Authors: Wendy Etherington
With all six foot two inches of him standing before her, hair rumpled, wearing nothing but faded, low-slung jeans, she tried to swallow around her dry throat
and wound up coughing. She managed to gesture to the room service waiter behind her. “Feeding you.”
“At six-freakin’-o’clock in the morning?”
“You have to be at the track in little more than two hours, don’t you? You need a healthy breakfast before we go.”
He started to close the door. “I can grab a doughnut at the track.”
She stepped forward to block the opening and waggled her finger in front of him. “Oh, no. There will be no eating from the doughnut family today. There will also be no cheeseburgers, fries or soda.”
A spasm of guilt crossed his face before he settled on disbelief. “How’d you find out?”
“After last night’s menu changing, the hotel kitchen has been directed to inform me of everything you order.”
He sighed. “Parker.”
Unconcerned with his anger and frustration, Darcy studied her fingernails. “You could always transfer out of this palace to the local fleabag motel. Then you could have whatever you want. Since it’s race weekend, I’m sure they wouldn’t charge you more than three hundred dollars a night.”
He said nothing, and she found herself disappointed. His spirit was broken in so many ways.
Summoning every professional instinct she possessed, she hardened her gaze. “So, because you chose not to eat healthy last night, we will start again this morning.” She paused significantly. “With oatmeal.”
Glaring at her, he shook his head. “No way, sister.”
“Come along, Ming,” she said to the waiter. She stood against the open door, so the waiter could push his white-linen-covered cart into the room.
Bryan leaned against the wall, his arms crossed over his bare chest. The sharpness in his eyes had turned them pewter-gray and spoke of a restful night, even though his expression was pure, raging thunder.
Truth be told, he was incredibly sexy when he was angry. Maybe it was all that energy and power so tenuously held behind a crumbling dam. Maybe it was simply a chemical thing between the two of them. Regardless, Darcy thanked all the saints for Ming’s presence.
“How’d you sleep?” she asked, hoping to diffuse the tension.
“Better than usual?”
Mr. Communicative. Good grief, he tried her patience. “How’s your knee?”
“Does it usually hurt in the morning?”
She watched him struggle between the truth and his pride. Thankfully, he chose honesty. “Yes.”
“I wonder what you’ve done recently to cause the change?”
Not waiting for the answer, she crossed to Ming and signed his check so that he could get on with his day.
She glanced around the room, which was decorated in steel, wood and neutral colors. The clean-lined furniture, skillful lighting and interesting shapes in art and other accessories fit the progressive California lifestyle. With little effort, she imagined the same furnishings in a 1930s art-deco apartment and had little doubt that Parker had approved of the design personally.
Bryan, by contrast, had probably taken no notice of his surroundings. He was a single-minded man. Her husband, Tom, had been that way about his job, about protecting the lives and property of people in their community.
He wouldn’t have given a hang about the room decoration, either.
Startled by the direction of her thoughts, she waited for regret to wash over her. For shame, at comparing her deceased husband to another man, to overwhelm her.
Both did, with aching swiftness. Her heart and stomach clenched. She braced her hand against the table to keep herself upright.
Thankfully, Bryan either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and the weakness passed quickly. As she shoved her personal issues aside, she pulled a steel-framed chair over to the room service table Ming had set up. “Have a seat,” she said to her client.
His arms still crossed over his chest, he shook his head. “No.”
“No. I’m not a kid. You’re here to train, let’s train. But I’m not eating mush.”
“I’m here to
you,” she felt compelled to point out, and she was getting tired of arguing, defending and persuading him to get with the program. “You’re not ready for training.”
He leaned toward her, fury suffusing his face. “I’m a professional athlete.”
The moment the words were out of his mouth, he leaned back. Realization of just how wrong he was turned his face pale.
He moved away. As oddly embarrassed as she felt having this conversation with a half-dressed man, a man who’d lost everything and had no idea how to get his life back, she sensed opportunity. She needed something from Bryan she hadn’t yet received but absolutely had to have.
“Obviously, I’m not an athlete anymore,” he began in a slow, measured voice. “But I was for a long time.”
Now wasn’t the time to mention she’d also ordered scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon and mixed fresh fruit. Frankly, she wasn’t a big fan of oatmeal herself. She’d ordered the dish mostly out of spite.
