RILEY CHOSE a restaurant on the water and, despite the rain, Gracie found it far too romantic. If only she’d worn something different. Something sexy and flirty and…Oops. As they were shown to a booth by the window she had to keep reminding herself that this wasn’t a date and that Riley wasn’t interested in her in that way.

They were, um, friends, maybe. Former acquaintances brought together by a common goal—to find out what Zeke was doing when he stole away at all hours.

“You’d think she’d just ask him,” she said as she was seated.

Riley settled in his chair and raised his eyebrows. “What?”

“What? Oh, sorry. Thinking out loud. Just my sister and the problem she’s having with Zeke. Why doesn’t she just ask him? She says it’s because she doesn’t want to know, but isn’t knowing better than not knowing? I’d want to know. At least then you have something you can handle. But this nothingness is just too much like being left in the dark. Don’t you agree?”

He shook his head. “I lost the thread somewhere.”

“It doesn’t matter.” She picked up her menu but instead of looking at it, she stared out into the storm.

Rain pounded against the windows. Below she could see the angry surf smacking into the shore. Lights from the restaurant offered a feeble glow that quickly bled into the darkness.

“What a fabulous night,” she said.

He raised both eyebrows. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No. I love storms. Hey, I live in Los Angeles where we get all of nine inches of rain a year. So when there’s some exciting weather going on, I like to enjoy it.”

He glanced out the window. “This is nothing. I’ve been on an oil rig in a typhoon. That’s weather.”

His statement made her instantly want to ask a thousand questions. Was that where he’d been? How on earth had he gotten there when he’d started out in Los Lobos? But she settled on, “I thought they evacuated rigs during bad storms.”

“Oh, we’re supposed to go, but who’s going to enforce the rules? I worked for a small private company. Everyone on board was a little crazy.”

“Including you?”

He grinned. “Especially me.”

The waiter appeared and told them about the specials.

“How about some wine?” Riley asked.

“Sure. You order.”

“What are you going to have?”

She scanned the menu and picked a grilled salmon dish with a house salad. Riley chose a surf and turf, then surprised her by ordering an Australian Shiraz.

“I thought you would have gone fancy and French with the wine,” she said.

“I like Australian wines. Spanish as well.”

“There are some great local vineyards around here. The whole Santa Ynez valley is covered with grapes.” She started to say they could go on a tasting trip sometime, but stopped herself before the words formed.

This was Riley, she reminded herself. This wasn’t a casual dinner with a guy she liked. This was…dangerous.

“So,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “How did you get into wedding cakes?”

She smiled. “The basic need for transportation. I was sixteen and I wanted a car. My aunt and uncle insisted that I contribute to the gas and insurance part of the equation, so I had to get a job. There was a local bakery a couple of streets over and I applied there. When they hired me, it was late May and wedding cake season was in full swing. I received a baptism by fire. But it turns out I had a real talent for making and designing cakes. Instead of college, I apprenticed with a master baker, then went out on my own.”

She shrugged. “I tried to be a little well-rounded. I’ve taken some night courses on running a small business. I’ve been playing with the numbers as far as expanding. I’m at that awkward place where I’m having trouble getting everything done, so I’m turning away business, but I’m not sure I would have enough to support a whole other person.”

“Maybe you could get by with just half of one.”

“There’s a thought.”

They were practically alone in the restaurant. The only other couples were seated on the other side of the dining area. With the storm still raging outside, there was a sense of isolation. Between the lashing rain and the flickering candles, it was pretty darned romantic.

Gracie found herself wanting to rest her chin on her hands and stare dreamily at Riley while he talked, just like in those really old silly teen movies she’d loved as a kid. The dim light suited him, bringing out the shadows in his face and emphasizing the strength of his jaw and lines of his cheekbones. But it was more than that.

All those years ago she’d loved him from afar, but she’d never really known him. They hadn’t had a single conversation. Her affections had been based on her own rather twisted feelings and fantasies, not the man he was. After all this time, it felt good to know that so far, she liked the person inside.

The waiter brought the wine and a basket of bread.

“Why do they do that?” she asked when he opened the bottle and poured them each a glass.

“Open the wine?” Riley asked. “Someone has to pull the cork out. I’ve tried simply breaking off the top of the bottle, but then there’s the whole shards of glass issue. Not very inviting.”

Gracie rolled her eyes. In the soft lighting the color changed from medium blue to the color of a warm, shallow bay in summer.

While the image was accurate, it made Riley want to give himself a good beating, then go watch sports. A shallow bay in summer? Where the hell had that come from? This was Gracie, the terrorizing stalker. Not a woman he found attractive. And even if he did think she looked pretty hot in her tight T-shirt, she wasn’t for him. The list of reasons was endless, but the three F’s were the most important. Gracie didn’t qualify.

“Not the wine,” she said, ignoring her glass and staring longingly at the basket of bread. “That. Death.”

