Authors: Abby Gaines
UNDAY, RACE DAY, WAS
fine and clear, beating the weather forecasters’ prediction of showers. Zack took it as a good sign, but he knew forty-two other drivers would be doing the same. He couldn’t put his confidence in signs and superstitions—he had to get out on the track and build on his sixthplace start. Without losing the plot, or control of his car.
Gaby had somehow convinced a motorsports correspondent from a New York paper to talk to Zack. They’d had a brief interview that Zack thought went all right. “Maybe a little bland,” he suggested to Gaby as they crossed from the media center to the garage.
“Bland is good if the alternative is you losing your cool,” she said. “But, yeah, you could afford to be a little more quotable.”
“Maybe something along the lines of ‘mistakes I’ve made at Watkins Glen’?”
“That works,” she said. The vibe between them was companionable, easy.
Zack registered a shriek in the distance, but it wasn’t until they were nearer the garage that he realized a posse of young women were screaming his name.
him,” a tall blonde wearing microscopic cutoffs said. “I told you.”
“Zack!” A curly-haired brunette waved. “You can be butter in my hands anytime.”
“That’s what you told
about your dad and Julie-Anne,” Gaby murmured.
“You said it wasn’t out until next week.”
“I think electronic subscribers get it early.”
The women reached them. “We saw you in
” one of them said breathlessly.
“Great,” Zack said. He’d skimmed the article, and no way did the softhearted, mushy guy it talked about bear any resemblance to him. Not to mention the guy in the article apparently had chiseled cheekbones. What the hell were chiseled cheekbones? They sounded damn painful.
He glanced around for an escape route.
“You need to talk to them,” Gaby said. “I know you want to get to the garage and get your mind into race mode, but the bachelor contest…”
He’d promised, so he would do it. “I’m glad you enjoyed the magazine,” he said.
The brunette giggled. “I love your voice.”
He was aware of Gaby shifting at his side. But he wasn’t worried, they’d practiced how he would fend off unwanted advances.
“I don’t sound quite so relaxed when my spotter tells me there’s a pileup in front of me,” he said.
Cue more giggling, all around.
“So, do you ever, like, date your fans?” the tall blonde asked.
“Not all at once,” Zack joked. Then realized he’d gotten overconfident, and accidentally implied he would date a fan. Which he supposed he would, if he met someone he liked, but he seldom talked to a fan long enough to get that far. The women in front of him now wore varying shades of hopeful.
“Look at you all,” he said. “You’re all gorgeous. Any man would be lucky to have you.”
“But I usually have to know a woman pretty well before I ask her for a date,” he said. “It’s important to be friends first.”
Several women looked disappointed, but one murmured to her friend, “He’s deep.”
Huh, that was what Gaby had said. He had hidden depths. Zack had thought it a euphemism for “lacks charm.”
“If you want to get to know me before you ask me on a date…” The tall blonde pulled a crumpled receipt from her pocket—extracting it from such tight pants was an act of eye-watering contortion—and scribbled on the back. “Here’s my number.”
Zack took it. He had to be polite, right? Three other women handed him their numbers. One was clearly a professional groupie; her card had her photo and
I heart NASCAR
“Can I give you a kiss for luck?” the curly-haired brunette—Susannah, if he’d read her card right—asked.
Gaby grabbed Zack’s arm. “So sorry, ladies, but if Zack doesn’t leave now he’ll be late for the driver’s briefing, and you all know what that means.”
Wincing and eye-widening suggested they understood that if Zack was late by even one second to the driver’s meeting he’d have to start the race off at the back of the field, which would be particularly painful given how well he’d qualified.
The women instantly relinquished all claim on him.
“Just be sure and text your votes for Zack into the bachelor contest,” Gaby said over her shoulder as she hustled him toward the garage area. A chorus of promises of multiple votes followed them.
“I thought I handled that pretty well,” Zack said
“You were fine.” She put on a spurt of speed.
“I was good,” he insisted.
“Do you want me to get rid of those phone numbers for you?” Her gaze was fixed on their destination. Only her unusual speed alerted Zack to her tension.
