Authors: Erin McCarthy
“It’s fine, babe. I deserved it. I was giving your brother a hard time. I know you find that difficult to believe, given how generally sweet and passive I am.”
Nolan raised his eyebrows and took a step back from his brother. “About what?”
“It turns out Rhett was in the same bar as us last night and he’s taken a shine to Shawn. He wanted to know how to contact her.”
“Really?” Nolan eyed his brother. “She’s too old for you.”
For some reason, that annoyed Eve. Shawn was actually a year younger than
. And while she one hundred percent agreed that she wouldn’t want to date a guy Rhett’s age if she wasn’t married, she didn’t want a man dismissing her or her friend as too old. It got her back up.
“That’s not the issue here,” she told her husband. “Men date younger women all the time, and no one says a damn word about it.”
“Sure they do,” Nolan protested. “Everyone says she’s a gold digger.”
“So they call younger women dating older men gold diggers and older women dating younger men cougars. Yet no one says anything about the men at all. That pisses me off.”
“I never called Shawn a cougar,” Nolan told her easily. “Frankly, my point was she’s too mature for Rhett. I don’t think he can keep up.”
“Hey.” Rhett frowned. “How exactly am I so immature? God, you and mom both. I have a job, an apartment.”
“That was my apartment,” Nolan pointed out. “I let you take over the lease when I got married and moved in with Eve. And I’m not saying you’re immature, just not as mature as a woman who runs a dirt track almost entirely on her own.”
Ah, shit. There was no way Rhett wasn’t going to be able to figure out who Shawn was now.
Eve gave her husband an annoyed look and pushed him into the house. “I’m freezing. Plus, I want pie for dessert.”
The garage door swung down slowly on automatic hinges and Rhett leaped inside before it shut. “Wait a minute,” he said, the wheels clearly turning. “That was Shawn Hamby, wasn’t it?”
Eve didn’t answer, and she put her hand on her husband’s mouth before he could further blow it. But it was too late.
Rhett broke into a grin. “It is. There can’t be two women you know named Shawn who run a dirt track. Damn. Who knew the owner of Hamby Speedway was so freaking hot?”
“She’s too old for you,” Nolan said again.
Eve didn’t say anything at all. She just pulled her phone out of her pocket. She needed to warn Shawn she was about to be stalked by a horny member of her pit crew.
• • •
cannot be serious,” Shawn said, staring at her grandfather’s lawyer, Clinton Oiler, across the desk of her office at the track. “There is no way that is even legal.”
“Oh, I can assure you it is. Your grandfather owned this track, and he had the right to do whatever he wanted with it.”
Shawn fell back against her chair, sending it rolling a foot to the left and colliding with a box of leftover programs from the previous season on the floor. Her office was a contender for putting her on an episode of
, but she wasn’t detail-oriented. She was a big picture person, and she loved this dirt track, had loved helping her grandfather run it until his death three months earlier.
Losing Pops had been rough for her. She had known it was coming. He’d battled cancer for two years before losing the fight, but he had always managed to seem like he would beat it. Until the very end, he had still been at work, and she had deluded herself into thinking he would never be gone. Then in the blink of an eye, he’d taken a turn for the worse and he was gone. But what had comforted her after he died was that she had been entrusted with his legacy, this track. It was her home, her heart, her passion.
But apparently her grandfather had thought her passion was slightly misguided.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a joke? Pops had a sense of humor.”
“No, it’s no joke. You don’t inherit the track unless you’re married. Plain and simple.”
Married. Good God. Her grandfather was blackmailing her into marriage. Unbelievable. Shawn stared at Clinton, suddenly speechless. This was the most insane thing she’d ever heard.
The lawyer pulled off his wire-frame glasses and rubbed the sagging skin under his eyes. He and her grandfather had been friends for sixty years, and he probably knew him better than anyone. “We had several conversations about it, Shawn, and I have to tell you that I told Jameson I didn’t approve of this, but he was adamant. He thought that you spent too much time at this place and that you needed more balance in your life. He wanted you to be settled and have a family, like your brother does.”
