RILEY SAT in a leather chair that had been custom-made for his uncle. Donovan Whitefield had taken over the family bank on his thirty-fifth birthday and hadn’t missed a day until he’d died forty-two years later. He’d been stern and difficult, a man who didn’t take vacations, forgive mistakes or appreciate the foibles of others.
Or so he’d been told. Riley had never met his uncle. For nearly five years they’d lived in the same small town, but their paths had never crossed.
Riley turned in the chair and looked at the large portrait on the tall wall opposite the door. The office was stately and elegant, befitting a bank president, and the painting reflected all of that. Donovan Whitefield had been immortalized standing behind this very desk, staring out into the distance, as if the future beckoned.
Riley thought it was all a pile of shit. If he had his way, he would take the portrait down and burn it. But he couldn’t—not until he won the damn election and all this was his. Until then, he played the game, and that meant sharing office space with an old and crabby ghost.
There was a quick knock on his door, then the heavy carved wood swung open.
“Good morning, Mr. Whitefield,” his assistant said.
Riley shook his head. “I’ve told you it’s not necessary to knock. You are never going to find me doing anything secret or suspicious.”
Diane Evans, a sixty-something woman who had worked all her life, barely blinked.
“Of course, sir,” she said in a voice that told him she would continue to knock until the last minute of the last day of her employment.
Riley knew he wasn’t in a position to complain.
Diane was efficient, quiet and knew everything about running the bank. If it hadn’t been for her counsel, he would have floundered more than once. He might be able to sniff out oil in the middle of a typhoon in the South China Sea, but the world of financial institutions was new to him.
Diane had guided him through the past seven months without mussing a single strand of her short, graying hair.
“There was a call about the children’s wing of the hospital again,” she said evenly. Not by a flicker of a lash did she let on they’d had this conversation at least three times before and each time he’d not only refused to donate, but he’d instructed her not to mention it to him again.
He motioned for her to come in and take a seat on the far side of the desk. She moved quietly on her sensible shoes, then perched on the edge of the leather and wood chair, her back perfectly straight, her shoulders squared, her tweed suit covering her like an ugly coat of armor.
“You did promise to think about it, sir,” she said.
“Funny. My recollection is that I told you hell would freeze over before I gave them a penny to build the Donovan Whitefield memorial children’s wing.”
A pad of paper materialized in her hand, along with a pen. “Perhaps if I explained the needs of community again,” she began.
“Perhaps if you got off me about this,” he said.
She looked at him. Nothing about her serene expression changed. No eyebrow raised, no corner of her mouth turned down. Still he felt her disapproval all the way to his bones.
“It’s for children, Mr. Whitefield,” she said. “Local children who shouldn’t have to go into Los Angeles to get the care they need.”
He figured he owed her. She’d stayed late every time he’d asked, she’d saved his ass over and over and she’d never once thrown the memory of his grandfather in his face.
“I’ll think about it,” he said slowly. “On the condition you stop knocking and stop calling me Mr. Whitefield.”
Diane rose to her feet. “Very well…” She hesitated, then pressed her lips together before saying, “Riley. I’ll let the committee know you’re considering a donation. In the meantime I have those reports your requested and Mr. Bridges is here to see you.”
Despite the fact that the donation would cost him about fifteen million dollars if he did it, Riley still felt a measure of victory. Who knew he had it in him to negotiate with his secretary and win?
Zeke Bridges strolled in three minutes later. Tall, personable, with an air of trustworthiness about him that made you want to buy insurance from him, he’d been Riley’s first choice to run his campaign for mayor. Zeke wasn’t just well liked by most folks in the town, he had experience.
“The numbers are up,” Zeke said as he slumped into the chair Diane had vacated. “Way up. We’re gaining on Yardley every day. Those newspaper ads really made a difference. The old guy has to be running scared, which means we’re going to have to watch for some kind of counterplay, but I’ll keep on the polls so we’ll know if he starts to creep back up in the numbers.”
Riley grinned. “You’re polling people? Zeke, it’s Los Lobos and I’m running for mayor, not president.”
“Sure. Make fun of me. But the truth is campaigning is all about the right information. We have to get it and use it to our advantage.”
“If you say so. You’re the expert and that’s why I pay you the big bucks.”
“Just remember that. We’re only a few weeks away from the election. Every event is crucial. Sure we’re ahead, but it wouldn’t take much to derail the whole campaign. Yardley’s a popular incumbent and people usually don’t like change.”
“I promise to remain cooperative,” Riley said. He had to win this election, and for ninety-seven million reasons Zeke knew nothing about.
Zeke took him over the schedule for the next couple of weeks. There would be a few public appearances and some ads on local cable. When Riley had approved everything, he leaned back in his chair.
“There’s just one more thing.”
“What you do on your own time is your own business, right up until it impacts my campaign.”
