Authors: Mariah Stewart
Tags: #Retail Industry, #Smitten, #Racing, #Sports Industry, #TV Industry
“Zoey Enright, you kicked butt!” CeCe met Zoey with a high five as she danced off the set at the end of her three-hour run.
“WE kicked butt!” Zoey laughed. “And we s
urvived our maiden runs. And…
if the gods have been very good to us, maybe, just maybe, someone actually bought something that we were selling. Come on, let’s see if there are any sales numbers available.”
The two women descended upon the producer, who happily showed off the sales for the past six hours.
“The best we’ve had all day,” he told them. “You are both either very good and very likable, or you’re both very lucky. I haven’t decided which as yet.”
“We are all of those things,” CeCe told him matter-of-factly. “We are good and likable and lucky. And now we are going to celebrate our good fortunes and our lively personalities with a few very cold beers and some very hot peppers at that little roadside bar a few miles down this old country road.”
“Not so fast, CeCe.” Zoey grabbed her arm and steered her down the hallway. “The bartender down the road will have to make do without our company for a little longer. Right now it’s French champagne and all manner of other good things right on down the hall here.”
“Oh, right. The CEO’s picnic or whatever.” CeCe
made a pouty face and ran her fingers through her thick dark auburn hair. “I’m from Big Sky country, Zoey, the good old American West. At the end of my workday, I want a cold beer and maybe, if it’s a big night, a bowl of cashews.”
“Later,” Zoey promised, and flashed a smile at the guard stationed at the doorway to check IDs, making sure that no outsiders crashed the party.
Zoey’s stomach reminded her that she had eaten next to nothing all day, her nerves having gotten the best of her early on. She made a plate of strawberries, melon, and icy cold shrimp. Stopping at the bar for a glass of sparkling w
ater, she looked for a quiet corn
er in which to eat and collect her thoughts. Everyone in the room seemed to have watched her show, and had congratulated her on a job well done.
I did okay,
she told herself as she settled near a window that had a ledge just wide enough for her glass.
Better than okay. I was good. And I loved it. I loved it. Once the camera stated to run, I was fine. It was great. It was the best time I ever had. It
like dancing on my toes in a white dress, on a big stage with beautiful music swirling around me. Like pulling a story from my mind and writing a book about people who never existed and making them sound real. Like looking through a microscope and watching all of the life forms that share the space of one tiny drop of pond water.
Zoey had landed, with both feet, and had made an enormous splash, exactly as Delia had predicted she would.
ennett Pierce set a steady pace as he headed for his destination. While in reality, he was jogging toward London’s St. Janies Park, in his mind, he was slipping his race car onto the track and into its designated starting position, preparing for the line-up lap, the first step of a race. The cars would make one lap around the circuit, then line up, ready to begin. The line-up was the last chance for each driver to make sure that every component of his car was ready and working properly.
Oblivious of the traffic, still light this early hour of the morning, Ben crossed the street and followed the walkway that led down toward the pond, where the black swans had yet to waken to the day. Past sleeping forms on the benches, his feet kept up the rhythm, allowing his mind to keep him in the race. After the line-up would come the formation lap, which the race director would begin with a green flag, giving the drivers one full time around the circuit, at speed, to bring the tires, the water, the brakes, up to the right temperature for the race. This was also the drivers’ opportunity to stake their ground, to try to psyche out the competition, maybe by getting
right up behind another entrant and not hitting the brakes until his gear box was practically in your face. Chances are that the spooked driver would be starting the race with his eyes on his rearview mirror instead of the cars in front of him. Which was just a means of letting everyone know that you were there to win. From that point on, it was a matter of waiting for the green light on the five-second board to signal the start of the race.
Every seasoned driver knew that the two most dangerous moments of a race were the start and the approach to the first corner. At the start of the race, the cars are too close together, with all the drivers trying to elbow their way as near to the head of the pack as possible, each of them well aware that the only driver who will be able to set up that first bend the way he wants to is the driver who is first into it. The
cars behind him will have to
brake earlier than they might like because of the bottleneck that will form at that first bend, making the driver who is last in line the first to brake and, being first, braking the longest amount of time. The first driver into the turn will be able to brake at the last second, saving him time that he will undoubtedly need later on if he is to have any chance of winning the race.
