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Maneuvering tools while lying on his back wasn't easy with the relentless stabbing in his chest, and when the wrench slipped, Cutter's hand plowed into the drive shaft. Pain smashed, and the underside of his '71 Barracuda was lit with stars.
"Damn." The muttered word was lost in the rock music wailing in his garage.
Blood dripped from his knuckles onto his T-shirt. He shifted to the right, and his ribs screamed in protest, eliciting a groan of agony as he pulled a rag from the pocket of his jeans, wrapping it around his hand. His chest still sent crippling signals, buton the good sidethe sting in his fingers now took precedence over the two-month-old, lingering ache in his left arm.
Because Cutter Thompson, former number-one driver in the American Stock Car Auto Racing circuit, never did anything half-assed. Even screwing up. He'd ended his career in style, flipping his car and sliding across the finish line on his roof before crashing into a wall.
Pain he was used to. And even if crawling beneath the belly of the 'Cuda went against the doctor's orders, Cutter was going to complete this project even if it killed him.
The music cut off, Bruce Springsteen's voice dying mid-verse, and a pair of high-heeled sandals tapped their way across the concrete toward the 'Cuda. Cinnamon-colored toenails. Nice ankles. Slender, shapely calves. Too bad the rest was blocked by the bottom of the car. The fine-looking legs were most likely encased in a skirt. From this angle, if he rolled his creeper forward, he'd get an eyeful.
And you could tell a lot about a woman by the underwear she wore.
With a delicate squat, knees together, the owner of the legs leaned low until her face appeared beneath the car. Dark, exotic eyes. Glossy, chestnut-colored hair.
"Hello, Mr. Thompson." Her voice was smooth. Warm. Like heated honey. Her smile genuinely bright. The kind of enthusiasm that should be illegal. "Welcome back to Miami."
Welcome home, Thompson. Like a careerending injury at thirty was a blessing.
Cutter stared at the lady. "You interrupted Springsteen."
Her smile didn't budge. "I'm Jessica Wilson." She paused. "Did you get my messages?"
Jessica Wilson. The crazy lady who wouldn't take no for an answer. "All five of them," he said dryly. He turned his attention back to his work, his tone dismissive, his words designed to send her away for good. "i'm not interested in a publicity stunt," he said firmly. He wasn't interested in publicity, period.
He used to like it. Hell, he'd lived for it. And his fans had been fiercely loyal, following him around the circuit and supporting him unconditionally. Sticking with him through thick and thin. The kinds of things parents usually did.
Except for his.
And now what was he supposed to say to the press? Awesome wreck, huh? And how about that stellar suspension the officials had slapped on him? 'Course, that was before anyone knew his split-second decision had cost him more than separated ribs, a fractured arm and a humdinger of a concussion. It had cost him a career.
Pain of a different sort pierced the base of his skull, and regret hollowed out his stomach. Cutter gripped the wrench, awkwardly wrestling with the bolt again. He'd had to go and ruin his dominant hand, too.
Slowly he became aware the lady was still here, as if waiting for him to change his mind. Some people were too persistent for their own good. He tried again. "I'm busy."
"How long have you been working on the car?"
He frowned, thrown by the change in topic. "Fourteen years."
"So fifteen more minutes of a delay won't be too inconvenient?"
Amused, he rolled his head to stare at her. He was trying to be rude and get rid of Little Ms. Sunshine. Why was she still being so friendly? Her eyes were wide. Luminous. The color of melted chocolate. Cutter lowered the wrench warily. "Inconvenient enough."
"As I explained in my messages, the Brice Foundation wants you for their annual charity auction," she went on, obviously undaunted by his attitude. "We need a fifth celebrity to round out our list."
"Five celebrities gullible enough to participate will be hard to find."
She ignored his comment and went on. "I think your participation would generate a lot of excitement, especially as a native Miamian and a national hero."
Cutter's gut clenched. "You've got the wrong guy."
No heroes here. Not anymore. That had ended with his self-destructing, split-second decision on the track. But if she was looking for a night of sex, the fulfillment of a few fantasies, then he was the man for her. Doubtful she was. And right now he wasn't interested in involvement of any kind, in bed or out. "My answer is still no."
