Authors: Katherine Garbera
ANNIE JENNER tried not to think about where she was or how long it had been since she’d been here.
. Since she was a little girl it had been the start of the year for her family. Everyone else celebrated the New Year in January but for NASCAR racing fans it really started in Daytona in February.
The daughter of legendary driver Brandon Jenner and the sister of up-and-coming driver Dave Jenner, she knew the tracks better than she knew the towns that surrounded them. She’d grown up in this world and after three long years away when she’d followed her faithless husband through Europe, she was glad to be home.
She’d made a name for herself as a professional sports photographer. Her reputation had netted her a permanent job with
but she’d taken a leave of absence to chronicle her brother this year for a book that the NASCAR publishing division was doing
The Jenner Legend
as well as any extra photos of NASCAR wanted. She was flattered that they asked her to take the pictures of her brother and his team.
The flag dropped. The race was on. Annie stared through the lens of her Nikon watching for the stock cars to come speeding by. She took pictures quickly, not thinking too much about the shots, confident that she knew how to get the best angle with the cars traveling at speeds of 180 miles an hour.
Suddenly, she heard a roar from the crowd. People were shouting. It was then she became aware that they were responding to a crash. She had been so busy shooting, she wasn’t focusing on the reality of the action.
The crash reverberated around turn four. Shooting the event through the lens of her Nikon Annie didn’t notice the car numbers at first. She was focused on the refraction of light and the crushed car body. She watched the cars spin sideways, bouncing off one another. Annie captured it all in a stop motion, her shutter clicking and her finger moving minutely.
When the cars stopped and the ones behind them had all maneuvered through the wreckage, she lifted her head and finally the number sank in.
. Dave’s car. Her brother had been involved in the crash.
Annie couldn’t breathe as she waited for the medics to arrive. She’d always believed even as a little girl that nothing bad could happen to the men she loved while she watched them on the track. She felt that there would be some kind of warning signal, something deep in her gut that would let her know if her twin brother was mortally wounded.
Her hands were trembling as she dropped her camera and let the strap around her neck hold it up. Her eyes burned and she shook her head, determined not to cry. It was crisp and cool on this February Sunday. Though the sun was warm a chill moved over her.
She refused to take her eyes off his car, as if her watching him would make everything okay. The entire race track had gone quiet. Everything was blurring and she struggled to remember to breathe.
The ambulance arrived. Voices of the paramedics and firemen carried on the wind. The smell of oil and burning rubber filled the air.
There was no fire, but the firefighters all stood there just the same, ready for anything that might happen.
What was with all this waiting?
It felt as if time had slowed and each second was an hour. Her breath froze in her lungs until she saw the medics arrive at his car. Dave lifted his arms and she was close enough to the track to hear his voice. It was raised and he was cursingbut using words that wouldn’t get him fined.
She felt faint as relief starting flowing through her. Dave was alive and that’s what mattered. She swayed a little and couldn’t catch her breath. It sawed in and out as if she was having an asthma attack, except she knew she didn’t have asthma.
Oh, God, she was hyperventilating.
She felt a strong hand grip her shoulder, pushing her head down toward her knees.
“Breathe,” the voice said.
She did as he directed and stayed there for a minute before standing up. She glanced over her shoulder into eyes that were darker than midnight. He had thick lashes and a strong face. Not really classically handsome. Not like her ex-husband’s, but this face was memorable.
Annie shook her head to clear it. “Thanks.”
“No problem. You know the driver?”
“Dave’s my brother.”
She really looked at the man and realized he was dressed in a pair of casual slacks that easily cost more than her entire outfitshe just wasn’t a clotheshorse. He had on hand-sewn Italian leather shoes and a thick fleece jacket with the collar turned up. There was a discretely embroidered logo on the pocketJM’s Coffee House.
Immediately she knew who he was. Jared MacNeilfounder and owner of JM’s Coffee House, a national coffee chain, as well as owner of the Number 186 car driven by Tucker Aldridge. She’d seen him, Jared, on one of the sports channels. He was intelligent and well-spoken when she’d seen him on television, but right now none of that really mattered.
She turned her attention back to her brother. Glancing at the wreck, she let out her breath as Dave started walking off the track. One of the medics had an arm around his shoulder and Dave lifted his hand toward the bleachers, waving to the crowd. There was a roar of approval from the fans as her brother limped away from the track.