Shawn blinked. “So forcing me to marry some dude off the street is going to give me balance? That makes no sense whatsoever.”
“I imagine he had Sam in mind, not some stranger off the street.” Clinton steepled his fingers and pressed them to his lips. “Everyone always thought you and Sam would get hitched.”
“Well, we didn’t,” Shawn said, pointing out the obvious. “And there was a very good reason for that. Sam cheated on me. Three times. Now I may be the forgiving sort, but even I know that three times is not the charm when it comes to infidelity.” She realized her hand was shaking and she was starting to think she might get sick. She sat on her hand to stop its tremors and regain some control. “I would rather stab myself in the eyes than marry Sam.”
“Oh, dear,” Clinton said. “I don’t think Jameson knew about the cheating.”
“I never told anyone. It’s a bit personal.” And humiliating. And so two years ago. She was completely over it, and frankly, was completely happy on her own, aside from the lack of sex. Rhett Ford popped into her head and she resolutely shoved his image aside. That was the last thing she needed to think about right now.
She had been embarrassed to realize that she was pleased and more than a little turned on when Eve had texted her that Rhett was asking about her and wanted permission to contact her. Shawn had said she would think about it, but truth be told, she had wanted him to do it anyway. She didn’t want to be the one who called the shots, because agreeing to it made her responsible. But if he pursued her and she happened to flirt back, well, then it wasn’t her seeking out dating a twenty-five-year-old. It was accidental cougar-ing. In her mind, anyway.
But she hadn’t heard from him, so all the mental gymnastics had been for nothing.
“Your grandfather figured Sam would be the perfect partner to help you out with the running of this place,” Clinton told her.
Sam couldn’t manage having an affair in secret so he certainly couldn’t keep on top of running a business venture. “That’s misogynistic and insulting. Why is it that no one can accept that women can run a business just as effectively as a man? God, racing is something I love, yet how many female drivers and team owners are there? A handful. It’s incredible.” Shawn freed her hand and shoved her hair back off her forehead.
“No one is saying that. But even a small dirt track like this is a lot to handle, and while enthusiastic, you’re not the most organized woman on the planet.” Clinton looked around pointedly at the chaotic state of her office. “The season opens in two months, and if it isn’t successful financially, all of this will be a moot point anyway. Hamby Speedway will go bankrupt, and you’ll have to shut it down or sell.”
Shawn swallowed hard. She knew they weren’t rolling in profits. She had worried about it constantly for the last two seasons, and she was aware of every dime that went in and out the door at the track, but hearing it said out loud by Clinton forced her to admit the truth to herself, which was damn difficult. “I know it’s bad, Clinton, but I also know what I’m doing when it comes to this business, messy office or not.”
“The bottom line is the business is failing.”
Shawn winced. Hearing it put so boldly, all her fears, was hard to swallow. “So you’re telling me if I don’t get married, I’ll lose the track, and if I do get married, I could still lose the track?”
“Why aren’t you just a ray of sunshine today?” she said ruefully.
“Sorry, sweetie. But if you pull in some bigger names, you’ll do alright. You’ll make it through this year.”
“Only if I have a husband.” The thought made her more than uneasy. There was no man of her current acquaintance that she was willing to enter into a legitimate marriage with, and no man who would be insane enough to do it in a business-type arrangement. It wasn’t like she had much to offer financially, and she was not about to have sex with a man she wasn’t in an actual relationship with or was not attracted to. Besides, what man would agree to marriage just for some nookie? There were plenty of women giving the milk away for free because getting milked was a good time. So if a man was buying the cow it was because he really liked the cow, right? Not to increase his milk intake.
Great. She was thinking in farm metaphors. Which were just as sexist as what her grandfather was attempting to do to her.
