Authors: Abby Gaines
She looked relieved to be reminded. “Like I said, you’re self-centered.”
It was funny how she was allowed to insult him with importunity, Zack thought, yet she got upset when he wasn’t a hundred percent tactful in his response. Which again proved she was right—he had a lot to learn.
“I prefer to think of it as self-preservation.” He’d been behind his brothers, no matter what he did, his whole life. It wasn’t unreasonable to want a woman who put him first. Gaby would never be that woman—she’d admitted outright she wouldn’t let a man get in the way of her career. And yet, that kiss…
Zack felt as if things were more complicated than he’d ever asked for them to be. As if he was getting himself tied up in knots. He had enough complications as it was.
“Let’s get back to work,” he said. “I have a flight to Watkins Glen to catch, and I wouldn’t want to screw up this bachelor party for you.”
antennae were on full alert from the moment she pulled up outside the concrete-and-glass Matheson Racing building on Thursday morning. She gritted her teeth and cursed Brady Matheson.
She’d asked him to find her some work at Matheson Performance Industries, his engine-building company. Instead, he’d offered her a part-time receptionist job at the race team headquarters. Amber suspected he was trying to keep her away from her mom, who still worked as his secretary. More a second-in-command these days, was how Brady had put it. Which sounded as if he appreciated Julie-Anne…but Amber didn’t trust large, charismatic men who tried to come between her and her mother.
Give him the benefit of the doubt,
she admonished herself for the hundredth time.
Give everyone, everything, the benefit of the doubt.
She locked her car and headed inside. The receptionist, a woman around Amber’s age, smiled. “May I help you?”
“I’m Amber Blake. I’m, uh—” She indicated the reception desk.
The woman squealed. “You’re the one who’s going to fill in for me while I attend classes.” She stood and shook Amber’s hand. “I’m Libby. Am I ever pleased to see you.”
“Have you been desperate to get away?” Amber asked. Good grief, she had to stop seeing monsters under every bed.
“Are you kidding?” Libby pushed a clipboard across the
counter and showed Amber where to sign in. “Chad practically forced me to enroll for my degree in motor sport management. Now that I’m about to start, I’m really looking forward to it, but I was starting to worry Chad would be answering the phones himself.” She laughed.
Okay, a receptionist encouraged to enroll for a college degree obviously wasn’t in need of rescue. Amber signed her name…then realized the pen had a fluffy pink pig stuck on the end. Libby was the woman with the stuffed animal fetish, as Trent had called it. She was to blame for that awful teddy bear Brady had bought.
“I’ll let Chad know you’re here,” Libby said. “He wants to show you around.” She picked up the phone.
To her left, Amber heard the click of a security lock. The receptionist looked past Amber, and dropped the phone back into its cradle. Her eyes brightened, her cheeks turned pink. “Hi, Ryan,” she said.
“Hey, Libby, you look pretty today.”
The voice was smooth, warm, beguiling—and it sent a tingle of warning down Amber’s spine. She turned to look at the new arrival.
She had to lift her gaze, because the owner of the smooth voice was taller than average. Six feet, probably, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. Chocolate-brown eyes met hers, and immediately warmed to cinnamon.
“Hi,” he said. How could one word sound so suggestive?
Amber muttered a hello.
“Ryan, this is Amber Blake, Julie-Anne’s daughter. She’ll be working part-time on reception,” Libby said. “Amber, Ryan Thorne is our NASCAR Nationwide Series driver.”
“Nice to meet you, Amber,” Ryan drawled. His gaze traveled over her, and it was evident from his smile that he liked what he saw. He stuck out a hand and seemed to notice at the same moment she did that he was holding a beer bottle.
Beer? At nine in the morning? Amber pulled her hand back swiftly.
Ryan laughed. “I forgot I had this.” He waved the bottle at her. “We had a camera crew in just now, filming a commercial for my sponsor.”
He tapped his chest, and she noticed his black T-shirt sported an orange-and-green Katzenberg Beer logo. “No other beer makes me feel this good,” he said.
Why on earth did he think she wanted to know about his beer preferences? Or was he just totally self-obsessed? Ryan chuckled at her obvious bemusement. “That’s my line from the commercial,” he explained. “You wouldn’t believe how many times I had to say it before I nailed it.”
