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The clock on the wall of the TV studio's greenroom showed 6:55 a.m.time for Sandra Jacobs to pour herself a third cup of coffee. Time to panic.
As she refilled her cup from the pot supplied by one of the Olivia Winton Show's many minions, Sandra's stomach growled a reminder that she hadn't had breakfast. She told her hips to be grateful, and took a scalding sip of the too-hot coffee to settle her stomach. Was it possible to feel both panicked and hungry? By rights, she felt the two shouldn't go together.
"Come on, guys, where are you?" she muttered as she resumed her pacing of the room. She'd set up the media coup of her career, and so far, she was the only person here to witness it. So much for her plan to impress the heck out of her client, Gideon Taney, the notoriously unimpressable boss of Taney Motorsports. Taney, as he was known to everyone, hadn't bothered to show up. Which might not be a bad thing, considering his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, Will Branch, the show's guest of honor, hadn't arrived, either.
The clock's unnaturally loud tick-tick marked the inexorable progress of Will's tardiness from inconvenience to potential disaster. Sandra couldn't afford to screw up in front of Taney. Not when another clockthe countdown on her business loan repaymentsticked constantly in the back of her mind.
The greenroom, where studio guests waited with their hangers-on, had no window to the outside, so Sandra couldn't tell if some freakish Chicago storm had held everyone up. But it had been fine, if dark, when she'd left her hotel earlier.
Behind her, the door opened and Sandra spun around, sloshing hot coffee over the rim of the mug onto her thumb."Ouch! Where have you" halfway through, she realized the new arrival wasn't Will Branch, the AWOL driver, and she tailed off like a winding-down action toy "been?"
"All your life?" Gideon Taney completed her question as he strode into the room, six foot four of dark-haired, dark-eyed, I'm-the-boss-and-don't-you-forget-it masculinity.
Which, as always, started another little tick-tick inside Sandra. She figured Taney's brand of solid strength and sharp intelligence resonated in some primitive place inside all women, causing their biological clockseveryone's, not just mineto tick louder when he was around. He was the kind of perfect specimen of manhood that scientists would choose to procreate the species. She could imagine, after a nuclear holocaust, men like Gideon Taney being rounded up and kept in some top-secret, radiation-free zone, where they would be charged with rebuilding hu-mankind.
As if Taney would allow himself to be rounded up! She dropped her frivolous theories about human survival and focused on the hint of a smile that pulled Taney's mouth out of its usual straight line. And there was that little quip he'd just made. Someone's in a good mood. She might need that. But her own mood wasn't so great, and she sounded ungracious when she said, "I thought you were Will."
Taney's gaze sharpened. "He's not here?" The censure in his deep voice implied it was Sandra's fault.
"There's plenty of time." If you called half an hour plenty. She put down her coffee, grabbed a paper napkin, wiped her thumb. "He knows how important this is for him."
Will Branch's appearance on the Olivia Winton Show, America's most popular breakfast TV show, was even more important for Sandra.
She'd pulled every string, called in every favor anyone had ever owed her. She'd spent hours on the phone, she'd e-mailed, she'd sent autographed NASCAR memorabilia to anyone at the studio whose second cousin's stepdaughter's nephew was a fan. All to secure this coveted spot.
"You do realize," she told Taney, because a P.R. consultant whose business teetered on the brink of financial extinction couldn't afford to be shy of blowing her own trumpet, "Olivia hasn't interviewed a NASCAR driver before? For Will to get in first, when he's never even won a race "
And when he'd got a DNFDid Not Finishin Martinsville on Sunday, as if he were determined to make her job impossible. He had made it to third place before he'd blown a tire, but Sandra wasn't convinced he'd have sustained that performance, even on four good tires.
"The other team owners will turn green over their cereal," Taney said drily. "You could just admit I've done a great job." Plain speaking tended to work best with the man.
He raised an eyebrow. "You know that if I give you the least encouragement you'll put up your fees." He sat down on the beige leather couch, long legs stretched out in front of him, hands clasped behind his head. The beautifully tailored sports jacket that sheathed his powerful shoulders parted to hint at a broad chest beneath the dark polo shirt. Sandra was tall, and she liked to think she cut a striking figure, but Taney had Presence. Sitting didn't dissipate that Presence one iota.
Since his comment about an increase in fees was uncannily accurate, she chose not to answer. "Any progress on finding a new sponsor for Will?"
