Authors: Abby Gaines
Trent finished third. Zack strode to his brother’s pit, right next to his own. He jumped over the wall, ready for when Trent got out of the car.
“You did that deliberately,” he snarled as Trent removed his helmet.
Trent ran the back of his hand across his forehead, clammy after the long race. “Bump and pass, buddy. If the officials think I was out of line, they’ll penalize me.”
Zack suspected that wouldn’t happen, unless someone kicked up a fuss.
“You can’t stand me passing you,” Zack said. “You’ve always got to be the center of attention, always the golden boy.”
“Zack.” Gaby arrived at the other side of the wall. “You okay?” A fine line creased her forehead.
she wanted to know how he was, now that she was worried he might ruin his image in front of the reporter headed their way with a camera crew in tow.
“Fine,” he growled.
“Just because you can’t drive worth squat…” Trent raked his fingers through his hair. “Don’t blame me if you can’t keep your car in line.”
“You’re a jerk.” Zack was making way more of a fuss than he would with any other driver. But this was personal, and he knew it.
“Snap out of it, Zack,” Chad said. “You had a good race up until you crashed. Be satisfied with that.”
Satisfied that his little brother had rammed him and was getting away scot-free? “I’m going to lodge a complaint,” Zack said.
Chad’s expression turned dark. Brady sucked air in through his teeth. Zack didn’t care. He had no real intention of lodging a complaint against Trent—he would never do that to someone in his family—but it would be nice if someone just admitted that Trent had been in the wrong.
The reporter reached them. “Zack,” he called, “was today’s
accident history repeating itself? How do you feel about your brother’s tactics?”
Brady’s horrified expression mirrored Chad’s.
“Zack,” Gaby said calmly, reminding him to undo the damage now, rather than let it fester. Dammit, he felt like festering.
Part of him wanted to pull Gaby into his arms, to rest his chin on her head and draw strength from her. But she was the one who’d said they couldn’t date.
He flung past her, past the reporter, and headed for his motor home alone.
MBER PULLED UP OUTSIDE
Brady’s house—her mom’s house, too, she reminded herself. She cut the engine, but didn’t get out of the car right away.
It was one thing deciding she felt strong enough to confront her mom, quite another to actually do it. Amber tipped her head back against the seat and, eyes closed, took a deep breath.
As she’d said to Ryan at Bristol, there came a time when you had to think about why you were holding on to old baggage, and whether it was worth hanging on to at all. Especially if the weight of it stopped you from moving forward.
That’s what she was here to find out, if that old baggage still meant anything.
She reached for the door handle. She could do this, without losing her temper and saying things she might regret. She wasn’t the suspicious, angry person she’d been when she arrived back in Charlotte. The change, she had to admit, was partly due to Ryan. His sunny temperament lifted her out of her worries. His kisses reminded her of a side of herself she hadn’t allowed out much. His admiration helped soothe the sting of rejection she’d felt for so long.
“Which means I can do this,” she said aloud, and opened the car door.
Brady had said Amber must treat this place as her home, so she didn’t knock, just went right in. She found her mom in the kitchen, peeling potatoes.
“Honey, how lovely to see you.” Julie-Anne hugged her. Amber hugged back, but her mom felt the tension in her body.
“Is something wrong? Did Ryan do something?” Julie-Anne asked.
Amber shook her head, and once again considered chickening out.
“Are you sure?” Julie-Anne peered at her. “I could have Brady break his legs.” She sounded as if she was only half-joking.
“Mom!” But it was nice to think of her mom protecting her. Maybe they could find a way to be close without ever discussing the past. “Brady wouldn’t injure one of his own drivers,” she said, trying to keep the conversation lighthearted.
“Too bad.” Julie-Anne smiled, then added seriously, “Family comes first with Brady. If you need him to deal with Ryan…”
“Why didn’t I come first with you?” Amber blurted.
Immediately, she wished she could take the words back. But there was no unsaying the question that had plagued her since she was twelve years old. When her mom had chosen her mean, drunk, cheating husband over her daughter.
Julie-Anne made a curious, high-pitched sound. “You said it. You finally said it.” She took a step backward. “I always knew you thought it, but you shut me out whenever I tried to explain.”
“I didn’t want to hear excuses that I’d believe out of desperation, knowing in my heart they weren’t true.” Amber shivered; she chafed her upper arms with her hands. “Not when the facts spoke for themselves.”
Julie-Anne’s eyes filled with compassion. “Tell me,” she invited. “Tell me the facts.”
What, she didn’t remember? Aware her legs wouldn’t support her much longer, Amber sat down at the rustic pine kitchen table. She splayed her fingers on the surface and pressed hard. “First fact—you planned to leave Dad…we were going to live with Auntie Alice.” Julie-Anne’s sister in Los Angeles had offered to have them stay with her for as long as they needed to.
“Until we could get settled in a place of our own,” Julie-Anne confirmed.