She should probably feel guilty, but with a take-charge man like Bryan Garrison as her client, she needed all the advantages she could get.
“Sit,” she said to the stubborn, annoyingly aggravating, attractive…seriously hurting man beside her.
His eyebrows raised with the practiced effort of the blue-blood set. “Excuse me?”
Since she knew he wasn’t high society, she decided Parker had been an influence on the Garrison family. Change was inevitable. Good, even.
She tapped the back of the chair. “This will go over better if you sit.”
“More yoga torture?” he asked as he walked slowly toward her.
No. Much worse.
When he was seated, she stood facing him. “If we’re going to work together, we’re going to have to be honest with each other.”
“You haven’t been honest so far?”
“I have. Maybe honest is the wrong word. Let’s call this getting real with ourselves.” She paused, considering the lingering ache in her heart. “Well, getting real with you.”
He said nothing, just looked wary.
“I know you’re angry and embarrassed about your ex-wife leaving you. I know what it’s like to have someone you love stripped away. Everything you once had seems like an illusion.”
“I’m fine being divorced,” he said, his jaw clenched so tightly she wasn’t sure how he spoke. “I like being alone. My feelings about it are none of your business.”
“They certainly are when they affect my training program. You need a motivation to get better, so I’m giving you one.” She met his gaze. “Revenge.”
Something flashed through his eyes, and she pounced on the opportunity.
“You know the best way to get your confidence and pride back?” she asked him. “Looking and feeling amazing. Letting her know you’ve moved on, and you’re happy about it.”
“My pride is—”
She ignored his protest and rolled on. “Maybe you don’t want to subscribe to my theories or do the work required for my program, but you understand revenge, don’t you? That’s angry and forceful, and you can get behind an idea like that.” She paused and leaned close. “Can’t you?”
HE WAS A FAIRY ONE MINUTE
and a bloodthirsty warrior the next.
Part of him was humiliated by the personal details she knew. Another part of him was intrigued by her reaction and impressed by her strategy.
Yes, revenge was an idea he could embrace. And for the first time since his accident, he was energized by a proposition. A goal that had nothing to do with racing.
Nicole had married him because of what he did, what he offered, not who he was. She’d used him ruthlessly, and he still felt as if he’d done something wrong, that he should have been able to hold on to her and his life—even if both were an illusion.
A wife was supposed to support her husband through good and bad, and she hadn’t. Marriage wasn’t easy. He certainly wasn’t easy to deal with most of the time. But she’d left when he’d needed her most.
At some point, he ought to stop blaming himself.
Hell, even his stable parents hadn’t been able to hold things together after his accident. For some unknown reason, the end of his career had caused irre
parable harm in their relationship. Again, he couldn’t control that. Much as he’d like to.
He couldn’t alter the past, but he could adjust his present and his future. That was what Darcy was offering—a chance to change. A challenge to accept what was, not wish for what had been. To quit wallowing and start moving forward.
Maybe he’d never drive again, or trust another woman again. But he could be whole. At least in his own way.
He stood and walked toward the sliding-glass doors to the balcony and thought about what Darcy had said. He
need a motivation. Something to jolt him from this rut. Workwise, he had drive and focus. He gave everything to GRI. Why couldn’t he share that commitment with himself?
And if he could show up his traitorous ex or that jerk Chance Baker, all the better.
“Aye,” he said finally, turning to face Darcy. “I understand revenge.”
She smiled as he’d hoped she would. “Good.” She waggled her finger back and forth. “But we’re not drinking beer and singing songs about war and lost love in the pub.”
He blinked. “Do what?”
“That’s what the Irish do before, after and sometimes during revenge quests.”
He recalled that movie from years ago. “Is that where the blue body paint comes in?”
She wrinkled her nose. “That’s the Scots. We ought not get started on them. Instead, we’ll start on the treadmill.” She extended her hand toward the table. “Right after breakfast.”
“Change is sometimes painful,” she said, grabbing his hand and tugging him into the chair. “But rewarding.”
He was sorry when he was seated and no longer touching her. The faint scent of vanilla and something citrusy drifted over him whenever they were close. He wished he could put his finger on just what the smell reminded him of, but the thought was yanked away as she pulled the silver cover off the breakfast plate.
