Authors: Wendy Etherington
He met Darcy and Cade outside the motor home, and she walked between them toward the garage,
head high, the awkwardness over their kiss apparently forgotten.
Bryan decided they could overcome her unease with a little more practice. And he was more than willing to go through that particular routine, over and over, even though it was already just right.
ARCY WALKED TO PIT ROAD
with Bryan and Cade, moving through groups of other teams, media and a few fans. Despite the rather intimate job she had with Bryan, she hadn’t seen much of the public side of the Garrisons. She only knew that when Bryan left the motor home he was headed into a very visible and competitive arena.
As she prepped Friday night’s dinner, she always watched qualifying on TV. Now, as she looked around, gazed into the grandstands and at the cars being pushed through inspection or toward pit road, she realized she was part of the show. She felt a rush of pride and adrenaline. She was a cast member in this traveling circus. Maybe not as vital as a driver, crew chief or spotter, but still part of something larger and greater than she had on her own.
Watching the behind-the-scenes process of putting on a spectacle as large as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event was surreal and amazing.
For one thing, people swarmed Cade like bees on a honey hive. Reporters stopped him for quotes or on-camera interviews. Fans, though there were signifi
cantly less of them on qualifying day than race day, hopped around with hats, die-cast cars and programs to sign. Other drivers nearby received the same treatment.
The members of other teams they passed and greeted were serious, but there was an element of good-natured anticipation in the air. Uniformed officials walked or stood nearby, supervising every aspect of the event. Bryan told her that around seventy-five officials traveled to all the races and supervised the proceedings. As opposed to sports like football and baseball, where only two teams competed per venue per event, NASCAR racing hosted at least forty-three teams, thirty-six weeks a year. It made for a massive undertaking in staffing.
And that was just the stats for the officials—which she was at least somewhat familiar with, seeing as her uncle had been part of the show for many years. Everywhere, there were both uniformed and non-uniformed members of individual teams. She saw and met people like the guy who changed the tires during pit stops, the engineer who helped with race strategy and technical issues with the engines, and the public relations reps who represented various sponsors and drivers.
She probably looked like a wide-eyed child, staring and gawking, pestering Cade and Bryan for more information and explanations. They knew all the answers, though, and she realized this brand-new world to her was second nature to them.
They approached the garage stall assigned to
Cade’s No. 56 red-and-white car with the Huntington Hotels logo plastered on the hood along with various other sponsors—one of them being Go!, Darcy noted—filling up the sides and back.
Having been through inspection already, the team was apparently getting ready to roll the car out to the track, so Cade could take his qualifying laps. Here, she finally found some familiar people, since she’d been helping the GRI hauler drivers—who, oddly enough, also served as team chefs—make breakfast and lunch for the team members over the last few weeks.
“Hey, Darcy.” Allen, the team safety coordinator, grinned at her. “The boss man’s lookin’ pretty good. You need to put Rex on your diet now.”
Rex, the jack man, who was six feet four inches of solid, bulky muscle, shook his head. “You wish you had this body, man.”
“Lean and mean is the way to be,” Allen said. “Right, Darcy?”
She glanced from Allen to Rex, who looked as though he could body slam her with his pinkie. “Rex looks fine to me.”
Before Allen could reply, one of the other guys caught the eye of a trio of young, attractive women as they walked by.
The guys around the garage worked with noise, confusion, fans and media wandering in and around their pit box “offices” without pausing. They paused for exactly two things—attractive females and mil
itary flyovers. Otherwise, you couldn’t budge their attention with a crowbar.
The trio of women flipped their hair, giggled and waved.
“Rex, I believe those young ladies are trying to get your attention,” Darcy said with mock surprise.
Rex snorted. “Right.” He elbowed Cade, who was standing beside him. “Your fan club’s here.”
Cade, whose girl-watching days were behind him, nonetheless sent his team a smug smile. “It’s a tough job.” Then, to the ladies’ great surprise and delight, he walked over to them.
After signing autographs, he brought them back with him, introducing them to the guys.
