Seconds later lights swept across the front window. He was here.

She didn’t know if she should run for cover or boldly step into the night. She settled on waiting for him to knock on her front door.

“Hi,” she said as she pulled it open, then was grateful she’d done the speaking thing before seeing him.

God, he looked good. Like her, he’d dressed all in black, but his T-shirt didn’t advertise anything beyond the chiseled muscles of his chest and the narrowness of his waist. Raindrops winked from his slicked back hair as if bragging about their close proximity to the man himself.

“Ready?” he asked as he brushed off his bare arms. “You have a coat. Good. It’s really raining.”

She found herself more than tongue-tied. She felt frozen in place, as if her feet had somehow become completely stuck to the foyer tile. She might never move again. Centuries from now archeologists would unearth her and put her still upright body in some natural history museum with a little notice beside her on the wall saying they couldn’t explain what she was doing, either.

She forced herself to breathe and then to speak. “Are we, um, taking your car?”

“I’d rather.”

It was fine with her. She didn’t feel up to driving. She doubted she was capable of much more than involuntary bodily functions at this moment. She wasn’t just overwhelmed by her attraction to Riley, but also by the unfairness of the situation. She’d been gone for so long and had gotten on with her life. Was it too much to ask that she be able to come home for a few weeks and not make a complete fool out of herself?

No answer crashed through the heavens, so she grabbed her purse and her keys, turned out the living room light and stepped into the cool, damp, night air.

Riley led his way to his car—a sleek, silver Mercedes that still smelled of new car and high-end leather. She slid onto the passenger seat and tried not to think about the fact they were going to spend the next who-knew-how-long together. Confined.

In some circles this could be considered a date. Of course in some circles she would be considered a menace to society and in desperate need of counseling.

“Why aren’t you staying at your mom’s house?” he asked.

“I thought about it, but I need the space for my work. I tend to be a night owl and a lot of people don’t appreciate noise from the kitchen at 3:00 a.m.”

He backed out of the driveway, then glanced at her. “Do I remember something about cakes?”

“Wedding cakes. They’re very fancy. I also do cakes for showers sometimes, but most people aren’t willing to pay that kind of money except for the actual wedding.”

“How much are we talking about?”

She shrugged. “I’m working on a shower cake right now. It’s fairly ornate and will serve fifty. I’m charging a thousand.”

The car swerved slightly. “Dollars?”

“I’ve found it really helpful to keep my prices in U.S. currency. It saves confusion.”

“For a cake?”

“A really good cake.”

“But still.”

She smiled. A lot of people reacted the way he did. Those who wanted something incredibly special and totally handmade were willing to pay the price.

“How many cakes do you make a year?” he asked.

“Less than a hundred. Of course wedding cakes are more expensive, but they take longer. I do okay, but I’m not getting rich. I won’t until I decide to expand, which I’m not sure I want to do. I like having total control.”

As she talked he drove through Los Lobos. “You know where Zeke lives?” she asked.

“I’ve been there a couple of times.”

“I have his license plate,” she said, digging in her purse for the information Alexis had given her.

Riley nodded at the windshield. “If this rain gets worse, we won’t be able to read it from any kind of distance.”

He pulled onto a side street and slowed. Gracie had only been by her sister’s house once since returning to town, so she had to check out numbers to figure out which one it was.

Riley turned off his lights and cruised to a stop across the street. He pointed. “That’s Zeke’s SUV.”

She peered through the windshield. “Is it black?”

“Dark blue, but in this weather, anything dark is going to look black.”

“Okay.” She leaned back in her seat. “Now what?”

Riley glanced at her. “We wait.”

She’d known that, of course. That’s what stakeouts were all about. Waiting. But thinking about it and actually doing it were two different things. Not only did Riley make her nervous, she found it really difficult to sit still. He sat there, immobilized, watching the house, while she shifted in her seat, stretched out her legs, fussed with her jacket, then tugged on her Dodger cap.

“You going to settle down anytime soon?” he asked, never taking his attention from the house.

“I’m settled. I just can’t get comfortable.” She sat up straighter in the seat. “I’ve been accused of fidgeting, but I don’t understand how people can sit there like lumps. It’s not natural. It’s—”

“There,” Riley said, cutting her off and pointing.

Sure enough Zeke hurried out of the house toward his SUV. Gracie instinctively sank down in her seat and shielded her face.

“I doubt he can see you through the rain,” Riley said dryly.

“I want to be sure,” she said. “Keep your voice down.”

Riley grinned. “You’re taking this too seriously.” He started his engine and waited until Zeke pulled out before shifting into gear and following him.

Riley might think they were safe, but Gracie stayed slumped in her seat until it became obvious Zeke was heading directly to the freeway and not trying to lose anyone.

