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Authors: Abby Gaines

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BOOK: The Comeback
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Did he have a sponsorship death wish?

After the interview, Zack headed for his motor home. Gaby followed, her anger propelling her forward at a pace that matched the stride of his much longer legs.

He glanced sideways. “What are you puffing so hard about? I admit that interview didn’t go according to plan, but like you said, the guy’s writing a feature about sports in general. Anything I said will only be a small part.”

“You think because he’s an agony uncle he can’t, and
won’t, write a news story when a juicy one lands in his lap?” she demanded.

His pace slowed momentarily. “I didn’t give him anything newsworthy.”

“‘Comeback Zack’ blows his stack,” Gaby said in a headline voice.

He pffed. “I had a great race today, right up until the crash. Any balanced reporting will—”

“Any balanced reporting will look at your last ten finishes and see four crashes,” she railed.

His jaw tightened. “I also had two top-tens—you’re paid to make sure those get covered, too. I’m paid to drive the car.”

“At least I’m doing my best to earn my salary,” she muttered. “Which, by the way, doesn’t cover me for achieving the impossible.”

Next week’s meeting with Sandra, the one she’d been looking forward to, loomed in her head. So much for her plan to show off the positive coverage she was achieving for Zack.



sagged, Zack had the oddest urge to pull her close, to comfort her.

It was guilt, he told himself. Guilt about messing up that interview. It wasn’t Gaby’s fault he’d raced like a rookie, nor that the journalist had asked such intrusive questions.

Actually, it
her fault about the questions, she should have known better than to set him up to talk about that stuff.

Still, he didn’t like to see the droop of her mouth, and the furrow in her brow that suggested she was working hard to keep her equilibrium.

He knew how she felt. He’d really thought he might make a top-five finish today. To have the race end the way so many others had…

“I’ll call Getaway, prepare them for more bad press,” she said. “Then I’ll get to work on setting up your next media appearance. For which we’ll spend a lot more time preparing.”

The urge to touch her vanished. Zack shoved his hands in his pockets. “I need to spend a lot more time preparing for my next race.”

Whatever sympathy he’d imagined she might have had for him before the race was gone. She gave a little hiss. “You promised to cooperate.”

They’d reached the motor home lot. Zack decided to end this conversation now. He stopped at the gate and indicated to the security guard that Gaby wasn’t coming in.

“I will cooperate.” He ignored the angry quiver of her chin and said calmly, “Whenever I can.”

He slipped past the security guard and lifted his hand in farewell. Gaby glared at him, obviously not wanting to fight in front of the guard. Fine by him. Zack had to do his job, and if that meant she couldn’t do hers, that was too bad. He walked away without looking back.



on her swollen belly, and she smiled.

“Junior kicking again?” Gaby handed her boss a soda from the well-stocked fridge on the Taney Motorsports airplane, and sat down opposite her. Next to Gaby, her colleague Kylie Treadway sipped a cola. Anita Latimer and Leah Gibbs, the other Motor Media Group representatives flying to the track in Indianapolis this weekend, were sticking with water.

“Never stops,” Sandra said proudly. “I’ve warned Gideon his son is going to play pro football, not basketball.”

As Gaby refastened her seat belt she laughed, as much out of relief as out of amusement—any delay to the inevitable discussion of her client situation was welcome.

“I’m sure Taney can handle it.” Gaby popped the top on her soda can. Sandra’s husband Gideon Taney, owner of Taney Motorsports, had been a talented basketball player in his youth, but he’d chosen to start his own sporting goods business rather than turn pro.

Sandra’s smile turned dreamy as she craned to see her husband, who was watching a recording of the last race at Indianapolis in the TV area at the back of the plane. “He can handle anything.”

For a woman with a reputation as one of the hardest-hitting PR operatives in NASCAR, Sandra was a pile of mush when it came to her husband. And six-foot-four Taney, as everyone but Sandra called him, had it just as bad for his wife. Gaby had never seen a couple who adored each other so much.
She’d assumed two such strong-willed individuals would clash beyond survival. But while Sandra and Taney had “discussions” that bordered on explosive, their love always shone through. They seemed to thrive on the sparks.

That’s what I want.
A man who would respect Gaby’s goals and desires the way Taney respected Sandra’s. She would never again let a man convince her that love meant sacrificing her goals for his.

“Let’s get down to business,” Sandra said, all dreaminess evaporating. Her gaze scanned the group, resting longer on Gaby than it did on the other women.


