, doves and hearts.
She walked to the counter, prepared to make yet more decorations in advance of assembling the cake, when her cell phone rang. For a second her heart fluttered, as if anticipating some wondrous event. The problem was, no one that exciting would be calling.
Oh. Yeah. Riley.
A quick glance at the display of her cell phone told her the caller was her mother, or at least someone at the hardware store.
Heartbeat quickly slowing to normal, she pushed the talk button.
“This is Gracie,” she said.
“Hi. It’s your mother. I’m confirming the meeting about the wedding. You’ll be there, right? There’s so much work to do to get things ready for Vivian’s special day. I’m hoping you’ll have some great ideas, what with all your wedding experience.”
Gracie still felt the aftereffects of the previous evening when she’d been reprimanded by Alexis and left feeling more like an outsider than ever.
“Is the wedding still on?” she asked. “Vivian seemed pretty upset.”
Her mother sighed. “Oh, this happens about once a week. She’s flighty and impulsive, which isn’t a good combination. But marriage will settle her down.”
Gracie was of the opinion one should be settled before getting married, but that was just her.
“Sure. I’ll be there. Should I bring anything?”
“Just your patience. You’re going to need it.” Her mother named the time and place, then excused herself to get back to customers at the store.
Gracie hung up and set the phone back on the counter. She’d been worried about coming home for a lot of reasons she hadn’t been able to articulate. Now that she was here, she could easily list them, explain them, even file them by category.
There was Riley—not just that the town hadn’t forgotten, which it hadn’t, but also her reaction to him. One would think that half a lifetime away from him would reduce his appeal, but one would be wrong. Second, her relationship with her family. She remembered a lot of screaming and fighting with her sisters, but also a lot of good times. Now Alexis and Vivian were strangers to her, but close to each other. She felt like the odd man out and she didn’t like it. Finally, there was her mother. She felt an awkwardness, a strain just under the surface, but she couldn’t explain why it had happened. Was it because she’d been gone for so long? Or was there something else she didn’t see?
She turned back to her cooling cake and wrinkled her nose. This was one of the few times she wished she did something else for a living. Something that didn’t give her too much time to think. What she needed was a distraction…a really big one.