Read an Excerpt
Smolder for me, Will," the photographer urged.
Will Branch narrowed his eyes. "What the devil does that mean?"
"There!" She snapped several shots. "That works."
Her assistant grinned. "Yeah. Even frowning, he's hot. You could be a model, you know."
He winced. "Not a chance. I'm a race car driver, end of story."
"But female fans love you, and now more of America will, with this fashion magazine spread. You and your twin are going to set some new hearts pounding. Want to see the shots we did of Bart yesterday?"
"No thanks." Will glanced at his watch and groaned. "Tell me we're finished. The NASCAR Awards Banquet starts in an hour. I should never have agreed to sandwich this in."
"Yeah, but you've already got on your tux," the assistant pointed out.
Will glanced down at the bare chest framed by a tuxedo shirt, jeans in place of dress pants. He rolled his eyes.
She grinned unrepentantly. "Well, part of it, anyway."
He returned the grin. He thought about getting her phone number for the next time he was in New York but resisted. He was set for a rock-climbing trip back in Texas right after he got back to Dallas, then he'd go hunting in Virginia with his twin. After Christmas, he'd squeeze in some snowboard-ing before the whole season began again. Cities weren't his thing, anywayand he preferred spontaneous companionship over hard and fast plans. Being tied down was also not his thing. He was only thirty; plenty of time to get serious about life later.
He raced from the studio and back to the hotel to change. He'd rather have been getting his picture taken with a championship trophy belonging to him, but after all the chaos of the 2008 season caused by hisbastard father, simply making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup had been monumentaland finishing seventh wasn't chump change.
Next year he'd win it all. No fugitive embezzler father to deal with, no tell-all book by his father's bimbo mistress. No lost sponsors, no devastated mother to comfort. His dad was in jail, the book was old news, he had a sponsor at lastone for whom he had to seriously toe the lineand his mom was now married to a great guy, so Will didn't have to worry about her anymore.
In 2009, he'd concentrate on racing. Period. Even womenhowever much he did enjoy themwould take a backseat.
He was tying his bow tie and muttering over it when his cell phone rang. He nearly didn't answer, but he glanced at the ID, then frowned.
Zoe Hitchens, his best friend's wifenearly ex-wife, actually. The woman who'd broken Tanner's heart.
Who'd been Will's girl firstand waited exactly no time before leaping into bed with the best friend he had outside of his brother. She married Tanner and completed the package with a baby.
Though, to be fair, Will had been the one to initiate the separation ten years before. His dad had insisted that he was losing focus, demanded that he get his head on straight to have a chance to move up from NASCAR Whelen All-American Series to a NASCAR Nationwide Series ride next stop, the holy grail of stock car racing, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. As Hilton had pointed out, Bart was definitely going to make it, and if Will didn't have his priorities right, Bart would leave him behind.
The bond between twins was fiercebut so was the competition. Will had told Zoe they were becoming too serious; she'd only been nineteen and he, twenty-one.
But man, he had trouble getting over her, getting her out of his thoughtsuntil the day he'd received an urgent message from Zoe and returned the call, only to reach Tanner instead.
Tanner had been the one to inform him that he and Zoe were now together, had been in love for a long time. Planned to get married. What a shock that had been.
Will couldn't say he'd had an easy go of it, but he'd gotten past the blow eventually. He and Tanner, buddies since they were eight, had patched things up a few years later. A long history and being the next thing to brothers had eventually healed the breach.
Somehow Zoe's betrayal hurt much worse, and he had given her wide berth ever since. When he visited Dallas, he and Tanner hung out, but always somewhere else. She'd made Tanner happyuntil six months ago, when Zoe abruptly moved out and filed for divorce.
And broke his buddy's heart to bits. Tanner hadn't been the same since, and the divorce would be final soon. Zoe had to know that Will couldn't stand her. So why was she calling him?
Then it hit him that something might have happened to Tanner, and Will grabbed the phone quick. "What?"
Silence greeted him.
"Zoe?" he pushed. "What is it? Tanner okay?"
Her voice, when it came, was heavy. "Will I don't know how to tell you this."
Somehow he knew it before she said the words. "No."
