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Gaby Colson considered herself a positive person, one who didn't rush to judgment of others. Which made her instinctive assessment of her new client as startling as it was unwelcome.
Zack Matheson is a pain in the butt.
Gaby tapped her pen against her chin, as she eyed Zack from across the dark lacquered desk. He'd kept her waiting three weeks—three weeks—for this meeting, and now that she'd finally made it into his inner sanctum at Matheson Racing's concrete-and-glass headquarters, he wouldn't talk.
And somehow, she was supposed to turn this… this chunk of granite into a media personality.
Her career in public relations, her life, depended on it.
Zack's gleaming gaze pinned Gaby from the other side of the desk. She was pretty sure she knew what that gleam was all about. It was anticipation that she was about to storm out of here the way his last publicist had, and leave him in peace to focus on the comeback he was planning in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Bad call, buster. Because even though her instincts shrieked that this project would be a disaster, she was desperate.
She couldn't leave until he'd agreed to the publicity program she'd devised.
Gaby stopped the nervous tapping of her pen and smiled brightly at Zack. She could tell from the way he folded his arms across his broad chest he hadn't expected that. Sandra Taney, Gaby's boss at Motor Media Group, had said Zack wasn't the easiest guy to work with—a gross understatement— but he would eventually knuckle under and fulfill his obligations to his sponsor, Getaway Resorts. So long as Gaby was tough with him.
"No more marshmallow," Sandra had warned. They both knew Gaby's preferred style was people-pleasing and that she hadn't always picked the right people to please.
"I'm stronger than you think," Gaby had promised her boss.
Now she just had to prove it. She reminded herself that, contractually, Zack was obligated to attend this meeting. Pressing that tiny advantage, she went on. "The good news is that by anyone's standards, you're a hottie."
That wasn't flattery. She figured he already knew he was one of the best-looking men in NASCAR.
At least, he could be. If he'd smile.
Wariness settled over Zack's already guarded face, strengthening its hard planes and turning those silver-gray eyes flinty. Then for a second he seemed to relax. He didn't go so far as smiling, but the firmness in his mouth eased and Gaby wondered if the sudden glint in his eyes was humor. It vanished too soon for her to be sure.
"A hottie." He appeared to weigh the word, and though he didn't seem overjoyed by the description, at least he didn't object. "That's a good thing, right?"
"Absolutely," Gaby said eagerly, encouraged by the longest sentence he'd uttered since she'd walked in here a half hour ago. Maybe he was just slow to warm up. She could fix that. "If we're going to raise your profile in mainstream media, it helps that you take a good photo." She shrugged her acceptance of the inevitable truth.
"Does it help if I win races, too?" Zack asked.
Gaby detected irony, possibly even resentment, in the question, and decided it was wiser not to comment. Zack swiveled his padded black leather chair a half turn to gaze out through the glass wall and into the workshop, where his team was working to set up his No. 548 car for next weekend's race. The movement revealed a framed color photograph on the wall behind him—a race driver, brandishing an enormous trophy.
Gaby realized with a shock the driver was Zack. And he was smiling—no, beaming. Possibly even laughing, with a pleasure the two-dimensional confines of the photo could barely contain.
She let out a small sound of surprise, and Zack caught the direction of her gaze. "I won the NASCAR Nationwide Series five years ago," he said. "That was before—" He stopped. His gaze flickered over her, as if he was surprised he'd come close to revealing any personal details to someone like her.
No way would Gaby let him sink back into silence. Her "hottie" comment had snagged his attention—maybe she should stick with the blunt approach. She took a deep breath and said, "Before you were a has-been?"
Zack's mind jerked back to the woman in front of him. For the second time in as many minutes Gaby Colson had surprised him. He guessed she'd intended to shock him into participating in this discussion. Given the way she swallowed, the movement momentarily flattening her full lips, she wasn't overly comfortable with the tactic. But her direct blue gaze didn't waver.
"Is that your professional assessment of me?" he asked, grudgingly admiring her ploy.
When Sandra Taney had called to say she was assigning a new PR rep to Zack, one who would "bring him into line," Zack had pictured someone like Sandra herself—tall, forceful, liable to think she could steamroller him into taking his eye off his racing for the sake of some dumb PR campaign.
Yet nothing about the reality of Gaby matched his expectations. It wasn't just the clothes, although her mint-green sleeveless dress that molded close, but not too close, to her figure, and her low-heeled green sandals with laces that wound around a fetching pair of ankles and tied in a jaunty bow, weren't exactly kick-butt business attire.
