Banking on Hope

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Ever since the explosive scandal that ended his high-flying NASCAR career, Brent Sanford wants only to clear his name. Then he meets Hope Hunt, Sanford Racing's new team-building consultant. The Dallas psychologist is gorgeous, smart and asks too many questions—the last thing he needs in his life right now.

Hope wants to believe Brent—wants to believe in his innocence. The racing-star-turned-charter-pilot insists he was set up by someone out to destroy his family. But is she ...

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Ever since the explosive scandal that ended his high-flying NASCAR career, Brent Sanford wants only to clear his name. Then he meets Hope Hunt, Sanford Racing's new team-building consultant. The Dallas psychologist is gorgeous, smart and asks too many questions—the last thing he needs in his life right now.

Hope wants to believe Brent—wants to believe in his innocence. The racing-star-turned-charter-pilot insists he was set up by someone out to destroy his family. But is she ready to put her heart on the line? Is Brent the man she thinks he is—someone she can trust…and love?

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780373185306
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 12/1/2009
  • Series: Harlequin NASCAR Series
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 4.10 (w) x 6.60 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Being a self-employed industrial psychologist had its perks, Dr. Hope Hunt thought as she wheeled her suitcase onto the tarmac of a small Dallas airport. Her latest consulting job was in her hometown of Charlotte where her family lived. Another advantage was that her client there—Sanford Racing—had chartered a private plane to fly her to and from its corporate headquarters.

Hope's eyes widened when she caught sight of the tall, lean, very-interesting-looking-from-the-backside pilot checking the single engine airplane parked beyond the chain-link fence. He wore black slacks and a crisply ironed, pale blue dress shirt that gave his powerful body an aura of brisk efficiency. Sunlight glinted off his thick brown hair. As he made his way around the plane, she noted he moved with the sinuous tread of a big cat. Pursing her lips, Hope decided the awesome view was just one more perk to add to the list.

Not that she was interested in anything more than some pleasant conversation with the man who'd be at the plane's controls. Experience had taught her that a delectable-looking package could camouflage a treacherous soul. Still, there was no harm in looking. And looking she was.

Which is why her throat snapped shut the instant he turned to inspect the tip of one of the wings and she got a good look at his face.

Her newest client, Adam Sanford, hadn't mentioned he planned to send his brother, the notorious babe magnet and disgraced former NASCAR driver, to pick her up!

There'd been a time when Brent Sanford showed up regularly on sports broadcasts and eligible bachelor lists. That was before the scandal, which had ended his racing career.

Watching him, Hope's eyesnarrowed while she gave herself a moment to evaluate the situation that faced her. In her job, she analyzed problems using compassion and a sense of fairness, meaning she was well versed in finding the silver lining in any dark cloud. So she scoured her memory while she trained her gaze over Sanford's clear-cut profile, studying the hard geometry of his jaw, the no-nonsense curve of his mouth. The bad-boy black-lensed sunglasses he wore just added to his total appeal. Bottom line, the man looked like the kind of fantasy a woman didn't want to wake up from.

But Hope was wide-awake and now operating in analytical psychologist mode. In Sanford's defense, he had earned an entirely different reputation as a top-notch pilot who'd made a stunning success of the air charter service he started after his racing career tanked. She knew all too well how much hard work and fortitude it took to establish—and operate—a successful business. If for no other reason, she could credit the man for proficiency in his current endeavor.

Tightening her fingers on the handle of her suitcase, she squared her shoulders. The plane he was examining was a two-seater—no way could she fly for hours beside him while acting as if she considered him a low-life cheat. She'd been born with the gift of gab, a skill she'd refined over the years, so she would be polite to Brent Sanford and keep her personal opinion of him to herself. No reason things shouldn't run smoothly during their flight, she told herself as she headed across the tarmac.

The sound of high heels clicking against asphalt had Brent turning. He recognized the brunette heading his way on the opposite side of the chain-link fence from the picture he'd seen on her Web site. She wore a tailored black suit on her slim, tight frame. The skirt stopped just above the knees and was slit on one side, showing off what seemed like a mile of leg. Great-looking legs. She pulled a suitcase behind her with one hand while she carried a slim leather briefcase in the other.

Business sexy.

A pair of black designer-looking sunglasses camouflaged her eyes, which he remembered from her picture were a smoky-gray. Her dark hair was board straight, the blunt-cut locks clipped to just about chin level. When he opened the gate in the fence and got a closer look at her, he thought: classy. She had God-given perfect bone structure. Her skin was lightly tanned, her lips colored in rich peach.