Zeke frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“Your secret life. You’re disappearing at all hours and not telling your wife where you are, which is your business, but she came looking at my place because that’s where you told her you were going to be, which makes it my business.”
Zeke swallowed hard. “Look, Riley, I’m sorry but I—”
Riley cut him off with a quick shake of his head. “There’s no sorry. There’s only the campaign. I’m only going to ask you this once. Are you doing anything that could have a negative impact on my bid for mayor? Before you answer, let me remind you that Los Lobos is a small town and people finding out that the head of my campaign is screwing around on his wife would be a big negative.”
Zeke pushed to his feet. “I’m not cheating on Alexis. I would never do that. I love her.” He turned away. “It’s not that. It’s not anything that matters to you or the campaign.”
“Then what is it?”
Zeke turned back to him. “I don’t have to tell you that.”
“What if the information is a requirement of your continued employment with me?”
The other man looked him square in the eye. “Then you’re going to have to fire me because I’m not going to tell you what I’m doing. It’s not about you and it’s not about Alexis. That’s as much as I can say. Is it enough?”
Riley didn’t want to be dealing with this right now, not with the election only a few weeks away. While he could replace Zeke, he didn’t want to.
“If you’re not going to tell me, you should at least tell your wife,” Riley said. “She’s worried. Making her think you’re running around isn’t the best way to prove you love her.”
“Agreed. I’ll explain things to her.”
“By telling her what you’re doing?”
Zeke shook his head. “I can’t do that. Not yet. But it’s not bad. You have to believe me.”
Riley had learned a long time ago not to trust anyone. As much as he liked Zeke, he wasn’t going to change his rule for him.
“If whatever it is you’re doing spills over into the campaign, I won’t just fire you, I’ll do what I can to ruin you,” Riley said. “Do we understand each other?”
“Sure.” Zeke jerked his head toward the portrait on the far wall. “I know you never met your uncle, but I did. You probably don’t want to hear this, but you’re a lot like him.”
No, Riley didn’t want to know. “Thanks for sharing,” he said dryly. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
When Zeke had collected his papers and left, Riley stared at the door for a long time. He wanted to believe the problem was solved, but the tension in his gut told him otherwise. Zeke was up to something and Riley wanted to know what.
He picked up the phone and pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket.
“Hi, this is Gracie,” a female voice said after two rings.
Riley grinned. Whoever would have thought he would one day be calling Gracie Landon on purpose?
“It’s Riley. I talked to Zeke.”
He outlined their conversation.
“Alexis isn’t going to be satisfied with that,” Gracie said.
“I’m not either. I’m going to follow him tonight. See where he goes.”
“I want to come with you.”
His first instinct was to say no, but then he remembered who he was dealing with. The Gracie he knew would simply follow him, which meant they would be a very conspicuous parade.
“Fine. I’ll pick you up at six-thirty. Are you back at the old house?”
“No. I’m renting a place.” She gave him the address. “This is pretty cool,” she said when he’d written it down. “I’ve never been on a stakeout before.”
“Great. This is the perfect opportunity to round out your stalker past.”
GRACIE WASN’T SURE of the correct fashion choice for a stakeout. In the movies everyone wore dark colors and drank cold coffee. She couldn’t possibly drink coffee this late—not if she wanted to sleep or even keep her belly from going up in flames. She was nervous enough. Caffeine would simply cause an overflow of acid and the resulting pain would lay her low for hours.
“Clothes first, refreshments later,” she told herself as she stood in front of the closet.
She hadn’t brought all that much up with her for her stay in Los Lobos. Most of the space in her Subaru had been crammed with baking supplies and decorating tools, not to mention her nifty cooling racks. She’d limited her clothing choices to two small suitcases. Of course when she’d made that decision she hadn’t planned on playing Bond girl sidekick to Riley’s yummy 007.
“Black,” she murmured as she sorted through jeans and other slacks. A pair of black Dockers caught her attention. Somewhere she had a black T-shirt. That should do.
She found the T-shirt in a drawer. Unfortunately it was decorated with a white silhouette of a bride and groom and proclaimed itself to be from the 2004 Bride on the Beach show she’d attended the previous summer.
Gracie ignored the unfortunate pattern and pulled it on. She studied herself in the mirror and realized her blond hair would act as a beacon. Another quick search unearthed a battered Dodgers baseball cap. The blue didn’t match the black but hey, this was a stakeout, not a fashion show. Besides, Riley was unlikely to notice what she was wearing.
Riley. Just his name made her body tense and her heart rate quadruple. She was going to have to figure out a way to counter her reaction to him. They were only together to figure out what Zeke was up to. She had a feeling that given the choice, Riley would rather spend the evening with a known mass murderer than her. Any attraction on her part was a really bad idea.
She stuffed her feet into sandals and headed for the front of the house. The light patter on the roof told her the rain promised by the local news had arrived. She picked up a windbreaker and then searched out her purse and keys.