Authors: Abby Gaines
ACK HAD RACED BETTER
in Indianapolis—he’d finished eleventh, a result he attributed to the fact he’d spent more time in the gym than usual and less time on his public image. Fortunately, his sponsor didn’t hear that.
When Gaby had called him to confirm their Tuesday morning meeting, he told her he’d realized his physical fitness wasn’t up to race-winning level. He’d asked his trainer to devise a tough new program.
“You’re okay to meet in the gym, right?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said. After all, he needed to be in peak physical condition for the bachelor contest.
Now, she sat on a weight bench in the Matheson Racing gym, waiting for Zack to move to a piece of equipment that involved less exertion than the rowing machine, so she could broach the bachelor contest without raising her voice. She couldn’t help noticing that Zack was already in fantastic condition. Not overbulked, his tank top revealed just the right amount of lean muscle in those strong arms and broad, perfectly proportioned shoulders. The rowing machine showed off his long legs and powerful chest.
Through the mirror that ran along the end wall of the gym, Zack caught her looking. His eyebrows quirked. Gaby tore her gaze away and focused on the blank page of her notebook. She’d all but lost her chance at the promotion, and here she was admiring her client’s body.
It was his mind she needed to focus on…and that was
every bit as intriguing. He was smart—as she’d told Sandra, sometimes he was a genius. And yet he kept screwing up, and he was more vulnerable than he should be to the ebb and flow of family dynamics. Gaby sighed.
“What’s the problem?” Zack asked.
She jumped—it was the most he’d said since she’d arrived—and closed the notebook. “Just thinking about the next step in our campaign.”
“Do you ever stop thinking about your work?” he asked.
“Do you ever stop thinking about yours?”
He frowned, “No, but…”
Gaby’s eyes narrowed. “But yours is more important than mine?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Mine’s more challenging than yours,” she said with grim certainty.
He snorted and Gaby realized she enjoyed talking so bluntly to him.
Zack adjusted the settings on the rowing machine to a higher level. “So what did you come up with?” It didn’t seem fair he could still talk while hauling that much weight.
Gaby took a deep breath. Since he’d asked her outright, she would just say it. She raised her voice over the whir of the machine. “That your best chance of satisfying your sponsor is the Bachelor of the Year contest.”
faltered; he scowled at Gaby. “I told you, I’m not doing that contest.”
“Thanks for giving it your serious consideration,” she said, her normally full lips tight. The light in her eyes faded, then something flickered there that might have been hurt. Or panic. Then again, it might have been the intent to whack him over the head with a barbell.
“It’s nothing personal, Gaby.” Dammit, why was he defending his perfectly reasonable response? “You’re my fifth
MMG account manager since January.” He saw her gathering steam and added quickly, “I’m not proud of that statistic. But it’s a sign that I’m just not good at PR.”
Gaby’s chin lifted; by now he knew that meant she was getting ready to argue. “No one’s asking you to be someone you’re not,” she said. “You’re not a guy who’ll churn out happy sound-bites for the media, and that’s fine. We need to harness your natural style to make the best impression.”
That would have made sense, if she hadn’t been talking about the bachelor contest. Zack eyed Gaby. In her cream-colored wrap dress, she looked as cool and delectable as vanilla ice cream. It was weird—she got prettier every time he saw her.
Zack stopped rowing, ignoring the beeped protest of the electronic timer and grabbed his towel. He rubbed down his face, shoulders and back. He’d reached his chest by the time he became aware Gaby was sneaking surreptitious glances at him. Hmm, Ms. Vanilla Ice cream wasn’t as cool as she appeared….
He tamped down the awareness. “I don’t feel right about this whole PR business,” he said. “What’s the point of having a great image, if the reality doesn’t live up to it? It’s better to put my effort into fixing reality.”
“You mean, you intend to work on your personality defects?”
He stretched his arms behind his head, saw the reluctant way her gaze followed the movement. “I intend to work on my racing.”
She lost interest in his physique, snapped her eyes back to his.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and he almost meant it, because Gaby had tried hard, and he had to admit, he liked her. “But the contest isn’t going to happen.”