Darcy smiled over his generosity. The guys worked from sunup until way past sundown and were entitled to a break. Talking to a group of pretty women probably ranked high. And though Bryan stepped away from the flirting and did little more than nod politely, he was a big distraction anyway. The fans watched him out of the corners of their eyes with a mixture of awe, curiosity and thinly disguised desire.
And, oh, could Darcy ever relate to those feelings.
She worked with him on a daily basis, practically lived with him on the weekends and was now involved with him on a personal level, and she still had trouble believing he was standing beside her.
But then was she
with Bryan Garrison?
Was she his trainer, personal chef, masseuse and…kissing partner?
She waved away her concern. Defining the scope of their attraction seemed impossible. She was going with the moment, since that seemed the only decision she was capable of making. She was grateful she wasn’t completely numb after all.
“At least we can be glad Isabel’s not here,” Bryan said in a low voice next to her ear. “She gets impatient with the female fans.”
Watching the women fawn over Cade, Darcy could see why.
“She’s very possessive,” Bryan added.
Darcy turned her head and found him extremely close. Her heart picked up speed in response. He’d said the same thing to her earlier when she’d commented that she didn’t kiss clients. So they were
And what about his revenge mission? His desire to prove to his ex-wife that she’d made a mistake by leaving him? What if she started to care too much about a man who might never completely get over the end of his marriage? Or was it worse to wonder if she might never get over her own past to care that much for anyone?
With effort, Darcy focused on their conversation instead of on her confusing feelings. “Isn’t being fan-friendly part of his job?”
He shrugged. “Sponsors like popular drivers, and
we can’t race without sponsors, so I guess so. Cade is certainly better at it than I ever was.”
“I have a hard time picturing you in a driving suit, multicolored logos and patches all over your chest, smiling for the cameras.”
“I didn’t do a lot of smiling, even back then.”
“That’s a shame.”
He angled his head. “Why?”
“Because you have a really nice smile.”
Good grief, she was
with the man. At the acknowledgment of her actions, a flutter of panic settled in her stomach.
His tone deepened. “And my lips? How do you feel about those?”
She laid her palm over her stomach, hoping to stem her anxiety, and studied Bryan’s lips. They looked pretty appealing.
He groaned. “Okay, stop,” he said, leaning back. “I should know better than to talk to you in public.”
“You’re too distracting.” He turned to the team. “If you guys are waiting for Darcy to push the car onto the grid, I can assure you that isn’t going to happen.”
Steel was back. Tough, uncompromising and in charge.
The abrupt change in his personality wasn’t as disconcerting as it once was. Maybe because she felt she got to see a side of him that few people were privy to.
The fans moved away reluctantly, and the team got back to work. They pushed the car around equipment carts, stacks of tires and groups of people. As they neared pit road, she saw her uncle standing in one of the pit boxes, having what seemed to be a serious conversation with some other man. She simply waved and kept moving beside Cade and Bryan.
past the opening in the pit wall, she noticed something that had her heart jumping to her throat.
A firefighter was pulling a flame retardant jumpsuit over his uniform.
Much like she’d felt earlier in Bryan’s arms, her knees went weak. The feeling wasn’t at all welcome this time, though. She was dazed, sick and embarrassed.
Was this the payback for her desire?
In a haze, she felt Bryan grab her elbow. “Darcy?”
“I—” She’d started to say
but she wasn’t. Not at all.
To her further embarrassment, she sensed Cade stopping along with Bryan and looking at her with concern. “I—I was just dizzy for a second.” With every ounce of strength she possessed, she forced herself to smile and start walking again. “I think my blood sugar’s a little low.”
Though Cade seemed relieved, annoyance flickered across Bryan’s face. “You spend most of your waking hours making sure I’m fed and cared for, have you tried your own program?”
The friendly jab only made her feel worse. He cared, and she was pleased he cared.
And Tom was dead.
Reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, Bryan pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, which he pressed into the hand of the GRI team member nearest him. “Go get Darcy a soda.”
“I don’t want—”
“Don’t you dare argue with me,” Bryan said, rolling over her protest. “Or tell me the caloric, sugar or caffeine content of the soda.”