Panicking again, she looked at Clinton. “I could just hire an actor, you know.” Not that she had that kind of money, but maybe struggling actors worked for cheap. Or she could pay him after she secured her inheritance.
“Why don’t I tell you the stipulations and requirements?” Clinton pulled out his electronic tablet and adjusted his glasses, amusing Shawn. The man was seventy, and he was using technology that made Shawn want to break out in hives. Tablets had everything organized and that scared her. She begrudgingly used spreadsheets, but most of her daily tasks where catalogued in her head, not anywhere else.
“Okay. Hit me. It can’t get any worse.” Basically, she was facing losing everything she loved unless she complied with her grandfather’s clearly nutty last wish. There had to be a loophole, a way around this whole mess. Because marriage wasn’t something you just jumped into.
At least she didn’t.
“You have to be married by the start of the season, April fifteenth.”
“That’s two months from now!”
“However, if you marry immediately, prior to February fifteenth, you will receive additional funds from the estate to hire a marketing director for the season.”
“That’s two weeks from now.” Shawn picked at the front of her sweater, suddenly uncomfortably hot. The idea of a marketing director was extremely appealing, she did have to say. But two weeks? It wasn’t possible. “By the way, why is this just coming to my attention now?”
“Your grandfather didn’t want to upset you in the immediate weeks after his passing.”
“How thoughtful,” she said weakly. It still didn’t change that she felt like she was eight years old again and was being punished for tormenting her little brother with wet willies.
“The marriage must be legal in the state of North Carolina, and it must last a minimum of one year. You must reside in the same house as your husband for at least the first six months.”
Gross. Even if she hired someone as her fake husband, she wasn’t sure she could deal with someone living in her space.
Feeling like her loopholes were rapidly disappearing, Shawn didn’t say anything. A sense of defeat settled over her. She was going to lose the track and then what?
This couldn’t be what her grandfather truly wanted for her. Unemployment and misery.
“Your husband must pass a criminal background check conducted by myself prior to the marriage, and he must be employed. He cannot be an actor or a stripper.”
That almost made her giggle. Almost. She really couldn’t picture her grandfather and Clinton discussing her blackmail marriage in such detail. The old buzzards were thorough, she’d give them that.
After that, she started to tune Clinton out as he passed a copy of the will across the desk to her, outlining the monies and insurance policies she would receive upon her marriage. She was numb. Stunned.
Even when the lawyer left with an apology and a look of concern, she just sat behind her desk, not sure what to do. What to think. Hell, there was really nothing she could do, was there?
There was no man she could or would marry.
A knock on her door had her jerking out of her stupor. “Yes?”
The door opened and a head popped in. Holy shit, it was Rhett Ford. Looking sexy as sin.
“Well, hey there, Scarlett.” He gave her a slow, naughty smile. “Do you have a minute?”
No, she really didn’t have a minute. Her whole life was basically crashing down around her, and she wanted to either scream or curl into a ball and cry. “Sure. Come on in.”
God, why did she do that with him? The last thing in the world she needed at the moment was to deal with a virtual infant hitting on her.
And yet, she’d invited him in, just like that.
He came in. Shutting the door firmly behind him.
Her heart started to pound unnaturally fast.
Lord, she was in trouble.
leaned against the closed door of Shawn’s office and drank in the sight of her. She had the same impact she’d had on him Saturday night. There was something just inherently sexy about her. It was the way she tilted her head slightly when she spoke. It was in the careless tumbled look of her soft, shiny hair, currently pulled atop her head in one of those weird twist buns that women did when they didn’t want to deal with it. Tendrils curled over her graceful neck, and her face was free of makeup, her lush lips naturally a deep pink. She didn’t seem aware of her looks. She didn’t carry herself with that in-your-face sexuality that some cleavage-baring, fake-eyelash-wearing women did. Nor was she sweet and shy and demure, unable to meet a man’s eye.