Gaby blinked rapidly. Hell, was she going to cry? Zack put out a hand toward her, then pulled it back. Just because she looked touchable, didn’t mean he got to touch her.
She sucked in her cheeks as if that might help keep the
floodgates closed, and it had the effect of pursing her lips. She looked odd. But somehow cute. And vulnerable. He winced. “Can’t you just quit the account, like all the others?” he asked. “Make this somebody else’s problem.”
She shook her head vigorously, too upset to speak. For Pete’s sake, it was only a stupid bachelor contest.
“If you’re worried about how it looks,” Zack said, “I’ll tell Sandra you were the best rep I ever had.” Dammit, she looked even closer to tears. One of his previous account managers had been a frequent crier, and Zack had never felt one iota of the guilt that was rending him now. “I’ll tell Getaway, too,” he promised. “It’s the truth, you know. No one else has got me to listen to them the way you have.”
Gaby’s response was to squeeze her eyes closed and say nothing. Zack was debating whether he should sneak out and let her cry in peace, when Trent came into the gym.
“Hi, Trent,” Zack said loudly, figuring he should alert Gaby to his brother’s presence. She stiffened, then slowly opened her eyes and released the tension in her face.
“Howdy.” Trent darted a curious glance at Gaby. “Hey, Gaby.”
“Trent, how are you?” She sounded her normal self, to Zack’s relief.
“Couldn’t be better, what with winning at Indianapolis and all.” Trent gave Gaby the dazzling smile he couldn’t seem to hold back, even now that he was married. Zack knew, as everyone else did, that Trent was nuts about Kelly, his wife, who was the team’s sports psychologist. He’d never so much as look at another woman, but that damned smile sure had women looking at him.
“You had a great race,” Gaby agreed.
It dawned on Zack that she was unmoved by his brother’s charm. Probably because she was so stressed—her fingers were curled over the edge of the weight bench in a white-knuckled grip. Zack wasn’t about to quibble over the reason
for her lack of interest in Trent. His brother had won enough this week, this year, the past few years, without scoring Zack’s PR account manager, too.
She’s not mine.
Hadn’t he just suggested she quit?
“I hope you’re giving this guy some lessons in how to boost his image,” Trent said to Gaby. “After last week’s headlines, it’ll take a miracle.”
Typical Trent—when he saw a pot of trouble, he just had to stir it. Against his better judgment, Zack tensed. Although the words had changed since they were kids, Trent had always known how to wind him up. He did it out of kid-brother instinct rather than malice, but when you were as hung up as Zack knew he was…
Gaby’s eyes had narrowed to slits. “I’m the first to agree Zack doesn’t have your obvious media appeal.”
Given the conversation they’d just had, Zack figured he deserved that.
“And he can be a pain in the butt,” Gaby said pointedly.
Zack felt his face tighten. Okay, okay, he’d been a jerk. She didn’t need to abandon his side so completely, did she?
Why wouldn’t she?
Dammit, maybe he shouldn’t have rushed into telling her to quit. Now, he felt oddly bereft.
“That’s why from here on out we plan to emphasize Zack’s hidden depths,” she said.
Zack started; Trent’s smile disappeared. “Zack has hidden depths?”
“I don’t expect everyone to be able to see them,” she said kindly. “Zack is…the thinking woman’s NASCAR driver.”
Trent gaped, then as the implication sank in, colored up in a way Zack had never been able to make him.
Suddenly enjoying himself, Zack said, “Gaby, I’m sure you intend no disrespect to Trent’s wife.”
“None at all,” Gaby agreed. “Hidden depths, while undeniably attractive, can be difficult to live with.” Huh, another
dig at him. Zack found himself grinning. “Not everyone wants that,” she said acidly.
Zack thought about all the PR operatives who’d quit his campaign the last eight months. “But you don’t give up that easily.”
In that moment, he knew for sure she wasn’t about to quit. His heart thudded with the same relief he felt when he passed a car out on the track. Only this felt better. An unfamiliar stretching sensation in his cheeks told him he was grinning wider than he had in a long time.
“You guessed it,” she said. “I’m absolutely committed to you.”
The room turned stifling. Zack drew in a slow, measured breath.