Amazingly, there was more than oatmeal—he’d have to remember his trainer had a sneaky, as well as demanding, streak. There were scrambled eggs, something round that wasn’t exactly ham and fruit. As they were in SoCal, this meant exotic stuff like mango, pineapple and something star-shaped that tasted great even if it looked a little weird.
In the gym, she urged him on the scale, where he was embarrassed to discover he’d put on twenty pounds since the last time he’d weighed himself. Though his instinct—besides crawling under a rock—was to run until he fell down, ridiculously hopeful he could run off all those pounds in one morning, Darcy directed him to walk briskly for thirty
minutes, then do a short yoga stretch. She assured him weight loss and injury rehab were measured in millimeters, not miles.
By the time he’d shaved, showered and dressed, he felt energized and ready to head to the track.
“Morning,” he said, peeking over his newspaper when Cade and Isabel found him and Darcy at the appointed meeting spot in the lobby at seven.
Eyes wide, their hands wrapped tightly around travel coffee mugs, they stared at him.
“Huh?” Isabel asked after a long, silent delay, her forehead wrinkled suspiciously.
Isabel looked at Cade. “He spoke to me.”
“He even said it…cheerfully.” Cade angled his head, staring at Bryan. “Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay. What’s with you two?”
Cade pointed, his finger trembling. “I think he smiled. Izzy, quick, get the camera.”
Bryan grabbed his brother’s finger and shoved it away. “Cut it out. I smile.”
Simultaneously, Cade and Isabel looked at each other, then shook their heads.
What’s with people in this family?
His playboy brother could fall like a brick for a hot-tempered half-Italian his business-minded sister could coo—and he meant that literally—at a blue-blooded hotel chain owner, but he was, well…pleasant, and they all looked as if they were going to faint or call the media.
Bryan ground his teeth and glared at them. “I’m not smiling anymore.”
“Come on, guys,” Darcy said, stepping between them. “A good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast does wonders.” She raised her eyebrows. “Which I can tell neither one of you have had much of in the last twenty-four hours.”
While Cade and Isabel huddled over their coffee and mumbled something about champagne and needing a bagel, Bryan felt positively righteous. He was the one always getting the speech about more rest and taking better care of himself.
Oh, how the worm has turned.
After a brief nod at his trainer, he went back to reading his newspaper, and when Dad, Leanne, Parker and Rachel showed up a few minutes later, he gleefully gave them all a big, wide smile.
They, in turn, all looked on the verge of passing out face-first on the floor, so he whistled as he walked out to the valet stand to call for their SUVs.
On the way to the track, he wound up in a car with his dad—who, thankfully, didn’t bring up the smiling—and they got down to business, discussing the day ahead. There was practicing, a sponsor hospitality event and qualifying to handle. They went over all the technical aspects of the cars’ setups and called all the crew chiefs to confirm a meeting at Cade’s hauler before qualifying that afternoon.
Between now and then there were a million things
to do—sign in at the NASCAR hauler, check with the mechanics and engineers to be sure they were ready to go, meet with each driver and verify they were comfortable with the setups, visit with the over-the-wall crew and give them a pep talk.
Though he rarely saw his trainer—except when she showed up to supervise lunch—he thought about her, the revenge mission she’d inspired…and the faint mix of fruit-laden vanilla he couldn’t seem to forget.
E WAS SMILING,
” Rachel Garrison Huntington said, tapping a pen against the notebook on the desk in front of her.
Nodding, and trying not to act smug, Darcy sipped her tea and propped her elbow on the red leather sofa’s arm. “I saw.”
“What my wife is trying to say is
” Parker said, leaning back into the opposite end of the sofa with his cup of coffee.
They were in the back room of Cade’s hauler, which was used as a combination office, meeting room and locker room. Especially at a track where the drivers didn’t have their motor homes, they relied on the transporters—which hauled the cars and equipment from race to race every week—as a refuge from the chaos of press, fans and other competitors in the garage area.
With qualifying underway, the teams were occupied, so she’d finally had an opportunity to talk to
Parker and Rachel and apologize for her outburst with Joe Baker the day before. They had no problem with her unprofessional comments, and, thankfully, didn’t even see them as unprofessional. Like Cade and Isabel, they seemed to consider her defense of GRI as a test of loyalty she’d passed. They were thrilled to have her on their side.