Maybe it was that she seemed to know exactly who she was and was completely comfortable in her own skin, which he found very hot. Even now, coming face-to-face with a man she had briefly met in a fetish club, she didn’t look particularly uneasy. She stood up and stuck her hand out, clearly in her element in her own office.
“Maybe we should formally meet, even though you clearly know who I am.”
He moved forward and took the offered hand, keeping it longer than was strictly appropriate. “Rhett Ford.”
“Shawn Hamby. Sorry I didn’t believe your name was Rhett. I thought you were being coy.”
“I’m not cheesy by intention. Just cheesy by birth.” He finally let her hand go when she gave it a pointed look. “My mom was living out some fantasy, and I pay the price every day.”
“I bet it makes you lucky with the ladies.”
Oh, that was just too good of an opening. “Not yet today. But there’s still time.”
She rolled her eyes. “So is it true? You’re driving a Monroe car in the Modifieds this season?”
“Yes. I believe I am on your schedule here at Hamby Speedway.” Rhett gestured for her to sit down, himself taking the seat in front of her desk. “Ironic, isn’t it? That we would meet where we did.”
“I suppose it is.” She tightened the bun on top of her head, making it lopsided. “I am looking forward to the season. I’m planning a big media blitz, and if you’re interested, I’d love for you to play a big part in that. I think your story will get a fair amount of attention.”
“My story?” He wasn’t aware that he had a story, nor did he really want to talk about one. He was there to ask her out, not talk racing.
“Yes. Your decision to leave one Monroe crew to join another, and to start racing yourself. That’s all a bit nuts in the world of racing, you know.”
He knew that. He’d heard it from just about everyone he knew in the business. “Yeah, well, I don’t see any point in staying somewhere I’m not completely happy. Guys compete for those pit crew positions and it wasn’t fair for me to be taking it.”
“You didn’t like it? Yet you’re not leaving being on a crew.”
Rhett noted the way she moved constantly, fidgeting in her seat, her hands always fluttering, running over papers on her desk, up to her necklace, on to her hair. The more still he was in his chair, the more she seemed to move. “I guess I like things a little more down and dirty, a little more real. Without the big money and the engineers.”
It was true. He liked the grit of dirt track racing. The money sucked, which was why he was still running a crew for Eve Monroe. But it wasn’t about the money, it was about besting himself out there. The pure competitiveness. It was like fencing versus ultimate fighting. Both required major skill, but he preferred it raw.
No shocker there.
“I wouldn’t mind a little money either,” she said, laughing nervously. “But I get what you mean. I like the passion of dirt track myself. You have to love it to be in it.” Then she tilted her head. “I mean, of course, those in the cup series love it, too, I don’t mean that. And I don’t mean that they, or me, are moneygrubbing or anything. It’s just that money is necessary when you’re dealing with such expensive tracks and cars and marketing. But it’s not like they don’t deserve it. Or that dirt track drivers and owners don’t deserve it, too. It’s just a different thing, but both have their place and no one is better than the other.”
Rhett let her babble on, waiting until she petered out. She was cute when she was trying not to offend. “You don’t need to be politically correct with me, Shawn. There’s enough of that bullshit in this world. I knew what you meant.”
“Oh.” She cleared her throat. Her cheeks bloomed with color. “So, uh, how can I help you?”
He gave her a slow smile, enjoying more and more the reaction she was giving him. He made her nervous, not because he thought she was an anxious person, but because she was attracted to him the way he was to her. It gave him clear encouragement to tell her exactly why he was there.
“I came to ask you out. Dinner or a drink, or both, your call. Eve said you didn’t say yes, but you didn’t say no, so I figured the door was open enough for me to wedge a boot into it and plead my case.”
“I don’t think I should,” she said immediately. “I mean, you’re Eve’s brother-in-law, and I own the track, which is potentially a conflict of interest, and you’re younger than me. It’s just not a good idea. At all. It’s a very bad idea, actually.”