“Second fact—then Dad had his accident.” Billy Blake had lost his job as a NASCAR Nationwide Series driver the moment his team owner realized what kind of man Billy was. Racing had been Billy’s only incentive to stay sober—the accident happened while he was driving drunk on the interstate. He’d seriously injured another motorist and had been paralyzed from the waist down himself.
“I couldn’t walk out on him while he was in hospital,” Julie-Anne said. “That’s fact three.”
“Couldn’t, wouldn’t…” Amber saw hurt in her mom’s eyes and steeled herself. “Fact four—so we stayed until Dad came home.”
“It was September,” her mom said. “Fact five is that school was about to start, and I thought you should go where we planned to be the rest of the year. No point spending a month at your old school, then being uprooted.”
“Which leads us to fact six,” Amber said. “You sent me away.”
“Fact six,” Julie-Anne corrected, “I sent you to Auntie Alice. The idea was, I would follow as soon as I could leave your father.”
“Which took seven years,” Amber said bitterly. “That’s not a fact, that’s abandonment.” Even now, the knowledge that her mother had chosen to live with that jerk and had sent Amber away for seven long years made her shake with anger.
“If I’d had any idea,” Julie-Anne began.
But Amber was beyond ifs, beyond facts. All that remained was hurt. “What?” she demanded. “You would have come sooner? I don’t think so.”
Julie-Anne’s face was white. “I missed you so much, every single day.”
“So much that you came to visit once a year, for two weeks.”
“That was all the respite care I could afford,” Julie-Anne said.
“A lot of NASCAR folk chipped in to help with your father’s expenses—more than he deserved—but there was nothing left over. When it came to his day-to-day care, I was it.”
“You must have realized, some time in those early days, that he wasn’t going to get better.” Amber paced the kitchen. “That you being there made no difference. But you stayed. You chose him over me.”
Julie-Anne rubbed her face with her hands. “You think I should have walked out on a man who was paralyzed, then diagnosed with stomach cancer?”
“Yes, I think you should have walked out on the drunk who made your life and mine miserable. He didn’t need a wife, Mom, he needed someone to humiliate.” Amber’s eyes filled with tears. “
My mother.” Her aunt had been kind, welcoming…but it was hard living in someone else’s house through those teenage years filled with change and confusion and pain.
“Sweetheart, I missed you every minute of every day,” Julie-Anne said.
Amber snorted, though she wanted desperately to believe. “If you’d come to L.A., surely social services would have provided assistance—they wouldn’t have left Billy on his own. Were you…were you afraid to leave?”
Julie-Anne had been afraid of Billy when he was healthy. Not that he would hit her—for all his faults, he’d never done that—but of his mean temper, his bullying ways.
Her mother shook her head. “By that stage he was too pathetic for me to be frightened of. He was so weak, there were days when I thought about putting a pillow over his face and ending it.”
Her mother smiled grimly. “I would never have done it. But believe me, revenge for those years that he’d cheated on me and deprived you of a normal childhood would have been sweet.”
“You didn’t have to kill him,” Amber said awkwardly. “You just had to walk out the door.”
“It’s not that easy.” Julie-Anne shook her head, remember
ing. “If you have any kind of code of honor that you live by…well, let’s just say my code didn’t include walking out on someone in such desperate circumstances.”
“I could understand—” Amber ignored the flare of hope in her mom’s eyes “—if you hadn’t had me.”
“I came to see you for Christmas,” her mom said. “On that first visit, when you met me at the airport, my heart just about exploded. I knew there was no way I could do it—I couldn’t stay with your father another minute.”
Amber’s eyes stung. “What changed your mind?”
“You were bright, cheerful,” Julie-Anne said. “You were putting on a brave face so I wouldn’t be worried.”
Amber hadn’t realized she was that transparent.
“But beneath…beneath your missing me, which I could tell you did,” Julie-Anne said, “there was a genuine…peace. I hadn’t seen that in you before.”
“Our home wasn’t a peaceful place,” Amber agreed. “But I didn’t blame you for that.”
“Seeing you without those shadows under your eyes that I’d always thought were just a part of your face…” Julie-Anne swallowed. “The guilt that we’d stayed with your father for so long…” Her voice broke, and she pressed a fist to her mouth.
“I didn’t mind, as long as you and I were together.” Amber pressed her fingers to the corners of her eyes, where tears welled.
“You should have minded,” Julie-Anne said fiercely. “You should have hated me for raising you in that environment.”
“I didn’t hate you…before you sent me away.” Amber was well aware of the implication of her words. But it was true—she had hated her mother through much of their time apart. On good days, the hate had mellowed to hurt and anger. “But I did hate
“I’m not going to tell you he was a decent person,” Julie-Anne said. “He had a rough upbringing, but when he discovered motor racing…well, I thought it might be the saving of him.”
“You couldn’t save him,” Amber said brutally.
