Authors: Wendy Etherington
“Mom is still seeing that florist from my wedding. Dad is seeing a dermatologist. And they’re all such good, polite
“What’s wrong with that?” Bryan asked. Anything was better than Mom crying and throwing bitter looks at the man she’d been married to for over thirty years. He, Cade and Rachel had had a brief moment of peace when their parents had danced at Cade’s wedding last May, but since then his parents had lapsed into tense silence whenever they were around each other. Friends sounded terrific.
“Just you wait,” Cade said, still pacing like a madman. “You’ll have to deal with them during the race. Why do you think I’m so anxious to get in the car?”
“You’re always anxious to get in the car,” Parker pointed out.
“And I’m not dealing with anybody,” Bryan said. “I’m sitting on the pit box beside Sam.” He had no doubt that Cade’s taciturn crew chief wouldn’t question him about moving on with his life or comment about whether or not he looked old and tired. “Parker can handle them.”
Parker’s eyes widened.
“Sure,” Bryan said. “You’re Diplomatic Guy. And part of the family. Convenient for us.” He nodded at Cade. “We’re not good at that stuff.”
Cade stopped pacing abruptly. “I can be diplomatic. Charming, even.”
“Used to be. At least with every hot blonde and brunette at the track. But since Isabel’s the only woman you look at now, that’s gone out the window.”
“But people still like me,” Cade protested.
Bryan shook his head. Sometimes he wondered about his brother. Fast on the track, but not so much otherwise—at least at the moment. “You really wanna argue this? Diplomatic Guy is the one who has to deal with Mom and Dad.”
“Oh, right.” He resumed pacing. “You think we can dump this on him?”
“I’m right here, you know,” Parker put in, rising to stand next to them.
Bryan and Cade both looked over at him. “You could get Rachel to help,” Bryan said, feeling a spasm of guilt for shoving family problems on their sponsor, even though their sponsor
“Probably,” Cade added.
Parker squared his shoulders confidently. “Of course I can. As my wife, she’s obligated.”
“Right.” Cade grinned. “I dare you to tell her that.”
“I’ve got twenty on Rachel,” Bryan said.
His brother-in-law smiled, and Bryan immediately regretted his bet. Any woman within glancing distance of that crafty, charismatic expression would bow at Parker’s feet. Bryan had actually seen it happen. Even normally strong and practical Rachel had been known to sigh, blush and giggle in his presence.
Though it was strange, she didn’t seem to mind.
“Oh, she’ll help.” Parker slid his hands into his pants pockets and rocked back on his heels.
The speculation in his eyes wasn’t something Bryan wanted to consider in relation to his sister. How Rachel negotiated favors and paybacks with her husband wasn’t any of his business.
“It’s perfectly healthy for your parents to date,” Parker continued. “What are you two so worried about?”
Bryan met his brother’s gaze: Cade nodded. “Have you happened to notice a trend in this family lately?” Bryan asked Parker.
“A romantic trend?” Cade clarified when Parker looked blank.
“You mean, two weddings within three months of each other?” Parker asked. “I don’t see what’s so terrible about—”
“About falling into the clutches of that sneaky naked baby known as Cupid?” Bryan choked out a laugh. “That’s because you’re still a newlywed.”
“Yeah, and we can’t have our parents—” Cade stopped suddenly and narrowed his eyes at Bryan. “Hey, I’m still a newlywed, too. There’s nothing wrong with being in love with your wife. Just because your marriage didn’t work out is no reason to put down the rest of us.”
“Hear, hear,” Parker said.
Cade looked thoughtful. “Still, the idea of Mom and Dad…remarried to other people.”
“It’s weird,” Bryan agreed. “We need to put a stop to this wedding trend.”
Parker smiled. “Afraid you’ll be walking down the aisle next?”
“No way.” Bryan scowled. He was through with women—long-term anyway. “Let’s stay focused on the topic at hand. You’ll deal with Mom and Dad today?”
“Will you hire Darcy?” Parker responded.
I walked right into that one.
Bryan sighed. “Sure. Fine.”
It was gonna be a helluva season.
INCE HIS DRIVERS HAD
finished fifth, sixth and tenth at Daytona, Bryan arrived at the local airstrip the next week for the flight to California with a reasonably positive outlook.
Which, for him, meant he wasn’t openly ticked off.
He ignored the ache in his knee as he climbed the steps to the GRI company jet. After a brief greeting to their longtime pilot, who hovered in the doorway and sipped from a coffee mug, he turned—and nearly bumped into Darcy Butler.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Garrison,” she said brightly, even cheerfully.
Her unexpected appearance, happy tone and lovely face immediately sent Bryan’s mood south.
Somehow, she immediately sensed his aggravation. She angled her head. “Surely you got Parker’s e-mail that I’d be flying west with all of you today?”
He hadn’t even turned on his computer today. “No. I’ve been working in the shop all day.”
“Well, I believe we agreed we’d start our training this weekend, so here I am.”
