Authors: Abby Gaines
Zack made the surprising discovery he could live with spending more time with Gaby. But what she was proposing was too weird. “I’m too busy for this.”
“How much time, how much race focus do you think you lose to fretting about your family?” she demanded.
Looking at Gaby in profile, Zack wondered why he’d never noticed the stubborn tilt of her chin. Her soft voice, with that edge of nervousness, had lulled him into a false impression that she was a pushover.
She didn’t wait for him to articulate his answer. “When you feel confident you have your personal life under control, your racing should improve.”
How many times this season had the solitude of the No. 548 car proven an overfertile time to ponder his grievances? Could those negative thoughts affect his racing? Of course they could—everyone knew racing was a head game.
“How would this work?” he asked reluctantly, scarcely able to believe he was considering manipulating his family.
Why not? Nothing else has worked.
“We’ll tackle both campaigns at once—the bachelor contest and your family. You will pay meticulous attention to the charm school lessons I give,
—” she fixed him with a firm eye just as he began to protest “—will be as relevant to your family situation as they are to the contest.”
“You will make every effort with the contest, and in all circumstances you will behave as I tell you.”
“The power has gone to your head,” he said.
“I’m not joking.”
Zack had been so wrapped up in his own troubles, he hadn’t realized until now that the lengths she was prepared to go to were extreme.
“Why are you so hot on this?” he asked. “You’re going way beyond the call of duty.”
“Your job, right.” He twisted to face her. “I don’t buy it.”
Her gaze slid away. “This is about you, not me.”
“I’m not going along with this crazy scheme unless I know what’s in it for you.” He saw the way her eyes lit up at the thought of him giving in. Yeah, well, he was desperate. “Tell me,” he ordered, “or it’s no dice.”
Her lips clamped together.
Zack picked up the remote control and turned the TV on, ignoring her. He found a cartoon channel, and settled back against the couch.
“Fine,” Gaby said tightly at last.
“I’d prefer you to use multisyllable words,” he said helpfully. “You need to set a good example for me.”
She glared. “I want to run Motor Media Group while Sandra’s on maternity leave.”
Whatever Zack had expected, it wasn’t that. He turned off the TV. “That’s a big job.”
She huffed. “You don’t think I can do it?”
“I have no idea. But I haven’t seen Sandra look at you as if
thinks you can do it.” Zack was so used to seeing doubt in his family’s faces, he recognized it easily in others.
“I need to prove my capabilities,” Gaby admitted.
He mulled that over. “You think if you keep me in line, Sandra will give you the job?”
“You’re my client, you’re the obvious place to start.”
“So your offer to help me with my family isn’t about me at all?” The thought rankled. Dumb, since he was used to playing second, or third, fiddle. “This is all about you.”
“I do want you to fix things with your family,” she said. “But, yes, my main concern is getting that job.”
“Why do you want it? Is it the money?”
Gaby laced her fingers in her lap. “Kind of. My parents were quite old when they had me—Mom was forty-six. They’re not in great health, physically or financially. They can meet their own needs, but they’ve made it clear there’s unlikely to be much left for me when they go. I need to make provision for myself.”
“Do they live around here?”
She shook her head. “In Nashville. I don’t have any other family.”
“You’ll probably get married one day.” Zack scanned her slim curves, the feminine sweep of her lashes above blue eyes, the bow of her mouth. “Your husband will help support you.”
“I already tried that,” she said coolly.
“You’ve been married?” Something primeval—possessiveness, protectiveness, he didn’t know what—swept over Zack.
“Engaged,” she said. “It was a painful lesson in not relying on someone else to take care of me.”
“What did he do to you?” One look at the quiver in Gaby’s lips and Zack had an urge to pound the guy’s head into the pavement.
Her face shut down, the way his own often did. “I answered your question about what I want out of this, you don’t need to know anything else. You just need to agree to enter the bachelor contest, give it a hundred-percent effort. In return, I’ll help manage the impressions you give your family, the same way I manage your media impressions. Only better,” she added, “because now you’ll be cooperating.”
Zack briefly entertained a scenario in his head where he and his family laughed and chatted and bantered around a
Thanksgiving table. Too sappy. He dismissed the image and conjured another one, where he and his folks were civil to each other, where every conversation wasn’t a minefield.
Even that was a vast improvement.
He let out a breath. “I’ll do it,” he said. “I’m in your hands.”
