Authors: Abby Gaines
“Then there’s Dad and Julie-Anne,” Zack said. “Dad’s not an easy guy, but in Julie-Anne’s hands, he’s like butter.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Kaye didn’t dare do more than make an encouraging noise. Gaby contented herself with a silent nod.
“I guess,” Zack said contemplatively, “my brothers and my dad found the women who were right for them. None of those women met any checklist, they probably weren’t logical choices. But as it turns out, those three are the happiest guys I know.”
A flash of white light broke the mood. Kaye glared at the photographer, who shrugged without apology. “Too good to miss,” he said.
Zack yawned. “Are we done here?”
“Did you get that wave in Zack’s hair in that shot?” Gaby asked.
“I don’t have a wave in my hair,” Zack said, alarmed.
“Got it,” the photographer said.
“What wave?” Zack ran a hand over his head.
“Very nice,” Kaye approved.
Zack got a hunted look. “There’s no wave.”
“It’s scarcely visible,” Gaby assured him.
“Then why did you want a photo of it?” he said suspiciously.
Gaby exchanged a humorous look with Kaye—the man had so little vanity, it was endearing.
“Smile, please, Zack.” The photographer took a half-dozen more shots, Zack’s cooperation decreasing with each one. At last, they were finished. Kaye shook Zack’s hand and said, “Good luck at Watkins Glen.”
Exhaustion fled, Zack’s face lit up. Kaye’s mouth dropped open at the sheer beauty of him; Gaby knew just how she felt. Carefully, the photographer lifted his camera, snapped a couple of shots without the flash.
“I won’t need luck,” Zack said. “Not with the work we just put in on the car.”
Yes! Somehow, they’d ended on a high. As Gaby escorted Kaye and the photographer to the door she felt a surge of the
kind of relief heart patients must feel when brought back to life by a defibrillator.
“Interesting man,” Kaye said as she stepped outside.
“He sure is.” Gaby wondered if she meant
“Pity he’s not in the bachelor contest,” the reporter said. “I could do a major article on him then.”
Gaby turned cold, despite the sunshine. “Your editor told me this would be a five-page profile.” That was why she’d busted her butt, gone through all this stress.
Kaye grimaced. “We don’t have the space. The advertisers are supporting the bachelor contest, and that’s where our coverage is going.”
“So, how big will this article be?” Gaby tried to hide her dismay.
The reporter shrugged. “A page, tops. We’ll give him a decent photograph.”
All that effort in exchange for a measly page, doubtless tucked in the back of the magazine behind the bachelors. Sandra and Getaway were expecting a major feature. Because Gaby had told them to. And after that, there would be…nothing. She knew without talking to Zack that he hadn’t enjoyed the interview. So he wasn’t about to announce his candidacy in the bachelor contest.
“That’s disappointing,” Gaby said. She heard the weakness in her voice and despised it. What had Sandra said?
I need someone who’ll fight for my business.
Gaby was letting
renege on its commitment, when the editor and the journalist surely knew they’d never have been given so much of Zack’s time on such short notice, at this stage in the season, unless it was for a major return. She had also let Zack renege on his commitment, because she had wanted him to get that car right, and because his fatigue had tugged at her heartstrings.
Dammit, right now she didn’t
she told herself.
Not just for Sandra’s business, but for yourself, for your future, for your peace of mind.
Determination trickled into her veins. Not enough.
If you don’t fight this battle, no one else will.
Resolve built, becoming a flood that swept her forward.
“That’s not acceptable.” Gaby amended her earlier comment to the journalist, her tone clipped.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Kaye said, her smile friendly but firm.
“There’s always something.” Gaby tugged the front door closed behind her. “What if Zack signs on for the bachelor contest?”
Kaye’s eyes lit up. “He didn’t seem overly interested.”
“If I can persuade him,” Gaby persisted, “will you give us the cover?”
The request went beyond what they’d agreed with the magazine, but as far as she knew, Zack had never had the cover of a women’s magazine. Unlike Trent.
Kaye pursed her lips. “I’d need to talk to my editor. But Zack would sure spice up the contest—he’s a bit of a dark horse.”
You can say that again.