In two weeks, Ben would be driving in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, considered by many to be the premier circuit of Grand Prix racing. As he ran, Ben tried to recall every inch of the 4.350 miles of track, every twist and turn his car would have to negotiate, planning every move he would make along the way. Spa climbed and fell through the picturesque Ardennes forest, with the legendary hairpin turn, La Source, the first bend on the circuit, leading uphill to the exhilarating Eau Rouge, one of the best-known curves in racing history. In his mind’s eye, Ben took Eau Rouge steadily, then onto the straightaway to Les Combes, the bend at the top of a hill, which led into Malmedy, the next curve. From one kink and curve to the next, Ben Pierce mentally accelerated and braked, downshifting through
the gears, calculating just the right gear ratio for each of the bends. With every step he took, he carried on a silent debate with himself on how best to complete each of the forty-four laps in the manner that would cost him the least amount of time.
He tried to avoid looking back on his last race, at Hockenheim, Germany, the previous month, where Gerhard Berger had won on a hot, dry track, and where another driver had clung to too much of the road coming out of a co
er and wiped out, taking Ben and a third car with him. Fortunately, no one had been hurt beyond minor bumps, but it had been a terrible disappointment to Ben, who had made the best start of his career before he’d been blown off the circuit. Those things happened, he knew, and he knew that if he was to make a similarly good start at Spa, he would have to take the lessons he’d learned at Hockenheim with him, while leaving all the negative emotions behind. Part of the intense training was mental as much as physical, and Ben wasn’t about to let the bad luck of his last race influence his performance in the next.
Glancing at his watch, he turned back toward his flat, where he would pack his weights into the back of his car and head out to join his old friend Tony Chapman for a swim at Tony’s country estate, Stowe Manor. Ben would strap the weights onto his ankles, and swim for a full thirty minutes. Because during a race the heart will operate at 160 to 170 beats per minute, a smart driver will spend much of his spare time exercising to increase the heart’s capacity and to lower the heartbeat at rest. Ben had established a rigorous routine two years ago, when it first appeared that his goal of driving in a Grand Prix would become a reality, and he had never missed a day, in season or off. Sometimes the exercise changed with circumstances. In the winter, cross-country skiing might take the place of running, weight-lifting might replace swimming, but always, there would be something with which he could challenge himself physically and mentally for several hours each day. His life could very
well depend on his being prepared for the demands of the job, sitting in a narrow cockpit, essentially unable to change position for the length of the race, while maneuvering at high rates of speed and keeping his wits about him. The upcoming race would run for forty-four laps, maybe an hour and a half. Ben was not likely to forgo what he felt was an essential part of driving, the daily preparation that could make the difference between reaching his dream and losing it.
He tried to drive at a relatively slow speed on his way to Tony’s, taking his time and allowing himself to relax. At one point he pulled over to the shoulder and hunted in his black nylon bag for the bottle of water he’d picked up when he stopped for gas before leaving the city. It was a typical English summer day, the earliest clouds of the morning having given way to a soft sunshine that spread across the rolling fields like a light blanket. Ben loved the smell of England, the rich, woodsy scent of the farm he’d just passed as well as the thick scent of the roses that formed the hedge just over the next rise in the road. Both reminded him of another country home, of another garden where roses had perfumed the air.
Long ago and far away,
he told himself as he started the engine and resumed his drive, jerking the car onto the road with more intensity than he’d intended, leaving behind the roses and the memories they’d stirred up.
* * *
ow many more laps?” Tony Chapman stood at the side of the pool, looking infinitely amused. During his own brief racing career, he had never trained nearly as hard as Ben did. Which may be one of the reasons why Ben had lasted into a third season, when Tony’s career had ended with the fifth race of his second season. A nasty crash had left Tony glad to be alive and more than willing to walk away while he still could. He’d find another way to make his mark in the sport he loved.