As he stared into her amazing eyes, his stomach tightened. “I need a beer.”
But as he started toward the cooler, she shoved a plastic cup with a lid and straw toward him. “I made you a protein shake.”
“I want a beer.”
a protein shake.”
She was blocking his path and didn’t seem inclined to move. As small as she was, he could have moved her himself, but he
hired her. He also felt a moment of embarrassment, since he hadn’t taken the time to make sure she had travel arrangements to California. Obviously, Parker had covered for him. Again.
He took the shake and sipped. Bananas and something else tropical he couldn’t identify. It didn’t even taste that bad, though he would have preferred the beer. “Nice,” he said, hoping that would satisfy her and she’d move away and let him be alone.
“It’s banana and mango. Parker said you’d probably prefer this one.”
His gaze slid to hers, and he felt the attraction for her like the sharp pain he normally attributed to his knee. “And Parker knows everything.”
“No, but he’s intuitive.” Her lips tipped up slightly. “For instance, he knew you’d conveniently forget your therapy this week and need him to make sure I actually came along on the trip to do the job I was hired for.”
Bizarrely, Bryan had to suppress the urge to laugh. “He’s good at details.”
“Yes, he is.” She pressed her hand against his, urging the plastic cup toward his mouth. “Drink. You’ll feel better.”
Though he didn’t see how that was possible, he did as she asked.
As his dad—and the dermatologist girlfriend—Cade, Isabel, Parker and Rachel walked on board, Bryan was able to retreat into the background. At least until he talked to Isabel about an upcoming charity event she’d committed the entire family to attending.
“You need a date,” she said firmly, crossing her arms over her chest.
“What the hell for?”
She glared at him. “For appearances.”
“I can appear just fine on my own.”
“I don’t think so.” She slid her fingers over his stubbled jaw. “You’re a little scruffy.”
After looking away for a moment, her gaze linked with his. “You’ve been letting yourself go lately.”
with the personal grooming tips? What was with this family lately?
“I’m busy,” he said tersely, but quietly, casting a brief look at Cade and his dad, who were standing a few feet away and laughing about a recent radio show discussion of the Garrison/Baker rivalry. “I have goals and responsibilities to this company. I accomplish those. Aren’t we the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions? Aren’t we the top—”
She held up her hand. “We are. But you don’t look like we’re on top. You look like…”
“Like what?” he countered when she didn’t elaborate.
“Like you’ve been on a three-day bender.”
All the air left his lungs. This was Isabel, his marketing guru, the woman who’d stabilized his playboy brother, who’d been a rock of support to the team, who’d given everybody much needed levity and dry wit when two GRI teams wound up competing against each other for the championship last season.
He bit back his anger and shock. “I had no idea you felt this way.”
“Sure you did. You just didn’t want to listen. Shave, find a suit, comb your hair and remember you’re
to be in charge.”
His blood pressure rising, he pressed his face close to hers. “I can be in charge without a shave or a suit.”
“You can,” she said, never flinching. “And if that was the only issue, I wouldn’t care less what you wore. But I want
to care, Bryan. I really think you need to care.”
Ignoring the kernel of truth in her words, he clenched his jaw. “I care plenty.”
Her eyes blazed with intensity. “Good. Because Cade wants that championship, and I’m going to do everything to make it happen except drive the car myself.” She turned away, then glanced back. “And I’d do that if I could.”
No pressure there.
Bryan walked to the back of the plane, grabbed a beer bottle from the cooler and slumped into a seat.
So it would be his fault if his baby brother didn’t win the championship? Did Isabel not think he wanted success for his team—his
She was entirely too demanding. Sure, she was good at her job. Amazing even. But if she thought for one second that he didn’t want, need…
success just as much as all the Garrisons, she’d been staring too long at logo-imprinted highlighters.
Within seconds, Darcy had plopped down next to him. Again, he had the sense that the woman had escaped from some child’s fairy-tale book.
“I see you found the beer,” she said, somehow throwing just a hint of censure into her tone.
Like he was a kid attempting to eat ice cream before dinner.
“I did,” he said, then deliberately took a long drink.
Lately, with his brother and sister paired up with their spouses, he sat alone or with his father during the flights to the tracks. With his dad’s date throwing a wrench in that plan today, he was stuck with his therapist.
Not stuck with. It wasn’t exactly torture to talk to her or be in her company. But a brief look into her golden eyes made his muscles tighten.
Maybe it was torture.
He was no good for a woman like her—calm and
positive and lovely. His anger would poison her. On the other hand, being a widow, she probably wasn’t eager to get involved with anybody, either. She probably kept an emotional distance from—
Seriously, dude, just stop.
He wasn’t getting involved. He’d hired her to do a job.
At the direction of the captain, they buckled their seat belts for takeoff. In a few moments, they were airborne. No long lines on the runway or jolts, jerks and rattles like on a commercial flight. Everyone’s hard work at GRI had afforded them many luxuries.
