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The long driveway leading up to Quest Stables was nearly a mile and a quarter straightaway, a first-class temptation for a man who did his most memorable work in the fast lane. On some other day, Demetri Lucas would have shifted into sixth, pealed out and torn up the road with the eighteen-inch sport tires. All in the name of testing the drag coefficient his engineers swore was nearly zero, of course.
Today, however, wasn't the time for testing drag coefficients. For one thing, his host's guests were beginning to arrive for this weekend's weddingnot for an exhibition in speed and mechanical prowess. Although Hugh Preston might have done the same when he was younger, the years had mellowed him, and he probably wouldn't appreciate Demetri offering them a glimpse of such unique entertainment at least not in the Preston backyard.
More than that, as difficult as it was for Demetri to believe, there were actually things on his mind that weighed heavier than drag coefficients, Formula Gold racing or even his upcoming race in Louisville. Things like Hugh's financial straits. Not to mention Demetri's own "Married Princess Incident"otherwise known as the three weeks in Monte Carlo that the Sterling PR team had labeled "boneheaded and reckless."
Reckless was a label that seemed to follow him around like a black cloud. When he was seventeen, it had been fun and daring. Now that he was thirty-five, it seemed sad.
Invariably, Demetri could feel his collar tighten, feel the high-velocity impulses kick up a notch, and in response, his foot floored the gas, gravel flying. The six-hundred-horsepower engine was street-legalon the autobahn, not the horsecountry of Kentuckyand the answering roar was sweeter than music, better than sex.
Within seconds the main house tore into view, a sprawling redbrick that was home to the Preston family and Demetri's current destination. As his foot moved over the clutch, he smoothly downshifted, the engine quieting to a more respectable purr. Someday he'd learn how to live a little slower, how to live a little safer, but today wasn't it.
Parked cars lined the drive, including one sturdy tan Volvo that was trying to parkand doing a piss-poor job of it. Demetri didn't have a lot of respect for cautious drivers as a matter of principle. They tended toward cars that were heavy tanks, built to withstand a nuclear blast, and all those safety features added weight. Pounds were a liability to a race-car driver who valued things like acceleration and whip-quick handling.
Demetri downshifted again, suspicious that this was the Fates' way of making him pay for speeding down the drive. Maybe the Fates were expecting him to be grateful to the sensible tan Volvo standing between him and sixth gear. Maybe the Fates were wrong.
He watchedit was actually more of a penetrating glare as the sedan slowly reversed, inching to the right, braking, inching, braking, inching, ad infinitum. With the Volvo steering system and the driver's conservative refusal to cut the wheel properly, they were going to be here for a long, long time.
It took six more tries, inching, braking, inching, braking, but at long last the Volvo eased into the space. Finally. There was the small matter of the tires ending four feet from where the lawn lined the drive. However, in the big scheme of things, four feet wasn't awful. The rear end wasn't out too far. In fact, it was almost
Hell. Demetri took the shot.
Easily he slid his car in behind the other, wheels perfectly aligned along the edge of the lawn. Now that was how to park a car .
He was still smiling smugly to himself when the back-up lights of the Volvo flashed. Surely the Volvo would notice the car behind it. Surely the Volvo would stop. Surely
The sound of slowly crunching metal was never a happy sound for a race-car driver. The specially designed aluminum chassis collapsed onto the honeycomb frame, pushing up into the middle of the car in slow motion. The aerospace-quality chassis made of autoclave carbon fiber might have had a drag coefficient of zero, but when rear-ended by rock-solid Volvo, the car was toast.
Demetri swore again, ripely, violently.
Of course, the Volvo escaped without a scratch.
Perfect. It seemed fitting, poetic justice even, and he rubbed his eyes. Fine. Round one goes to the Fates. Lesson. Learned.
He flung open the door, not happy, yet prepared to apologize, prepared to own up to his own impatience. It was the right thing to do. It was the responsible thing to do, but then he noticed the driver and stopped.