They desperately needed to sign a new primary sponsor, and Will's appearance with Olivia Winton would show any interested prospects how marketable the Taney Motorsports' driver was. Which was essential, because Will's lackluster racing wasn't about to open wallets.
Despite what she chose to see as Taney's joke about the fees, Sandra was convinced that when they found a new sponsor, Taney would agree to her proposal to substantially increase his team's P.R. budget, both for Will and for his NASCAR Nationwide Series driver, who currently received only a tiny slice of the P.R. pie. And if Taney spent more, and if Will's brother, Bart, another client of Sandra's, also found a new sponsor, then there was a chance she'd make those loan repayments, save her business from going under, be able to pay for her parents' care
Way too many ifs for a sound financial strategy. But it was all she had.
Sandra's cell phone rang, and she pounced on it. "Will?"
"Sandra, it's Anton Zakursky," said an older male voice.
"Dr. Zakursky." The other major worry in her life, one she simply didn't have time for now. She darted a glance at the clock. "You're calling early."
"I wanted to make sure you don't miss another appointment. We're okay for eleven today?"
Sandra closed her eyes. "Uh, I'm so sorry, I already forgot and I'm in Chicago."
There was a long, disappointed silence from the doctor.
"Can I make another appointment for next week?" she asked. Dr. Zakursky told her to contact his receptionist during office hours, then said goodbye.
Sandra glared at the phone, willed Will to call.
"Are you sick?" Taney asked.
"Not at all." Just paranoid. Probably.
His hazel eyes flicked over her. "Do you work out?"
Sandra's hands went involuntarily, protectively, to her hips. "I beg your pardon?" Beneath her fingers she felt little pads of flesh where, ten years ago, there'd been angles and hollows.
The progress of his eyes had slowed and now his inspection lingered as it moved up to her face. "You look as if you do."
Or did he mean she looked as if she needed to?
Sandra stiffened. "I hardly think that's your business."
The gleam in those eyes might have been amusement. "You asked about the sponsor hunt. Her Fitness has decided to sponsor Will."
Just like that, a chunk of Sandra's worries evaporated.
"Taney, that's fantastic." Her Fitness was a national chain of women's gymswhich explained Taney's sudden interest in Sandra's workout regime. "I don't use their gyms, but they have a great reputation." Her mind raced ahead to the business implications. "When can we make an announcement? I need to work out some dates for a press conference. If only I'd known you were talking to them, I"
Taney held up a large hand. "Whoa. The lawyers are making alterations to the contract this morningwe'll sign this afternoon. The company's based here in Chicago." He leaned back, propped one foot on the other knee and folded his arms in justifiable self-satisfaction. "You could probably meet with their marketing people at the end of today."
"Absolutely." She sagged onto the chair opposite his couch, and grinned at him. This news might not have her laughing all the way to the bank, but she deemed a chuckle quite permissible.
In response, his mouth curved in a slow smilemore unpracticed than grudgingthat lightened his hazel eyes.
It struck Sandra there was something secretive about that smile. "There's more, isn't there? Something you're not telling me."
Immediately, his mouth firmed and he abandoned his laconic position for both-feet-on-the-floor assertiveness. He looked down his patrician nose at her. Although Taney was a self-made man, she'd heard his family was old money from back eastwhen he looked like this, she believed it.
"If there's anything you need to know, I'll be sure and tell you," he said.
If Taney played his cards any closer to his chest, he'd be performing open-heart surgery. Sandra clamped her hands on her knees and counted to five. "Quit treating me as if I'm the enemy." Darn, she should have gone for tenthe asperity she'd been determined to tone down made an appearance. Gideon Taney always brought out the worst in her, which was frustrating, given that being tactful was a big part of her job and she didn't normally have a problem with it. She tried again, managed to say patiently, "Taney, you spend twenty thousand dollars a month with Motor Media Group, and you"
"You think it's too much?" he deadpanned.
"Actually, it's too little," she retorted, before she remembered she wasn't going to mention that until after today's show. She leaned back into the cushions, crossed her ankles. "Was Her Fitness pleased that Will's on the Olivia Winton Show?"
He shrugged. "Nobody handed me a bouquet."
TANEY STIFLED A GROAN when Sandra's blue eyes lit up like fireflies.
"Really?" she said happily. "They were that impressed?"