She stared at him with those big, Bambi, don't-shoot-me eyes. It had to be an uncomfortable position, balancing on the balls of her feet with her chest against her thighs, her head hanging low enough to look under the bottom of the car. But her voice remained patient. "Will you please just hear me out?"
Damn, she wasn't going to go away.
With a frustrated groan, Cutter rubbed a hand down his face. He needed peace. He needed The Boss blaring on the stereo, drowning out the turmoil in his head. And he needed to get the 'Cuda up and running. But he wouldn't get any closer to accomplishing these if the lady didn't leave. Though, much longer in that position and she'd pass out from a lack of blood flow to her brain. At least then he could haul her out of his garage.
But no matter how much he wanted her to go away, he couldn't let a person continue to hold this discussion while impersonating a contortionist. Even if his chest hadn't recovered from the effort it had taken to climb beneath the car in the first place, even if moving would bring more pain, he had to convince her to leave from a standing position.
With a forced sigh and a grunt of agony, he gripped the chassis of the 'Cuda and pulled the creeper on out from beneath the car, wheels squeaking as he went. He rolled off, his ribs screeching louder in protest, and he sucked in a breath and got hit with her delicate scent. Sweet, yet sensual, infused with a hint of spice. A lot like her voice.
When he finally managed to straighten up, he got a view of her willowy body wrapped in a cool sundress the color of the sky in springtime. Silk clung to her hips and thighs.
Her shoulder-length dark hair framed a delicate face that housed beautiful brown eyes. Classy. Feminine. A girly girl through and through. The visual was almost worth the excruciating pain that now pounded his ribs.
She sent him another smile and nodded toward his car. "Fourteen years is a long time. It looks like it still needs a lot of work."
Cutter's eyebrows pulled together. Sweet or not, no one was allowed to dis his 'Cuda. "Engine's almost fixed." Mostly because when the doctor had delivered the bad news, Cutter had dragged the vehicle out of storage and given himself until the end of the month to get it done. Better than dwelling on his messed-up life. "Be ready for a test run any day now."
She peered in the window. "But there's only a backseat."
"I kissed my first girlfriend there. Happens to be my favorite spot. Just a few more technicalities to take care of."
"Hmmm," she murmured. Stepping back, she glanced at the concrete blocks the car was perched on. "Are tires considered a technicality, too?"
He quirked an eyebrow, amused by her dry tone. "I'll get to it. I've been busy." Busy racing. Ruining a career.
A scowl threatened. Couldn't a man retreat to his garage for a little one-on-one time with his car without a cheerful, pushy woman tracking him down? Maybe if he looked busy she'd go away now.
He rounded the car to where the hood was propped open and twisted off the oil cap. With the clap of heels, she appeared beside him. Ignoring her proximity, and after pulling out the dipstick, he used the rag wrapped around his mashed knuckles to check the level.
She peered around his right shoulder. "Plenty of oil," she said, sounding amused. "Though I doubt you'd lose much since the car doesn't run."
Busted. Not too girly a girly girl. "Can't be too careful."
"Words to live by, Mr. Thompson."
"Precisely." Though not exactly his motto until recently. With a self-chastising grunt, he shoved the oil stick back with more force than necessary. "No publicity stunts for me."
"It's for a good cause."
"You haven't even heard the details."
"Don't need to." Refusing to look at her, he screwed the oil cap on. "I'm not doing it."
She placed her hands on the car frame and leaned close, her evocative scent enveloping him. "The Brice Foundation does the kind of work you and your sponsors have always supported in the past. I know if you hear the details, you'll agree."
The optimistic little lady sounded so sure of herself. Cutter straightened and placed his hands on the frame beside hers, finally meeting her face-to-face. Her olive skin tone suggested a distant Mediterranean ancestor somewhere. Even features. High cheekbones. Full mouth, but not too lush. Nice. "I don't have sponsors anymore." He raised an eyebrow to bring his point home. "And you don't know anything about me."
"You started in the ASCAR truck series at seventeen. Two years later you were dubbed someone to watch by Top Speed magazine." Her wide, deep-brown eyes held his. "You burst into the stock car series and blazed your way to the top. You're known for your cutting words and for being fearless on the track, earning you the nickname the Wildcard. You've held the number-one rank for the past six years" a brief hesitation before she went on "until your accident two months ago when you intentionally bumped your biggest rival, Chester Coon."