“He won’t enter unless we get the cover,” Gaby said firmly.
Kaye hesitated. “I think we can do that—I’ll call you when I’m back at the office.”
Gaby shook the reporter’s hand with a determination that her marshmallow-me didn’t recognize.
Hold that thought. And go back inside to Zack, ready to fight with everything you’ve got.
MAZING HOW THE DECISION
to fight for her life crystallized Gaby’s thoughts. By the time she reached the great room, she had a full battle strategy. She wasn’t entirely proud of it, but she was confident it would work.
She found Zack flopped on the couch, his head thrown back, eyes closed. Lines of tiredness ran from his nose to the corners of his mouth, and for a moment Gaby thought he’d fallen asleep. He held up a hand as she approached. “I know, I know. I screwed up.”
Gaby sucked in a breath. “Actually, you did okay.”
He opened his eyes. “Really?” He looked wary. “What did I say?”
“But you almost screwed up,” Gaby continued. “I can’t go through this stress every time we have a media interview.”
“Then let’s not do any more interviews.” He gave her a hopeful look. “Now that my driving and my car are back on track…”
“One fourth-place finish doesn’t equal back on track.”
“That’s not what you told that reporter,” he said.
“I was putting you in a positive light.”
“Maybe,” he said, “the light is real. Like the sun. Not something that’s going to switch off next week.” He tsked at his own garbled metaphor and said, “So you think the article will be all right?”
“You’re going to be on the cover,” Gaby said.
“Wow.” He sat up. “The cover.” He ran a hand over his face. “Maybe I should have shaved.”
Gaby looked at the darkness of shadow accentuating the strong line of his jaw. Every woman who saw that magazine would drool. She was having a hard time refraining from drooling herself, and she was mad at him.
She licked her lips, in case a stray fleck of drool had escaped. “Getaway doesn’t mind the unshaven look,” she said. “They think it sends a message that their hotels are places where you can really relax.”
He rolled his eyes at the PR-speak.
“You nearly killed that interview, but only just,” she said. “What happened to all that preparation we did?”
“I’ve been up all night,” he began.
“You have a car chief and a bunch of mechanics to fix your car, but no one else could do this interview. You should have gone to bed so you could keep your promise to me.”
“What’s the problem?” he said. “I admit I made some mistakes, but like you said, it went okay.”
“We weren’t aiming for
” she said. “Things have to change.”
“There’s not much chance I’ll be up all night working on the car again….”
Gaby crossed to the DVD player and started it. She used the remote to turn on the TV. “Watch this—it was picked up by all the national networks last night.”
Color flashed onto the TV screen, a segment of a popular breakfast show.
“Today we get to meet some of the candidates for
magazine’s Bachelor of the Year,” the presenter said.
That snagged Zack’s attention. “What the—?”
“Hush,” Gaby ordered, her eyes glued to the parade of drivers on the screen.
“Idiots,” Zack said.
She glared at him. “Publicity-savvy, you mean. Look at
Garrett Clark.” She pointed as the camera zoomed in on the handsome driver wearing his sponsor’s T-shirt. “Country Bread’s logo on national TV. He didn’t even have to win a race.”
Garrett was chatting to a group of admiring females. He certainly was handsome, Gaby had to admit, with those chocolate-brown eyes and those—
“Hey,” Zack said. “What are you gawping at?”
a driver who understands PR at work.”
He stabbed a finger at the TV. “You
“I respect his abilities,” she said primly. Then, as it dawned on her that Zack’s mile-wide competitive streak was coming into play, she added, “Yeah, he’s cute.”
“He’s a womanizer,” Zack said.
Gaby laughed at the old-fashioned term, and he scowled.
“I thought he was a friend of yours,” she said.
“He is,” Zack said. “I’m not a woman, I’m safe with him.”
“It makes sense that a great-looking guy like Garrett Clark
be a womanizer,” she said thoughtfully.
Zack stood and walked over to the TV. He stood in front of it, blocking her view. “You told me I’m a hottie,” he pointed out. “But I’m not a womanizer.”
Gaby’s hormones leapt; she slapped them down. This was business. “Looks aren’t everything. Women like men who talk to them.” She craned to see the screen around him.