“Then we won’t call it a date. We’ll just call it two people having a drink. Come on, let’s go.” Rhett stood up.
“What, like right now?” she asked in astonishment. “But . . .”
“But what? It’s almost seven o’clock. You can’t still be working. If you are, you shouldn’t be.” He liked that she looked confused and disarmed. It would work to his advantage. She wouldn’t be able to formulate an excuse fast enough.
“I’ve had a really terrible day,” she said, hand going up to pat the back of her bun nervously.
“Even more reason to get out of here.” Rhett came around the desk, amused when she backed her rolling chair up so quickly it hit the wall. He reached out and took her hand into his. “Beer or wine?”
“Beer,” she said without hesitation.
It didn’t surprise him. And it pleased him. Both that she had understood what he was asking, and that she was the kind of woman who preferred a bottle to a glass.
“I probably shouldn’t, but you know what? I don’t give a shit,” Shawn said, standing up. “Today was like ass on an ass cracker, and I deserve a drink.”
He wasn’t really sure what an ass cracker was, but it didn’t sound like anything he wanted to be served.
“That’s the spirit.” Whereas Shawn would have dropped his hand immediately, Rhett held it firmly in his so she couldn’t break contact. “I’m sorry you had a lousy day. Care to talk about it?”
“Not yet. Maybe after a few beers.” Shawn shook her head at him and smiled. “You may find yourself sorry you asked me that question. In fact, you may be sorry you walked in this door.”
She gave another tug on her hand as she grabbed her coat and they moved out of her office into the cold dark hall. But when Rhett refused to relinquish his grip, she seemed to accept it. He had to admit, it turned him on. He liked that she had opinions, that she protested, but then gave in to him. It made the moment of capitulation all that more intriguing to him, all that much more arousing. He didn’t know her well enough to guess how any of this would translate to the bedroom, but he was definitely interested in finding out. His gut told him he had met the woman who could keep up with him and give him exactly what he wanted.
“I sincerely doubt I’ll be sorry,” he told her, studying her lips, wishing his mouth was on hers right now, teeth sinking into her tender flesh.
As they pushed through the doors and into the parking lot, Shawn stopping to lock the building behind them, she yanked her hand away from his and shook her head as she inserted the key into the lock on the glass door. “Let’s get one thing clear, Rhett. I may have been in the club the other night, but I am not submissive. It’s just not my nature.” She straightened and turned to face him, eyes slightly narrowed. “I am used to being a girl in a man’s world, and if anything, I’m aggressive, not the other way around. So don’t think that I’m the type of chick to lick your boots, because I won’t do it.”
“Who said anything about bootlicking? There is humiliation and then there is submission. They’re two different things.” Rhett actually suspected a woman like Shawn might enjoy not having to be a woman in a man’s world for a change. But he didn’t know that any more than she did, apparently. What he did know was that he was curious enough to explore the possibility, and clearly she was, too, or she wouldn’t have bothered to mention it. She would have just turned him down flat and had herself a beer at home, solo. “But I thought we were just grabbing a beer and venting about a bad day.”
Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment and anger. “Oh, really? So that’s all you want? To just sit on a bar stool next to me for an hour and have a Bud? Okay, we can do that.”
“That’s not all I want,” he told her, hands in his front pockets as he watched her tugging the two sides of her coat closed over her chest. “But I don’t want to scare you.” The dark thoughts that were crowding his mind—of tying her up in his bed and cracking the palm of his hand on her bottom until it reddened—were not something you mentioned on a first date. Or a first not-even-date yet.
“I don’t scare easily.” She brushed the tendril of hair the wind had whipped across her face out of the way. “Especially not when it comes to men young enough to be my . . . younger brother.”
Rhett couldn’t help it. He laughed. She looked so indignant and fiery. “I’m sure you don’t scare easily. But if I told you the thoughts I’m having, they might not scare you, but they would definitely sound rude considering the short length of our acquaintance. So let’s just leave it at that for now, okay?”
