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Authors: Wendy Etherington

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BOOK: Winning It All
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He wanted to offer her a seat on the sofa, to recall some of the manners his mother had drilled into him all these years, but she’d rushed on already.

“I expect you’ve seen my résumé. I have a master’s degree in physical therapy and extensive experience in sports medicine, rehabilitating elite athletes specifically. For the last three years, I’ve managed the rehab clinic for a group of orthopedic surgeons, who do a great deal of work with the local university’s athletic department. My uncle is a NASCAR official, so there’s a handy reference. Oh, and Parker and I have been friends, well…I guess almost a year now.”

“You’re a racing fan?” he managed to ask, unsure why she made him feel so good and so uneasy at the same time.

She pursed her lips. “I guess. It’s all a bit loud for me, though.”

“Loud?”
She had to be kidding. “Who’s your favorite driver?”

“Mmm. Don’t really have one of those.” She angled her head. “Is that a requirement?”

How did this woman have a NASCAR official in her family and not know the basics? “Yes.”

She studied him for a moment. “You’re a driver, right?”

He fought against the bitter memories that surged through him. “Used to be.”

“Well, if you hire me, I’ll be working for you, so I guess
you’re
my favorite driver.”

“But I don’t drive competitively anymore.”

“So?”

He wasn’t sure why the idea that someone could still be his fan and advocate—when he’d been forced to the sidelines long ago—gave him comfort, but it did.

Anyone who’d followed his career had pretty much transferred their loyalty to Cade. He was happy about that. His brother was the future of Garrison Racing now. That was the way things should be.

But he couldn’t deny the excitement he felt when someone asked to talk to him, to have
his
signature on an older piece of racing memorabilia. He’d signed hats, shirts, cards, body parts, autograph books, car hoods, even baby bibs in his career. He used to take them for granted.

Now, he treasured every one.

“My brother, Cade, can be your driver,” he said finally.

“You’re the boss.”

“But I’m not. Not yet anyway. I have several candidates to consider.”

“Naturally.” She laid her hand over the ice pack on his knee. “Better?”

If he said no, would she go? And the more important question—did he really want her to?

A few minutes ago he was set on Mack. He opened his mouth to tell her to leave, that the interview was over, and he’d already decided on his therapist, which she definitely
wouldn’t
be, but the words froze in his throat.

For one thing, his knee
did
feel better. Relieving the pressure of standing was cathartic, but the ice pack was heaven. For another, she both intrigued him and worried him. Many men might run the other direction from a woman like that, but he was impressed someone had broken through his defenses so quickly and so effectively.

For the last few years, his state of mind had alternated between numbness and anger. Intrigued confusion was nothing if not a nice change of pace.

“Mr. Garrison?” she asked, her probing golden-brown gaze focused on his face.

“Don’t call me Mr. Garrison. That’s my father.” He considered his dad’s bachelor pad and recent tendency to date overly endowed blondes named after fairy-tale woodland creatures, then waved his hand. “Actually, don’t call him that, either. I’m Bryan.”

“Whatever you say…Bryan.”

The sound of his name in her lilting accent sent odd waves of warmth through him.

Which he ignored.

He levered himself to stand, disconcerted to find her suddenly beside him. Though her head didn’t reach the top of his shoulder, she held his bicep and forearm in a firm, confident grip. If he was about to fall, she could never catch him. He was twice her size. He’d crush her.

“Let’s go to my motor home,” he said, wondering about the sudden racing of his heart, which had to be anxiety, not desire. If he did hire her, this was a professional partnership, not a personal one. Besides, he was through with personal bonds. “We’ll have lunch and talk.”

“What do you want?”

His gaze slid the length of her.
“Want?”

She angled her head. “For lunch.”

What he wanted, he realized at that moment, didn’t have anything to do with food. He searched her face. “What’re you offering?”

She laid her hand on his chest, to support him, or maybe hold him back. “Grilled chicken or tofu.” She smiled. “You have a preference?”

He frowned. Tofu? Surely she was kidding.

CHAPTER TWO

G
LANCING AROUND
at the full-size convection oven, titanium fridge and iron-grated stove top, Darcy hoped to calm the fluttering in her stomach by marveling at the luxurious, if compact, kitchen in Bryan Garrison’s motor home.

Well, really, at this point, she was still marveling at the motor home itself.

Plush carpeting and tile, leather seating area, cherry side tables and dining table, flat-screen TV, computer station in a alcove off the hallway.

Her only issue was with the color scheme—best described as
dark.

Navy, black, dark gray, more black. From Parker, she’d learned Garrison Racing was legendary for their cars painted candy-apple red, but nowhere was that color evident in the company president’s personal space.

“It’s…lovely,” she said, turning in a circle, wishing she was better at lying.

He shrugged, his broad shoulders looking capable of taking on anything, even if his limp and the pained
lines drawn into his handsome face belied that illusion. “I’m here more often than I’m home during the season, so it has to be comfortable.”

She set her soft-sided cooler, which she’d brought in case she needed to audition her culinary skills, on the counter. She considered her low-fat protein, vitamin-infused, no-processed-food and low-sugar diet critical to a successful rehab. “So, chicken or tofu?”