“Where do you think he’s going?” she asked as she shifted into a more comfortable position. “And what’s he up to? If he’s not seeing another woman, the possibilities are endless.”

“Please don’t list them,” Riley said.

She glanced at him. “I wasn’t going to.”

“One never knows with you.”

She bristled. “Excuse me,” she said, turning toward him as much as her seat belt would allow. “You don’t know me at all. Your impressions and assumptions come from my actions when I was barely fourteen years old and whatever you picked up reading that stupid series of articles. Until yesterday you’d never had a conversation with me or spent any time in my presence.”

“We talked when you threw yourself in front of my car and begged me to kill you if I was going to marry Pam.”

She felt heat flare on her cheeks and was grateful for the darkness. “That wasn’t a conversation. I talked, you got in your car and drove in the other direction.”

“Good point. So you’re saying I should give you a chance.”

“I’m saying you shouldn’t judge me or assume anything until you’ve gotten to know me better.” Then, suddenly aware he may not want to get to know her better, she pointed. “He’s getting on the freeway.”

“I can see that.”

Riley accelerated smoothly, keeping up with Zeke’s car. When they were on the freeway, he backed off a little. Unfortunately another SUV moved right in front of them, blocking Zeke’s vehicle from view.

“There’s so many of them,” she said as she looked out the side window.

Sure enough, they were surrounded by SUVs. Sort of like a weaker force being taken by a bigger enemy.

“Keep his license plate number handy,” Riley said. “We’ll need it if we get separated for very long.”

She waved the piece of paper she held. “I have it right here.” Another SUV cut them off. “Maybe we should have bought one of those homing devices. We could mount the little display thingie and then just follow the red dot to wherever he’s going.”

She felt Riley’s gaze on her.

“What?” she demanded. “I’ve seen it in the movies. It’s not as if I own one and use it on unsuspecting prey.”

“I can’t be sure with you.”

She leaned back and deliberately turned away from him. “That’s what I meant about not judging me. I made a reasonable suggestion and you jumped on it.”

“You thinking putting an illegal tracking device on someone’s car is reasonable?”

“You really think it’s illegal?”

“If it wasn’t raining so hard and I didn’t have to watch the road, I swear I’d be banging my head against the steering wheel.”

Genuinely baffled, she blinked at him. “Why? What did I do?”

He made a whimpering sound she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard before.

“Are you married?” he asked. “Do I have to worry about some burly guy showing up and trying to beat the crap out of me?”

“I’m not married, although I’d like to point out that anyone I did marry would completely understand my need to help my sister.” She liked the faint touch of indignation in her voice, then nearly passed out as a thought occurred to her. “Are you?”

“Nope. Pam cured me of wanting anything long-term. Since her, I’ve kept my relationships strictly superficial.”

Gracie wanted to ask more questions, but she spotted something. “Is that his car? Look. That dark SUV is exiting the freeway.”

She glanced around for a sign and saw they were coming into Santa Barbara.

“What could he be doing here?” she wondered aloud.

“We don’t know that it’s him. I can’t read the license plate, can you?”

She squinted. “No. You’ll have to get closer.”

Riley tried, but they missed the signal at the bottom of the off-ramp and had to hurry to catch up with the other vehicle. They shot through the intersection only to see it turn left up ahead.

“Go, go, go!” she yelled.

“I’m going.”

They followed the other car through a residential neighborhood and watched it pull up in front of a two-story house.

She couldn’t believe it. What was Zeke doing here?

The front door opened and a young child dashed out into the rain. “Oh, my God. He’s not just having an affair. He has a whole other family. It’s just like those Lifetime movies.”

“Not exactly,” Riley said as he pointed.

The driver had stepped out of the SUV and walked around front. Gracie relaxed as she saw a small, curvy woman reach down and pull the child into her arms.

“Oh. I guess we lost him,” she said, feeling both foolish and relieved.

“You think?” Riley turned around in the narrow street and headed back the way they’d come. “I should have let you drive. You’re the professional.”

She raised her eyebrows and looked at him.

He had the nerve to grin. “It’s true,” he told her. “Okay, I’ll back off. It’s nearly seven-thirty and I haven’t had dinner. Want to grab something before we head back?”

She couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d morphed into a leopard man. Okay, that would have surprised her more, but not by much.

“You mean dinner?” she asked, trying not to sound too stunned by the invitation.

“It’s the generally accepted meal for this time of day, but if you’d prefer something else, I’ll see what I can do.”

Her stomach clenched and for once it had nothing to do with acid. Her big eating plan had been her usual tuna salad that she generally had five nights out of seven.

“I, um, yeah. That would be great,” she said calmly.

She wanted to open the window and scream out into the night, but instead she contented herself with a little inside shimmy and a very big smile. Dinner with Riley. Talk about a great ending to a good day.

Tags: Susan Mallery Los Lobos Romance