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Beau Stillwell could kiss her ass. If she could ever find him, that was.
Her temper beginning to fray at the edges, Natalie Bridges silently huffed and carefully picked her way through yet another row of big pickup trucks, trailers, motor homes and some of the loudest, gaudiest souped-up cars she'd ever had the misfortune to see. Welcome to Dahlia Speedway, where big boys and their toys hurtled down a quarter-mile track to see who could go the fastest. Quite frankly, she didn't get it.
What, or rather who, she needed to get, however, was Beauregard Stillwell. She'd called and left messages every day for two weeks with the secretary of Stillwell Construction. He'd summarily ignored them. She'd doggedly left messages on his cell and home phone. No call back.
She jumped as a car cranked next to her with a near deafening roar. Was there another wedding planner in Nashville, Tennessee, who'd go to these lengths to get the job done? Maybe, maybe not, but she was bound and determined that Caitlyn Stillwell and Cash Vickers would have the wedding of their dreamsif she could ever get Caitlyn's brother, Beau, to cooperate.
Caitlyn and Cash had the most romantic story. Call it fate or destiny or karma, but fresh out of college with a degree in film and video, Caitlyn had lucked into shooting a music video for rising country music star Cash Vickers at an antebellum plantation outside Nashville. In a nutshell, they'd fallen in love with each other and the place during the filming. In a wildly romantic gesture, Cash had bought the plantation, Belle Terre, for him and Caitlyn. They both had their hearts set on getting married there. However, while a faintly neglected air worked for a video for "Homesick," a song about finding where you belong and who you belonged there with, it didn't work for a wedding. Caitlyn didn't trust anyone with the renovations except her big brother, Beau.
Which was all good and fine, if Natalie could just get him to talk to her about the renovation schedule. In the two-week span of being ignored, Natalie could've lined up another builder to handle the remodel, except this was a sticking point with Caitlyn. No Beau Stillwell, no remodel. No remodel, no wedding.
And come hell or high water, in which hell might very well take the form of Beau Stillwell, Natalie was planning and executing this wedding. Cash was being touted as country music's next big thing, and being in charge of his and Caitlyn's wedding would set Natalie apart as Nashville's premier wedding planner but only if everything went off without a hitch. She'd either be ruined or all the rage. Ruined wasn't a viable option.
Hence, she'd finished up the rehearsal dinner for tomorrow's wedding between Gina Morris and Tommy Pitchford, settled them and their families at the private banquet room at the upscale Giancarlo's Ristorante, and left her assistant, Cynthia, to deal with any residual problems. Natalie had driven the thirty miles out of Nashville and parted with twenty dollars at the gate to gain entry to the one place she knew for sure she could find Mr. Stillwell on a Friday eveningthe Dahlia drag strip.
Dodging a low-slung orange car with skulls air-brushed on the front and side as it pulled down the "street" in the congested pit area, she thought better a drag strip than a strip joint. Although she had thought it was pretty interesting the one time she'd tracked down a recalcitrant groom and dragged him out of a strip club. Her seldom-seen, inner wild girl had thought she wouldn't mind doing a pole dance for someone special in a private setting.
Even though she was about five unreturned phone calls beyond annoyed, she had to admit the drag strip was an interesting place. Apparently drag racing pit areas were wherever the car's trailer was parked. She tried to ignore the stares and titters that followed her. Maybe three-inch heels and a suit weren't the dress code at the drag strip, but changing would have meant driving all the way back across Nashville when she'd had the girl genius idea of coming here to track down Beau the Bastard, as she and Cynthia had dubbed him earlier today when he'd blown off her call yet again.
She clutched her purse tighter against her side. There was almost a carnival atmosphere. An announcer "called" the race, giving statistics and tidbits about each driver over a loudspeaker. The cars themselves were beyond loud, spectators whooped and hollered, people zoomed around on four-wheelers and golf carts, and there was plenty of tailgating going on at the race trailers. It sort of reminded her of holidays at her parents' housechaos. Although, unlike at her folks', there was at least some structure and method behind the madness here.