“We’re still talking about PR, right?” Trent asked. He was better than most men at picking up on subtleties.
“Of course,” Gaby said, her eyes on Zack.
Trent yawned theatrically. “If you have the patience to find my brother’s hidden depths, you’ll earn every penny his desperate sponsor is paying you.” By Trent’s standards, it was an ineffective shot. He glanced around the gym, and smirked. “Don’t know why I’m here, I’m fit enough already.”
With a wink at Gaby, he slung his towel over his shoulder and left. Despite the wink, despite the familiar swagger, it was a retreat.
Gaby had run Trent out of town.
A curious warmth spread through Zack, starting in his chest, then filling every inch of him. He watched her flexing her fingers, which must now be aching from gripping that seat. She was staring after Trent, as women often did, but she looked more irritated than excited.
“Did you mean what you said?” Zack asked. “About me having hidden depths?” Because last time she’d said something nice about him, to Chad, she’d admitted it was just
That still stung.
She turned wide blue eyes to him, and nodded. “I also meant it about you being a pain in the butt.”
He’d didn’t doubt that. “You defended me,” he said slowly. Not that he needed defending, of course. He’d been looking out for his own interests longer than he could remember. But still…
“Trent was being a jerk,” Gaby said. “Even more than you were.”
That damned warmth was fuzzing Zack’s brain; he struggled to get a grip on his thoughts. He took a step toward her, not sure what he was looking for, but somehow certain she had it.
“You’re not easy to deal with, Zack.” Her words came out so quiet, he strained to hear. “But I do think you have some amazing abilities.”
“Uh…” No one whose opinion he valued had said anything like that to him in years; Zack wasn’t sure how to reply. “Thanks.” Not exactly original, but heartfelt.
She clasped her hands in her lap. Her fingers were slim, her nails gleaming with a pale polish.
“Did you mean what you said?” she asked. “About me being the best PR rep you’ve had?”
“Absolutely.” He nodded for emphasis.
She shoved a curl behind her ear. It sprang right out again, and Zack found himself moving instinctively to fix it. His fingers tangled with hers, next to her face.
Gaby froze. Zack registered the brush of that silky lock of hair, the warmth of her fingers. Her breath came faster, but she didn’t remove her fingers from his.
He wanted to pull her to her feet, to fasten his mouth to hers, to explore…
Zack told himself.
Don’t get carried away, just because she said something nice.
Women said nice things to him all the time.
Yeah, but not like that.
He let go of her hand, and Gaby looked down at it as if she could still feel the same current that coursed through him.
“I can’t do the bachelor contest,” he said abruptly. “But if you can convince one of those women’s magazines to interview me, I’ll spend as long you like preparing for it, and I’ll say exactly what you want.”
She blinked, stared at him, then visibly regrouped. “Really?”
He gritted his teeth. “I’ll even take my shirt off for a photo.”
Her hiccup sounded suspiciously like a giggle. “That probably won’t be necessary.”
He blew out a breath of relief. “I’d do it, though,” he assured her.
She looked so happy, she might start skipping around the gym. But she said calmly, “Thank you, Zack.”
He grunted, already wishing he hadn’t made the offer. Who knew how much time it might take to get ready for an interview like that?
Still, as Gaby left the room—and dammit if she wasn’t skipping—he couldn’t get too upset. He’d spend more time in the gym, if necessary, and sleep less. He stepped onto the treadmill and set himself up for a punishing hill climb.
S ENGINE BLEW UP
during Friday’s qualifying at the Pennsylvania track. Thankfully it happened near the end of his lap, and he was able to coast over the line to qualify thirty-third. Trent, as usual, was in the top ten.
The team had worked like crazy to install a replacement engine and set it up. They made it, but the mood around Zack’s pit as they awaited the start of the race was grim. He knew the team was taking their cue from him, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile when another major loss stared him in the face.
It didn’t help that Gaby was bouncing around like an overinflated tire, all happy because she’d suckered him into doing an interview with some magazine.
he castigated himself.
You’re not good at that stuff.
“I hope you’re a PR witch doctor,” he grumbled to Gaby as
he waited next to his car for the national anthem to start. “Because that’s what it’ll take to put a positive spin on this race.”