“Four,” Ben said as he passed by. Those two-pound weights he’d fitted onto his ankles earlier now seemed to
weigh two tons. By the time he had finished his thirty minutes, he was relieved to take the weighted cuffs off.
Tony tossed him a towel and Ben gratefully wrapped it around him. It had grown cloudy and looked likely to rain before too much more of the day had passed.
“Mrs. Bridges tells me that Pamela called while you were swimming, but thought it best not to interrupt you,” Tony said as he lowered his lean frame onto a lounge.
“Mrs. Bridges is a wise woman,” Ben nodded as he sat on the edge of a nearby chair. Seeing the elderly woman about to enter the enclosed pool area, he raised his voice and said, “If I were the marrying kind, I’d have asked for Mrs. Bridges’ hand years ago.”
The housekeeper eyed him with a combination of practiced disdain and pleasure.
“I heard that, young man, as you’d intended. But you still have to dress properly if you want tea. I’ll not be serving out here to either of you hooligans.” She passed a portable telephone to Tony and said, “It’s your sister.”
Ben leaned back in his chair while Tony chatted with Sibyl, opening his eyes only when he felt the merest hint of sunshine on his face. The sun had peeked out briefly before sliding back behind the mounting clouds. Ben was glad to have gotten his swim in before the rain started. He hated a break in his routine.
“Sibyl says to warn you that Nicole Williams is in London and is planning to look you up,” Tony told him as he turned off the phone and placed it on a nearby table.
“Remind me to thank Sibyl for the warning,” Ben said without bothering to open his eyes.
“Yes, well, but all work and no play, Ben
“I had a date last weekend,” Ben reminded him, “so don’t start.”
“Since when have you considered dinner with the formidable Cleo Abercrombie a date? Last I heard she was ‘just a friend.’ ”
“She still is a friend.”
“No offense, mate, but there’s more to life than measuring the temperature of your engine and having an occasional night out with Cleo.”
“There’s no one else I’d rather spend time with right now. Cleo is smart, and she’s interesting.”
“For a country barrister,” Tony muttered under his breath.
Ben laughed. “She’s a nice woman, Tony.”
“Oh, nice she is. You’re forgetting that she’s my cousin. Nice, however, isn’t likely to inspire much in the way of passion.”
Ben shook his head. “No time for that right now.”
“There’s always time for romance, Ben. That’s what’s wrong with you, you know. Not enough romance in your life. Never has been, if you ask me.”
“Well, I didn’t ask you.” Ben sat up as Mrs. Bridges appeared with a tray of small sandwiches and a pitcher of iced tea.
“I thought we weren’t getting served out here,” Tony reminded her.
“I’m off to the market”—she straightened out the little black hat that perched above her tightly permed gray curls—“and I don’t want the two of you crashing about in my kitchen while I’m gone. I thought perhaps you’d like a light lunch. Bring the tray in with you when you’re finished. And you’ll still have to dress for tea.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Tony said solemnly.
“Be sure you do,” she told them. “And I’m buying chops, so I expect you both to be here for dinner.”
“Yes, Mrs. Bridges,” the two men sing-songed, earning a dirty look from the housekeeper as she closed the gate behind her.
“I was serious,” Ben said. “I would marry a woman just like Mrs. Bridges. No loose ends to deal with. Things would always run smoothly.”
“Ah, but no passion, Ben. No dancing in the moonlight.”
“But dinner would always be on time. And these days,
don’t have much time for dancing.”
“More’s the pity. There should always be time. Make time.”
“I just haven’t met anyone who
Ben groped for words.
“Lit the spark,” Tony provided him with a few.
“That’s pretty close.” Ben nodded.
“What are you looking for in a woman?”
“Right now, I’m not really looking for one. Right now, I’m looking for my first Grand Prix win, something I’ve
waited years for.”
“That’s all that matters to you.” It wasn’t a question.
“Right now, yes. That’s my goal.”
“That’s what I used to think, until Monte Carlo last year.”
“Monte Carlo is one of the toughest circuits, especially in the rain,” Ben said. “Running through the streets of the city, all those nasty little curves and turns.” He shook his head. “You weren’t the only one who has had bad runs in that race.”