“That’s our Bryan,” Cade said. “Strong and silent.”
Darcy was grateful for Cade’s well-placed humor. “He usually is.”
Still supporting her arm, Bryan shot his brother a glare. “Why doesn’t she get the speech about taking better care of herself?”
Cade patted Bryan’s shoulder. “You know what, bro? I think you’ve got that covered.”
The awkward moment faded, and a couple of team members ragged Darcy about eating too much salad, then they got in line behind the other competitors as if nothing odd had ever happened.
When a TV crew hustled over to interview Cade, Darcy stepped carefully out of the camera shot and recovered her composure.
Moments later, one of the crew handed her the soda she didn’t want, but she sipped it anyway, barely wincing at the overly sweet taste. She wanted no
questions asked about her panic attack—because that’s exactly what it had been—or its true cause.
After Cade, the reporter asked Bryan a few, brief questions.
the operative word. True to his earlier confession, he didn’t smile and kept his answers professional and concise.
Clearly, she’d been right. The people who saw his charming side were extremely limited. She wondered if that made her special, and not simply convenient.
But the hope and promise of that idea was crushed by the lingering uneasiness churning inside her, the doubts that reminded her she might never be whole and free from the past again.
HEN THEY REACHED
Texas the next weekend, Darcy paced the motor home while she waited for Bryan to get out of a meeting.
After watching all the action from the pit box at Martinsville, she couldn’t wait to do it all over again. The rumble of engines, the roar of the crowd, the heat from the track, and the breath-holding awe of speed had turned her into a fan seemingly overnight.
Racing, it seemed, was one of those events you just had to experience live before gaining a full appreciation of the sport. The fact that she knew and liked Cade and the other drivers and team members made everything even more special.
As for her and her kissing partner…
At home this week there’d been training sessions, massage therapy, and one dinner and a movie. Just as she had since the beginning of the season, she dropped his meals off at his house during the day and let him police himself in the cardio training and yoga except on Tuesday when they worked to
gether for two hours. That night he’d invited her to stay for dinner, after which they watched a DVD.
But there were no actual
where he asked her out, picked her up, took her somewhere, then brought her home and kissed her good-night at the door.
There were kisses—some pretty hot ones in fact—but nothing beyond that.
Since her emotions ranged from giddy excitement to nearly overwhelming guilt, she knew that little physical contact was all she was capable of handling.
And while there were times he looked at her with a hungry gleam in his eyes, he always doused it quickly. So either his self-control was impressive, or he, too, had demons from the past he’d yet to conquer.
She knew only that at some point, they’d have to have one of their getting-real-with-each-other sessions and figure out what, exactly, they were doing together.
In the meantime, she was pretending she was fine.
“There you are,” she said when the door swung open a few moments later and Bryan appeared in the opening. “Finally.” She handed him a plate of almonds, grapes and cheese. “Here’s your snack. Eat it, then let’s go.”
Bryan glanced from her to the plate. “Should I chew or swallow it all whole?”
“Of course you can chew. But do it quickly.” She flung her hand toward the TV screen on the wall. “Qualifying started twenty minutes ago.”
Looking amused by her impatience, Bryan walked over to the sofa, then sank down and took his time
choosing the grape he wanted, which he popped into his mouth. “Cade, Shawn and Kevin all qualify near the end of the session,” he said after he swallowed. “We have plenty of time.”
“We’re not watching the whole thing?” she asked, unable to hide her disappointment.
“The only reason we stayed for it all last week was because I couldn’t drag you away. I’m beginning to think we’ve turned you into a race fan, Darcy Butler.”
“Well…yeah.” And she’d been doing her homework on the upcoming races, so she knew that here at the big, wide, high-banked Texas track, the speeds would be some of the fastest of the year. She’d really been looking forward to watching all the action.
Bryan patted the space on the sofa beside him. “Come convince me why I should go out there and get ambushed by more reporters.”
She settled beside him, tucking her legs beneath her. “Ambushed because of Lars?”
Bryan sighed. “The punk idiot kid. I’ve been in sponsor damage control meetings all day.”