And, for the first time in a long time, she also felt like part of a team. The firefighters her husband worked with always had family cookouts and camping trips, and they had bonded in the joys and dangers of the profession. She’d never expected to find that comradery again.
” Rachel repeated.
“I admit we were concerned about your ability to deal with Bryan,” Parker added, wordily translating Rachel’s disbelief. “He can be temperamental at times.”
Darcy was all too familiar with Bryan’s irritability. His “Steel” nickname was well-earned. “It’s understandable. He’s been through a lot.”
“Sure,” Rachel said. “But shouldn’t he be over all that stuff by now? It’s been four years.”
Dousing her own surge of temper, Darcy carefully set her cup back in her saucer—the china was fine and no doubt expensive. “No. In fact, he may never get over
all that stuff.”
Rachel’s face flushed. “Sorry. That was pretty insensitive. I’m just—”
“You’re happy and impatient for him to be, too.”
Darcy knew Rachel wanted the best for her brother; she was simply unsure how to help him.
It was this kind of conflict that made Darcy think remaining an outsider would be best for her client. She could be loyal to the Garrisons and cheer for them above every other NASCAR team, but it was essential she maintain a bit of distance.
Though she was failing at that goal miserably.
“Losing your wife and your life’s ambition in one sweep is pretty traumatic,” Parker said quietly.
Rachel’s gaze darted to her husband’s. “What would you do if I left you?”
“Pine remorsefully the rest of my miserable life.”
Rachel grinned. “You bet your ass you would.”
As cute as these two were, Darcy had her own agenda to push. “About Bryan…”
“This is why she’s good,” Parker said, lifting his coffee cup in a toast. “She relentlessly keeps you on task.”
“He’s making progress,” Darcy continued, accepting Parker’s compliment with a nod. “But there’s a long way to go. I’ve convinced him to get on board with my program somewhat, but he has no idea what’s coming.”
Her expression gleeful, Rachel leaned forward. “Can I please,
watch when he does realize what he’s in for?”
Darcy couldn’t think of a single response to that zealous idea.
“Darling, please,” Parker managed with a wince.
Rachel shrugged. “Hey, you guys weren’t around when big brother was building firecrackers and putting them under my bed in the middle of the night.”
Darcy reminded herself they were a family, not just a business. They were supposed to be both, of course, but she’d bet ninety-five percent of their conflicts came from merging those two opposing goals. “Bryan’s making progress,” she repeated, “but I think he could benefit from some emotional counseling.”
Both Rachel and Parker shook their heads. “He won’t go,” Rachel said. “We’ve tried for years.”
Darcy had anticipated this response, though she’d still felt compelled to make sure Bryan’s family understood the scope of his recovery. “Then the best I can offer is physical strength and confidence. For a man like him, that’s most of the battle.”
Rachel and Parker exchanged a look. “We have full confidence in you,” Parker said. “And, frankly, we’re not all that concerned about him at the moment,” Parker began.
“We know it’ll take time with Bryan,” Rachel said.
Parker leaned forward. “But we wanted to meet today to find out not only how he was doing, but how
were handling everything.”
“I’m handling everything just fine,” Darcy said automatically. It was a defensive response to the panicked idea that she wasn’t fine at all, the reply she gave to everybody who had been concerned about her
emotional state over the last year. But Rachel and Parker weren’t talking about her grieving process, they were simply being kind. “You really don’t need to worry about me. I’ve handled difficult clients before.”
Rachel scowled. “So, he’s difficult.”
“He’s…” Darcy could hardly say he hadn’t been difficult, but neither could she deny the encouraging moments. She and Bryan had turned a corner this morning. They’d drawn closer, become a team. That bond was as essential in her business as it was in racing.
And just as precarious.
“I think we’ve come to an understanding,” she said finally, meeting both Parker’s and Rachel’s gazes in turn, hoping they’d drop the subject and let her handle Bryan on her own terms for the next few weeks. As much as the growing bond between her and her client made her uncomfortable on a personal level, they had to work out their issues one-on-one. Interference by his family would only strengthen Bryan’s defensive walls.
“As Rachel pointed out, it will take some time,” Parker said, rising. He’d apparently picked up on Darcy’s reticence. “In the meantime, there are sponsors to be coddled.”
Rachel sent him an amused look. “Does that include you?”