“Okay, what do you want to talk about?”
The belligerence in Zack’s voice startled her, even though it was what she’d been pushing for. “Excuse me?”
He switched off the TV. “I can do the weather,” he said. “Or NASCAR. Movies, books. Just say the word.”
Gaby’s stomach fluttered. Zack definitely didn’t like that she thought Garrett Clark was cute. “You think that’s all Garrett talks about? Superficial stuff?”
Zack snorted. “The guy’s about as deep as a puddle at the top of a banked track.”
“Interesting,” Gaby murmured, and was rewarded with a deeper frown. “What if I want to talk about the Bachelor of the Year contest?”
His mouth firmed. “Sure, we can talk about that. It’s a load of garbage.”
“Garrett doesn’t seem to think so.” She looked suggestively at the blank screen.
Zack bristled. “I’m not entering that stupid contest. I don’t need to prove I’m a heck of a lot more interesting than Garrett Clark.”
She let her brows draw together in dubious assessment.
” he said, warningly.
“Uh-huh.” She wandered to the table and poured another coffee from the press. She took a swig of the cold liquid. Now or never. “Actually Zack, you do need to prove you’re a better catch than Garrett. I entered you in the Bachelor of the Year contest.”
Zack jerked backward. “You
“Have you seen how much exposure these guys are getting? The contest has been on all the major networks, and it will be again. It’s sponsored by the biggest-selling weekly magazine in the country, and the daily newspapers are picking up stories all the time.”
“I’m a NASCAR driver, not a-a beauty king.” He sat down on the couch, disgusted.
“You had one good race,” Gaby said. “Not enough for Getaway, not enough for the media and certainly not enough for your own satisfaction.”
“The bachelor contest sure as hell won’t give me any satisfaction,” he said.
“We can’t keep lurching from one interview, one race, to the next and hoping we don’t screw up too badly. The contest gives us week after week of strong, positive coverage, whatever else happens.”
“You said yourself I don’t have the social skills of drivers
like Garrett Clark and Trent,” he pointed out. “What makes you think I’ll get positive coverage?”
“I saw an indication of what you can do at today’s interview. We’ll build on that.” She sucked in a breath and stood over him in an attempt to intimidate. “I plan to put you through charm school.”
He stared up at her. “Huh?”
“The first lesson is to stop confusing
for conversation,” she snapped. “From now on, I want multiword sentences. Even some multisyllable words.”
“Ne-ver go-ing to hap-pen,” he enunciated clearly.
“I mean it, Zack. I need you to commit one hundred percent to the bachelor contest, and that means changing your attitude to just about everything.”
He got to his feet, terminating her brief height advantage. “I told you, the only thing I’ll commit to one hundred percent is my racing.”
Frustrated, Gaby paced the room. Couldn’t he see that success in the bachelor contest might actually help his racing? He needed a confidence boost. “I already told the reporter you’re in.”
“Then it’s your job to get me out,” he said.
She eyeballed him. “No.”
“What are you going to do,
me do the contest?” He laughed, and it was the last straw.
Gaby flung hesitancy to the winds…along with her professional ethics. Zack didn’t give a damn about anyone else, why should she give a damn about what he wanted?
She sat carefully on the couch he’d just vacated, ignoring the magnetism of his presence, and folded her hands in her lap. Steeling herself.
“What?” Zack asked, suspicious.
She decided to overlook the single-syllable sentence. “We both know there’s something else you’re willing to put a hundred percent into.”
“No, there’s not.” His gaze flickered toward the door.
“And we both know this comeback isn’t just about your racing,” she said silkily.
“Of course it is.” But he ran a finger around the back of his shirt collar, and Gaby knew she had him.
“Your family,” she said. “They’re more important to you than your racing, but if possible, you’re doing even worse with them than you are on the track.”
The heat of his glare could have melted pavement. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sit down, Zack,” she said. “I plan to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
ACK SAT ON THE OTHER
end of the couch. Because he wanted to, not because Gaby said so. Because he was so damn tired after more than twenty-four hours on his feet.
He didn’t know how she’d come up with her theory about his family—a lucky guess, most likely—but he wasn’t about to discuss it.