Hard work he was a vital part of, dammit. What was with Isabel nagging him? Questioning his commitment?
“Did you and Isabel have a fight?”
His beer bottle halfway to his lips, he lowered it at Darcy’s question. “No. I—” He glanced at her. “How do you know Isabel?”
“Parker introduced me to her months ago. I’ve met everyone in your family, except for your dad. Does your knee hurt?”
“No. Well, no more than usual. I should have introduced you to him.”
“Yes, you should have, Mr. Garrison. But I can do it myself later.”
He drummed his fingers on his thigh, then took another sip of beer. “Didn’t we already decide not to call each other Mr. This and Ms. That, since…”
Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, come on,
you can say it—
since we’ll be working together.
“Are you always this…” He trailed off, unable to articulate just what she was.
“I don’t think I’d have said that.”
“Honest? Efficient? Perceptive? Yes, yes and yes.” She smiled. “You’ll get used to me.”
His gaze, seemingly of its own accord, slid down her. In her leaf-green, terry-cloth warm-up suit, her light blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and her lips painted a glossy pink, he didn’t see how he’d ever get used to this fairy creature as part of his daily life.
“When we get to the hotel, we’ll do some yoga exercises that should help the stiffness in your knee.”
He wanted to ask how she knew his knee would be stiff later, but there was a much more important word in her statement. “Yoga?”
“Absolutely. It’s essential to any rehab program.”
“How is humming going to help?”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s meditation. You could use a healthy dose of that, too. It would help the bags under your eyes.”
Bags under his eyes? Honesty was an understatement with this woman.
“Yoga is both a physical and mental discipline of asanas—or postures,” she continued. “The controlled
breathing manages stress, increases lung efficiency and even calms your central nervous system. The training—along with my diet regime—will give you long, lean muscle tone. You’ll gain more flexibility in your hamstrings, back, shoulders and hips. It might even give you a positive frame of mind.”
She’s trying to kill me.
She patted his arm. “Don’t worry. It won’t hurt.” Then her eyebrows jumped together. “At least not much.”
ARCY STEPPED OFF
the jet on the grounds of the L.A. airport, she breathed deeply of the balmy Southern California air. It was terrific and bracing, and she couldn’t wait to work Bryan through the yoga routine, which would enable both of them to get rid of the negative energy and confinement of the flight.
She accompanied the rest of the family to the two SUVs that had been rented for the weekend. Being so far out west, the motor homes weren’t accompanying them, so they were all staying at Parker’s Beverly Hills hotel. In addition to accessibility to the on-site fitness center, he’d thoughtfully rented suites, so she and Bryan would have room for their workouts. Darcy had also consulted with the chef over the phone, so she could start her client’s nutrition regime even though she couldn’t physically do the cooking.
As the bags were loaded, she introduced herself to
Mitch Garrison, Bryan’s father, a two-time NASCAR champion. Even for a casual racing fan, the moment was surreal. He was a man admired and praised by thousands, maybe millions, yet she felt an immediate connection and was drawn to his easy charm.
“So you’re going to whip my son back into shape?” he asked.
“He’s in good shape, sir,” she said, only slightly exaggerating. “I’m going to help him alleviate his pain, so he can work with more efficiency.”
“Glad to hear it. What’s your plan on making that happen?”
“With cardio, weight training, yoga and diet. Low fat, high protein, whole grains and limited sugar.”
Mitch’s mouth turned up on one side. “With
“Of course.” Though she realized her ambitions were lofty, she was curious about Mitch’s take on Bryan’s commitment to getting better. “What—”
“Well, hello, Mitch.”
Darcy looked over to see a man about Mitch Garrison’s age, with brown-going-on-gray hair and dark brown eyes, standing beside a younger, extremely attractive couple, who looked bored.
“Baker,” Mitch said stiffly.
The air thickened, and Darcy sensed the people around her stopping, as if waiting for something and
unsure whether they would be called to action. She’d heard of the tension between the Bakers and Garrisons, of course, and, in that moment, she also realized who the young couple was.
Chance Baker and the former Mrs. Bryan Garrison.
She’d never actually met Chance or Nicole in Daytona, since Parker had intervened somehow and gotten them to hire the army guy, while she went to work for the Garrisons. Would the animosity between the families now include her? As silly as that seemed, Joe Baker was looking oddly at her and Mitch’s date.
“Who ya got with you, Mitch?” Joe asked.
Mitch looked as though he’d like to be anywhere else, talking to anyone else, but he forced a smile. “My friend, Leanne Tew, and one of our integral GRI staff, Darcy Butler.”
Joe rocked back on his heels. “They’re a little young for you, aren’t they?”
Darcy nearly gasped. Instead, sensing another stare, she looked over her shoulder and directly into Bryan’s eyes. His jaw was clenched; his face had turned to stone.
“Let’s go, Dad,” Chance said. “What’re we hanging around these losers for?”