"No. I just talked to him" When was it? Champions Week had been a blur of publicity rounds, photo ops, fans and parties. "Sunday. I talked to him on Sunday." This was Friday.
"I'm sorry." Her voice was tight.
Will closed his eyes. Pictured a boy with red hair and freckles. A man bowed down by misery. "What happened?"
"They're not sure."
No. God, no. Tanner had been despondent when they last spoke, but he was going rock-climbing with Will next week. "This is your fault." Will didn't attempt to keep the bitterness from his tone.
In the silence he heard a sob. He refused to feel sorry for her. She'd been heartless, first with him and now with a man who didn't deserve what she'd done to him. He hoped she suffered. A lot.
He was to blame, too, though. He and Tanner weren't as close as when they'd been kids. Still, Tanner had stuck by him through all the misery with Will's dad. Will should have realized Tanner was in serious trouble. "When's the funeral?"
A pause. "Tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow? What's the rush? He just" Will couldn't say the word died, not in connection with his friend. "Hell, Zoe, you got what you wanted. You're free of him, so why the hurry to put him in the ground?"
"It's not He died two days ago, but they're doing an autopsy and it may be weeks before the toxicology"
"Two days ago?" Will shouted. "And you're just now calling me?" Dallas wasn't across the globe. Why hadn't he heard? Though he could guess: because Tanner wasn't a celebrity, so his death wasn't important to the media. Or to his widow, apparently.
"No one's sure what happened, Will. We're praying it wasn't self-inflicted, but the cause of death isn't obvious yet. Tanner's parents are a wreck," she continued. "And I'm trying to protect Sam. It's all on me, and I'm doing the best I can, but" Her voice broke. "I knew you'd be like this."
"Like what? Mad as hell that you broke my friend's heart? Made him so miserable that he"
"Will, please. I thought his parents were going to contact you. I just now found out they hadn't. I knew it was going to be tough on you, and this is a big week for you. I'm sorry."
"The NASCAR Awards Banquet is about to start. I'm supposed to be there." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Never mind. I'll get the first flight out." He glanced again at his watch. He was going to be late, and everyone would already be there, sponsors, his car ownerand he'd barely cemented relations with this new sponsor. Appearances, after all the scandal attached to the Branch name, were crucial; that had been pounded into his head. No negative publicity, Will, Sandra Taney, owner of MMG, Will's PR firm and wife of his car owner Gideon Taney, had drilled into him. But how could he go now, knowing that Tanner was dead?
"I know this doesn't give you much time. I didn't pick the schedule for the service. His parents don't seem to care if you make it or not, but I knew you'd take it hard if you weren't here " Her voice trailed off. "I've been focused on Sam, so I didn't check to be sure I'm sorry."
Will could not, would not feel sorry for her. But Tanner's son was a different matter. "How is Sam?"
"Not good. Tanner hasn't spent time with him in a long while, but still"
"And whose fault was that?" Will snapped.
"Will, please Never mind." Her voice was dull and defeated. "I'm sorry I called and messed up your evening. Please just forget and"
He was incredulous. "Oh, yeah. I'm going to dance on in there and have myself a great time." He bowed his head and rubbed one temple. "Give me the details, and I'll be there as soon as I can."
In a monotone, Zoe recited the information. Will didn't say goodbye but disconnected with a stab of his finger, then barely resisted hurling his phone at the wall.
He sank to the bed. Dropped his head into his hands.
No one's sure what happened.
Was it his fault? Will wondered. Tanner had said he was fine, that he was looking forward to next week.
He should have known. Should have done something. Though he had no idea what. His phone rang again. He glanced at it. Sandra.
"Where are you?"
"This isn't funny. Are you trying to lose another sponsor? Taney doesn't deserve this. He stuck his neck out for you, and this behavior is inexcusable."
"I just got some bad news, Sandra. My best friend is dead."
"I don't care if you What did you say?"
"I have to fly to Dallas, Sandra. Right now. The funeral is in the morning."
"Oh, Will. I'm so sorry. Wait a minute. Let me" She conducted a side conversation that Will couldn't really hear over the cocktail party chatter surrounding her.
