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The hand slapped across his cheek so fast Roberto Castillo had no time to react. Wasn't the first time, wouldn't be the last. He touched his stinging cheek and grinned. "What's the matter, Kacy? Can't stand the truth?"
"You bastard!" The sound of Kacy Haughton's voice was nearly lost amidst the typical Friday morning chaos of the Bellagio Hotel's main lobby. When she stomped her foot, his gaze was drawn, by no more than force of habit, to her cleavage.
Dios, ayúdele. Help me. Why in the world had he ever been attracted to these gorgeous, overindulged, high-maintenance women?
"We are so finished!" she spat at him between a set of glossy pink lips.
Funny. As far as Roberto was concerned, there was nothing between them to finish. No matter what she or the press seemed to think, he and Kacy had never been dating. Several months back, she'd latched on to him like grime on a gaucho, showing up at clubs and casinos he occasionally frequented, finagling infield passes to his races and not so quietly infiltrating his life.
He'd finally had enough and told her to back off, but she'd probably been too drunk to remember that conversation, the one after that and the one after that. The woman partied so much that he'd been surprised to come down from his Tower Suite a few moments ago and find her not only awake at nine in the morning, but completely accessorized. She'd been waiting for him as he headed toward his meeting with his agent.
"Go ahead and smirk all you want," she said, glaring at him.
Clearly fighting to maintain an upper hand, she tossed back her long, natural blond hair. "By the time I'm done, the press will be slicing and dicing you."
She flicked herfingers in the air, summoning someone to their corner of the lobby. A man with a digital camera in his hand came running across the polished marble floor. "Did you get it?" she asked.
"Yup." The young man nodded. "Still frames and video."
"Perfect." She dismissed the photographer with another flip of her wrist.
"You set me up," Roberto said, not the least bit surprised.
"God, I'm going to miss that sexy Argentinean accent," she said, slipping on a pair of rhinestone-studded sunglasses. "But I never asked for much, Roberto. Just a little attention." She strode toward the outside exit. "See you in tomorrow's paper."
Perfecto. Exactly what he did not need. More fodder for the late-night-talk-show hosts.
He tugged on the neck of his black T-shirt, loosening the fit, and glanced around the opulent setting of elegant water fountains, stained-glass skylight and monstrous exotic plant displays, wondering how many people had noticed Kacy's tantrum. No one's feathers looked particularly ruffled. Apparently, the sight of the spoiled-rotten offspring of a Silicon Valley magnate slapping open-wheel's biggest playboy didn't warrant much attention.
Vegas. Gotta love this place.
But then, he had to quit thinking of himself as an open-wheel driver. He was NASCAR now, all the way. And playboy? No matter how he tried deluding himself to the contrary, the over-thirty Roberto Castillo couldn't hold a candle to the escapades of the younger men. Not even a flicker of a flame. Open-wheel racing wasn't the only thing for which he'd gotten too old.
The sound of clapping echoed off the walls and ceiling of the cavernous lobby. He spun around to find his agent, Patricia Brink, a tall, spindly thin woman in her midfiftieshe could never get an exact age out of herslapping her hands together in a slow, methodical beat. "That was quite a show." Her thin smile barely caused a wrinkle. "What're you doing for an encore?"
"Oh, I don't know." He walked toward her. "Got any tricks up your sleeves? I'm open to suggestions."
Patricia crossed her arms. "No matter how flippant you'd like to be about this situation, that woman's hand connecting with your face is not going to look pretty in tomorrow's papers." She wore a loose-fitting, extravagantly embroidered silver tunic and pale gray pants, designed to portray, to anyone who didn't know her, a carefree, hippie look. "It might be considered juicy enough to make it in tonight's entertainment news."
"Have pity on me. I am a poor moth and extreme women my ever-loving flame."
"Yeah, right." She rolled her eyes. "You might be able to fool the rest of the world, but I've known you too long, Roberto. These days, three-quarters of what the media says about you isn't even close to the truth and you don't do a damned thing about it."
Because he liked it that way. People thought they knew who he was, but these days, the lies provided the only kind of privacy Roberto could count on anymore.