She passed a concession stand located behind the packed spectator bleachers and the smell of hamburgers and French fries wafting out set her mouth watering and her stomach growling, reminding her she hadn't eaten since breakfast. God, she'd kill for a greasy fry dredged in catsup right nowthe ultimate comfort food. However, she was probably packing on another five pounds just from smelling them.
She walked away from the people lined up at the burger window. Directly across from the food concession, she noticed a T-shirt vendor displayed his, or her, wares. Natalie nearly laughed aloud at the one that proclaimed "Real Men Do It With 10.5 Inches."
She didn't get the inside joke and it was rude and crude, but still kind of funny. And she had to smile at the "Damn Right It's Fast, Stupid Ass" next to it.
She was so busy laughing at the T-shirts that catching her heel in a crack caught her totally unawares. Arms flailing, she pitched into a guy carrying a hot dog and a plastic cup of beer.
"Damn, lady," he yelled, "watch where you're going." He shot her a nasty look. "And that cost me my last eight bucks."
Natalie righted herself, dug into her purse, pulled out a ten and shoved it in the man's hand. "Sorry."
Mollified by his two-dollar gain, he changed his tune. "No problem." He looked down her chest and grimaced. "Napkins are over there." He turned on his heel and returned to the concession counter.
She glanced down. Her favorite cream silk blouse with the lovely ruffle down the center clung to her in a beer bath. Bright yellow mustard and red catsup obscured the flowers on the left breast of her jacket. She wasn't sure that blouse and jacket weren't both ruined. She quelled the urge to laugh hysterically. Napkins. She needed napkins.
She started toward the round, bar-height table that held the napkins, along with the hamburger and hot dog fixings, and realized she'd wrenched the heel off her right pump when she'd stepped in the asphalt crack. She limped over to the table and grabbed a napkin.
A blonde with dark roots in jeans and a halter top gave her a sympathetic look. "The bathroom's right around the corner."
Five minutes later, she'd managed to work some of the mustard and catsup stain out of her jacket and she'd blotted at her beer-soaked blouse. She'd toyed with, and promptly dismissed, the notion that she'd be better off trading them for one of the graphic tees. No, that would make her look even more bedraggled than her stained clothing.
For the thousandth time, she silently cursed Beau Stillwell. This was all his fault. Maybe he wasn't personally responsible for the asphalt crack she'd caught her heel in, but if he'd had the common courtesy to return just one of her phone calls or, at the very least, left a message for her with his secretary, Natalie wouldn't have been reduced to chasing him all over Dahlia, Tennessee, and her heel wouldn't have gotten stuck in the damn crack in the damn first place because she wouldn't have been here.
She smiled grimly at herself in the chipped mirror and tucked her hair back into what was left of her chignon as best she could. She reapplied a coat of pale pink lipstick and rubbed her lips together. She didn't care what they said on the Style Network doing that funky top-lip-against-the-bottom-one smear smoothed out the color. Dropping the lipstick tube back in her purse, she stood up straight, squared her shoulders, and gave herself a pep talk.
Granted she fell a little short of the markshe always aimed to project an elegant professionalism but she didn't really resemble the walking wounded, she reassured herself. And killing Beau Stillwell when she found him, or at least braining him with what was left of her right pump, was not in her best interest. Dead, or even slightly brained, would preclude her nailing him down as to the remodel schedule on Belle Terre, which was why she was standing in the shabby, smelly bathroom of the Dahlia drag strip reeking of beer, mustard and catsup rather than attending Nashville's latest art gallery opening, where she was sure Shadwell Jackson III, the guy who had Prince Charming written all over him, was supposed to be.
Heck yeah, she believed in Prince Charmings and wanted one for herself. How could she be a wedding planner and not believe in happy-ever-after? She was detail-oriented and a devotee of true loveit was a career tailor-made for her.