Although that mouth was curved up at the corners, the stiff set of her shoulders made him suspect that Dr. Hope Hunt recognized him and knew all about his past. No surprise there. Almost everyone in her family had some sort of connection to NASCAR, so it would have taken a major miracle for his current fare not to have heard about his notorious past.

Which was something he'd known the instant his brother asked him to fly Hope Hunt while she was under contract to Sanford Racing. Considering his tarnished reputation, he'd have preferred to have the option of avoiding anyone with even the vaguest ties to racing and, more specifically, to NASCAR. But he had busted his butt to build Sanford Aviation from the ground up. He owned two planes outright, and had just doubled up on payments on his pride and joy, a six-seater Lear. He had rent, salaries and other expenses to pay, so he didn't have the option of turning down business. Even if it meant staying on the edges of the profession in which most people considered him a liar and a cheat.

Good thing he'd long ago accepted the hand fate had dealt him and resolved not to let what other people thought of him matter. If the classy brunette about to climb into his plane considered him lower than slime, so be it.

When she reached the open gate, she held out her hand. "Captain Sanford, I'm Hope Hunt."

He lifted a brow as his hand encompassed hers. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Hunt. Why don't you call me Brent?"

Hope almost faltered at the firmness in his grip. His fingers were strong, his skin rougher than those of the business executives with whom she usually associated. The heat that seemed to zigzag between their palms made her heart lurch.

She was so dismayed by her reaction, she barely registered his question. "Uh, Brent it is. I'm Hope." She suspected he'd felt the sensation, too. Why else would his hand linger on hers a moment longer than necessary?

He nodded toward her suitcase. "Let me take that for you."

She watched him heft her bag into the luggage area behind the plane's front seats, then he turned and gave her high heels a pointed look. "I'd better help you into the plane."

"All right."

His hold on her elbow was as equally strong as it had been on her hand. As she belted herself into the copilot's seat, she noted her heart was still beating too fast.

How pitiful was it that she would respond so easily to the simple touch of a man's hand? Not just any man, either, but one who epitomized the same morally bankrupt personality traits of the snake who'd broken her heart to bits.

She watched as he started the engine, adjusted controls. "Flying…Charlotte…be…less…three…."

"What?" she asked over the engine's loud drone.

He retrieved the copilot's headset, handed it to her and motioned for her to put it on.

"We'll be in the air about three hours," he said. "Feel free to read, take a nap."

She shook her head. "I don't mind flying in small planes, but I never relax enough to do either," she responded into the microphone.

"Unfortunately, Sanford Aviation doesn't show inflight movies." He reached into a compartment on the door beside him and pulled out a small bag. His mouth quirked up on one side. "But we do offer peanuts and bottled water to our guests."

Even over the headphones she heard the dryness that had settled into his voice. She would give the man points for having a sense of humor.

"Thanks," she said and accepted the bag.

As they taxied toward the runway, her gaze lingered on his hands, so sure and steady on the controls. Those same hands had steered race cars to heart-stopping finishes. She had even been in the stands and witnessed some of those races. He had won them fair and square. The psychologist in her would love to delve into his mind and find out what had motivated him to cheat to try to win that last race.

Mulling that over, she busied herself with opening the bag of nuts while he conversed with the controller in the tower.

Soon, the plane lifted into the air, as smooth as silk.

So far, so good, she thought and tilted the bag his way. "Want some?"

Brent slid her a sideways look, his gaze stopping on her hand gripping the bag. Her fingers were long and slender, her nails polished a petal-pale. When he'd shaken that hand, he'd found it soft and small, but firm enough. He was still trying to figure out what the heck the sensation was that he'd felt running up his arm the instant flesh had met flesh. "No thanks."

A psychologist, he thought as he took in her profile. She looked as if she should be leading cheers at a varsity game. Or sipping some high-dollar brandy at a ritzy hotel. He wasn't certain why both images seemed to suit her, but they did. It was the image of a doctor that didn't. Weren't psychologists supposed to be staid and wrinkled and sit in a dusty office while probing into people's minds? Or was that a psychiatrist? And what the heck was the difference between the two professions?

"Something wrong?" she asked.

"No." He flicked his gaze back to the controls. And because she'd caught him studying her, he added, "Your brother is a crew chief for one of Sanford Racing's teams. I see the resemblance."