Lars, who’d been given a chance to prove his readiness for NASCAR’s big leagues by sharing the No. 53 car with GRI’s champion driver Kevin Reiner, had told a reporter after the race last Sunday that he had a chance to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Since the championship standings were based on driver points, neither he nor Kevin would be able to make the Chase as things stood now. Lars
had called for the Garrisons to take Kevin out and keep him in permanently.
He had all this confidence/arrogance after completing all of three races, mind you.
On the flight home last week, Bryan had paced, Cade had raged and Parker fumed. There was talk of immediately pulling Lars from the car. There was talk of meetings with sponsors, the team, the other drivers. There was talk of tar and feathers.
punk idiot kid
for all his smart mouth and premature bragging apparently had some brains, though. First, he’d caught a flight home with another driver, then he’d realized quickly that the press and fans were appalled by his self-importance and he’d appeared in Bryan’s office first thing Monday morning with a ready apology.
Still, the public damage had been done. Was there trouble at GRI? Were the drivers not getting along? Were they really going to boot a beloved veteran like Kevin out of his seat for a younger guy?
“Qualifying will take your mind off your troubles,” she said in her efforts to convince Bryan they should go. “And we’ll sneak out to the pits. We can get beside the hauler, then—”
“Darcy?” He captured her hand and threaded his fingers through hers. “You don’t have to talk to convince me.”
“Oh.” With a slight smile and a happy sigh, she leaned into him, angling her face for his kiss.
Offering him comfort after the stressful day he’d had was lovely. It was this kind of bond, this kind of closeness that had given her the strength to beat back the guilt time after time.
He needed her.
It had been a long time since somebody had needed her for something besides her job. Professionally, she took care of her clients, but personally, everybody wanted to comfort her, believing her emotions weren’t as strong as she’d made her body.
Which they weren’t, but nobody had to know that besides her. As long as she kept moving forward, the past would have no choice but to stay behind her.
She rested her palm against Bryan’s chest, feeling his heart thrum rhythmically. As his mouth glided over hers, his hand slid behind her back, pulling her closer. The spicy, woodsy scent from his cologne teased her senses, and she closed her eyes, inhaling deep.
He moved his lips down the side of her neck. “I’m starting to feel better.”
A brief knock on the door preceded the sound of Isabel’s voice. “Hey, is Darcy—” She ground to a halt when she saw Darcy and Bryan practically sitting in each other’s laps on the sofa. “Oh, boy. I’ll just come back later.”
“No.” Darcy leapt up. “We were—” She couldn’t
quite get a lie to her tongue fast enough. And would the razor-sharp Isabel really believe any lame thing she could think of anyway?
“Did you need Darcy for something?” Bryan asked calmly. He hadn’t moved.
“We were supposed to meet later for a cooking lesson. I just wanted to make sure we were still on.” Isabel’s gaze flicked between them. “But if you’ve got other plans…”
“We don’t,” he said.
“Whatever Isabel and I make, we’ll make enough for you, too,” Darcy said quickly, since she could see the growing temper on Bryan’s face. Being in charge of a powerful company, he wasn’t used to explaining his actions to very many people. And he’d complained to her often about what he saw as his family’s interference in his life.
“We were going to watch some of the qualifying,” Darcy added into the silence. “I could head over to your place after that.”
“Okay, then. I’ll see you over there. About an hour?”
Darcy nodded, and Isabel turned and left.
She looked back at Bryan. “Don’t you think we should explain to your family about what’s going on? About…us?”
“No. They’re nosy enough as it is.”
“It’s none of their business.”
Darcy said nothing, and since she had no idea what
entailed anyway, she wasn’t sure what she’d say to anybody, either. Including Bryan himself.
Still, the harshness of his response hurt and surprised her.
Looking annoyed, he stood. “Do you want to go to qualifying or not?”
She noticed he’d barely eaten his snack, and his eyes had lost the smoky quality she saw so often when he looked at her these days. The blue had turned cold. “Not if you don’t want to.”
He returned to his spot on the sofa and turned up the volume on the TV with the remote. “Then I’d rather stay here.”