Something electric crackled in the air, left his heart thumping.
Gaby put a hand to her chest as if her heart was playing up, too. “See you in charm school.”
IND YOUR MANNERS
and don’t go on about NASCAR,” Brady Matheson ordered his sons, who were sprawled around his living room on the Wednesday evening between the Pennsylvania and Watkins Glen races. “It’s a sensitive issue for Amber.” But all he got for his trouble was three pairs of rolled eyes. His daughters-in-law were more polite and nodded obediently.
“She’s your stepsister,” he reminded them all unnecessarily.
And she’s my stepdaughter.
“She’s part of our family.” He added hastily, “That doesn’t mean you can go arguing with her or insulting her or getting her dander up like you do with each other.”
Dammit, he hadn’t been this nervous in years. Yet again, he wondered if it was a wise idea having the boys here while he met Amber Blake, Julie-Anne’s daughter, for the first time.
Julie-Anne was desperate for the meeting to go well, which put Brady on edge. She’d insisted Amber would feel less threatened if she was in a big group, rather than one-on-one.
Brady cursed under his breath. He wanted to like his stepdaughter, he really did. But she sounded neurotic. She’d better not try to come between him and Julie-Anne.
Yet she already had. Julie-Anne had insisted on going to the airport alone yesterday to greet her daughter. Not unreasonable—except mother and daughter had spent the night at Julie-Anne’s cottage in Charlotte. It was the first night Brady and Julie-Anne had spent apart since they married.
He’d missed his wife.
And Julie-Anne had missed Amber the past few years, more than most people knew. Brady sighed. He needed to be the better guy about this.
“Dad, we’ll be on our best behavior,” Zack promised, unusually cooperative.
Brady snorted. “With you, that means you’ll either ignore her or you’ll blow up at her.”
Dammit, he always said the wrong thing to Zack. Sure enough, his middle son’s eyes hardened, his chin jutted. Brady braced himself for an argument he didn’t need right now. Sometimes he thought life was easier when Zack wasn’t talking to the family.
Gaby, Zack’s PR rep, put a hand on Zack’s arm. He glared down at her, but it seemed to distract him from retaliating.
Brady let out a relieved breath. He hadn’t realized Zack was dating his PR rep—the boy was secretive—but if she managed to curb his moodiness, Brady was all in favor.
The crunch of tires on the gravel driveway alerted him. “They’re here.”
He hurried onto the porch. Amber got out of the car, and he was relieved to see she looked a lot like Julie-Anne, with her long dark hair and curvy figure. If she was like her mother personality-wise, this wouldn’t be so bad.
Julie-Anne planted a quick kiss on Brady’s mouth; as always, he wanted more. “Darling, this is Amber,” she said.
Brady shook the girl’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Awkwardly, he leaned in and kissed her cheek.
She stiffened a bit, then smiled. “You, too, Brady.”
“I, uh, I got you something.” He reached over to the porch swing and handed her a large, white teddy bear holding a Welcome to Charlotte sign.
Right away, he knew it was a bad choice. Sure, she thanked him, but he could see from her raised, then quickly lowered, eyebrows that she thought he was crazy buying her a stuffed animal.
“Libby, the receptionist at the race team, it was her idea,” he explained hurriedly.
Behind him, Trent groaned. “Dad, everyone knows Libby has a stuffed animal fetish. Most grown women don’t want a teddy bear.”
Brady felt heat at the back of his neck.
“It’s sweet,” Amber insisted. “It really is.”
“Hi, I’m Trent.” Trent stepped forward and shook her hand, which at least took the pressure off Brady for a minute.
He and Amber had talked on the phone a couple of times, but it didn’t seem to make this any easier. Not when Julie-Anne was hovering anxiously, worried he might offend the girl.
He cleared his throat. “Come inside and meet the other boys.”
Thankfully, his sons managed to dredge up impeccable manners from somewhere, and Brady started to breathe easier.
“Are you pleased to be home?” Zack asked Amber.
She glanced around the spacious, high-ceilinged living room. “Charlotte hasn’t been my home in a long time.” Obviously realizing how ungracious she sounded, she blushed. “But I’m pleased to see Mom again.”
“Not half as thrilled as I am to see you, honey.” Julie-Anne put an arm around her daughter. Amber didn’t exactly melt into her mother’s touch. Julie-Anne was right, Brady thought—her daughter was still holding on to some resentment.