“Taking a swig of that—” she nodded at the near-empty bottle “—each time, I suppose.”
He raised his eyebrows at the disapproval in her tone. “Libby, honey—” he winked at the receptionist “—can you dispose of this bottle for me? You know Dave won’t allow alcohol in the workshop during working hours, not even in the trash.”
“I’ll take it to the recycling bin,” Libby said with alacrity. Amber noticed that when she took the bottle, she held it exactly where Ryan’s fingers had been.
“You’re the best,” he said lightly.
Blushing, Libby hurried out the back, with the promise she’d be only half a minute, which left Amber alone with Ryan. If he hadn’t been obviously younger than she was, she might have felt threatened by such blatant male egotism. Instead, she took the opportunity to let off some of the steam she’d been holding in around her mom. “Something wrong with your legs, that you can’t take out your own trash?” she asked.
He grinned. “I didn’t want to deprive Libby of one of the high points of her day.”
“Doing your bidding?” Amber said, disgusted.
“She has a passion for recycling,” Ryan said, deadpan.
Amber scowled. Add twenty years, a beer belly and a foul
temper, and Ryan could pass for Billy Blake. He had all the “right” qualities: inappropriate consumption of alcohol, too aware of his own charms and not afraid to use them to manipulate people into doing what he wanted.
His smile widened in the face of her scowl. “It’s been nice meeting you, Amber. I’m sure you’ll be a real asset to Matheson Racing.”
“I’m sure you will, too,” she said. “When you grow up.”
She held her breath, expecting to check off another of her dad’s traits: an anger problem. But although Ryan’s gaze didn’t hold as much humor as before, he didn’t exhibit any signs of a rage that might turn mean. He probably thought she was kidding. When he smiled slowly, she knew she was right.
“I look forward to getting to know you better,” he drawled. He gave Amber a half salute and said, “Later.”
She watched him disappear through the security door marked Workshop.
Not if I can help it,
Amber thought. Giving this place the benefit of the doubt didn’t have to include Ryan, did it? Because she was certain she had him pegged.
HE TRACK AT
was one of two road courses used in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Zack loved the road courses, this one and the one at Sonoma, California. The Watkins Glen track was never straightforward, never predictable. Zack relished that complexity: it felt as if he was unraveling the race, rather than just driving it.
Midmorning on Saturday, he stepped out of the hauler and scanned the garage area for Gaby once again. He glanced at his watch—she should have been here by now. Unless she was still mad at him over his insensitivity the other day, but he didn’t think that was likely.
The more Zack reflected on that kiss—which he did often—the more he was glad it had happened. If it hadn’t, he and Gaby would still be on tenterhooks over their sizzling
attraction. Now they’d brought it out into the open, and agreed it was a bad idea. Which meant they could now ignore it. They’d spent the rest of his day at charm school on role-plays and discussions that had covered just about every situation Zack might find himself in with his family, fans, or the media.
Now, he was keen to put his charming new persona to the test. He just needed Gaby here to remind him to think twice before he said something that might inflame his rivalry with Trent, or something that would push Chad’s stress levels beyond the tipping point. She was helpful when his dad hassled him, too, as he’d discovered at dinner with Amber last week. A sympathetic, knowing look from Gaby had defused the situation, stopping Zack from taking offence when he knew, in his heart, Brady probably hadn’t intended any.
They’d agreed that if things did turn sour with his brothers this weekend, Gaby would make some comment—put a spin on it, was the professional term—that would help the other guys see the problem in a different light. Another reason why Zack needed her here.
Finally he caught sight of her coming through the security check. He waited, taking in her figure in her blue-and-white check blouse and white jeans. On this hot day she looked cool. And tempting.
She spotted Zack, and beamed. His heart did an unexpected somersault. Then he realized Gaby was waving something at him…a magazine?
“Sorry I’m late, I had to wait for this to arrive before I could fly up,” she called as she got closer. “It’s a copy of
hot off the press.”
He’d forgotten all about the magazine profile. “How is it?”
She thrust the magazine into his hands. “They loved you.” Beneath the headline—
Comeback Zack: Our Man of the Week
—Zack saw his own face looking out from the cover. He wasn’t used to that. Trent was the cover model in this family.