The real surprise was that Gaby was clearly out of her depth. Once or twice during their one-sided conversation, Zack's obvious lack of enthusiasm had made her blue eyes widen and caused her to draw in a sharp breath. As if she was coming up for air one last time.
Zack couldn't figure out why Sandra had thought this new PR rep had any chance of pulling him into line, but he was grateful for one thing—Gaby would be easy to ignore.
Admittedly, he hadn't expected her "has-been" comment. But he saw that as a desperate clutch at a piece of driftwood that might save her.
He folded his arms, settled back in his chair and waited to see if she could somehow build herself a life raft. It was more fun than worrying about whether he could make a successful comeback four years after he'd quit the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
"You must know what the media are saying about you and your prospects," Gaby said, desperation tingeing the words. "You've had enough crashes, finished at the back in enough races, that they're saying you have no chance of a halfway decent slot on the series' points standings. I'm here to help you build a more positive image, which I believe will spill over into the press coverage of your racing."
He ignored the first part of her lecture, because although he hadn't done so well since he'd won at Daytona in February, his current poor performance was a temporary situation. One he would fix. "A more positive image sounds great," he said. "Go right ahead."
She shook her head in exasperation, and her red-gold curls bobbed around her shoulders. "I'm not a miracle worker. Your good looks will help grab the media's attention, but holding it will take more effort. I can't do it without your help."
Zack exhaled through clenched teeth. Surely she could see it was galling that his sponsor valued him for his good looks over his driving skills? That although he'd agreed to all kinds of public appearances for the sake of those crucial sponsorship dollars, he could never get excited about appearing in celebrity columns or lifestyle magazines.
He knew why his sponsor wanted to push him as a "sporting personality." Because they didn't believe he could win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. They thought getting him in a few magazines was their best chance of a return on their investment.
Maybe they were right.
"I'm aware of my contractual responsibilities to Getaway," he said. "I intend to fulfill them."
Relief washed over Gaby's face, leaving her eyes bright. "Does that mean you'll cooperate?"
"What else could it mean?" he said impatiently.
"Great." Her cheeks flushed with pleasure, and somehow that rush of color drew Zack's attention to her lips, which were full and nicely shaped, with a sheen that made him think of—
I'm losing the plot. Zack shook off all thoughts about his PR rep's mouth and focused instead on the words coming out of it. And the words were nowhere near as palatable.
"We're already behind schedule," she said. Zack took that as a dig about his making her wait three weeks for this meeting. Yeah, well, the way he'd been racing lately, his time was better spent getting himself in shape, running some practice laps. Gaby continued, "The first thing I' ll do is try to interest a couple of major newspapers in featuring you in their lifestyle sections."
"Sure." Once again, he breathed easier. His life outside racing wasn't exactly exciting, he couldn't see any newspaper editor wanting to waste a reporter's time—and Zack's— pursuing such a story.
"Plus…" Her hesitation drew him back to her.
"Plus?" he prompted.
"Now Woman magazine is running a Bachelor of the Year contest, centered around NASCAR drivers." She rushed the words out. "Thirty drivers from the various NASCAR national series have signed on as contestants."
"You're kidding." Zack gaped. What would induce any self-respecting guy to participate in a Bachelor of the Year contest?
"It's a great PR opportunity, especially for drivers in the series that don't get as much media coverage as the Sprint Cup." Gaby gave Zack an encouraging smile. Zack didn't smile back. "The winner will be announced at the Richmond race in September," she said.
Richmond was the last of the races that determined which twelve drivers would make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, entitling them to contest the championship series win. They both knew Zack was unlikely to make the Chase in his current form.
He definitely wouldn't make it if he didn't put everything he had into his racing.
"No way," he said. "I'm not entering any bachelor contest."
Gaby sighed. Once you got over the too-darned-handsome thing, there wasn't much to like about Zack Matheson.
"Are you sure? Because I'm told women find you irresistible," she said doubtfully.
Again that glint appeared in his gray eyes. "There's no accounting for taste."
"I guess you're not as sociable as some of the other drivers," she conceded reluctantly. "You're quite different from your brother."
Trent Matheson, Zack's younger brother and a former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was charm-on-legs and a skilled media player. Now if he was her client…
"Trent just got married—he's not available for the bachelor contest, or for anything else." Zack had obviously read her thoughts. Gaby felt the seeping heat that meant her cheeks were going red again. The curse of fair skin.
"Okay, we'll forget about the bachelor contest." That wasn't marshmallow behavior, she assured herself. Zack wouldn't have had a hope of winning anyway, and the contest would have probably caused her more problems than it would have solved.
"We'll spend the next few months getting you in front of the media at every opportunity," she said. "Human interest stories—visiting kids in hospital, working with the Canine Rescue Foundation."
