Authors: Wendy Etherington
To Liz Allison,
whose strength and friendship is always inspiring.
Go high, go high.”
Kane Jackson saw only smoke through his windshield, but he responded instinctively to his spotter's instructions. Less than a second later, a red, white and blue car slid past the left side of his race car. “The Hatchet?”
“Yeah,” Kane's crew chief, Harry Mercer, responded, his tone flat. “He's talking. Not hurt.”
“Good.” On both counts, he thought, very aware that millions of people via online simulcasts could hear every word he said into his radio. Privately Kane couldn't deny his sense of relief that the points leader for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Championship, Patrick “The Hatchet” Williams was probably done for the day. Kane had a tricky road to make the top tenâThe Chase as it had been dubbed by NASCARâand Pat was a semifriend, but definitely the competition.
Obstacles are just one smart move away from the path to greatness.
His father's words whispered through his brain so suddenly he could swear the man himself sat in the passenger's seat where there was in reality nothing but emptiness and part of the roll cage. He tried to shake off the insecurity that thoughts of his father always brought about.
He'd never measure up to “The Legend.” But then nobody could.
Maybe he was stuck in fourteenth place with four races to go until The Chase began, but he was on a roll. His team was pumped. Thanks to the testing sessions, the cars were running better than they had in a long time. Aerodynamic issues had been solved. Camber and tire pressure were adjusted throughout the race. Pit crew motivation was high.
And almost everything good could be attributed not to him, but to Harry and his brilliant daughter, Lexie.
He heard her voice now as the caution flag came out and he prepared to make a critical pit stop. “They're waving the flag at lap one-seven-five. Last stop. Four tires.”
“Let's not take any chances,” he said. The car was great. Only twenty-five laps to go.
“We wouldn't dream of it,” Lexie returned, her tone dry.
“We're in sixth. It's a good finish.”
“See what you can do with fresh tires. Hold your line.”
The tension in her voice was evident. Once, he'd shared in her laughter. Her eyes had sparkled in his presence. These days he saw frustration. Dissatisfaction.
Maybe he'd never measure up with her, either.
“I'll try,” he said.
Keeping a close eye on his tachometer, he cruised down pit road at a teeth-grinding forty-five miles per hour, then rolled into his pit box above the neon yellow and red Sonomic Oil flag marked with Number 53.
Wrapping his hands around the wheel, he waited the seeming eternity while his team changed the car's tires. In actuality less than fourteen seconds passed, but in that time he glanced out his window, and even through the thick black netting he could see beyond the pit wall and spot Lexieâher scowl and her concentration, her small, feminine body seeming somehow familiar and out of place in the racing uniform that matched his own. Lips he'd once had the pleasure of tasting were pursed in concentration.
He shook his head at the distraction and quickly pulled away from the pits, cutting into the line of cars exiting pit road in third place.
“Thirteen point four,” Harry said through the headset in his helmet.
“Yeah!” Kane roared back. “Awesome stop, guys.” The top ten seemed closer by the second.
Falling in line with the other leaders, he vowed to keep both Lexie and his father out of his mind. The next twenty-five laps were about racing, not relationships. Nearly every minute of the day was about racing, though, which was probably why most of his relationships were in the toilet.
As the green flag waved, he concentrated on taking each turn of the tri-oval of Michigan's track, relief creeping closer as Harry counted down the laps. As the cars roared down the straightaway, he could smell the burning rubber, he could see the fans standing in their seats, each screaming for their driver. He thought he even spotted a few sporting his yellow and red team colors.
You have to earn the fans' respect, son. Winning will make that happen. Fans like winners.
The old man seemed determined to intrude on his peace today. But then, was that different from any other day?
“White flag, white flag.”
A grin teased the corners of Kane's mouth.
Twenty-three races down, thirteen to go.
As he drove out of Turn Two, in his rearview mirror, he saw the Number 86 car overtake the car behind him. When he felt the tap, he barely flinched. He didn't slam his fist against the dash. He didn't cuss. He didn't scream.
But he stopped smiling.
His car's back end wrenched around, spinning and sliding up the track. The field scattered. Tires screeched. Smoke billowed.
“That's Kane Jackson in the Number 53 car on the outside retaining wall,” the announcer shouted over the track speakers.
With his car resting against the wall, Kane unhooked the window net to let the safety crew know he was all right, then he bowed his head and started counting to ten to keep the raging fury and disappointment from overtaking him.
Those anger management classes were certainly handy at times.
Before he'd reached nine, the safety crew's truck had pulled alongside him. “You all right, Mr. Jackson?”
His blood roared like the crowd's cheers for the winner, but Kane calmly dragged off his helmet. “I'm fine.” He hoisted himself through the window, then gave a quick wave of thanks to the safety guys. Sparing only a glance for his mangled race car, he walked across the track toward the ambulance idling next to the infield grass. At least the required ride to the track medical care center would give him time to get his thoughts and emotions in order before the inevitable media interviews. He wasn't exactly looking forward to facing his team, either.
Even though the wreck hadn't been his fault, he'd lost major ground in his bid to make the top ten. Points couldn't be recovered. The accident would affect everyone on the team. And though Harry and Lexie were their actual leaders, he was the emotional center. It was his name and face plastered all over the team's merchandise. The honor was amazing during the good times, but the responsibility when things went wrong was greater.
