Authors: Roxanne St. Claire
Tags: #Fiction, #NASCAR (Association), #Man-Woman Relationships, #Soccer Players, #Contemporary, #Romance, #Automobile Racing, #General, #Businesswomen, #Love Stories
TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN • MADRID
PRAGUE • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND
Special thanks to racing reporter Mark DeCotis of
and Ed Hinton of
The Orlando Sentinel
who bring the sport of racing alive for every one of their readers, and help me do the same for mine.
Deepest gratitude to Marsha Zinberg, of Harlequin Books,
and my agent, Kim Whalen, of Trident Media Group, as well as the talented “pit crew” behind the scenes at NASCAR and Harlequin who get these stories out of the garages and into the hearts of romance lovers everywhere.
This book is dedicated to the three special people and one incredible little dog who love me unconditionally all week long, and then let me indulge my passions on Sunday afternoon.
through the door of Thunder Racing and sucked in a lungful of her favorite scent—motor oil and gasoline, tinged with a hint of welding glue. No double espresso or honey-laden pastry could smell better in the morning. But there was something different in the air today. She sniffed again, drawn into the race shop by her nose and her sixth sense.
There was something pungent, a little bitter but…fresh. Her heart jumped and her work boots barely touched the gleaming white floor as she hurried toward the paint-and-body shop. With a solid shove, she flung the double doors, and they smacked the walls with a satisfying synchronized clunk.
And then she drank in the prettiest sight she’d seen in eight long years.
Number fifty-three lived again.
“Oh, Daddy,” she whispered as she approached the race car, the hand over her mouth barely containing her delight. “You’d love it.”
In truth, Thunder Jackson would roar like an eight-hundred-horsepower engine at the sight of the screaming-yellow “fifty-three” surrounded by a sea of purple as painful as a fresh black eye. Then he’d calm down and throw his arm around her shoulder with a mile-wide grin and a gleam of approval in his eyes.
“Shelby girl,” that gravelly voice would say. “You done good.”
And she had.
She took a few steps closer, nearly reaching the driver’s side. The Kincaid Toys insignia—an openmouthed, wide-eyed clown—may not be the sexiest logo to fly at two hundred miles an hour around a superspeedway, but it was a damn good sponsor. And Thunder Jackson would have known that, too.
“I didn’t quit, Daddy,” she whispered again, almost touching the glistening paint. Unwilling to risk a smudge, she held her fingers a centimeter from the cool metal, imagining the power surge that would sing through the carburetor and make this baby roar to a heart-stopping victory. “Just like you always said, Daddy. Never, never, never quit.”
“Actually, Winston Churchill said that.” A voice. Deep. Male. Nearby.
Shelby scanned the empty shop.
Then slowly, as if she’d conjured him up, a man rose from the other side of the car. “Unless Winston was your daddy.”
“Huh?” Lame, but it was all she could manage in the face of eyes as green as the grass on the front stretch of Daytona. All she could say as she took in sun-streaked hair that fell past his ears and grazed a chiseled jaw. Below that, a white T-shirt molded to a torso that started off wicked, slid right into sinful and braked hard over narrow hips in worn blue jeans.
“Which I highly doubt since Winston’s children are…” His eyes glimmered, took a hot lap over her face and body and then returned to meet her gaze. “Quite a bit older than you are.”
He straightened to what had to be six feet two, judging by how he dwarfed the race car. “Not to mention,” he added, a melodic British accent intensified by the upward curl of generous lips, “there’s not a redhead in that whole family.”
He laughed, and Shelby felt the impact right down to her toes. Which, at the moment, were curled in her boots.
“No relation, I’m afraid. But since we’re fellow countrymen, I feel the need to preserve history. To be perfectly honest, the quote was ‘Never, never, never give in,’ but it’s been messed with over the years. And the man who said it was not your daddy.”
Actually, it was. But who was she to argue with…perfection?
“It’s just an expression.” Her voice was husky, her brain stalled. She cleared her throat and seized some missing gray matter. “What are you doing in here?”
He cocked his head and lifted one mighty impressive shoulder. “Checking out the car. Do you like the colors?”
. Long hair, foreign accent and just enough beard growth to suggest a distant relationship with a razor. He was the artist. The specialist hired to paint the car.
Although somehow she couldn’t imagine the uptight and virtuous David Kincaid sharing space or business with a man who probably had “bad” tattooed somewhere…good.