As Julie-Anne served the meal, a Tex-Mex feast that would appeal to everyone, Amber watched her mom’s interactions with him like a hawk. But she was pleasant to everyone else.
It’ll take time,
Brady told himself.
But we’ll win her over.
They had to, for Julie-Anne’s sake.
MBER SIPPED HER BEER
, smiled politely in response to something Zack Matheson—her stepbrother—said, and wondered how soon she could get out of here. She needed to take a long walk, clear her head. Zack seemed nice enough, and so did his brothers, but who really knew? More importantly, who
knew what Brady Matheson was really like? If he was as gruff as his demeanor suggested, there was every chance Amber’s mom had made a terrible mistake. Again.
Amber eyed Julie-Anne, saw the nervousness in her jerky movements as she passed around the plates of food. Was her mom merely worried about this reunion, or was her anxiety due to something more sinister?
I should have come home sooner.
Julie-Anne’s announcement of her engagement to Brady at the end of last year had set off alarm bells, and Amber had begun the process of extracting herself from her contract with her eco-adventure tour company employer. Then, in January, Julie-Anne had e-mailed that the engagement was off. Out of consideration to her employer during the busy New Year period, Amber canceled her trip. Only to learn a couple of weeks later that Brady and Julie-Anne had run off to Las Vegas to get married.
Did he browbeat her into it?
Julie-Anne had e-mailed to say how ecstatic she was, but Amber wasn’t convinced. It had taken a while to get out of her commitments, but she was here to see for herself. If she discovered Brady was anything like Julie-Anne’s first husband, Billy Blake, the man Amber could scarcely bear to acknowledge as her father…
“Amber, will you be looking for work here in Charlotte?” Brady asked.
She couldn’t gauge his tone, and that worried her. If Brady was like her father, he was smarter about hiding it than Billy had been. “I’m not sure how long I’ll stay,” she admitted.
She’d been traveling for years, it would be hard to settle. Even if, sometimes, she craved to be somewhere called home.
“You’ll have to come by Matheson Racing,” Zack said. “Have Dad show you around. He started the team thirty years ago, back when he was racing himself, so as tour guides go he’s pretty inspiring.” His cheery tone seemed forced. Gaby—his girlfriend?—gave him an encouraging smile.
“Thanks, son.” Brady sounded surprised at the compliment. He turned to Amber. “I’d be happy to show you around the team headquarters.”
“Uh, I’m not sure what my plans are.” As if she would be so frantically busy in this town where she no longer knew anyone that she wouldn’t have time to visit the team. Still, it was more polite than,
No way am I setting foot in that place.
The conversation moved on; Amber was content to observe.
Julie-Anne started gathering empty plates. “I’ll serve dessert.”
Brady stood. “I’ll help you, sweetheart.”
Amber leaped to her feet. “I’ll help, Mom.”
Julie-Anne looked from her husband to her daughter. Amber had the ridiculous urge to put up her hand and beg,
Pick me. This time, pick me.
“It won’t need three of us,” Julie-Anne said. “Amber, I’d love it if you could help.”
Amber couldn’t help shooting a look of triumph at Brady as she followed her mom to the kitchen.
she scolded herself.
“Darling, you’re coping wonderfully,” Julie-Anne said as she pulled the peach cobbler, Amber’s childhood favorite, from the oven. “I know the Matheson men can be overwhelming when you get them all in one room.”
“Any more testosterone and I’d be in danger of growing hairs on my chest,” Amber agreed.
A tiny joke, but Julie-Anne laughed more heartily than it warranted. “So…what do you think?” she asked.
but Amber chose a wider interpretation. “Zack seems harmless,” she said.
Julie-Anne blinked. “Zack? You’re right, he’s a sweetie, though not everyone is smart enough to see that.”
“Trent…it’s hard to believe that much charm could be genuine.” Amber’s father had apparently been a real charmer himself, when it suited him.
Julie-Anne didn’t appear to get the parallel. Her eyes
softened. “Sweetie, you’re a cynic. Trent’s a doll, through and through.” She reached out and touched Amber’s cheek. Amber jerked away, even though she wanted to stay there and enjoy the caress. Julie-Anne’s expression turned hurt.
“Chad seems competent,” Amber hurried on. “He’s very like Brady.” In manner, as well as looks. Chad wasn’t gruff, like Brady, but she’d bet he and his dad shared a lot of attitudes. Chad’s wife, Brianna, appeared besotted with him—and vice versa—but they hadn’t been together long.
