“That we could never do this in Los Lobos.”
She glanced around the restaurant. “Agreed. People would talk about nothing else for weeks. My life, our lives, would be a living hell.”
“I’m getting the better deal, though.”
“What do you mean?”
He smiled. “I’m the one dining with a legend. The infamous Gracie Landon who knows how to love with her whole heart.”
Her gaze narrowed as her hand shot forward. She grabbed a roll and threw it at him. Riley laughed as it bounced off his chest and tumbled to the floor.
“If they could see you now,” he teased.
She picked up her fork and stabbed a piece of lettuce. “You’d better watch yourself. You have a very nice car and I still know where that skunk lives.”
AS THEY PULLED into Gracie’s driveway, she leaned toward the window and stared out at the dark night.
“I’m glad it’s still raining,” she said. “It’s a perfect night to bake.”
Riley stopped the car and turned off the engine. “You’ll do that now?”
“Yeah. I like the quiet. I can concentrate. Plus there are some really cool infomercials on TV. You’d be amazed at the stuff you can buy. Not that I ever phone in, but I like to see them.”
“Uh-huh. Sure. I’ll bet you have a whole secret stash of Veg-O-Matics in that house.”
She chuckled. The soft sound brushed against his skin in a way that reminded him he was a man who hadn’t been with a woman in too damn long.
“No vegomatics, but if you’re very, very good, I might bake you something. To thank you for helping me with all this.”
“Zeke is my campaign manager. Now that you know how much I have on the line you can see why I want to make sure whatever he’s up to isn’t going to screw with my plans.”
“Good point. I’ll call Alexis in the morning and tell her we don’t know anymore than we did before. I’ll also try to get her to talk to him. It’s the most sensible plan.”
He would bet money she didn’t wear perfume, but her sweet scent seemed to fill the car. Tension crackled between them. Who would have thought after all this time, he would find Gracie appealing?
He reminded himself of his mission, his rules and how much could be lost by a single night of pleasure. Then he leaned toward her and watched as her eyes widened and her pupils dilated.
“Have a good rest of the night,” he said as he carefully undid the lock and pushed the door open. A blast of cold air swept into the car.
She blinked. “What? Oh. Sure. Thanks again.” She gave him a quick smile and hurried up the walk toward the house.
He waited until she was inside before starting the car. But it was a long time before he drove away and that night, thoughts of her kept him hard and awake well past midnight.
THE SHARP SOUND made Gracie want to yell at somebody. She hadn’t gotten to bed until almost four and it was far too early for her to be getting up. She knew she hadn’t set the alarm, so what….
Sleep receded. She gazed around blurrily until she realized it wasn’t the clock radio making the noise but the phone. She grabbed the cell.
A deep sob filled her ear.
“Hello? Who is this?”
“It’s me. Alexis.” Another sob. “Oh, Gracie, I just went over to his office and I saw him. With her!”
“What? Who? What her?”
“P-Pam. Zeke is having an affair with Pam Whitefield.”
BECCA JOHNSON’S hand shook as she signed the final loan documents. “I’m scared,” she admitted with a smile.
“This is the point of no return,” Riley told her. “You want the chance to change your mind?”
Becca looked at him in surprise. “Are you kidding? Thanks to you, I’m getting the chance to open a business in my home. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Since the divorce, I’ve barely been hanging on, financially.” Her smile faded. “Was I supposed to tell you that?”
He did his best to look reassuring. “My loan committee did a thorough check on your credit and income. I doubt you have any financial secrets from us.”
“Okay. I mean I’m good for the money.” She signed the last paper and passed it over to him. “I really appreciate this.”
Becca Johnson was a thirty-something divorced mother of two interested in opening a day-care facility in her home. She’d come to the bank for a loan to cover some remodeling expenses and start-up costs. The committee had been on the fence, so the final decision had been Riley’s. He’d given the woman the loan.
“I figured with so little equity in the house and all….” She stopped talking and shook her head. “I should probably keep my mouth shut. I don’t want you to change your mind at this late date.”
“Too late for that.” He tapped the signed papers on his desk. “We have a binding contract. Good luck with your new business.”
She rose and walked to the door of his office. “You’ve been wonderful, Mr. Whitefield. All the other banks in town told me no. I couldn’t have done this without you.”
The praise made Riley uncomfortable. He shrugged off the compliment. “You’re the kind of person who pays her bills on time and that’s what we want.”
She nodded, then stepped out into the hallway. Riley turned his attention to his computer. The door closed, but he knew he wasn’t alone. Even the air stood at attention when Diane entered a room. He glanced at his assistant.
She wore yet another of her infamous tweed suits. A green one this time, with a fussy yellow blouse underneath. Her shoes were dark and sensible—the kind that frightened small children.