“I do like the colors,” she assured him. “I like them a lot.” And the painter was pretty easy on the eyes, too.
“I think they’re atrocious. Too lemon and violet.”
Artistespeak. “Oh, well,” she said. “It’ll all be one brilliant blur at two hundred miles an hour.”
“Let me ask you something.”
Anything. Name, rank, phone number.
“Do these little things really go that fast?”
. Could he be any sexier? “Not at Daytona. That’s a plate race.”
“I thought it was a car race.”
She laughed. “Very funny.”
He winked at her. “In any case, I imagine your clown will look especially fetching crossing the finish line under that flag.”
He made a word like
sound so…fetching. Who used that word anymore? “You mean the checkered flag.”
“The victory flag.”
Adorable. Incredible. Just plain edible. But the boy did not know racing. “That’d be the one.” She stood on her tiptoes to see over the roof. “Still touching up over there?”
He slowly raised his right hand, and a shiny restrictor plate caught the light. “I saw this on the floor and thought it looked intriguing.”
“That’s one way to describe it.” A bane of a racer’s existence would be another.
He held the plate over his face, peering at her through the top two holes. “What is it?”
“It’s a restrictor plate. That’s what makes it a plate race,” she explained. “On superspeedways, we have to limit the horsepower.”
He lowered the plate and looked appalled. “Why would you do that?”
“It’s complicated, but it has to do with safety. You see, if you slide that thing between the carburetor and the intake manifold, you limit the amount of air into the engine, which…” She paused at the amused flicker in his eyes. “You have no idea what an intake manifold is, do you?”
“No, but it sounds hot.”
Speaking of hot…
She cleared her throat. Should she tell Painter Boy he was flirting with the co-owner of the race team? She didn’t want to scare him off.
“We haven’t been introduced,” she said.
“No, we haven’t.” He pinned her with those jade-green eyes, the playful hint of a secret visible enough to send a shiver up her spine.
The shop loudspeaker crackled. “Shelby Jackson, pick up line one.”
“But you’re being paged.”
Oh. So he knew exactly who he was flirting with.
She backed away from the car. “Excuse me,” she said, turning to the shop phone on the wall, heat prickling over her neck and a weird, foreign numbness slowing her step.
Unable to resist, she glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, he still wore a cocky grin, his eyes trained on her with a look that was purely…
She picked up the phone. “’Sup?”
What kind of greeting is that for your grandfather?”
“Ernie!” she exclaimed, the familiar rasp of his voice slamming her back to earth. “Are you in the shop?”
“Of course I’m in the shop. I’m in your office. We had a meeting scheduled.”
Talk about sinful. Missing a meeting with her grandfather and business partner was unforgivable. “I’m sorry. I got distracted.” Big-time. “Did you see the fifty-three car?” Surely that was a legitimate excuse for being late.
“Hours ago. Now get on back here before I die of old age waitin’ on ya.”
She smiled. “Not likely.”
Taking a deep breath, she hung up and paused before turning around. Should she make a move? Should she offer her phone number or take his? Should she act on this palpable, delicious attraction? So what if he was a painter and she was a NASCAR team owner? She hadn’t gone on a date in two years, and he was…
Wouldn’t her father give her a nudge to the ribs? Wouldn’t Thunder Jackson whisper in her ear and say, “Come on, Shelby girl. You only live once.”
“So,” she said, still facing the phone on the wall, “you planning on painting all of our cars?”
She waited a beat, then turned, expecting to see that provocative tip of his lips, that bedroom gleam in his eyes.
But the only face that greeted her was the clown on the hood of the car. Lemon. Violet. And so not sinful.
She uncurled her toes, cursed her moment of female fluttering and hustled off to find Ernie.
ER GRANDFATHER WAS
flipping through her phone messages when she entered the office. She paused and sucked in a sigh of exasperation, the usual excuse ringing in her ears.
He means well.
He kept reading. “I see no new sponsors have called in the last two days.”
She blew out a breath and gave his shoulder a playful punch. “I’m working on it, big guy.”
He looked up from the pink slips, snagging her with copper-penny eyes much like her own, only these were minted more than seven decades ago and time had faded them to a dull brown.
“We need money, Shel.”
“I know. I know.” She slipped behind the desk and dropped into her worn chair and listened for the comfortable, lazy squeak.