Then she was back, apparently moving away from the crowd. "We'll send you in our plane."
"You're leaving on your honeymoon first thing in the morning. I can't take your plane."
"We'll be fine. I wouldn't mind sleeping in. It's okay, I promise. It will be at least four or five hours before you can take off, though, Taney thinks. All the New York airports are crowded with weekend traffic. He's calling now, though, to get the plane ready. I'll make your excuses. You have to let us know if there's anything else we can do. I'll call Kylie. Do you need me to help you pack?"
His lips curved. Sandra was a combination mother, cheerleader and drill sergeant. She and his PR rep, Kylie Palmer, did a lot for him. "No, I can handle it." Four or five hours, he thought. "Sandra, I'm coming on down."
"Will, you don't have to."
"But you're right. A lot of people at Taney Motorsports worked hard to get me through the last year. If this news gets out, it takes the glow off the night for all of themand we definitely can't risk losing a sponsor, not after how hard you and Taney worked to get Lundgren committed." He rose and smoothed his hair. "Don't tell anyone else. I'll come do my thing and just leave as soon as my part in the program is over."
"You're absolutely right about the sponsors and the team, but we wouldn't ask you to do this. You're expecting a lot of yourself to come and pretend."
It wasn't the way he'd thought this evening would go, that's for sure. But his team had busted their butts for him all year, and Sandra and Taney had backed him through wrecks and stupid moves on the track, through all the upheaval when he was underperforming. "I owe you and Taney more than this. Owe the team. I'll manage, but if you can work out the flight, I'd appreciate it."
"You got it. And anything else you need. Will, I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Thanks. For everything. I'll be down in a minute." He disconnected, considering calling Bart to share the news. Kind of wished he could call his mom, but she was on her honeymoon.
No. His brother had come in fifth in the Chase and would be celebrating tonight, as well. He'd earned it, toohe'd battled all the same problems Will had fought through. And his mother had suffered more than any of her kids.
Will was a grown man, and he would take care of himself.
He finished tying his bow tie and left the room.
A pariah at her husband's memorial, Zoe Hitchens stood off to the side, holding her confused and grieving son. Her former in-lawsbut they weren't former yet, were they? occasionally glared at her as they accepted the condolences of their society friends and business acquaintances in the stately, paneled reception hall of the Hitchenses' venerable church. The carpet was so thick that all the talk was muffled murmurs. Soft lighting and strips of stained glass turned one end of the room into a jewel box, but Zoe felt both smothered and frozen. Desperately she glanced toward the one wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto a manicured garden, wishing for a single touch of sun to warm her.
She'd never been good enough for Tanner's family, and they'd never quit letting her know it. She was sure his mother had been jubilant when Zoe had filed for divorce; his dad had instantly obtained an expensive lawyer who'd opened battle for full custody of Sam.
Sam, whom Tanner had promised to love as his own if she'd marry him.
Only one of the lies he'd told her over ten years.
Like that he'd loved her all the time she'd been with Willwhen the truth was that he just wanted to own her. To have what Will had. To outdo his so-called best buddy.
"When can we go, Mom?" asked her nine-year-old son. Tall for his age, skinny as a rail, Sam was serious and shy. Zoe couldn't help but wonder how much of his reserve was due to Tanner's indifference. She tried very hard to surround her son with enough love that he wouldn't suffer, but Sam was far too intelligent not to sense that something was lacking. He constantly sought to earn Tanner's approval, and every time he failed, she could see how it hurt.
That was part of why she'd finally taken the step to leave. It was one thing to live in a loveless marriage herself, another thing altogether to make her child suffer.
I'll never let you go, Zoe, Tanner had yelled at her. You'll never be shed of me. You're mine forever, do you hear me?
Divorce was hard enough, but now she was trapped in limbonot an ex-wife but a widow putting on a show for the world while fighting off a powerful family who wanted to take her child.
"Soon," she murmured to Sam, wishing she had someone, anyone to entrust him with. She didn't want him here in this poisonous atmosphere, but she had no family of her own, and Tanner had controlled too much of her life, isolated her so that she had no real friends anymore. "I'm sorry, honey. Do you want to go play outside for a while?