"This time, though, I'm afraid they might be right." Patricia raised her eyebrows. "I saw the way you grinned at Kacy before she wound up and planted one on your face."
Old habits died hard. But no woman liked to be told she was a lush. Roberto's father would've been ashamed of him for speaking to a womanany womanin that fashion, and the thought of Papá sent a shot of sobering guilt through him.
"Tienes razón," he agreed. "You are right. I did deserve it. So now what?"
"File a restraining order against our dear Miss Haughton. Trash her in the press. And get her, once and for all, out of the picture."
Beat a dog when it was down? He glanced away. Not his style. "No."
"Why not?" Clearly frustrated, she shook her head, and thick chunks of her shoulder-length gray hair fell forward with the motion. "The Grossos are going to be extremely upset when they see those pictures. They may have grounds to cancel your contract."
Dean and Patsy were nice, solid people and he couldn't fault them for wanting the reputation of their company, Cargill-Grosso Racing, to reflect their own straightforward, family-oriented values. The only reason they'd signed Roberto as their newest driver was because Patricia had busted her butt convincing them that he would thoroughly clean up his act. Unfortunately, no matter how low-key Roberto had kept his personal life these past few months, a decade or more of player antics in international open-wheel racing still clung to him like black on a panther.
That was no reason to lash out at a sad and pathetic young woman. "I won't trash her," he said.
"I had a feeling you'd say that. Good thing I've already set another plan in motion." Patricia sighed and made a show of studying him from head to toe. "Haven't you heard the grunge look is out?"
He ignored the reference to his faded shirt and jeans. These days, when he wasn't at the track, comfort was all he cared about. "Another plan?"
"Come on, pretty boy." She dragged him toward the exit. "After today, with any degree of luck, Miss Haughton's little stunt will cause barely a ripple in the pond."
"What am I doing today?"
"I'll explain on the way."
He climbed into a waiting limo behind his agent and held his breath as their driver pulled out onto The Strip. This couldn't be good, especially since she wouldn't tell him anything over the phone last night about her meeting with the Grossos to discuss ideas for marketing him to the American public.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"Caesars Palace." She studied him as if she was deciding on her approach. Finally, she said, "Look. I know you're only a few races into the season, but Dean and Patsy are more than a little worried. It's one thing to drop from a starting position of fifth at Daytona down to twenty-third at the finish, but bumping Kent Grosso, your own teammate, in California looked bad."
"Tell that to Kent. He's still pissed off."
"They can't expect miracles."
"I know." She held out her hand. "Transitioning into stock car racing is difficult."
In open-wheel, winning was more about technology and a driver's hand to eye coordination than anything else. Hell, the damned steering wheels were programmed with engine mapping, tracking controls and adaptive suspension, all at the tip of a driver's fingertips. And no one had been faster at it than Roberto. For years, he'd dominated in the highest levels of open-wheel racing, but then he'd hit thirty and suddenly winning wasn't the only thing that mattered. Better to get out at the top of his game than become complacent.
"You know I am a good driver, Patricia. I need some time to adjust."
"Time alone isn't going to cut it, and you know it. NASCAR's very different from the kind of driving you were used to."
He was only now understanding how different, and no small part of him was worried. His palms suddenly sweating, he turned toward the window, only marginally aware of the lane on top of lane of cars zipping this way and that, of the casinos glistening under the hot, March Nevada sunshine.
"Like it or not, this has to be said," Patricia continued. "If you don't figure out how to be a team player fast, you're not going to make it in stock car racing."
Although he'd been hungry for a new challenge and more competition, he hadn't counted on how important teamwork was to a NASCAR driver's performance. He fixed his gaze on the smooth trunks of tall palms towering above the grassy median. "Let me worry about my driving."
"All right," she agreed. "As long as you let me worry about your image."
She had him. In the palm of her hand. She was good. "Okay. You have me." He turned toward her. "What is your plan?"
"Something drastic." She smiled. "Considering we didn't count on how much the media loves their bad boys, I think I've hit on a quick fix."
"There is no such thing. And you know it."
"This one's simple. A little unorthodox, but you might actually have some fun this time."
"Quit flitting around the deal. What is it?"