She came from a long line of happy-ever-afters. She figured it was a genetic thing. No one in either her mother's or her father's families had ever gotten a divorce. And none of them were living in misery. Sure they had problems to work through, but all of them had sound marriages. Her parents were still absolutely in love after thirty-two years, raising Natalie and taking in foster kids on a regular basis.
She'd known for years what her Prince Charming would be like when he swept her off her feet. She'd always envisioned her Mr. Right as an urbane professional who donned a suit and tie every morning, refined, gallant. And instead of meeting Shad, an imminent candidate for that position, she was here, tracking down pain-in-her-ass Beau Stillwell.
She sucked in a deep, calming breath, which proved a mistake in a public toilet. Blech. She limped back outside where the scent of fast food underpinned the acrid smell of burning rubber. Beau Stillwell, did not know the measure of the woman he was dealing with. She could handle this. She would handle this.
Smoothing her hand over her skirt and tweaking her stained jacket into place over her stained blouse, she fixed her best smile on her face rather than a scowl and gimped forward on her broken heel toward the pit area for Stillwell Motors Racing.
She'd employ charm and tact and whip the elusive brother of the bride right into shape.
The four-wheeler towed Beau and his '69 Camaro into their pit area beneath the two green pop-up tents next to the trailer. Before he'd even climbed out of the car, his motor guy Darnell and general crew member Tim were pulling the hood pins, eager to read the spark plugs and tweak the setup.
Beau tugged off his helmet and stripped off his neck brace and fireproof gloves. A grin split Scooter Lewis's face as he walked over, waving Beau's run results in his hand. "That was a helluva run. Even with your tires spinning a little off the line, you beat him off the tree and at the sixty-foot. He didn't have a prayer of catching you."
"It was sweet, wasn't it?" Beau said, the adrenalin rush that came with rocketing down a quarter-mile track in less than four and a half seconds was beginning to subside. It was like a five-second orgasm with an unpredictable woman. From the instant the light went green, signaling him to go, he was never sure what would happen on the run, but it was guaranteed to be a rush. "If we run that again tomorrow, we should qualify first."
"I'll ramp it down some and that'll take care of the spin," Darnell said, glancing up and handing off the socket wrench to Tim.
Beau nodded. As crew chief, Scooter oversaw all the adjustments based on track and weather conditions, but Darnell was damn near a genius when it came to motor setups. "Who've we got to beat tomorrow? Mitchell or Taylor?"
"Mitchell. They dropped in a new motor but you're still the better driver."
And without arrogance, Beau knew it was true. Driving a race car was in his blood. He'd been born with a need for speed. It's what the Stillwell men did. His father had raced, his grandfather had raced, and stories of his great-grandfather Theodore Still-well outrunning prohibitionists in a Model T in his day was local legend around Dahlia, Tennessee. Before that, the Stillwell men were hell at the helm of a buggy. In fact, family rumor had it that Stillwells drove a mean chariot in the day. That, however, was totally unsubstantiated Stillwell family lore.
A couple of fans stopped by to check out the car. Beau recognized the guys as motorheads who showed up at every race. They were still looking over the engine and bending Darnell's ear when a blonde and a brunette in matching jeans and what he'd guess to be double D's in tube tops strolled into the pit area.
"Hi, I'm Sherree," the blonde said, "and this is Tara. Would you take a picture with us?"
"Certainly, ladies." He offered them his most charming smile.
Sherree shoved a camera at Scooter, and within seconds Beau was sandwiched between heavily perfumed feminine flesh, those matching double D's pressing against his arms on each side of him.
"Say nitrous oxide," Scooter instructed.
"I thought it was cheeseisn't it cheese?" Tara asked.
On the other side of the camera, Scooter, ever the prankster, grinned.
"Cheese is fine," Beau assured her. He wasn't particularly surprised when one of them grabbed his ass a second later.
Scooter snapped the photo and returned the camera.