Occasionally Chad made it to a cover, too. But the only place Zack was comfortable being “out there” was on the track.
The photo—huh, when had they taken that? His eyes were…soulful. Ugh. Sappy. He looked like a lost puppy, dammit, pleading
take me home.
“They airbrushed this picture,” he said, outraged. “No way did I look this pathetic.”
“Are you kidding?” She grabbed the magazine back. “This photo is stunning. You look amazing. When this hits the stands next week, every woman in the U.S.A. is going to want you for her very own.” Gaby stared down at the cover as if she wanted to take him home herself, and some of Zack’s discomfort vanished.
“Amazing, huh?” he said.
“Yeah.” She was still looking at the picture. Was it his imagination, or did her mouth soften? Damn, it had been so long since that kiss—two whole days. He needed to do it again, almost as badly as he needed to win a race.
Zack slammed the brakes on that line of thought. He was getting way too serious.
She glanced up, caught him looking, and her cheeks pinkened. Muttering something about congratulating the journalist on a great story, she pulled out her cell phone and began scrolling through the numbers.
He reached a finger and touched her cheek. Her head whipped around. “What was that for?”
“Instinct.” As in, he couldn’t resist.
“Don’t act on your instincts,” she ordered, then blushed deeper.
Zack chuckled. “Come into the hauler, we’ll celebrate the article with a soda.”
Inside, they both reached for the door of the chiller cabinet at the same time; their fingers brushed.
“Will you stop that?” she snapped.
“If I wanted to get my hands on you,” he said, “I wouldn’t resort to sneaky touches.”
She frowned. “Are you saying you don’t want to get your hands on me?”
He’d offended her again? He cursed, and Gaby laughed as she flipped the tab on her soda. “You’re really not very good at this, are you?” she said. “Even after all our hard work.”
“Depends what you’re talking about.” Zack ran his thumb across the seam of her lips…which had the gratifying result of softening them, parting them. The pink tip of Gaby’s tongue emerged, flicked against Zack’s thumb.
“Make yourselves comfortable, you two,” an amused voice said from behind Zack.
Zack turned, slowly to show he wasn’t embarrassed. “Butt out, Trent,” he said, more relaxed than he felt.
Gaby wasn’t quite so relaxed. Her color turned beet-red, and she chugged back her drink as if she’d just wandered in out of a desert.
“Ready for practice?” Zack asked Trent.
Trent nodded. “Sure.” He helped himself to a soda. “I like the Glen. Not many people I can’t beat here.”
“You might have to work for it tomorrow.” Zack had qualified sixth yesterday, one of his better qualifying laps this year. And for once, better than Trent, who would start the race in tenth position.
“I’m not worried,” Trent said. Zack knew it was true, his little brother always had a surfeit of confidence. “I figure you benefited from the warmer track surface yesterday, qualifying later in the day than I did,” Trent continued.
“You don’t think I just drove better than you?” Zack suggested.
“No way.” Trent smirked.
Zack caught Gaby’s eye. She made a winding motion with her hand, and, far from losing his temper, Zack found himself
struggling not to laugh at his brother’s blatant attempt to undermine his confidence.
“You’re absolutely right,” he told Trent. “When we get into that race, chances are you’ll pass me before our first pit stop.”
“Damn right.” Trent snickered…then it clicked that he hadn’t gotten the response he’d expected. Suspicious, he said, “Whaddya mean?”
“Just what I said.” Zack grinned.
“You’re seriously saying I’m going to pass you early on, and stay that way.”
Zack shrugged. “History suggests it.”
Trent shoved his hands in his pockets. “What are you playing at?”
Zack patted his brother on the shoulder, pretending a superiority he seldom felt with his younger sibling. “Good luck out there, man.”
Trent practically ran out of the hauler. Zack would bet money he was off to find Kelly and get some psychological analysis of what just happened. Didn’t matter. What mattered was that Zack had resisted falling into a negative behavior pattern that would keep the rift growing between him and his family.
“You did great,” Gaby said.
“Thanks.” Zack looked down at her face—that fair skin, her raspberry-pink mouth—and felt a pang of regret because despite the little game they’d just been playing, he couldn’t kiss her.