Like many NASCAR drivers, Zack had a couple of charitable causes he supported. It had come as no surprise to her that his favorite charity focused on dogs, not people.
"Winning races will get me lots of media attention," her client said helpfully.
Her eyes slid away from his. "Er…yes, that, too." She'd pretty much given up on the hope of Zack getting any publicity through his racing. Any good publicity, at least. "We need to maximize the use of your brothers in this campaign," Gaby said. "Your family is a real asset to your publicity."
Zack stiffened, but Gaby was too exhausted by the effort of holding this meeting together to wonder why. She chewed on the end of her pen. "I'll prepare new media materials to, um, reflect our new focus. We'll need photos."
"I already have photos."
"I thought we could take some of you… smiling."
"Smiling?" he said, as if she'd spoken a foreign language.
For a long moment, his eyes held hers. Gaby didn't blink.
He leaned back in his chair. "Okay, I can do smiling." He obviously expected her to take that on trust.
"Excellent," she said. Then pushed her luck. "I want your promise you won't keep me waiting three weeks when I need to see you." Because Sandra wouldn't be convinced Gaby was on top of this job if she couldn't even talk to her client.
"That was a one-off," he said. "My contract says I have to be available to talk to my sponsor's nominated PR representative twice a week."
This was the kind of pedantic approach to his contract that had driven Gaby's predecessor to quit. Still, he'd agreed to participate in the interviews she had planned, he'd agreed to talk to her regularly and he'd even agreed to smile.
That was more than anyone else had managed to get out of him. Gaby felt a sneaking sense of anticipation for next week's staff meeting at Motor Media Group. Sandra's doubts as to whether Gaby deserved to be on the shortlist for the promotion everyone wanted would be quashed once and for all.
Self-preservation kicked in, telling her to quit while she was ahead. She pushed her chair back. "Okay, we're about done here. I'll let you get back to work."
"We're not quite done." Zack leaned back in his seat, his hands clasped behind his head. "I understand you have a job to do, which is why I've been so cooperative."
Gaby clamped down on a dozen retorts, the most polite of which was a definition of the word cooperative.
"But I have a job, too," he said, "and that's to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. I will meet my publicity obligations, but racing comes first."
"Okay," she said cautiously, wondering if that sounded too wimpy.
"I don't win races because I do pointless interviews or smile for the cameras," he said. "I win races when I'm one hundred percent focused on my job."
Was he about to renege on his promised cooperation? Panic gripped Gaby, loosened her lips. "As far as I can tell," she said, "you don't win races at all."
His head jerked back.
"You do know, don't you, that Getaway has threatened to pull its sponsorship before the season is up if they don't see a better return on their money?" She continued, taking advantage of his stunned silence. "I don't care what you do when you're on the track, but when you make an appearance for your sponsor, whether the media are present or not, I want one hundred percent of your concentration."
No marshmallow would have said that, she thought with satisfaction.
He stood, a movement that managed to be both graceful and intimidating. He was just shy of six feet tall, and his loose-fitting polo shirt couldn' t hide his lean strength. He ran a hand through his thick, dark hair, which she now realized had a wave in it, one that wasn't visible in his photos.
"How exactly did you get to be the boss of me?" he demanded, looming so close that she could see a tiny scar at the corner of his mouth.
Gaby caught the clean, fresh smell of soap and mint and man. She gulped, trying to corral her thoughts in the face of sensory overload. "Everyone else chickened out."
Zack stared at her. Then he laughed.
Darn, she wished he hadn't done that, despite what she'd said about wanting him to smile. Turned out laughter lightened his eyes and opened his face so he looked almost boyish. And even more devastatingly handsome. Her knees turned to water—she couldn't have stood if she'd tried.
He grinned, and she had the mortifying thought that he knew exactly the effect he was having on her.
"Okay, Gaby." Had he said her name before? She thought not, because hearing those two familiar syllables spoken in his deep voice sent a little shiver through her. "You obviously have a bee in your bonnet about this publicity stuff."
A bee? It was her job, for Pete's sake.
"I like a quiet life," he said, "which means I need you off my back. In the interests of my own sanity, I'm going to agree that when I'm on the publicity trail, I'll be all yours. One hundred percent. Deal?"
"Uh…deal," she said, looking for the catch.
"Now—" he glanced at his watch, dismissing her "—why don't you go find a reporter who wants to write about my preference for butter over margarine, and I'll get back to preparing for my next race."
This time, his smile was cherubic. Gaby felt like Pandora, right after she let a load of unimagined troubles out of the box.