“Sure,” he said.
She slowed. “You don’t want to call any of those women?”
“Not even the blonde? She was hot.”
He gave her a measuring look. “You heard me, I like to get to know someone before I ask them on a date.”
“Are you jealous?” he asked.
“Of course not.” She tossed her head, and her hair swung behind her.
They’d reached the garage area, and Zack found himself the target of more female fans clustered there. It appeared every woman at the track was an online subscriber to
By the time he’d forced his way through the crowd without offending anyone, he was dangerously close to tardy.
He left Gaby, sprinted to the meeting and made it just in time. As he sank into the plastic seat, he realized he was still clutching a wodge of phone numbers.
HE GREEN FLAG FELL
, and Zack put everything out of his mind that wasn’t to do with the feel of the car, the grip of the track, the need to turn, to pass, to run faster and better than everyone else.
His spotter, Mac, called in a smash on the second lap, and Zack managed to avoid it. When the green flag came back out, he was in fourth place. Way too early to get excited—he still had hours to run—but something thrilled inside him.
“Where’s Trent?” he couldn’t help but ask his team when he pulled in for his first pit stop. They barely had time to answer him, but the guy replacing Zack’s right front tire said, “Twelve.”
Huh, Trent had fallen back. No denying that did something for Zack’s confidence. He had the craziest urge to hum as he got back on the track from pit road. He laughed at himself.
“What’s so funny?” his crew chief growled through the earpiece.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Zack said.
“Uh, Zack…” Chad now. “You okay?”
“Dandy,” he said, as he swept past Danny Cruise, and caught a one-fingered salute for his efforts.
“Nice move,” Chad said. Then he evidently decided to shut up and leave Zack to it—to what became one of those races a driver doesn’t get very often, where he can do no wrong, where obstacles melt away, or are navigated with no more difficulty than a pile of sludge after a spring thaw.
Zack swept over the finish line on a wave of speed and glory. He’d won!
The crowd went wild as he drove his victory lap. Trent had a habit of spinning doughnuts all the way around the track in this situation. Zack contented himself with one doughnut as he returned to the finish line, then he headed for Victory Lane and his team.
Already he knew how he wanted to celebrate tonight. He would invite Gaby out for dinner.
T STOP GRINNING
, no matter that she was supposed to be a seasoned PR operative, surprised at nothing. Every minute of Zack’s race had been sheer joy.
“Did you see that? Did you see Zack?” she babbled to one of the industry’s most hardened reporters.
“I did,” he said dryly.
Gaby tried to reclaim some professional distance. “I daresay you’ll want to interview him.”
His chuckle told her she wasn’t fooling anyone. Mentally, she ran through a list of the people her client should talk to once he was done with the shouted questions and quick photos here in Victory Lane. Today, they could pick and choose.
She could get some serious mileage out of this for the bachelor contest, too.
Man of the Week is Man of the Day,
that kind of thing. Gaby pulled out her cell and called Leah Gibbs, the junior account exec who acted as Motor Media Group’s gofer at the track on race days.
She allocated Leah some of Zack’s free time over the next day or two, and asked her to set up some of the appointments. Gaby would call Diana at
As she talked to the editor, Zack caught her eye across the throng. He grinned, and she gave him the thumbs-up.
By the time Zack left Victory Lane, she could see his adrenaline levels were dropping, exhaustion was kicking in. Though he still had a spring in his step, his shoulders drooped slightly.
“You need an early night,” she said. She knew he didn’t plan to head back to Charlotte until tomorrow.
“Funny you should mention that,” he said. “I was about to ask you to a celebration dinner.”
“Who else is going?”
Her stomach flipped. “You mean, like a date?”
“Yeah, very like a date.”
The knowledge that he wanted to be with her above everyone else made her tempted, seriously tempted. But while Sandra didn’t forbid her staff to date clients, she’d made it clear she didn’t think Gaby could keep her priorities straight if she was dating. “Remember what we agreed? We wouldn’t suit each other—you’re too selfish, I’m too ambitious.”
“In which case it would hardly be fair to inflict ourselves on other people,” he said reasonably. “We deserve each other.”