Julie-Anne obviously sensed the unspoken criticism, because her voice cooled as she said, “Chad
very like his father. Which is the highest compliment I can pay.”
Amber began counting plates out from the cupboard that her mom had indicated and then moved on to the opinion her mom was really waiting for. “Brady seems…strong.”
The sigh Julie-Anne let out sounded more like an infatuated sixteen-year-old than a middle-aged woman. “He’s like a rock.”
Amber frowned. “Immovable?”
“Dependable,” Julie-Anne said. “Reliable, protective. If Brady seems offhand with you, it’s because he’s protecting me.”
“What does he think I’m going to do?” Amber demanded, stung.
“Nothing,” Julie-Anne soothed her. “It’s just, he knows you haven’t been back in a while, and he’s worried about whether we’ll all get along.”
Amber pffed as she set out the plates on the counter. More likely, Brady was worried someone might see through his loving-husband act. She clamped down on the uncharitable thought. Maybe Brady
a loving husband. Maybe.
“Give him the benefit of the doubt.” As if she’d read Amber’s mind, Julie-Anne turned pleading. “Be happy for me.”
happiness was so important to you? So important that you abandoned me?
Amber quashed the bitter accusation. Now wasn’t the time to have that argument. She
doubted there ever would be a time, if she wanted any kind of relationship with her mother.
It doesn’t matter that she chose my father over me, I don’t care.
She repeated the mantra that had sustained her through the lonely years, gradually creating a protective shell around her.
“Brady is nothing like Billy,” Julie-Anne said quietly. “I promise.”
“They both drove race cars.” Then Amber burst out, “I can’t believe you’re back in this world, after everything that happened.”
Julie-Anne pulled a serving spoon from a drawer. “I love racing, and I have a lot of friends in the sport. You used to love it, too.”
Amber shuddered. “But
“NASCAR didn’t make your father what he was,” Julie-Anne interrupted. “If anything, it gave him a reason to be a better man.”
They were never going to agree on that. Amber switched tactics. “You don’t look happy.”
“I don’t—?” Julie-Anne gaped. “Sweetheart, I adore Brady, he’s made me happier than I’ve ever been in my life. Apart from when you were born,” she added. Too late.
She dug a serving spoon into the cobbler. Steam rose from the golden dessert.
“You can’t expect me to just accept your judgment of him,” Amber said.
Her mom paused, spoon in the air. “Why not?”
“Mom, you made a huge mistake the first time around.”
“And therefore every decision I make must be equally faulty?” Julie-Anne’s eyes flashed. “It’s been eleven years since Billy died, and you’ll notice I didn’t exactly rush in to another relationship. What I have with Brady—”
“He swept you off your feet,” Amber said.
To her surprise, her mom laughed. “He did no such thing. You’ve never seen a man try harder to avoid falling in love.”
Which was even worse, Amber thought. “I just want to be sure you’re happy.”
Julie-Anne’s shoulders eased. “I am. Trust me. And accept my marriage.”
How about Amber hops on the next plane back to Katmandu, instead? The usual wanderlust didn’t kick in at the prospect. Instead she found herself saying, “I’ll try.”
From the dining room, she heard one of her stepbrothers make a reference to last week’s race, and immediately, loud, assertive voices weighed in with their opinions. Amber wrapped her arms around herself.
“And I hope you can eventually get over your downer on NASCAR,” Julie-Anne said. “It’s a big part of my life, Amber.”
Amber jerked a nod.
“I want you to visit the team headquarters,” Julie-Anne said. “See for yourself, it’s just a place where people work. Decent people, whose families matter to them.”
“Mom, I don’t want to go there.”
Her mother’s expression turned stern. “I know it’ll be hard for you, Amber, but I’m your mother, and if I tell you to get yourself to that team headquarters that’s exactly what you’ll do.”
Amber’s instinctive, conflicting reactions both made her feel about ten years old. Flounce from the room, or latch on to that maternal order as if she had no choice.
Brady stuck his head around the doorway. “Everything okay?”
He’s keeping tabs on her, just like Billy did.
Amber shivered, despite the heat of the kitchen. Her mom would never see the similarity between Brady and Billy unless Amber showed her the truth. She needed to catch Brady unawares, when he wasn’t putting on a social face. Anyone could play Mr. Nice Guy for a couple of hours at a stretch.