He couldn't see her face, because she was leaning against the car, her hands at her temples, rubbing in circular motions. Instantly the anger disappeared. Was she about to pass out? He didn't see any blood, and with a suspension system that could withstand an earthquake, no way the Volvo would give her whiplash.
"Are you all right?" he asked, rushing to her side, then stopping when she held out one hand. He stood there, staring at the palm hanging in midair in front of his face. His gaze dipped lower, watching her breasts rise and fall as she took deep breaths.
Probably watching more than he should, all things considered, but at least he knew she wasn't about to pass out anymore. From what he could see, her breathing was great.
Then the hand dropped, and she turned to look at him, her face flushed, eyes shooting fire.
"When the heck did you zoom in behind me?" she demanded.
"Obviously while you weren't looking in the mirror," he said, happy to see that she wasn't going to faint on him. Anger was much better. Especially since anger looked so hot on this woman. A cute, trim blonde with nice curves standing in front of his crumpled car, because he had been reckless.
Oh, the Fates were killing him today. He made himself stop noticing her curves.
"Couldn't you see I was parking? What did you do? Descend from the sky? And why? Why on earth would you do a stupid thing like that?" She waggled a finger at him. "You should have waited. It's that sort of reckless maneuvering that will get you in trouble."
He laughed, mildly amused. Demetri crashed on an almost monthly basis, and he'd never had anyone lecture him before. It was refreshing. Arousing. He was noticing the curves again, because in the tight, faded blue jeans, it was impossible not to. The denim jacket was old, as well, with some froufrou fringe around the chest that drew attention back to her
"Are you listening to me?"
"Absolutely," he said, eyes firmly on her face.
She drew in a breath, her mouth twisting as if she were going to argue. Then she took a step away from her car, looking back toward the front of his. The mouth twisted more. "Oh, heck," she whispered, the denim-clad shoulders sagging. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Her voice was a rich Kentucky drawl that slid down his throat much smoother than bourbon ever had. He had always had a thing for blondes, but lately they'd been tending toward the icy cold of professionally done platinum rather than the warm taste of golden amber. Still, professionally done platinum had bought him a world of trouble, so maybe it was time for golden amber.
Bad actions. Bad consequences. Lesson learned.
"I'm fine," he told her. "How are you?" he asked, looking her over, ostensibly checking for injuries. The narrow glance she shot him told him better than words that she didn't buy the act for a minute. "You looked like you were going to faint."
"Mister, the only thing dented on me is my pride," she said, meeting his gaze before shaking her head sadly and turning her attention back to his carwhat was left of his car. "Good God almighty, I can't believe this. Look at that thing. Folded like a cheap lawn chair. I've never even had an accident, and my first one has to be some European whoop-de-do that would crunch up if you hit it with a cotton ball."
"That could have been you. That is exactly what I'm talking about. Why do something so stupid in a flimsy little car like that? Do you want to end up all smashed like your car?"
Demetri swallowed, then took an involuntary step backward. "I'm fine. In fact, I'm more than capable of handling that machine," he began. "You're the one"
"Who doesn't have a crunched-up car," she said, pointing to the bumper of her Volvo, which had escaped completely unscathed. "Barely a scratch." Then she looked at his vehicle. "I don't know why carmakers make cars like tin cans. You'd think they'd make them sturdy."
"That makes them slow," Demetri explained, feeling strangely compelled to defend his car, possibly due to the way the fender was dragging the ground like a broken leg, and the hood was folded up into the windshield. The pain was like his own. An Italian work of art was not designed to withstand the impact of a Volvo. It seemed ignoble, somehow.
Her head lifted, the bright eyes capturing his imagination in ways she probably wouldn't appreciate. "You got a problem with slow?" she challenged.
"Some people like to drive fast," he pointed out, not really wanting to argue with her, but he did like the way she talked, even if he didn't completely like the things she said. And he couldn't kiss her, and an argument kept her talking and so he was human. So what?
Her hands settled on her hips, cute, curvy hips that he had told himself not to notice. Not noticing, not noticing at all.