She scarcely paid attention to anything else. Instead she focused on one thing. Getting to her brother and seeing for herself that he was okay. She wanted to hug him tightly.
Dave looked over at the other car and Annie realized that Tucker Aldridge had been the second driver in the crash. Jared stared at the track and it was hard to tell if he were only concerned because the car he owned was involved or if he was worried about Tucker’s health.
As soon as Tucker pulled himself out of the car and stood next to it, Jared exhaled a deep breath.
“I’m glad they’re both okay,” she said.
“Or at least seem to be,” he replied. “Do you still feel dizzy?”
She shook her head, a little embarrassed by her reaction to Dave’s accident. “No, I’m fine.”
He nodded at her and walked toward the fence. As a tow truck arrived to remove Dave’s car from the track, Annie turned away and started running toward the media center. She wasn’t just the sister of a driver today. She was being paid to photograph the event. They’d need to get someone else up on Turn Four because she wasn’t going to be able to shoot anything worth printing until she talked to Dave.
She raced through the crowds, with their pit and garage passes, to the media center and found her contact. The photography coordinator understood that she couldn’t continue until she knew her brother was okay. Annie made her way across the infield to the care center, keeping an eye out for her parents, who were probably making their way from the VIP suite that her father always rented.
Her father had been a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion back in the ’80s and everyonefans, drivers and crews alikestill adored him. Dave got a lot of press about being the son of a legend, but her brother was building his own legend. Last year he’d come in second in points for the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and this year, he was determined to win the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Championship. Hence her chronicling his year.
Dave’s job offer had given her an excuse to return to the world she’d once been so much a part of. She noted a few media types outside the care center. From past experience Annie knew that the care center was one of the few places in the infield with extremely limited access.
The waiting room was packed with people. The room was sterile with white walls and uncomfortable chairs. The floor was hospital-grade tile. Someone had tried to warm the place up by placing two framed photos on the wall. The first was an aerial shot of Daytona on race day. The stands were packed and a blur of cars was visible on the track. The second was a shot of Daytona Beach just after sunrise. The sun reflecting off of the water and the beach empty of everything save a pair of footprints left in the sand.
Jared MacNeil was there along with Donovan Allen, who worked for her father on the Jenner Racing team. She tried to push her way into the back but they weren’t letting anyone in until the track doctor had a chance to examine the drivers.
“Have a seat, Ms. Jenner. We’ll let you know when you can go back there,” the attendant told her.
Her cell phone rang and she pulled it out, checking the caller ID screen. It was her mom. She hesitated before answering the call, knowing that if her mom was upset and started crying so would she. And she was in the waiting room with two men who didn’t look like they were going to be emotional at all.
She turned away from the others in the room, facing the vending machine.
“Where are you, baby?”
“I’m in the waiting room. Where are you and dad?”
“We’re in the tunnel on our golf cart. We’ll be there in a minute. Have you seen him yet?”
“No, no one is allowed in. They are still examining both drivers.” She heard her own voice waver.
“We’ve got a problem back here,” she heard someone say behind her.
“Mom, I’ve got to go.”
Annie hung up the phone and moved toward the doorway leading back to the examination rooms. Jared and Donovan were both on her heels. She rounded the corner and heard voices raisedusing the kind of words that would get you a big fine from the NASCAR folks.
TUCKER and DAVE were in each other’s faces and Jared had the feeling that they were seconds from coming to blows. If the wreck had been with anyone else, Jared knew Tucker would have let it go. But for some reason these two men always rubbed each other the wrong way.
Jared grabbed Tucker’s arm and spun him away from Dave Jenner. To be honest “Gentleman Dave,” as he was known around the track, didn’t appear to be too gentlemanly. But Annie placed herself in front of her brother and put her hand on his shoulder.
“Dave, chill out.”
Donovan stood in the doorway leading to the waiting room talking loudly to another man. Jared knew he should get his butt over there and help provide a distraction in case any media reps had arrived and somehow managed to get into the waiting room. But he was more interested in watching the byplay between brother and sister.
As the only son of older parents, he’d never experienced anything like the relationship he saw now though his parents and he had been very close. Dave calmed down and walked over to the corner with Annie.
“What are you staring at?” Tucker asked.
“Nothing,” he said, turning back to Tucker. Tucker had taken off his uniform and had on a pair of baggy pants and a T-shirt. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. How’s the car look?” Tucker asked.