The safety crew member turned Kane over to a short, muscled medic, who stood at the back of the ambulance. Smiling briefly, he met Kane's gaze. “Black out?”
He directed a pen light into his eyes. “Looks okay. Let's go.”
“Mike Streetson pulls his Number 76 Chevrolet into Victory Lane!” the announcer roared.
Kane sat on a gurney. “Streetson held on?”
“Won by four car lengths,” the medic said as he followed Kane into the back of the ambulance.
“There's some good news.”
Streetson was a self-described grizzled veteran who hadn't won a race in nearly two years and who was too far down in the points race to have a chance to make the top ten. Not only was his win good for Kane's championship bid, but he admired his fellow racer more than just about any man he knew.
The medic sat next to Kane and pressed his fingers against his wrist as they bumped along toward the infield care center. “You're awfully calm after a wild wreck like that.”
“I have a low pulse rate.”
“Yeah? 'Spect it's genetic.” He grinned. “After your daddy threw that winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, he talked to reporters right there on the sidelines. He wasn't even breathin' hard.”
Long used to his father's adoring fans, Kane nodded. “Amazing, wasn't he?”
“Retired on topâsmart man. And he's still super. Best broadcaster in the business. You play ball?”
Considering the man had just watched him walk away from a stock car crash in front of more than a hundred thousand spectators and millions of TV viewers, Kane had to suppress a start of surprise. “Not since high school.”
The medic flushed. “Oh, right.”
Poor guy. Couldn't make it, knew he'd never measure up to his father.
Though the words weren't said aloud this time, Kane knew what the medic was thinking. He'd heardâand overheardâthem before. It never occurred to these people that he simply didn't like football. Watching it was fun. Playing it was not. It wasn't until age nineteen that he rose to his present height of six-one and finally developed breadth in his chest and lean, powerful muscles.
Before that he'd been fairly small. In his sophomore year of high school he'd only reached five-eight. He was fit but thin, and not very strong. Weight work with his father's personal trainer had helped only minimally. Diet and private quarterback lessons hadn't made much difference, either. He couldn't run very fast. And though his reflexes were excellent, he didn't scramble well under pressure. Eventuallyâso Kane had overheard one night during a meeting of his father and his croniesâthey all had to face the facts.
Anton Jackson's son didn't have a cannon for an arm. He had a bottle rocket that would never fire.
Kane had shared that revelation with only two people in his lifeâhis girlfriend, Lexie Mercer, and his best friend and the star receiver of his high school football team, James Peterson. To take his mind off his troubles, James and Lexie took Kane to his first stock car race near their hometown of Mooresville, North Carolina.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“Well,” the medic continued, releasing his wrist. “You look good. We'll have the doc check you out, but I expect he'll let you go quickly.”
“Thanks.” At least the guy hadn't asked for an autograph.
“Hey, does your dad usually come to the races?” the medic asked, craning his neck to look around as they stepped out of the ambulance.
Kane sighed. “No, he doesn't.”
ER HANDS TREMBLING
, Lexie Mercer mounted the stairs to the Hollister Racing company jet. Though she'd been calm when she assured owner Bob Hollister that she'd get the team back on track for Bristol next Saturday night, she was still furious and bitterly disappointed by Kane's finish in the race.
Half a lap. Half a damn lap.
It was frustrating beyond words, and only made the pressure of an already stressful job jump up another notch. Careers and millions of dollars were at stake. As car chief, she was already a woman in a male-dominated world. How many of those men would love to have her position with a successful team like Hollister?
While her father's role as crew chief made him, well, the
of the entire team, it was up to her to see that his plans and orders were carried out, to keep the crew on task, to supervise the technicians and engineers and make sure the car for the next race would fare better.
She got the praise when the car and team performed well, and she felt her boss's disapproval when one or both didn't. The fact that her boss was her father added a whole new level of anxiety.
Still, it fell to all of themâher, her father and Kaneâto take charge of recovery and moving forward. Back home at the shop, they had to face the team members who didn't travel with the team. They had to overcome the emotional low of not finishing the race. They had to examine the wrecked vehicle and see what parts could be salvaged.
Most of all, they
to get into the top ten.
The first person she saw on the plane was James Peterson, Kane's best friend and manager. His nearly shoulder-length, shaggy blond hair framing his handsome face, he was bent over, clicking beer bottles with Kane, who, bravely, sat in the front row, so he would have to face each person on his team as they walked by him to take their own seat.
She'd admire him more if she wasn't so furious with him.
She exchanged a look with James, who approached with his ought-to-be-outlawed killer grin, then glided past her, heading toward the exit. “Go easy,” he muttered.
She glared at his retreating back, seeing no reason for leniency. Something had to change on this team. And Kane Jackson better be prepared to transform himself ASAP.
Thankful the plane was deserted except for the flight crew, she dropped into the seat next to her driver, who, during the TV interview following the race, had actually shrugged and said, “Oh, well” in response to his wreck.
“Rookies cause wrecks sometimes. He misjudged the passing distance and got into me. He apologized.”
She rolled her eyes. “âOh, well'?”
He glanced at her at last, and the force of those bright-blue eyes made her heart flutter ridiculously. “I had to tell the media something.”
“Something with a bit more force and passion would be welcomed.”