Gaby smiled. “I’m sure one of those girls who gave you their number today would make the sacrifice.” Those girls were another excellent reason to refuse dinner. Every muscle in her body had tensed, she’d been rigid with jealousy, when they’d come after Zack. She’d wanted to smack them. She had no desire to be in such thrall to any man, least of all one like Zack, who would never return the favor.
He fished in his pocket, held something out to her. Gaby took it…and realized it was a crumpled bundle of phone numbers.
“I think I mentioned, I prefer to date women I already like,” Zack said.
He was making it hard. But Gaby still had a modicum of strength. She curled her fingers around the tattered phone numbers.
“Zack, I won’t go to dinner with you,” she said. “Go with your family, they should be the ones to share this moment with you.”
He’d talked to her once about self-preservation. That was what she had to practice now. Before she did something stupid, like lose her heart.
MBER SHIVERED AS SHE
stepped out the door of Matheson Racing into a morning made cool by an unseasonable wind. She could feel the flesh on her legs turning to goose bumps below her running shorts. She rubbed her arms briskly, and began to do her warm-ups. At seven-thirty on a Monday morning, there was no one to see her—the parking lot was vacant, except for one lone sports car over on the left that had obviously been there all night. Amber figured she could enjoy some peace and solitude on a one-hour jog, then shower and dress for work and be behind the reception desk at nine.
Not many staff came in on Mondays. Later, the tourists would arrive to visit the team store, but for now, the business park was near empty and it was easy to ignore the buildings in favor of the trees and grassy lawns.
She held on to her right foot, stretching her quad, then switched sides. Next she put one hand behind her neck, and clasped the elbow with her other hand. She repeated the exercise with the other arm, then dropped down into a lunge.
The slam of a car door turned her attention to the lone sports car that had been parked all night.
Ryan Thorne was crossing the pavement and coming toward her.
“Hey,” he called.
Amber wobbled in her lunge. “Hi,” she said discouragingly.
But he was one of those guys who never took a hint. Insensitive, interested only in what he wanted. He was smiling as he reached the steps and looked up at her. Amber fought the urge to tug her tank top down. Her goose bumps grew more pronounced.
“I didn’t see you at the Glen,” he said.
“I wasn’t there.” Her mom and Brady had invited her to fly to the race on their plane. Amber had acted suitably grateful, but she’d refused. She had so many bad memories of race tracks, of her father losing it under pressure, of the blazing arguments after they arrived home, she had no interest. However, she knew Zack had won his race, and Ryan had trailed the field in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race, which wasn’t uncommon recently.
Ryan wore snug-fitting jeans with a black T-shirt that molded to his biceps and offset his sandy blond hair. As he walked up the steps, Amber was irritated to feel a frisson of awareness.
Yeah, yeah, good-looking guy, big deal,
she told her hormones.
“Are you going to Patsy Grosso’s birthday party on Wednesday?” he asked.
“I doubt it.” She folded her arms across her chest, trying to imply her life was none of his business without actually saying so.
As he came close, she absorbed the fact that his rumpled hair wasn’t the designer kind of rumpling, and he needed a shave. Plus, he smelled. It was the warm, earthy smell of a guy who’d just woken up. Something primitive tugged in Amber’s stomach. “Did you sleep in your car?”
He rubbed his stubbled jaw. “Yeah.”
“Too drunk to drive home?” Her father had often claimed to have slept in his car. It had taken Julie-Anne a long time to see what was obvious to Amber—that her dad was spending his nights with other women.
He scowled. “I wasn’t drunk. I had an argument with my father and needed to get out of the house. I planned to sleep on the couch in reception, but I forgot my card-key.”
“You still live with your parents?” He was twenty-six years old, according to Libby, her fellow receptionist. “Can’t you look after yourself?”
T FIGURE OUT
why this woman had such a downer on him. He’d spoken to her maybe a dozen times since she started working for the team, and he was yet to receive a smile. Which was especially annoying because he’d seen her smile, at her mom, at Chad and Zack, and he wanted that smile for himself.