He frowned. “Bread is death?”

“Not technically, but do you know what a couple of slices can do to a woman’s hips and thighs? That’s where the bread goes. There’s a route directly from the stomach to the fat pockets where hungry little cells scarf up bread and grow round and full.”

“Okay, now you’re scaring me.”

She licked her lips. “You’re a guy. You wouldn’t understand about deep burning hunger for something so incredibly bad for you. Your metabolism allows you to eat the contents of an entire grocery store without gaining an ounce.”

He might be a guy, but he knew all about hunger. If she licked her lips like that again, he was going to have to forget his rules in favor of simply taking advantage of the situation. The three F’s be damned.

“Oh, forget it,” she said and reached for a piece of bread.

He watched her smooth on the tiniest wedge of butter, then bite into the slice. Her eyes fluttered closed, her body relaxed and he would swear she actually moaned. Was it just him or had it gotten hot in here?

When she swallowed, she opened her eyes and smiled. “Excellent.”

“What else don’t you eat?” he asked.

“Bread’s my thing. Okay, and chocolate. I can take or leave most junk food. Jill and I had lunch today at a Mexican place and while I ate a few chips, I could go months without them. But bread….”

She started to take another bite. He had to look away because watching her eat it was too erotic. Bread. What was it with women and food?

“What about your cakes?” he asked, careful to keep his attention on the windows.

“Never touch ’em,” she said. “I used to sample all the time. There was an ugly ten pounds. But once I perfected my secret recipe, I didn’t bother anymore. Sometimes the fillings give me a little trouble, but I do my best to be strong. What about you?”

He returned his attention to her and was pleased to see she’d finished her slice of bread. “I don’t bake.”

“Aren’t you the comedian? I meant what about your life? How did you get from your oil rig to here? And why are you running for mayor?”

“Jill didn’t tell you?”

“You mean my closest and oldest friend for years? Spill a client secret? You have to be kidding.”

He reached for his wine. “Did you ask?”

She smiled. “I know you dated a lot in high school. I was there. Gee, Riley, didn’t you learn anything about women back then? Of course I asked.”

Her complete honesty and good humor intrigued him. All those years ago, he’d never given much thought to Gracie, except to wish her far, far away from him. It wouldn’t have occurred to him he could like her.

“I’m running for mayor to meet the terms of my uncle’s will.”

She tossed her long blond hair over her shoulder and reached for her wine. “That doesn’t make any sense. His dying request was for you to be mayor?”

“Something like that. He’s left everything to me, the bank, the house, his estate, on the condition I prove that I’ve become respectable by running for mayor and winning.”

“And I thought my family was twisted. But it’s a lot of money, right? I mean that’s why you’re doing it.”

“Excluding the bank, the estate is worth about ninety-seven million dollars.”

She’d nearly finished swallowing her wine when he spoke. Even so, she gasped, then started to choke and cough.

“You okay?” he asked, half rising from his seat.

She waved him back. “I’m fine,” she said in a low croak. She coughed again, then reached for her water and took a sip.

“Did you say ninety-seven million dollars?”

He chuckled. “Yes. U.S. dollars. I use them, too.”

“That’s an incredible amount of money. I love my uncle more than I could say but all he left me was a small three-bedroom house in Torrance.”

“With no strings.”

“True, but for that amount of money, I’d jump rope with the strings if necessary. So, wow. You’ll be the richest mayor in Los Lobos history. I guess you’ll only want to serve the one term. Then what?”

“I haven’t decided.”

In truth, he wasn’t planning to stay past the election. The will had stated he had to win, but had said nothing about serving out his term.

The waiter came with their salads. When he’d left, Gracie said, “You’re running the bank, too, right? Is that weird?”

“It’s my first desk job. While I was gone, I did a lot of studying in my spare time. I earned a bachelor’s in finance, which helps. Still, I’m constantly on the verge of screwing up. My secretary, Diane, is a big help.”

Gracie’s expression turned knowing. “Diane, huh?”

“She’s a treasure. In her sixties, still wears tweed suits. Bosses me around like crazy.”

“I would never have thought you were the kind of man who enjoyed being dominated by women.”

“Diane is very special.”

The light turned Gracie’s hair to the color of gold. He liked how easily she laughed and how she seemed to take very little seriously. Her body moved in such a way that he could easily imagine her naked and wet. Just thinking about it…

But he couldn’t think about it or do anything about it, he reminded himself. Under other circumstances, with him clearly explaining the rules, maybe. But not here. Not in Los Lobos where everyone knew everyone else’s business and he had an election to win. She might be sexy and pretty and completely charming but there were ninety-seven million dollars on the line. For that price, he could keep his horny thoughts to himself.

“What are you thinking?” she asked. “You’ve gone all serious.”

Tags: Susan Mallery Los Lobos Romance