“That may be so, but it made me realize several very important truths, Ben.” Tony lifted a glass of iced tea and handed it to his friend, then took the second and sipped at it. “Not the least of which was that as much as I love the sport, I never want to feel that particular brand of fear again. You can call me a coward if you like, but one close call like that was enough for one lifetime.”
“Tony, I’d never call you a coward. I don’t know how I’d feel if
I had an accident like that…
flipping the car over and then barely es
caping as it burst into flames.”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know that I wouldn’t hang up my helmet too, after something like that.”
“Well, not wishing you similar bad luck, I don’t want you to forget that Chapman-Pierce Motors is well on its way to becoming a reality.” Tony broke into a smile. “I’ve found an old factory that might convert nicely into making our engines.”
“Once we have an engine to produce,” Ben reminded him.
“I’m working on it, mate. I recently got the name of an
engineer who used to be with Ferrari, who we might be able to talk into coming out of retirement. He’s in Italy right now on an extended holiday, but as soon as he gets back, I’ll be speaking with him. I think we have the right idea, if not the technical know-how to produce the sort of engine we want.”
“Well, it is something to look forward to, having our own company.” Ben nodded. “We’ve only been talking about it for the last six or seven years.”
“And as soon as you’ve retired—not to jinx you with an early retirement, of course—we’ll be on our way.” Tony raised his glass to Ben’s and said, “Here’s to
Chapman-Pierce. In its time…”
Ben tilted his glass in Tony’s direction, hoping that
for Chapman-Pierce remained a long way off. After all, there were still so many races to be run, and Ben was looking forward to being in the starting line for his share of them.
Later, after dinner in one of the small family dining areas of the palatial family home of the Earl of Stowe, Ben had taken his leave while the sun was still a ripple in the sky. Tony had a party to attend, and in spite of his encouragement that Ben join him, Ben was not in a party frame of mind. He drove through the fragrant dusk, back to the city and the brown
stone where he leased a second-
floor flat. After garaging his car, he took the steps two at a time, hoping that the delivery he anticipated would be waiting for him. Upon seeing the package wrapped in brown paper and propped against his apartment door, he broke into a grin. Whistling, he flipped the package from his right hand to his left while he fished his keys out of his pocket and opened the door.
This was the moment he hated, those first steps into the painfully empty apartment. Before moving to London, he’d lived in an out-of-the-way village, in a rented cottage he had shared with one very large dark brown dog he’d rescued from a busy city street on a rainy Sunday night five years before. He and Goliath had been the best of buddies. Over the years, they had shared
many an early morning run down a peaceful country road, and many a warm fire on chilly nights in the cottage, which had been built long before the idea of insulation had caught on. Last year, a speeding van had caught Goliath broadside as he had tried to cross the road to reach his master. Ben's eyes still filled with tears every time he thought about his beloved mastiff, gasping for his last breath in Ben’s arms. Ben had buried the dog in a nearby field and before two weeks had passed, packed his things and moved to the city. It had been just one more loss in a long series of losses that had defined Ben’s life, one more place he’d left because it had hurt too much to stay.
He turned on the light with a casual flick of his wrist, and dropped the nylon bag that held his weights next to the door as he closed it, his attention focused on the package, which he placed on the coffee table at the same time he dropped onto the sofa. He reached behind him to turn on the floor lamp, then split the tape holding the brown paper together and let his prize fall onto his lap.
by Delia Enright.
Grateful that he’d made no social plans for the evening, Ben settled in and turned the book over, gently touching one finger to the photograph of the author on the back cover. It was a different photo from the one that had appeared on her last book, and he studied it for changes. Delia’s eyes were still that deadly shade of sapphire blue he’d remembered, and still held the same spark. Her grin still saucy and her heart, he knew, was still the very purest gold. Though still the same shade of cool champagne, her hair appeared just a wee bit shorter. Other than that, as far as he was concerned, Delia hadn’t changed a bit over the years.
In Ben’s eyes, she never did.