“Been eight years, Shel. When you gonna give that chair a lube job?”
“He doesn’t like when you say that, Ernie.” She gave him a sly grin and purposefully rocked, the rhythmic squawk hitting a high note. “You can’t quiet Thunder Jackson.”
“Lord knows I tried since the day he was born.” The older man chuckled, but then his weather-lined skin crinkled into a well-set scowl. “You said you’d be here at seven.”
“I didn’t think you’d really be here that early.” She tapped the mouse to bring her computer screen to life with a twenty-year-old picture of her dad climbing out of a race-torn Ford on the start/finish in Bristol. The year she came back to travel with her father, motherless, eight and scared. That victory was a sign, Daddy had said, that everything would be okay. There would be no more changes. And she’d believed him. “You don’t have to get in here so early,” she added, looking away from the picture. “I’m handling things.”
He grunted, a note of resentment barely hidden in the sound. She almost kicked herself with a work boot. She had to remember not to rub in the fact that he played such a small role in the day-to-day operations of Thunder Racing; running the race team he and her father had started was in his blood.
Without the challenges of the job, Ernie Jackson would be a shell of a man, living in the past. Shelby had to resist the temptation to remind him that she made the most important decisions now. She had to respect that her grandpa needed to run Thunder Racing as much as he needed to eat, breathe and sleep.
“I’m quitting, Shel.”
The chair hinge screamed as she jerked toward him. “What?”
“I’m quitting the business.”
She stared at him. So much for how well she knew her closest relative.
“Don’t look at me like I grew another head, girl. I’m seventy-seven years old.” He squished his face into a network of creases so deep that even his wrinkles had wrinkles. “I been on a racetrack or in a garage since I was too young to see over the hood and I been losin’ sleep over this team since your daddy was dirt racing. I’m done.” His voice softened and he leaned forward. “There’s more to life than riding around in circles.”
She barely managed to blink. “Where did this come from?”
He crossed his arms over a chest that had long ago lost its barrel status. “I just want to enjoy my golden years.”
He was lying. “Are you sick?”
“Sick of breathin’ octane and rubber.” He shifted in the chair. “I just want a life without racing is all.”
“There’s life without racing?” The words were out before she could check herself, earning her a dismal, gruff laugh in response.
“Thunder and me sure failed you, girl, if you really believe that racing is all there is.”
“Well, there’s the garage. And the pits.” She tried to make it sound like a joke. “And the infield.”
But he wasn’t smiling. “Shelby, you’re twenty-eight years old and you work, eat and sleep racing.”
She choked a laugh. “And to think I was just about to accuse you of the same crime.”
Ernie shook his head, a thin gray lock sliding over his forehead. “And that’s fine, honey. I got no issue with that. I just…well, you need to be set up so you’re safe and comfortable. We gotta think of the future.”
“Right. The future.” A future without Ernie was bleak. Lonely. Even a little scary. “Which is why you quitting makes no sense at all.”
Ernie pushed that hair away and leaned back on the two legs of the guest chair. She resisted the compulsion to pull his seventy-seven-year-old self to a more secure position.
“Shel, I been givin’ this a lot of thought during the off-season,” he said slowly. “Before we launch into Daytona next month and the rest of the season, we ought to make a change in our corporate structure.”
“I wasn’t aware we had a corporate structure.” She let out a sober laugh as a little tendril of anxiety tightened her throat.
. Why did she loathe that word? Because every time a major change visited her well-constructed life, it came with pain and loss, that’s why. And this one looked headed in the same direction. “Ernie, this is one of the last family-owned teams in NASCAR, not some gargantuan organization with six hundred employees and their own wind-tunnel simulator. What could we possibly change except who’s responsible for picking up the donuts on Monday morning?”
There was no humor in his eyes. “You know as well as I do that if we don’t upgrade that small-potato mind-set we’ll never be in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing next year, let alone thrive into the next decade. We got one year left with our sponsors, and after that, honey, we’re gonna be field fillers if we’re lucky.”
“Ernie, I’m working on that,” she said, her smile fading as the seriousness of what he was saying hit her. “Or have you forgotten that I convinced Kincaid Toys to sponsor a second Thunder car and I signed Clayton Slater to drive it for us? Now we have
cars and two drivers and two major sponsors. That’s plenty secure and…” She shifted in her seat and set her jaw. “I don’t want to get any bigger than that.”