“You don’t have to cook,” he said. “I’ve got stuff in the fridge.”

As he opened the door and leaned over to study the contents, she fought the urge to wave her hand in front of her face and catch a cooling breeze. Now that those intense gray-blue eyes were no longer focused on her, she felt the need to give in briefly to her
good grief, he’s gorgeous
thoughts.

The view of his strong profile didn’t help get her mind back on business.

But with immense effort, she focused on how she could help him. He was carrying too much weight around his middle and arms. His black T-shirt strained a bit across his chest and his hip-hugging jeans were somewhat tight. While none of that took away from his attractiveness, any extra weight on his knee wasn’t a good thing.

“There’s leftover Chinese food, leftover meat loaf and…” He held up a plastic baggie with a big hunk of meat inside. “Steak.” He smiled, which warmed his
brooding face. “I’ve got some hoagie rolls and cheese. Melt it all in the microwave. It’s really—” His smile fell away, as he no doubt noticed her horrified expression.

“You can’t seriously be considering eating that?”

“It’s not tofu, of course, but it’ll do in a crunch.”

She glanced at the meat, doing her best not to shudder. “I’m not opposed to a bit of red meat,” she said neutrally, though she was very concerned about its quality. She believed in organic, no-hormones-added lean protein. “Do you mind if I ask where it came from?”

“Off the grill, two nights ago.”

“No, I mean, where did you buy it?”

“The grocery store. My motor home driver likes—”

“I’m sorry. I should have been more specific. Where did the beef come from
before
the store? Was the herd grass-fed or at least grain-fed on a one-hundred-percent organic farm?”

“How should I know?”

She pressed her lips together. She really did want this job. Her uncle and friends were right. She’d let herself fall into a rut, dipping for months at a time into depression. She needed a mission, a cause, a purpose.

And whether he acknowledged it or not, Bryan Garrison needed her expertise. After glimpsing the contents of his refrigerator, she was even more convinced. But to get hired, she had to be tough, as well
as smart. “I’m concerned too much high-fat meat will make you unfocused and sluggish.”

He shrugged. “I have no problem with being unfocused and sluggish.” He laid the meat on the counter, then retrieved orangey-yellow processed cheese slices—

Darcy closed her eyes. She couldn’t watch what other insidious items he pulled out.

“It’s not as if I’m driving,” he continued. “I don’t have to worry about being sharp.”

Her eyes flew open. Naturally, his pain wasn’t all physical.

After working with many other accident victims and injured athletes, she’d known that was true before she’d even met him. Still, she hadn’t expected the deep, dark hurt she sensed in Bryan. She hadn’t expected the answering ache of remembrance in her own heart.

She laid her hand over his.
“Please
let me prepare lunch.”

He narrowed his eyes, and her stomach resumed its fluttering. “I don’t eat tofu.”

“Then I’ll make chicken.” She glanced at the steak, trails of blood pooling at the bottom of the bag, and barely suppressed another shudder. “Okay?”

His gaze held hers a moment longer, then he dropped the bag and turned away, flopping on the sofa across the room. “Fine. I like when a woman cooks for me.”

And she’d just bet he had women lined up to do so—even with his surliness.

She turned toward him. She’d hoped to ease in the toughness, but maybe it was better to lay out the rules early. “I’m not a woman.”

His gaze slid down her, and somehow he made her feel both annoyed and complimented by his perusal. “Oh, but you definitely are.”

“I mean, I’m not a woman in this situation. This
professional
situation. If we’re going to work together, you have to think of me as your coach. I’m here to get your body back in shape, to strengthen your muscles, to renew your spirit—”

He laughed. “Renew my spirit?” His eyes hardened to icy chips. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No.” She strode toward him. “To heal the body, you must heal the spirit.”

“I don’t need healing.”

At the core of his pain was self-pity. She knew. She’d been there.

Empathy wrought cynicism. Sympathy increased distance. And pity, well, pity brought about serious, white-hot fury.

But strength respected strength.

It was something she understood—and her potential client might, as well.

So, with a gentle, comforting smile planted on her lips, she crossed to him, reached down, laid her hand over his left knee and squeezed.

Pain racked his face.

“All healed up, are you, mate?” Knowing that was
all the hardness she could manage for the moment, she released him. “I think not.”

He glared at her. A muscle pulsed along his jaw. “Get away from me.”

Instead of backing away, she turned, heading back to the kitchen. She pulled a fresh ice pack from her bag, popped the cooling gel, then tossed it to him over her shoulder without looking. She heard him catch it and was relieved the fast-food, heavy-on-the-red-meat diet hadn’t completely dulled his reflexes.

Forcing cheer into her voice, she dug into her cooler of ingredients. “I’m making grilled rosemary chicken, if that’s okay.”

He said nothing, and she fell into the familiar, comforting rhythm of cooking.

Thankfully, the stovetop featured a grill on one side, so she didn’t have to ask where the gas or charcoal grill was stored. She could handle either, but she’d rather let her client—well,
hopefully,
her client—stew in his anger for a bit. Once she’d fed him, he’d be in a more agreeable mood.