Acid churning in his gut, Cutter suppressed the urge to look away. He'd pay for that moment for the rest of his life. He relived it every night in his sleep. The roaring engines. The smell of rubber. And then he spies Chester to his left. Cutter grips his steering wheel and then he wakes with a jerk, drenched in sweat, heart pounding.
And feeling every one of his injuries as if they were fresh.
But the actual moment of bumping Chesterand fortunately, the crash itselfwere a blank. Retrograde amnesia the doctor had called it. A gift bestowed upon him by his concussion.
Or perhaps it was a curse.
His fingers clenched the car frame harder. "The officials should have suspended Chester for the Charlotte incident last year. Damn rookie put everyone at risk when he drove. And then he nearly got another driver killed."
"There was a lot of hard driving the day of your wreck. Everyone knew Chester had it coming."
Surprised, he cocked his head. Jessica Wilson clearly knew the unwritten rules of the track. A familiar niggle of doubt resurfaced. "You're not one of those fanatics who likes to stalk their favorite driver, are you?" After her five messages that was exactly what he'd assumed, though she didn't seem crazy in person. But it could be she was crazy and smart enough to hide it. He'd met a few of those along the way. "If so, your charity ruse is imaginative. Though it's hard to beat the fan who snuck past security at the track, picked the lock on my Rv and climbed into my bed naked."
The spirited sparkle in her eyes was captivating. "I hope you tossed him out."
Despite his mood, a rusty bark of a chuckle escaped his throat, knifing his still-smarting ribs. He was beginning to like the pushy little do-gooder, overly optimistic or not. "I tossed her out." He leaned close, his senses swimming in her scent. "I would have definitely thought twice about getting rid of you."
"I'm a fan, Mr. Thompson," she said evenly. "Not a fanatic." She hiked a brow, loaded with meaning. "And I'm not a groupie."
He dropped his eyes to her mouth. "Too bad. I'd love to have you wrap yourself in nothing but a bow and mail yourself to me in a crate."
She looked at him suspiciously. "You're making that one up."
"Nope." He tipped his head. "The story has been passed around the track for years. Could be just an urban legend though."
She leaned closer, narrowing her eyes, and his unfamiliar urge to grin was strong. Her voice dropped an octave. "And you are legendary for supporting organizations that work with disadvantaged kids."
The do-gooder was back. "And here I thought you leaned closer just to flirt with me."
Her bottomless brown eyes were unwavering. "I never use flirting as a tool."
"Too bad." But he liked her close, so he stayed put. "And I told you, no way will I"
"These kids need support from role models like you."
The words slammed with all the force of his careerending crash, killing his urge to grin. Outside of setting a spectacular example of how to destroy the single good thing in your life, what did he have to offer the public now? His one claim to fame was gone. He was just a washed-up driver who'd taken a risky move and gone down in a blaze of shame.
Other than an amused glint in his sea-green eyes, Jessica had yet to see Cutter smile. She watched the glint of humor die as the masculine planes of his face hardened.
"Look, lady." Cutter ruffled an impatient hand over closely cropped, light-brown hair. "You have me confused with someone who cares. My sponsors paid me millions. They told me which charities to support. The only person I support is me."
Jessica's smile faded at the egocentric words.
Cutter turned and walked past shelves of car parts and tools, heading in the direction of a utility sink in the corner. "And right now I have a car to fix," he added with a tone of finality.
Disenchantment settled deep in Jessica's chest. So he didn't care. So he'd only thought of his bank account. And maybe his moving words of support in the past were speeches written by a paid writer. This wasn't about her disappointment that an idol of hers wasn't the hero she'd thought. This was about the Brice Foundation Steve had started. And she'd promised him she'd get Cutter Thompson on board. Because she owed Steve.
How many ex-husbands helped their former wife get a business up and running?
Her online dating service had given her a sense of purpose at a time when her life was falling apart. And finding The One for others, in some small way, compensated for her personal failure.
And though she'd vowed long ago that melancholy wasn't allowed, the garage smelled of gasoline and motor oil, stirring poignant memories. Toward the last months of their marriage, Steve had withdrawn, spending more and more time tinkering with his boat. Maybe twenty was a little young for marriage, but Jessica had been confident they could work through anything. She'd been wrong. And Steve had begun to insist he couldn't give her what she needed.
In the end, Jessica had agreed.