“Fine. But you’re a terrible flirt,” she told him, brushing past him.
“I can’t disagree with that.” He was. His mother had even picked up on it. He didn’t have the easy charm of his brother Nolan. His thoughts were too intense, his expressions too serious, his manner too straightforward. It unnerved women, and while he wished it didn’t, he had given up on trying to change himself. Forcing himself to smile and joke when he didn’t feel it, just made him look weird, like an escapee from a state psychiatric ward. Like he could potentially kill his dates and eat their organs, and really, that wasn’t the vibe a guy looking to get laid wants to give off. So he’d decided while him in his natural state wasn’t exactly going to charm the ladies, it was better than creeping them the hell out, which was what faking it did.
It was what it was.
She could either take it or leave it.
It seemed Shawn was going to take it. She gave him a brief smile. “Well, I appreciate your honesty.”
“It’s my best asset,” he assured her. It was. Along with something else he wasn’t going to mention.
Shawn’s smile spread into a grin. “Well, an honest man would certainly be a first, but it’s too freezing cold out here to discuss that any further. And because I’m feeling generous, I’ll let you drive. We can go to Milt’s place across the road. Beer is cheaper than water there.”
She was putting a power struggle into play. He wasn’t sure if she was aware exactly of what she was doing, if she knew she was baiting him. But either way, it was making him hard.
Shawn let Rhett take her hand again and lead her to his truck. What the hell was she doing? She was engaging in some kind of verbal sparring with a man she absolutely could not date. Not only was he way too young, he was a driver, her friend’s brother-in-law, and he was the type of guy she didn’t even understand. She had always gone for the big talkers, the loud, friendly, work-a-crowd guys who never met a stranger and could work any angle, whether it was in a boardroom or on the golf course.
Rhett was . . . intense. He didn’t say a lot, and he smiled infrequently, yet somehow she felt like when she was with him, she was his only focus. That his stare could set her on fire, which was frankly annoying. Unnerving. She felt off-kilter with him and that was the last thing in the world she needed to be feeling given that she was about to lose everything.
But maybe that was why it was so easy to let Rhett steal her attention—if she was distracted by him, she didn’t have to contemplate life after Hamby Speedway. Because that reality was something she didn’t even want to consider, yet she had no choice.
Unless she got married.
It was insane.
So really, the last way she should be spending her evening was with a man who made her nervous, yet here she was.
“Sounds like a plan,” he told her, pulling his keys out of his pocket. “This is my truck here.”
Of course he drove a truck. He was essentially comprised of testosterone, so nothing else would be acceptable. But he was also a gentleman. He opened the door for her and helped her into the truck, which while not necessary was certainly helpful, because while she was no shorty, there was some serious air between the ground and the seat.
“At the risk of sounding like your father,” Rhett said as he got in and started up his truck, “you know you really shouldn’t be hanging out in the track offices by yourself in the dark at night. I just walked right in, and if I could do it, anyone could.”
Shawn wasn’t offended by his concern. He had a valid point, and most of the time she was more careful. “I’m not usually there alone. I have a couple of employees who leave at the same time as I do. If I am there alone, I try to keep the door locked, but today my lawyer had just been in to see me so the door was open.”
“Hence the bad day?”
“Oh, yeah.” She fiddled with her seat belt and debated how much she could or should tell Rhett Ford. She was dying to blurt it out to someone—to have them sympathize with how appalling the whole situation was, and maybe let her bounce some ideas off them on how to increase her profits this season. Yet at the same time, she really didn’t think it was a good idea to have more than a couple of people know the reality of the situation. One, because she didn’t want anyone to think less of her grandfather. Two, because she didn’t want anyone to think they could swoop in and try to buy the track from her at a rock-bottom price. Three, because if she decided to fake a marriage, the less who knew the truth, the better.