“No—” her mother’s voice steadied “—and it takes more than driving a race car to save a man’s soul I know.” She sighed. “After you went to Alice, I kept thinking,
It won’t be long now. Another month, or two.
But that first year, dealing with the insurance company, having the house modified for your dad’s wheelchair, handling the sympathy that came pouring in…it passed in the blink of an eye.”
Not for Amber, but she didn’t point that out.
“I kept thinking he’d get to a stage where he was independent enough for me to leave. Then when they diagnosed the cancer…”
“Two years later,” Amber reminded her.
After a hesitation, Julie-Anne nodded. “Then I thought, he’s going. I’ll hang around until he’s gone.” Her eyes turned pleading. “No one should have to die alone.”
Amber didn’t want to get a glimpse of her mom’s dilemma. The fact was, her dad had remained relatively healthy for most of those years. After the house had been modified, he could have lived independently. And he’d had friends. Drinking buddies.
“I wanted—” Amber choked on her words “—I thought about…hurting myself, just to make you come to me.”
Julie-Anne let out a sob. “Don’t say that.”
“I couldn’t do it,” Amber said. “I was afraid you still might not come, even if I was hurt and I…I wasn’t brave enough to face that.”
Tears streamed down her mother’s face.
“Amber, my darling.” Julie-Anne reached for her; Amber shrank away. “I’m so sorry. I can tell you as best I can why I made the decisions I did. But I know I can’t satisfy you. I can’t even satisfy myself.” Julie-Anne twisted her hands together. “Forgive me. Please, darling, forgive me.”
Amber’s throat clogged, she couldn’t speak. But her instincts screamed
Julie-Anne gazed at the tiled floor and said quietly, “Your
forgiveness, or lack of it, doesn’t change the fact that I love you so much it keeps me awake at nights worrying about you. Although I have Brady, who is a wonderful man and I love him to bits, there’s an Amber-shaped space in my heart. Nobody else can fill it, no one ever will.”
It was too much. Amber wanted more than anything to believe…but she couldn’t wipe out those lonely teenage years, the consuming jealousy of her father…She found herself taking great gulps of air, and clapped a hand over her mouth.
When she could speak, she said shakily, “I appreciate you telling me how it was. I know things weren’t easy for you.”
Julie-Anne’s eyes lit with hope, and she stretched out a hand.
“I’m sorry, Mom, it’s not enough.”
Stricken, Julie-Anne swayed; her hand dropped. Amber felt like a jerk. But she’d told the truth.
As she left the kitchen and walked swiftly toward the front door, she berated herself. She shouldn’t have come back to Charlotte. There was no way through this.
I need to talk to Ryan.
It was a crazy thought, a couple of kisses didn’t make her his girlfriend. He’d probably run a mile if she tried to tell him her woes.
Yet she wanted to take the risk.
She hit the front porch at a run…then came to a halt when she saw Brady pull up in his classic Mustang.
Oh, hell. Now Brady would go inside and find Julie-Anne in tears and that would be the end of any relationship he and Amber might have had.
“Hey, Amber.” Brady’s greeting was hearty. “That was some weekend, huh?”
With Trent finishing third, and Ryan having his first win, it had indeed been a great weekend for Matheson Racing, if you overlooked Zack’s DNF.
“It was great,” she said, surprised how unsettling the thought of ruining her fledgling relationship with Brady was.
“Like I told Chad, I always knew Ryan had what it takes,” Brady said with satisfaction.
Amber made some noncommittal noise and wondered if it was best to jump straight in her car and drive, or to warn Brady that she and her mom had argued.
“I hope you didn’t mind me sticking my oar in when he came to the motor home, but I was worried he was up to his old tricks when I saw him making eyes at you,” Brady said.
It took her a second to click that he was still talking about Ryan. “His old tricks?” she asked, still distracted by thoughts of her mom.
“Girls,” Brady said darkly. “That guy has—” He cut off abruptly. “You’re not serious about him, are you?”
“No,” Amber said, unsure if it was true or not. “Brady, there’s something I should—”
“Good, that’s good.” Brady scratched his head. “Ryan dated so many women last season he could have put a revolving door on his motor home.”
Amber felt suddenly sick. “Really?”
Brady must have sensed her reaction. “I’m not saying he slept with them all,” he said hastily.
It sure sounded like he had.
“Jeff, his dad, gave him the hard word,” Brady said approvingly. “Told him the girls had to go.”
If Amber knew one thing about Ryan, it was that he wanted to please his father.
“Ryan’s been a monk ever since,” Brady said. “That’s why I got such a surprise to see him with you.”
“We’re just friends.” It was a lie. Because now, it felt as if she and Ryan were nothing. She wasn’t sure what was worse. That Ryan had implied she’d misjudged him with her accusations that he was a womanizer, that he’d allowed trust to build between them, or that he’d willingly ended his relationships just because his father asked him to.