He grunted something noncommittal; her smile widened. Dammit, she always knew when he was bluffing. But observing the curve of her lips and the gleam in her blue eyes, which were set in an oval face framed by waves of deep red hair, was safer than noticing the length of her legs in her above-the-knee skirt, or the curviness of her figure. As always, Taney put those images out of his mind, and prepared to spar with her. Because the next words out of her mouth would be a demand for more money.
"It was a huge amount of work getting Will onto this show," she said, an approach Taney deemed marginally more subtle than usual. "Most of my personal time that went into it wasn't covered by our fee. That's not counting the hours spent dealing with the fallout from Will's family problems. I didn't begrudge you those hours" she spread her hands generously "because I know how important it is to find a new sponsor. But if you want more opportunities like this "
Why did she always push so hard? Taney was all in favor of enthusiasm and persistence. But he'd never met anyone so determined to make a go of her businessand so determined to use his money to do it. He knew Sandra must have borrowed a large sum to buy out her former partner in Motor Media Group. But she was a single woman with no ties, and the company must have a strong cash flowshe should be financially secure. Which made her shameless attempts to finagle more money from Taney Motorsports nothing more than naked ambition.
He admired her for it.
But if she was determined, he was more determined. No matter that she would do a good job with more money, or that the Olivia Winton interview had helped reassure Her Fitness that Will Branch's youthful good looks would attract mainstream media coverage. Taney had his own agenda, one he didn't plan to share with Sandra.
"I have no intention of increasing the team's P.R. spend." It came out harshly, but anything less would have opened the way to more badgering.
Something hot and pureshock, maybe, or anger flashed across her face. Instantly it cooled to disapproval.
No surprise there. Taney didn't have much involvement with Sandra; he left the day-to-day running of Taney Motorsports to his team manager, Jason Kemp. But every time he met with her, no matter that she was always polite, that undercurrent of disapprobation washed up against him. It bugged the heck out of him.
Without a hint of pride he could say he was one of the most respected team owners in NASCARhe got along with everyone and he ran a tight ship. But on some mysterious Sandra-scale, he fell short.
"You might get a better feel for the value of your P.R. investment," Sandra said, her mouth tight, as if she was holding in a bunch of words that badly wanted to break out, "if you spent more time with the team."
A short, charged silence.
Then her stomach growled. The porcelain skin of her face colored up, but though she stood and rubbed a vigorous fist over her middle, she held Taney's gaze.
"I'm here today, aren't I?" he said. Of course, that was because the show coincided with the Her Fitness meeting, and had nothing to do with Sandra's e-mailand two phone messagesdemanding he come to Chicago to support Will. As if Will was a kid who needed someone to hold his hand.
The thought of his driver, whose resounding mediocrity made a late-April sponsor hunt more challenging than Taney needed it to be, prompted him to steamroller over whatever point she was trying to make. "Will's the one you should be concerned about right now." He glanced up at the TV screen on the wall. Olivia was interviewing her first guest, a self-help guru whose book was number one on all the bestseller lists.
TANEY WAS RIGHT, Sandra admitted to herself. But not to himhe already had way too much rocklike immovability about him for her to let him think he knew best. But Will's absence was starting to worry her. She couldn't have forgotten to give him some vital detail, such as the time he was due at the studio, could she? It wouldn't be the first thing she'd forgotten recently, just ask Dr. Zakursky. If this was her fault; if she'd botched this
Suddenly nauseous, she stood, turned on her heel so she wouldn't have to face Taney, and tried Will's cell phone. Still switched off. She left him another message, then dialed the hotel, but got no answer from his room. He was definitely in Chicago, she'd flown in from Charlotte with him and his twin brother, Bartanother NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driveryesterday. Maybe Bart had led Will astray. She tried Bart's room and there was no reply there, either.
"Blasted Brat Pack," she muttered.
"Excuse me?" Taney said.
She grimaced. "It's my private name for Will and Bart. They're okay on their own, but when you put the two of them together " She tucked her phone back into the pocket of her pale gray silk-linen-blend suit jacket.
"Though I'm sure everything's fine," she added meaninglessly. Heated by her growing alarm, she took her jacket off and dropped it over the back of the chair she'd vacated.
Once again, Taney's eyes traveled over herall that talk about women's fitness must have gone to his head. Sandra knew better than to react by hunching her shoulders or folding her arms, which women as well-endowed as she was often felt obliged to do. The silky white blouse that draped in a V across her front would have been entirely modest on a smaller woman. On Sandra, it did show a little cleavage, but nothing that could be called flagrant.