“Not too bad. Billy said most of the damage is superficial. They’ll have it back in the rotation in no time. What happened?” Jared asked, trying to figure out how Tucker, who had a reputation for avoiding most accidents, had been involved in one less than five laps into the first big race of the season.
“I was trying to get Jenner loose so I could get around him,” Tucker said.
Getting close to the end of Tucker’s car like that would have taken the air off the spoiler and made the rear tires lose traction. Usually the other driver just moved out of the way and let the second driver pass. But sometimes, like today, accidents occurred.
“What can I say, someone forgot his manners,” Tucker announced.
“Someone should go back to the dirt tracks,” Dave Jenner responded loudly.
Tucker had started out racing on dirt tracks illegally when he was only sixteen. Jared counted Tucker as one of his best friends. They’d met in college when a ballsy Tucker had approached Jared about buying him a stock car. Most of his fraternity brothers were more subtle about asking him for money than Tucker had been. But there had been something in Tucker’s eyes that had told Jared that his money wouldn’t go to waste. And it hadn’t.
Investing in Tucker had turned out to be a solid decision. And when Tucker had started racing in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, Jared, whose fledgling coffeehouse had started taking off regionally, had gone with him as his car owner.
“Both of you should stop acting like boys and start behaving like the men you are,” Annie said, crossing the aisle between Dave’s curtained cubicle and Tucker’s.
“Are you okay, Tucker?” she asked once she was standing next to Tucker.
“Fine,” he said, turning away from Annie and sinking back down on the hospital bed that had been assigned to him.
“You okay?” Jared asked her. She still looked a little flushed. Her pale skin made her light eyes seem even bluer.
“Yes. Did I say thanks for your help earlier?” she asked.
“You did. I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Jared MacNeil, by the way,” he said, offering his hand.
She took it. Her hand was small and cold, and her nails were painted a pretty deep red. “I know who you are. I’m Annie Jenner.”
“Everyone knows the Jenner family.”
“That’s right, everyone knows us and yet no one really does,” she said.
She blushed, putting her hand over her mouth and glancing around to see if anyone had heard her comment. No one appeared to have noticed the two of them but he drew her away from the crowd, liking the feel of her soft skin under his grasp.
“Please ignore that last part. I’m not myself today,” she said, a worried frown on her brow.
“I think that’s expected. You and Dave are close?”
“We’re twins. I know, not every set of twins are close, but we are. We’ve always been like a unit. When we were little we’d follow my dad through the garage tooling around the cars together.”
“You’d think someone who’d been around tracks all his life would know when to move over,” Tucker said, raising his voice so that Dave could hear it.
Annie glanced over at the other man. “Let it go, Tucker.”
“I can’t,” he said.
She shook her head and walked back over to her brother, leaving Jared alone with Tucker. Jared wanted to tell Tucker to cool down and stop acting like an ass. But he understood how important this year was to Tucker and to their race team.
“Where’s the doctor? I’m ready to get out of here,” Tucker said.
“I’ll see what I can find out. Try to stay away from Dave. The media will be outside as soon as they can get across the infield.”
Tucker shrugged. But Jared knew his friend was listening and hoped that he’d refrain from engaging Dave in any more arguments. He was fairly certain that Tucker wouldn’t do anything in front of the media but Jared never knew what to expect from him. His friend had been born fighting and had never really stopped.
Dave’s parents walked into the infield care center and went to their son. Jared stared across the aisle as Dave Jenner’s little cubicle area filled with people. Annie’s mom put an arm around her daughter’s waist and the two women leaned together.
Jared went to find the doctor. Five minutes later he accompanied the doctor back to Tucker’s cubicle where, after evaluating his condition, he signed Tucker’s release.
Jared led the way out the door. But when they reached the waiting room the media was there. They had questions for both drivers and Jared stepped to the back, out of the spotlight for the minute.
He heard the whir of a camera and glanced to his right to see Annie Jenner taking photos of everyone in the area. She’d stepped out of the crowd and was moving around capturing all the action on film.
He watched her for a little while until she turned her lens toward him. She took a few shots of him and then lowered the camera and walked over.
“Why are you staring at me?”
“You’re a very pretty woman.”
“Ah, I bet you say that to all the girls.”
He shook his head. “I do find most women attractive.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Really? Why not?”
“You strike me as a man who likes most people,” she said.
He wasn’t sure what she meant by that but he let it go. “I do. Are you free for dinner?”