“You will attend charm school and graduate with flying colors,” she said. “Then you will participate in every event, every interview you’re asked to do in relation to the bachelor contest, and you’ll do it with charm, flair and…and sexiness.” She colored, but her tone was firm.
“So far I’m finding this pretty easy to refuse,” he said, relieved. For a minute there, she’d had him going with her pseudo insights.
“In exchange for your cooperation,” she said deliberately, “I will provide additional services.”
He raised an eyebrow and smirked. She shot him a look that said
and continued, “Your comeback is as much about coming back into your family as it is into NASCAR. Probably more. But it’s not working.”
“You think?” he sneered.
“Do you have any idea why that is?” Her clear blue eyes met his.
And, dammit, he was so tired, so damn susceptible, he found himself saying, “Matheson Racing is all about winning.”
“By which you mean,
being a Matheson
is all about winning.”
“If I wanted psychoanalysis, I’d go see Kelly.” He added rudely, “She’s a lot better at it than you are.”
To his irritation, Gaby smiled with what looked like genuine sympathy. “You really are a mess.”
“I’m fine,” he muttered. He
been fine until she started in on him. He never should have agreed to this morning’s interview.
“I believe you go into conversations with your family with good intentions—at least half the time. But something always goes wrong.”
She was right, half the time he did. The other times, he was too riled to make the effort.
“I’ve seen the hopeful look you get on your face when you talk to your dad, your brothers.”
Heat suffused Zack’s jaw. “Don’t be stupid.” She made him sound like a five-year-old seeking his daddy’s approval, his love. Yeah, okay, so he wanted some kind of connection with his dad and his brothers. But he didn’t
it, and if this season didn’t work out, he could go back to Atlanta and resume his pattern of occasional communication with his folks.
Something twisted inside him at the thought.
He shot Gaby a look of intense dislike and considered having her fired.
“If it’s any consolation,” she said, “your problems with your folks aren’t all your fault.”
“Gee, thanks,” he said sarcastically
“Even when you’re on your best behavior—which, frankly, isn’t that great—your family is guilty of judging what you say and do in the light of past grudges.”
She’d noticed that, too? That no matter what he did, no matter how pure his motives, someone took it the wrong way? Zack shoved his hands in his pockets. “Go on,” he growled.
“I have a solution.”
The leaping sensation in his chest was totally unexpected. He couldn’t speak.
“I will work with you on improving your image with your family,” Gaby said.
The soaring hope—because that was what this feeling must be—plummeted. Zack cursed himself for his naiveté. Had he really expected Gaby to have the answer to a decadesold problem?
“A PR campaign,” she elaborated. “One aimed at showing your family you’re a Matheson just like them, and without you the family is less than it should be.”
“You want to
me to my family?” Zack said, outraged. “You’re nuts.”
“I admit you’re driving me crazy,” she said. “But putting you in the bachelor contest will fix that.” She leaned forward, and the movement parted her blouse. Zack got a glimpse of creamy skin. He jerked his gaze away.
“I can’t fix the psychology of what’s going on in your family, but I can help change perceptions,” she said. “Once you change someone’s viewpoint, then they reevaluate everything, and react to words and behaviors, in the light of that new view.”
He tried to follow her reasoning. “You’re saying that if Dad and my brothers think I’m a nice guy, they won’t jump on everything I say?”
That did have some appeal. Right now, every time he made the tiniest progress with his family, he’d open his mouth and ruin it. Which possibly came down to those deep-rooted perceptions. Maybe the reason he got along so well with his sisters-in-law was because they didn’t prejudge every communication.
“They’ll see everything differently,” Gaby agreed.
Despite the fact he was mad with her and had every reason to be, the idea proved incredibly seductive. Zack found himself leaning toward her.
“It’s not all perception,” she said. “You’ll need to change some behaviors, but if you know what you’re trying to achieve you can avoid a knee-jerk reaction when people say something you don’t like.”
That made sense. “And you think a PR campaign can do all this?”
“I know it can.” She sat back, sensing victory. “It will mean me spending a lot more time with you. For a while, at least, I’ll need to be present during most of your family interactions.”