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The moment Alex Wolfe's car went airborne, he knew the situation was bad. That's 'serious injury' or possibly even 'get ready to meet your maker' bad.
He'd been approaching the chicane at the end of a straight at Melbourne's premier motor racing circuit and, misjudging his breaking point, he'd gone into the first turn too deep. He'd tried to drive through the corner but when the wheels had aquaplaned on standing water, he'd slid out and slammed into a tyre stack wall, which provided protection not only for runaway cars and their drivers but also for crowds congregated behind the guard rail.
Like a stone spat from a slingshot, he'd ricocheted off the rubber and back into the path of the oncoming field. He didn't see what happened next but, from the almighty whack that had spun him out of control, Alex surmised another car had T-boned his.
Now, as he sliced through space a metre above the ground, time seemed to slow to a cool molasses crawl as snapshots from the past flickered and flashed through his mind. Anticipating the colossal slam of impact, Alex cursed himself for being a fool. World Number One three seasons runningsome said the best there'd ever beenand he'd broken racing's cardinal rule. He'd let his concentration slip. Allowed personal angst to impair his judgement and screw with his performance. The news he'd received an hour before climbing into the cockpit had hit him that hard.
After nearly twenty years, Jacob was back?
Now Alex understood why his twin sister had persisted in trying to contact him these past weeks. He'd been thrown when he'd received her first email and had held off returning Annabelle's messages for precisely this reason. He couldn't afford to get wound up and distracted by
Driving down a breath, Alex thrust those thoughts aside.
He simply couldn't get distracted, is all.
With blood thumping like a swelling ocean in his ears, Alex gritted his teeth and strangled the wheel as the 420-kilo missile pierced that tyre wall. An instant later, he thudded to a jarring halt and darkness, black as the apocalypse, enveloped him. Momentum demanded he catapult forward but body and helmet harnesses kept him strappedor was that trapped?inside. Wrenched forward, Alex felt his right shoulder click and bleed with pain that he knew would only get worse. He also knew he should get out fast. Their fuel tanks rarely ruptured and fire retardant suits were a wonderful thing; however, nothing stopped a man from roasting alive should his car happen to go up in flames.
Entombed beneath the weight of the tyres, Alex fought the overwhelming urge to try to punch through rubber and drag himself free, but disorientated men were known to stagger into the path of oncoming cars. Even if he could claw his way out, procedure stated rescue teams assist or, at the least, supervise occupants from any wreck.
Holding his injured arm, Alex cursed like he'd never cursed before. Then he squinted through the darkness and, in a fit of frustration, roared out in self-disgust.
'Can we try that again? I know I can cock up more if I really set my mind to it!'
Claustrophobic seconds crept by. Gritting his teeth, Alex concentrated on the growl of V8s whizzing past, rather than the growing throb in his shoulder. Then a different group of engines sped upmedical response units. Surrounded by the smell of fumes and rubber and his own sweat, Alex exhaled a shuddery breath. Motor racing was a dangerous sport. One of the most dangerous. But the monumental risks associated with harrowing speeds were also the ultimate thrill and the only life to which Alex had ever wanted to ascribe. Racing not only gave him immense pleasure, it also provided the supreme means of escape. God knows there'd been plenty to run from growing up at Wolfe Manor.
The muffled cries of track marshals filtered through and Alex came back to the present as a crane went to work. Bound stacks of tyres were removed and soon shafts of light broke through.
A marshal, in his bright orange suit, poked his head in. 'You all right?'
The marshal had already removed the steering wheel and was assessing what he could of the car's warped safety cell. 'We'll have you out in a minute.'
To face a barrage of questions? The humiliation? And at some stage he'd have to tackle that other problem, which had set off this whole shambles.
'No chance of leaving me here, I suppose.'
The marshal took in Alex's sardonic smile and sent a consoling look. 'There'll be more races, son.'
Alex set his jaw. Damn right there will be.
The Jaws of Life arrived. Soon, sure hands were assisting him out and a world of fire-tipped arrows shot through that injured joint. Biting down, Alex edged out of the debris aware of fans' applause resonating around the park. He let go supporting his right arm long enough to salute to the cheering crowd before sliding into a response unit.
Minutes later, inside the medical tent and out of his helmet and suit, Alex rested back on a gurney. Morrissey, the team doctor, checked out his shoulder, applied a cold press, then searched for signs of concussion and other injuries. Morrissey was serving up something for the pain and inflammation when team owner, Jerry Squires, strode in.
The son of a British shipping tycoon, Jerry had lost an eye as a child and was well known for the black patch he wore. He was better known, however, for his staggering wealth and no-nonsense attitude. Today, with his usually neat steel-grey hair mussed, Jerry spoke in gravelled tones to the doctor.
'What's the worst?'
'He'll need a complete physical evaluation X-rays and MRI,' Morrissey replied, his glasses slipping to the tip of his nose as he scribbled notes on a clipboard. 'He's sustained a subluxation to his right shoulder.'
Jerry sucked air in between his teeth. 'Second race of the season. At least we still have Anthony.'
At the mention of his team's second driver, Alex pushed to sit up. Everyone was jumping the gun! He wasn't out of the game yet.
But then the pain in that joint flared and burned like Hades. Breaking into a fresh sweat, he rested back on the elevated pillows and managed to put on his no-problem smile, the one that worked a charm on beautiful women and bristling billionaires.
'Hey, settle down, Jer. You heard the man. It's not serious. Nothing's broken.'
The doctor lowered his clipboard enough for Alex to catch the disapproving angle of his brows. 'That's still to be determined.'