"Some people like to die. I prefer neither." Her face paled, and fire lit her voice. "That really was a mighty fool thing to do."
"Yeah," he said. "It was."
She blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I should have waited. I didn't. I'm sorry." He'd been prepared to own up to his impatience from the moment he'd stepped out of the car. This was the first solid opening she'd given him, and seeing the look of surprise on her face made him supremely glad he'd waited. "I get a little impatient sometimes."
"Mmm." She pondered him for a moment, and Demetri enjoyed the way her gaze softened and cut over him, like a physical caress if a man were inclined to think that way which Demetri was. As quick as it came, the moment was gone, and she focused on the car again. "You know, I'll be able to feed an entire undeveloped nation for what it's going to cost to repair that little ding in your fender."
He took in the damage to his car, one of only five experimental versions in the world. Rockefeller couldn't afford to fix his car. No way was he going to make her pay for it. It had been his fault. He'd be the bigger person. "If you need to settle this under the table, that'd be fine, but I'm not sure you could afford it. Don't worry about it." He looked at her, waiting for her to appreciate his generous offer.
She laughed at him. Laughed at him. It was humbling, demeaning and slightly irritating.
"When you get an estimate, send it to my assistant, and I'll take care of it." She scribbled a phone number on a piece of paper. No name, just a number. If it hadn't been for the way her mouth bowed up like a flower, or the way her blue eyes reflected turquoise in the afternoon sun, he probably would have left it at that.
"You're a friend of the Prestons?" he asked curiously.
"Family," she snapped, looking mildly insulted.
"I've never seen you before."
"I've never seen you, either, but that doesn't amount to a hill of beans, does it? Next time you should be more careful with that driving. You could get yourself killed that way."
"I could give you lessons," he offered.
"In how to drive like a crazy person? Thanks, but no." It was a dismissal, and in case he didn't get the point, she presented him with a perfect heart-shaped rear, tightly encased in denim. As she walked toward the house, her hips swung back and forth like a pendulum. A connoisseur's smile flared on his lips. A man could get lost in that rhythm, or at least distracted.
Maybe better men than him had tried, but probably no one more stubborn. If he were smart, he would ignore his urges, leave her alone, get his car fixed and pocket the bill.
But Demetri was reckless, and he spent most of his life laughing at the Fates. Habits were hard to break, and some were impossible.
Once out of sight of the stranger, Elizabeth Innis caught her breath, and resumed fanning her face, because Lord knows, she was overheating, and it had nothing to do with being twenty-eight years old and in her first car accident ever. Not that the accident wasn't traumatizing, but the hot flashes running in her blood weren't anxiety. That was one hundred percent pure, all-natural lust.
As a rule, she stayed away from men like that: dark and handsome in those ways of soap-opera villains who were always hiding deep, traumatic secrets. No, Elizabeth had sky-high standards.
In her world purview, she clung to the idea of true love, but knew that for every prince, there was a whole oceanful of frogs that were green and slimy and caught flies for a living. No, thank you. She was holding out for the one, the onlytrue love, with a capital T and a capital L. Not that that meant she wouldn't be picky about finding Mr. Right. None of that high-living, high-loving, hotdogging for Elizabeth, no sir, which meant staying away from exotic-looking men in exotic-looking cars when just the thought set her off fanning again.
This was going to have to stop, she reminded herself, giving herself one last wave for good measure, and then tucking her hands away. After all, she had a reputation to preserve. The magazines said she wore a chastity belt under her tight-fittin' jeans and was so clean that she squeaked when she walked. Elizabeth didn't mind the talk one bit. Her music fans ate it up, and in Elizabeth's mind, that chastity belt was worth its weight in goldgold records that is. Still, her reputation had one drawbackmen saw it as a challenge.
Like the exotic-looking driver of the car she'd crumpled.
Hopefully he'd contact her assistant and let Elizabeth pay for the damage and then she could put the whole matter behind her. After all, she wasn't here to puddle at the feet of some dark stranger. She had a wedding to sing for, a woebegone cousin to cheer up and two weeks' worth of R & R.