“I’m sorry we had to wait this long for our staff meeting,” Sandra continued, “but Will’s supposed health scare has kept me flat out.” Earlier this week, medical tests suggesting that Will Branch, Taney Motorsports’ NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, had mononucleosis—which would demand a break from racing—had been leaked by a clinic administrator. Gaby guessed Sandra couldn’t have slept much the past few days, in her quest for the source of the leak and the evidence needed to prove to the world that the mono test was someone else’s, and Will was perfectly healthy.

“You did an incredible job, Sandra,” Kylie said. Kylie had been Will’s rep until Sandra and Taney had realized they could spend more time together if Sandra represented Will.

Gaby wished she’d been first with the compliment. Not that Sandra liked people kissing up—but she definitely liked people showing leadership.

Especially now, when she was looking for someone to run Motor Media Group after she had her baby. She would still attend races as Taney’s wife, and knowing Sandra she wouldn’t be able to resist phoning in to the company she’d founded. But the day-to-day operations would be in the hands of someone at the office.

Gaby planned to be that someone.

So did Kylie and Anita.

Sandra had made her reservations about Gaby clear when she’d agreed to consider her for the job along with her peers. Volunteering to rep Zack had been the best way for Gaby to prove her account management skills.

Gaby swallowed hard and wondered if there was any chance her boss hadn’t seen the headlines this week.

“Anita, let’s start with you,” Sandra said.

Anita talked through the work she was doing for Bart Branch, Will’s twin brother and “her” driver. She’d achieved some excellent press coverage this week. She’d also managed to interest a NASCAR Nationwide Series team in hiring Motor Media Group.

“Great job, I’m seriously impressed.” Sandra liked winning new business. She also believed in giving credit where it was due, one reason why working for her was so rewarding. “Kylie?”

Kylie managed Danny Cruise. They all knew Danny could be reticent with the press, which made Kylie’s eight-page profile in a lifestyle magazine even more special. Sandra nodded her approval.

“Gaby,” she said, her voice noticeably cooler.

Gaby darted a quick glance out the window. They were flying over farmland—serene, beautiful…and way too high to bail out of this conversation. “Not the best week in Zack Matheson’s career.” She tried to sound calm and in control, even though she couldn’t have had a worse grip on Zack if he’d been a shadow.

“The understanding you told me you and your client came to at your first meeting…” Sandra opened her briefcase and pulled out the sports section of the Chicago paper. The reporter had done exactly what Gaby feared, and written a hard-hitting news story. Sandra tapped the headline with an accusing finger. “Was it an understanding that he can walk all over you?”

There was no amusement in her tone. Sandra had a great sense of humor, but she took her work seriously.

Gaby stiffened. “Of course not. I briefed Zack on the postrace interviews, but he chose to go his own way.”

“Then you didn’t do a good enough job,” Sandra said. The downside of her being so quick to praise her staff was that she got tough equally fast, and she didn’t necessarily wait for a private moment. “I appointed you to manage Zack because you assured me you could keep him in line.”

And because no one else wanted the job.
Gaby knew better than to try to deflect the criticism. Aware of Kylie’s and Anita’s sympathetic glances, she said, “Zack’s not an easy client, Sandra—you’ve lost two account managers thanks to his acting out, and two others only stayed at the company on the basis they wouldn’t have to work with him. Did you expect me to have a handle on him after only a few days?”

Sandra looked surprised to be challenged. “Perhaps not,” she conceded. “But I’d expect to see some of your influence in this article. Instead, I see a driver with a chip on his shoulder and no self-restraint.” She leaned back and rubbed her abdomen, as if the baby was kicking in protest at the bad job Gaby had done. “Rob Hudson at Getaway phoned me to express his disappointment.”

If Gaby hadn’t known how serious it was to have a sponsor complain about her, Kylie’s indrawn breath would have filled her in.

The plane lurched, buffeted by a sudden gust of wind, and nausea churned in Gaby’s stomach. “You know I did a good job for Trey Sanford.” Her previous client had been a dream to work with. Complications in his personal life had kept her on her toes, but Trey’s sound media instincts had made them an effective team.

“You did, which gives me some hope. But I’d like to hear your plans for doing things differently with Zack,” Sandra said. “So would Rob.”