She peeked over her shoulder at him, noting his piercing stare, mixed with pain and barely suppressed rage.

Well, maybe not.

 

“W
HY DO THEY
call you Steel?”

Bryan glanced across the table at his would-be therapist and shrugged. “They don’t anymore.”

“But they used to.”

He wasn’t sure whether he respected her kindness or her relentless determination more, but both had intrigued him. While his brain and pride kept telling him he wanted meat loaf, or maybe a cheeseburger, he had to acknowledge the grilled chicken and vegetables were tasty, if not completely filling.

Rabbits would probably be thrilled.

Still, hiring someone else was probably the best idea. He needed someone to respect his space and fall in line with his philosophies and way of doing things. He had the feeling that Darcy I’ve-Got-Tofu wasn’t that person.

And, yet, another part of him knew if she left, he’d never see her again.

“I have a hard head,” he said finally, shoving aside his questions. “Or so I thought.”

His head injury was the reason for his forced retirement.

Ironic.

Ironic, anyway, if you happened to be an overly sensitive, morose poet. Pathetic if you used to be a champion race car driver.

“Your head seems pretty hard to me,” she said.

He toasted her with the glass of iced tea. “Same to you.”

She nodded. “Determination is a requirement for my job. Like you, I expect.”

“But I don’t get to do my job anymore.”

She looked confused. “But you’re the president of the company, aren’t you? The leader? You certainly need determination to keep a successful business running.”

“I meant my job as a driver.”

“I’m sure that couldn’t have been easy to give up. But we all move on, don’t we? Life changes, so we must, as well. New challenges, new goals, new—”

“I didn’t ask for my life to change,” he said, glaring at her.

She shrugged, and the brief ripple of hurt that crossed her face echoed in his gut. “Who does?”

This woman had issues. Issues she might even have convinced herself were over. But since he was an expert on pretending the past didn’t matter, that he could absorb life’s twists and turns without flinching, he didn’t think so.

She was bad for him.

Though she had a spine and lovely golden eyes. Though she could cook—if only he could convince her to devote some time to perfecting steak, roasts or meat loaf.

He had to focus on the race season, and she’d be a distraction. Plus, it was long past time for him to take control of this interview, to make her realize she wasn’t the top candidate on his list.

Was
she a candidate at all? Determination aside, could this cute, delicate blonde really handle herself with him and the life he led?

He rose from the table. “This job is tough,” he said, his tone short, knowing he needed to make it so. “The hours are long. The pace is fast and brutal.”

She simply nodded.

“It’s a traveling circus. And if you’re not winning, the rewards are few.”

Her gaze flicked up to his and held. “Whether you win or lose, Mr. Garrison, you still have pain.”

Not if you run hard and fast enough,
he thought, though he recognized she was talking about physical, not emotional, pain. “You’re willing to be on the road every weekend? Won’t your boyfriend be annoyed about that?”

Her eyes narrowed. “If I had a boyfriend, he certainly wouldn’t dictate my schedule, or what my job entailed.”

He almost smiled. She certainly didn’t lack fierceness.

“My uncle has been a NASCAR official for nearly two decades,” she continued. “I’m not here for the rush or the fantasy of glamour. I understand it’s not about private jets and cocktail parties with sponsors. I realize there’s blood, sweat and tears in every roll cage, engine, tire and spark plug.” She lifted her chin.
“I get it.”

“I’m not easy to deal with,” he said, knowing he needed to warn her.

“Yeah, well, neither am I at times.”

“We’re not compatible.”

“We don’t need to be. We’ll be working together. Nothing personal.”

She was saying the things he wanted to hear—no drama, no fuss, no connection. Why didn’t he believe her?

Admittedly, it wasn’t so much her he didn’t believe, it was himself.

Except for his sister, he was around men all the time. After his divorce, he needed his life to be that way. But there were moments when the sound of a soft voice or a passing whiff of perfume reminded him of the man he used to be.

Which only pissed him off more.

“I was planning to hire a guy who used to be a sergeant,” he said.

She cleared the dishes from the table. “You certainly could use some discipline.”

Though he ground his teeth, he took the dishes from her hands. “I’ll do this. You cooked.” Surprise flickered through her eyes. “I may lack discipline, but I’m fair.”

She moved aside so he could rinse the dishes. “I’m sorry if I was abrupt. I was just telling you how I see things. There’s no point in pretending now, then confusing you later when you realize I’m a hard-ass.”

“You don’t look much like a hard-ass.”

“My size throws a lot of people off.”

His gaze slid from her face down her tiny frame. “I’ll bet.”

“I have four older brothers who are easily your size. I can hold my own with them. I can certainly handle you.”

The word
handle
set off a sensual spark in his brain, but he tamped it down. An attraction to his therapist wasn’t a complication he needed. He closed the dishwasher and leaned back against it, crossing his arms over his chest. He wasn’t in the same shape he’d been as a driver, but he was fairly certain he could lift her over his head without breaking a sweat. “Can you?”

BOOK: Winning It All
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