A pulse beat in Jerry's clean-shaven jaw. 'I appreciate your glass-half-full attitude, champ, but this is no time for a stiff upper lip.' Jerry glanced out the window and scowled at the churning weather. 'We should've gone with wets.'
Alex flinched, and not from physical pain. In hindsight, granted, he should have opted for wet-weather tyres. He'd explained his rationale to the team earlier when other pit crews were changing over. Now he'd reiterate for the man who forked over multiple millions to have him race as lead driver.
'The rain had stopped ten minutes before the race began,' Alex said, feeling Morrissey's eagle eye pressing him to button up and rest. 'The track was drying off. If I could make it through the first few lapsget a dry line happeningI'd be eating up the k's while everyone else would be stuck in the pits changing back to slicks.'
Jerry grunted again, unconvinced. 'You needed extra traction going into that chicane. Simple fact is, you called it wrong.'
Alex ground his back teeth against a natural urge to argue. He hadn't called it wrong but he had made a fatal error. His mind hadn't been one hundred percent on the job. If it had been, he'd have aced that chicane and the race. Hell, anyone could drive in the dry; handling wet conditions was where a driver's ability, experience and instinct shone through. And usually where Alex Wolfe excelled. He'd worked bloody hard to get where he was todayat the topwhich was a far cry from the position he'd once filled: a delinquent who'd longed to flee that grotesquely elaborate, freakishly unhappy English manor that still sat on the outskirts of Oxfordshire.
But he'd left those memories behind.
Or he had until receiving those emails.
While Jerry, Morrissey and a handful of others conversed out of earshot, Alex mulled over his sister's message. Annabelle had said Wolfe Manor had been declared a dangerous structure by the council and Jacob had returned to reinstate the house and grounds to their former infamous glory. Images of those centuries-old corridors and chunky dusty furniture came to mind, and Alex swore he could smell the dank and sour bouquet of his father's favourite drop. The veil between then and now thinned more and he heard his father's drunken ravings. Felt the slap of that belt on his skin.
Clamping his eyes shut, Alex shook off the revulsion. As the eldest, Jacob had inherited that mausoleum but, if it'd been left to him, Alex would gladly have bulldozed the lot.
Still, there'd been some good times as kids growing up. Alex had surrendered to a smile when Annabelle's email also mentioned that Nathaniel, the youngest of the Wolfe clanor of the legitimate children, at leastwas tying the knot. A talent behind the lens for many years now, Annabelle was to be the official photographer. Alex had followed recent news of his actor brother in the papers the night Nathaniel had walked out on his stage debut in the West End had caused a terrific stir. Then had come his Best Actor win last month in LA.
Alex absently rubbed his shoulder.
Little brother was all grown up, successful and apparently in love. Made him realise how much time had passed. How scattered they all were. He best remembered Nathaniel when he was little more than a skinny kid finding his own form of escape through entertaining his siblings, even at the expense of a backhand or two from the old man.
Voices filtered in and Alex's thoughts jumped back. Across the room it seemed Jerry and Morrissey had finished their powwow and were ready to join him again.
His eyebrows knitted, the doctor removed his glasses. 'I'll attempt to reduce that joint now. The sooner it's intact again, the better. We're organising transport to Windsor Private for those follow-up tests.'
'And when the tests come back?' Alex asked.
'There'll be discussions with specialists to ascertain whether surgery's needed'
Alex's pulse rate spiked. 'Whoa. Slow down. Surgery?'
'or more likely some rest combined with a rehabilitation plan. It's not the first time this has happened. That shoulder's going to need some time,' Morrissey said, tapping his glasses at the air to help make his point. 'Don't fool yourself it won't.'
'So long as I'm back in the cockpit in time to qualify in Malaysia.'
'Next weekend?' Morrissey headed for his desk. 'Sorry, but you can forget about that.'
Ignoring the twist of fresh pain, Alex propped up on his left elbow and forced a wry laugh. 'I think I'm the best judge of whether I'm fit to drive or not.'
'Like you judged which tyres to kick off the race?'
Alex slid a look over to Jerry Squires at the same time his neck went hot and a retort burned to break free. But no good would come from indulging his temper when the frustration roiling inside of him should be directed at no one other than himself. No matter which way you sliced it, he'd messed up. Now, like it or not, he needed to knuckle down and play ball but only for a finite period and largely on his own terms. Because make no mistakeif he had to miss the next race, he'd be in Shanghai for Round Four if it killed him.
First up he'd need to shake any press off his tail. After such a spectacular crash, questions regarding injuries and how they might impact on his career would be rife. The photographer jackals would be on the prowl, desperate to snap the shot of the seasonthe Fangio of his time, the great Alex Wolfe, grimacing in pain, his arm useless in a sling. Damned if he'd let the paparazzi depict him as a pitiful invalid.
Privacy was therefore a priority. Any recuperating would happen at his reclusive Rose Bay residence in Sydney. He'd source a professional who understood and valued the unique code elite athletes lived by. Someone who was exceptional at their work but who might also appreciate a lopsided grin or possibly an invitation to dinner when he was next in town, in exchange for which she would provide the medical all clear needed to get him back behind the wheel in time for Round Four qualifying.
As the painkiller kicked in and the screaming in his shoulder became more a raw groan, Alex closed his eyes and eased back against the gurney.
When his shoulder was popped back in and those initial tests were out of the way, he'd set his assistant, Eli Steele, on the case. He needed to find the right physiotherapist for the job. And he needed to find her fast. He'd lost far too much in his life.
God help him, he wasn't losing this.