His face was dark, his expression closed. Brooding Bryan was back. Had Isabel’s interruption brought this on, or was it the disaster with Lars?
Or was it her? Had the friendly flirting and kissing grown too frustrating?
The happy anticipation that had infused her earlier drained from her body as if she’d sprung a thousand leaks. “I’m going to catch up with Isabel and see if she can get started with her lesson right away.”
He turned his head, surprise evident in his eyes. “You don’t want to stay here with me?”
“No.” She shook her head and backed toward the door, knowing she was trying to escape her own thoughts, as well as him. “No, I don’t think I do.”
She rushed out with a lump in her throat, which she forced herself to swallow. She caught up to Isabel just
as she was opening the door to her and Cade’s motor home. “I’ve got a few minutes now? You want to get started early?”
Isabel held open the door. “Sure.”
“You might miss Cade’s qualifying,” Darcy said as she walked inside.
Isabel shrugged, though her gaze was sharp and probing. “Those flirty fans annoy me anyway.”
Isabel probably knew the Garrisons better than just about anybody. Maybe she could give Darcy some insight into her confusing emotions, without getting too personal. It seemed important to remember Darcy was an employee. Not family.
And Bryan had said what went on between them was none of his family’s business.
“So what are we making?” she asked Isabel.
Darcy’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”
Isabel rolled her eyes. “Cade goes on and on about his mother’s buttermilk biscuits, which I’ve tried, but never can get to work for me. It’s entirely possible I’m pounding the dough too hard.” She seemed to dismiss the idea with a wave of her hand. “So, I’m raising the stakes. Blueberry scones for breakfast.”
“No problem. Scones originated with the Scots, but we Irish haven’t fared so badly with our interpretations.”
Isabel showed Darcy the recipe, and she saw Isabel
had gathered all the necessary ingredients and laid them out on the counter.
Darcy set the mixing bowl in front of her student. “The most important thing to remember is that
is about tasting and adjusting flavors to suit you, but
is science. No adding, no messing with the formula, or you’ll get a big gloppy mess.”
Isabel nodded. “Did that already.”
Together, they mixed the dough, kneaded and rolled it out, cutting it into small triangles before sliding it in the oven for baking.
“You want to tell me about that little scene I walked in on?” Isabel asked as they drank coffee at the kitchen table and waited for their creations to cook.
Darcy had known the moment she walked in the door that she’d never get away without the subject of her and Bryan coming up. She’d come inside anyway. But now she didn’t know how to begin. “I’m not sure I should,” she said finally. “Bryan doesn’t want to talk to anybody about it.”
“Uh-huh.” Isabel sipped her coffee. “And what do you want?”
to talk to somebody about it. She was nearly bursting with excitement, confusion and anxiety. “We’ve started kissing,” she said abruptly.
“And?” Isabel asked when Darcy didn’t elaborate.
“That’s pretty much it. Well, other than having dinner together and the training sessions.”
“So you’re dating.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it dating…exactly.”
“So you’re making out, but not going out?”
“I guess so.”
“That’s all right with you?”
Darcy sighed. “It’s pretty wonderful actually.”
Isabel stared at her in silence for a full ten seconds. “My brother-in-law, Bryan Mitchell Garrison—tall guy, scowls a lot, orders people around—
put that dreamy look on your face?”
“He did.” Darcy sobered, thinking of the way he’d retreated earlier, the way she panicked when she thought too much about what they were doing. “But he can be so frustrating.”
the guy we all know and love.”
Darcy nodded. “We have a lot of issues.”
“Together or separately?”
“Both, I guess. But we haven’t known each other long enough to have too many problems with whatever our relationship is at the moment. The past is a bigger thing—my husband’s death, his ex-wife.”
“You’ve both been through a lot.”
“I think we’re both pretty damaged by it all.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t heal. He smiles more,” she added. “Since he met you, I mean.”
“He’d never admit it, but the diet and exercise have helped.”
“He looks better. And while the smiling is a little weird, we’re all really grateful you were able to get through to him. Nobody else seemed to reach him.”