“As a driver, Zack has moments of sheer genius, but they’re outweighed by moments of impulsiveness,” Gaby began.
Watching the footage of the past few races, she’d been mystified by Zack’s habit of suddenly blowing a strong position. It didn’t fit with the coolly controlled man she knew. “If he could cut back the impulses and play up the genius…” She trailed off. The best PR plan in the world wouldn’t help him do that. “I believe he’s the same off the track,” she continued. “We need to harness the genius, get rid of the impulse, in his media appearances.”

“No easy task.” Sandra didn’t sound quite as mad as she had a few minutes earlier. Gaby breathed a little easier.

“Have you thought about putting him in the Bachelor of the Year contest?” Sandra asked. “Bart’s getting a lot of publicity out of that.”

“I suggested the contest, but he won’t do it.” Gaby realized her error as her boss frowned. “Even if he would, I couldn’t trust him not to do more harm than good to his reputation.” Great, why didn’t she just shoot herself in both feet?

“What I’m hearing,” Sandra said, “is you’re not strong enough to convince Zack of what’s in his best interest.”

Kylie and Anita traded knowing glances, glances that said,
She won’t get the top job.

Everyone in the company knew Gaby had turned down a promotion last year under pressure from her fiancé at the time. This time around, she’d been running from behind from the start.

“Ladies,” Sandra said, addressing Gaby’s colleagues, “why don’t you join Taney for a while?”

There was a flurry of activity while the other women gathered up their bags and drinks and headed to the TV nook. Taney looked surprised to see them; then he directed an understanding look at his wife.

Gaby, alone now with her boss, tugged her seat belt tighter.

“Gaby…” Sandra’s hesitation was uncharacteristic. “Are you seeing anyone at the moment?”

“Seeing…you mean
” Gaby stared at her.

“It’s just, you told me you would do what it took to get this
promotion,” Sandra said. “You’re not delivering, which isn’t like you. I wondered if maybe you’re…distracted.”

“Even if I was seeing someone, which I’m not, I wouldn’t let that happen again,” Gaby said. “My job is my number one priority, and I’ve learned my lesson about letting a man get in the way of that.”

Sandra nodded.

“Zack Matheson will do what we need him to do,” Gaby promised. “I’ll stake my reputation on it.”

“You already did,” Sandra said.

Something cold and serious in her blue eyes hollowed Gaby’s stomach. “One bad article won’t affect your decision about who takes over during your maternity leave, will it?” she blurted.

“It’s not one bad article, Gaby.” Sandra leaned forward as best as her bulk would allow. “I agreed to consider you for the position because your administrative background gives you an excellent understanding of the business, and because you assured me you’ve moved on from the attitude that had you turning down that promotion last year. But I made it clear I’ll appoint someone who can run the firm the way I do. That means someone who puts the company first and doesn’t take garbage from people.”

“I don’t—”

“I need someone who’ll fight for my business,” Sandra said. “You’re not that person. I’m taking you off the shortlist.”

Gaby’s lungs constricted; she couldn’t breathe. “No!” The word came out a squeak, using up the last of her air. She cupped her hands over her mouth and nose, and finally found breath.

Sandra eyed her in alarm. Gaby dropped her hands, fought for composure.

This promotion was her big chance to secure her future, to ease her cash-strapped elderly parents’ worries, and her own, about how she would be provided for. With her lack of a college education and her overly administrative background, no other company would even consider her for this kind of job.

She needed to rescue this situation, right now.

“What if I get Zack into the Bachelor of the Year contest?” she asked.

“You just said he won’t do it.”

“That was marshmallow-me talking.” Gaby attempted a small joke. “Sandra, I admit, I’m on a learning curve with Zack, but I’ll learn faster, I’ll make it happen.”

“You really think you can persuade him into the contest?” Sandra asked, patently unconvinced.

“I have to,” Gaby said. A subtle shift in the engine noise told her the aircraft had begun its descent. She didn’t want Sandra to get off this plane with the last thought on her mind being that Gaby was a no-go. Any savvy PR operative knew that last impressions were almost as important as first impressions. “And if he does—if Zack enters the contest and makes a real effort, if we can honestly say Getaway is delighted—will you put me back on the shortlist?”

“I’d need to see quite a transformation,” Sandra said honestly. “In Zack, and in yourself.”

“You’ll see it,” Gaby promised. “Can I get back on the shortlist?”

Sandra glanced at Taney and the other women, then back at Gaby. “I’ll keep an open mind.”

“Thanks, Sandra, you won’t regret it.”

Gaby was certain of that. The prospect of her prickly client being a contender for Bachelor of the Year was mind-boggling, but she would make it happen.

BOOK: The Comeback
4.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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