"Five cameo appearances in an American daytime drama. It's new, but very popular."
Dios. A soap opera. Over the past decade-plus, he'd made appearances and enough commercial spots in Europe, Asia and in his home country of Argentina to be wary of stupid storylines and worse dialogue.
"If you don't like it," she said, smiling, "we could always spotlight your charity work. The free medical clinic. The food shelves. The homeless and battered women's shelters. The foundation providing more college scholarsh"
"No." He hated it when celebrities put themselves out there as some kind of saviors. "En absoluto." He'd been given a lot. He had a lot to give back. That's all there was to it.
"All right, then. Soap opera it is." She handed him a stack of papers from her briefcase along with a pen. "It's all ready to sign."
After reading everything, he signed where indicated and handed the contracts back.
"Come on, lighten up," she said. "It's for the show Racing Hearts. You'll be playing yourself, so you'll have fun. I promise."
"Now? This morning?"
"Yep." She handed him what looked like a script. "They wanted you for tomorrow, but your schedule is full until Sunday's race. You're free this morning, but qualifying this afternoon?"
He'd only had a few minutes to read through some of his lines before their limo circled a water fountain surrounded by marble statues in front of Caesars Palace and parked at the entrance.
Handlers met them at the doors and swiftly escorted them to a section of the casino floor that had been cordoned off from the public. Several bigwig production people, producers and directors made their way to where Patricia and he were standing and introduced themselves. They thanked him profusely, explained a bit of what would be happening and went on with their business.
A woman, presumably the show's costume person, came to within a few feet of them and, obviously disgusted, put her hands out to her sides. "What's with the faded jeans and T-shirt? You were supposed to wear a black suit coat and white dress shirt."
"Must have missed that memo."
She disappeared for a few minutes and came back carrying the aforementioned garments. "These oughta fit."
When he raised his eyebrows at her, Patricia said, "Roberto. Please."
"Fine." Right there, he drew his T-shirt over his head, stuffed his arms into the starched sleeves of the dress shirt, and shrugged on the suit coat, hating the feel of this stiff fabric.
The wardrobe lady reached toward him. "May I?"
"May you what?"
"Fix your shirt?"
She closed him up, leaving a couple buttons undone on top, and stepped back. "Tuck."
"Tuck it in. Unless you'd like me to do it for you."
Meat, that's all he was. He shoved the shirttails into his jeans. "How's that?"
"Close." She undid another button and then actually fluffed his chest hair.
He grinned. "I hear this hotel has private rooms."
"Maybe later." Arching her eyebrows, she spun around. "I'll send makeup over."
"Behave." Patricia pinched him.
"AC"He grabbed his arm. "Why should I?"
"Because women always think you're serious."
"Maybe I am. She was kinda cute."
As Patricia rolled her eyes, another woman, the makeup lady, escorted him to a director's chair in front of a mirror. She covered the collar of his dress shirt with a protective towel and then slathered on a layer of thick makeup. When she reached for his head, he pulled back.
"I need to fix your hair," she explained.
"My hair's fine." Pancake batter on his face he could handle. A few quick swipes with a hot washcloth and it was gone, but he hated anyone touching his head. Most people thought he was vain for keeping his hair long enough to just pull it into a ponytail. The reality was, he couldn't tolerate people touching his head.
"Some spray?" She held out a can.
"Over my dead body."
"Suit yourself." With a shrug of her shoulders and a last-minute suggestion to pay attention to the prompters, she walked off.
He finished reading his script and rejoined Patricia, more than a little disgusted with how they'd planned on portraying him in the show. "This stint is not going to help my image."
"Yes, it will."
"They have me coming on to one of their female leads. In a casino. Doesn't sound very redeeming to me."
"They've assured me that you eventually end up helping that character break off her engagement to a cheating jerk," Patricia explained.
"So I'm to be a savior?" That would be the day. Roberto shook his head. All he wanted to do was race. Give me my No. 507 car. Please.
"And here's the best part," she said, smiling. "You'll be playing opposite Mallory Dalton."
He'd heard of her and had seen her on the trailer in a bit part for an upcoming movie. "America's Sweetheart," he said. Americano querida. Now this was all making sense. "Smart move."