"Since we have the same father but different mothers, does that mean you're implying I have a five o'clock shadow and unruly hair like Ethan?"

The grin Brent flashed put a slow, liquid tug in Hope's belly. Instantly, an alarm blasted in her head. Oh, no. No, no, no! The last time she'd felt that sensation she'd wound up engaged to a two-faced creep whose secret passion had been scamming rich Texas widows. Brent Sanford might be a prime piece of eye candy, but she'd rather be boiled in oil than have anything to do with another man who saw nothing wrong with cheating to get what he wanted.

"I should have said I see a family resemblance between you and Ethan," he said. "Same mouth shape. Similar jawline. Facial hair doesn't come into play."

Lord, even his voice sounded suddenly softer coming over her headphones. The quivering sensation in her stomach deepened, making her feel vulnerable and exposed.

Her fingers clenched on the bag of nuts and she could almost feel a sense of self-preservation surge inside of her, along with a ripple of panic. So much for being polite. She needed to erect a wall, and the quickest way to do that was to let Brent Sanford know she was aware of exactly what kind of person he was.

"I guess you know my other brother Jared, too," she said. "And my dad. He was crew chief for Cargill Motors for years."

"I've met them."

She noted the muscle that had gone tight in Brent's jaw. Not a surprise—it had been a Cargill-owned car at the center of the scandal that ended his racing career.

"I used to have more time to go to the track," Hope added. "So, I've seen you race. The last time," she added pointedly, "was at Talladega."

Message received, loud and clear, Brent thought. Talladega had been where his career had unraveled. For some reason, the good doctor had decided he needed to know she'd witnessed the entire fiasco in person.

Fine. Dandy.

He reached down, retrieved a map and as good as shoved it into her hand. "Do me a favor and check our location."

Hope blinked. "You don't know?" She waved a hand toward the dash. "Isn't that a GPS screen?"

"It is. But I use it more for backup." He inclined his head. "Check out the window for towns, lakes, railroad tracks, highways. Anything that can be used as a point of reference. Then find it on the map."

Despite her sunglasses, he could see her eyes had narrowed. "Do you require everyone who flies with you to navigate?"

"No." Just the ones who bring up my past, Brent thought, then banked the plane into a turn.

By the time they landed in Charlotte and walked into the fixed base operator's service facility, the tugs on Hope's conscience were sharp and impatient. Her job was all about looking for reasons, causes, then to treat. Not to judge. It had always been a matter of pride that she had the ability to put personal emotions aside when dealing with clients, and anyone else, for that matter.

That had so not been the case with Captain Handsome. The only excuse she could come up with for taking a swipe at Brent Sanford was that his too-charming-for-his-own-good grin had shocked her libido out of the hibernation it had been in for the past two years.

Apparently she was attracted to men of low moral fiber. This time, though, she knew the type of land mines that could be hidden behind a compelling grin. She had no intention of walking onto that type of danger zone again.

"Brent! Glad you're back." A blonde with vivid blue eyes and a slight Southern drawl motioned to him from behind the customer service counter. She was tall and slim and wore a sleeveless blouse that showed off tanned, well-toned arms.

He acknowledged the woman with a nod, then looked at Hope. "I need to drop some paperwork by my office." He pulled off his sunglasses and anchored one earpiece in the pocket of his starched blue shirt. She discovered that his eyes were so deeply brown it was impossible to see a boundary between pupil and iris. "That won't take long," he added. "Then I'll drive you to my brother's office."

"You don't have to do that. I grew up here, so I know my way around. I can rent a car."

"My brother asked me to drive you to Sanford Racing. I told him I would." He raised a shoulder. "Believe it or not, I keep my word."

Ouch. The swipe she'd taken at him had definitely hit the target. Hope's conscience pinged a little louder. If she let him drive her, she could use the opportunity to apologize.

"All right, then." She swept a hand toward a comfortable-looking sofa and chairs near a grouping of vending machines. "I'll wait there."

She watched him walk toward the counter, noting again the economy of movement in his gait. Even so, she sensed a restlessness in him. It was difficult not to appreciate the way he held it in check.

When he reached the counter, he opened the leather satchel he'd carried in from the plane and pulled out a small package wrapped in gold and topped with a red bow.

The blonde beamed a smile when he handed her the gift. Then she leaned across the counter and pressed a kiss to his cheek.

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