“Here are Becca Johnson’s loan documents,” he said, handing her the file. “Please see that they’re processed today and that the money is deposited in her account first thing in the morning.”
His assistant took the papers, but didn’t leave.
“You have something else on your mind?” he asked.
She stood there glaring at him. “I do. Your quarterly projections aren’t very detailed.”
“Is that a criticism?”
“It’s a statement of fact.” She glanced down at the file in her hand. “Funny how Ms. Johnson thinks she’s just been offered the chance to make her heart’s desire come true. If only she knew she’d made a deal with the devil.”
Riley leaned back in his chair. “And here I thought we’d agreed you would call me by my first name.”
Diane’s disapproving expression didn’t change. “How long does she have until her world comes crashing in on her? A month? Are you closing the bank the day after the election or will you wait until the results are certified?”
So, she’d figured it out. Riley wondered if the woman would find any satisfaction in knowing she was right.
“All the loans will be called,” she said. “Every single one. Do you know how many houses that is? How many businesses? You could destroy the town.”
Riley didn’t respond. Her gaze sharpened.
“Don’t you care?”
“Not one damn bit.”
“That’s what I thought.”
She turned on her heel and left.
Riley stared at the closed door. He refused to feel guilty about what he was going to do. If he won, the bank was history. If he didn’t, life would go on as before. Someone else would be brought in to run things.
Diane could destroy his chances, but she wouldn’t. She was from the old school—what happened within the sanctity of the workplace stayed there.
He closed the current program on his computer and accessed the databank. After typing in Diane’s name, he checked for any outstanding loans. There was one on a house. Per the balance, she only owed a few thousand dollars. Even if the bank closed, she would be fine. So what did she have to get so upset about?
Fifteen minutes later, he was halfway through the weekly loan reports when someone banged on his door. Riley looked up and frowned. Diane would never bang, even if she was furious with him, which she probably was.
“Come in,” he called.
The door opened and Gracie peeked around it, into the room. “Hey, it’s me.”
“I can see that.”
“I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?”
“Why don’t you come into the office and tell me both?”
“I could do that.”
She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. After making her way to his desk, she placed a small pink box in the center and smiled.
“I made you a cake.”
She spoke with a combination of pride and embarrassment that made her cheeks flush. Or maybe they were flushed for another reason—he couldn’t be sure.
Her long blond hair hung down loose and sexy. She wore a short, summery kind of dress that emphasized curves. He was as human as the next man and certainly didn’t mind when an attractive woman wanted to spend a bit of her day with him. Even if that woman was an ex-crazed stalker. But that wasn’t what held him motionless in his seat.
Instead, it was the cake.
“I couldn’t sleep last night and after I’d worked on my decorations for what felt like forty-seven days I decided to do some baking. It’s white cake with a chocolate cream filling. The frosting’s—”
She kept on talking about the frosting and how she’d been unsure of the design, but he wasn’t paying attention. Not really.
His mother had made him cakes for his birthday, of course, but that had been the extent of her baking. She hadn’t been into it and he hadn’t cared. Since then, well, he wasn’t the kind of man women made cakes for.
“Aren’t you going to open it and look?” she asked impatiently.
He flipped up the top and stared down at the white round cake decorated with a grinning skunk.
He laughed. “I’m impressed.”
“Good. Guys don’t do the flower thing and I don’t know what your hobbies are or anything. I thought the skunk would be funny. Want a taste?”
As she asked, she sank into the leather chair on the visitor side of his desk and dug into her oversized straw bag. She pulled out a wicked looking knife and paper plates in a big Baggie.
“You’re kidding,” he said. “You travel with a knife?”
“Sure.” She withdrew it from the protective cardboard covering. “You never know when you have to cut into a cake and take a taste. At least I don’t.” She handed him the knife, then dug around some more. “I seem to be out of forks.”
“I’ll make do. Want some?”
She shook her head. “I’ll take a taste if you’re worried about me poisoning you or something, but otherwise, no. There was that whole bread thing last night.”
“You only had one piece.”
“You haven’t seen my thighs.”
He had the sudden thought that he would like to. Very much. And maybe the rest of her.
Dangerous, dangerous territory. Better to cut into the cake.
He cut himself a piece and slid it onto a paper plate. She watched anxiously as he took a big bite.
The cake was soft and moist, with just the right texture and a delicate flavor he couldn’t place. The chocolate cream filling tasted like a mousse, but not completely.
“Excellent,” he said sincerely. “The best cake I’ve ever tasted.”
She visibly relaxed. “Good. I worked hard on perfecting my secret recipe, but every now and then, I like to test it out on an unbiased person.”
“You think I’d tell you the truth if I didn’t like your cake?”
“Why would you care about hurting my feelings? I mean with our past?”