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"Whip! I gotta have that torque wrench or I ain't never gonna get this done."
"Take a look in the far chest, Sunshine. The second drawer. I got it out of there earlier."
"Well, it ain't in there now. It ain't in any of 'em. Drawers or chests. I done looked."
Hunkered down outside the Corley Motors rig, the tractor-trailer used to haul "Bad Dog" Butch Corley's dragster to National Hot Rod Association events, Trey "Whip" Davis straightened from where he'd been securing an extension cord against the movable race pit flooring, and mentally retraced the day's steps.
He'd had the torque wrench with him when he'd grabbed for his BlackBerry to call Butchthe driver had been enjoying a late breakfast with his wife and sononly to realize he'd left the PDA on a shelf in the hauler's workshop. He'd obviously set down the tool when he'd picked up the phone, butcrap on a cracker.
What was wrong with his head?
This wasn't like him, being off kilter, disorganized, careless. He was making stupid mistakes. It had to stop. And it had to stop now. He headed for the racing trailer's open door. "Take a break, guy. Grab a corndog. Get a cup of coffee. I'll rustle it up."
Sunshine got to his feet, twisted and stretched his stocky five-foot-seven frame, and gave Trey his trademark sunny smileone that reddened his already ruddy complexion, which in turn made his blond eyebrows appear to have been bleached within an inch of their life. "Can't turn down that million-dollar offer. See ya in a bit, Boss."
Trey watched his assistant crew chief make his way toward the concession stands, zigzagging through the haulers, pop-ups and motor homes turning theDahlia Speedway pits into a virtual campground.
The late morning sun shone off the reds and greens, and the blues and yellows of hundreds of logos decorating everything from trucks and T-shirts to ball caps and tattoos. Behind him, Trey knew, the snarling Corley bulldog, with its spiked silver collar, would be gleaming bright white against the backdrop of the team's black trailer.
The vibrant colors, the beehive activity, the smells of exhaust and fuel as mechanics test-fired engines, the din of the fans whooping and hollering along with the jetlike roar he would never tire of witnessing a dragstrip coming to life and was, in fact, going to miss it like hell while away.
When Corley Motors pulled out early Monday morning following this weekend's Farron Fuel Spring Nationals, Sunshine would be taking over Trey's crew chief duties working with Butch on developing racing strategies and supervising the crew of mechanics who precision-tuned the engine for optimum performance.
It was a temporary arrangement only; Trey had made sure his crew and his driver understood he would be back. For now, however, he was staying in Dahliathe town where he'd lived the first twenty years of his life. It was long past time to go through the paperwork and personal belongings he hadn't touched in the six months since his father's death from heart failure.
And since he rarely visited, he'd decided there was no reason to keep the house or the property he owned here. It held memories, sure, but he wasn't the sentimental type that attached them to a place. He could think back to his childhood anytime he wanted to remember the past.
Unfortunately, getting the place fit for a buyer was going to require a hell of a lot of manual labor, and most of it would have to be his. He was the only one who would know what to keep, what to toss, what to store until he could make arrangements to sell or give away.
All that weight pressing down had everything to do with his mind being on the fritz. But clearing away those obligations was only one part of it. Solving the puzzle of why the hell, shortly before his death, his father had taken a swing at a pillar of the Dahlia community and nearly killed the older man's son when he'd come to his defense was another.
Both had to be done if he intended to remain in the top fuel game. He didleaving him no choice but to take this sabbatical.
It was either do so, or find himself canned as Butch Corley's tuning boss, and he'd worked too hard to let that come to pass. No mechanic with a lick of sense wanted to work for a screw-up. No driver worth his salt would let one near his car.
Knowing Sunshine couldn't resist a conversation anymore than he could a corndog, Trey stepped up into the hauler's workshop, figuring he had a free thirty minutes while the other man schmoozed the vendors setting up around the track.
The rest of the crew would be rolling in throughout the day to prepare for Friday's first round of qualifying. There would be no downtime over the weekend; work would continue from dawn to dusk to dawn again, the team tweaking their formula to guarantee a "Bad Dog" performance the Corley fans wouldn't forget.
This breather was the last one Trey figured he'd have until at least Sunday night. By the time Sunshine got back, all hands would be required on deck and
"You know, the last time I saw you standing still, you had your pants around your ankles."
What the hell?
"And it's nice to see my memory hasn't failed me. You do have a fantastic ass."
Glowering, Trey turned. The woman in the doorway had the sun at her back, which put her face in shadow. It didn't matter. He knew without question who it was standing there giving him the eye. Had known who was speaking the moment he'd first heard her voice.
That didn't mean he was able to answer without taking a deep breath first. Seven years had done nothing to dull his body's response to having her within reach. "Cardin Worth. It's been a while."
She wore black Converse sneakers, low-riding jeans, and a black Dahlia Speedway logo T-shirt. His pulse began to hum, but not because of the way she looked in her clothes.
Humming was what it had always done when she was around. What it had done even before the pants-around-his-ankles incident all those years ago. What it had done anytime he'd thought of her since.
He'd thought of her a lot. A whole hell of a lot. "How are you?"
Pulling off her sunglasses, she came further into the trailer, her long black ponytail swinging, her cheekbones more defined than he recalled. "I'm good, Trey. You?"
"The same." He looked on as she laid down the glasses, as she picked up and fondled the wrench he'd come for. He'd always thought she had the most graceful hands, had always wanted her to touch him more than she had the night she'd caught him bare-assed. "What brings you out here so early on race weekend?"
"I'm actually looking for my grandfather." Her gaze came up, intense, searching. "Have you seen him?"
"Jeb? No." Trey shook his head. He hadn't remembered her eyes being so blue. Her body being so fine. But he finally did remember his manners. It didn't matter that her grandfather was someone he really didn't care to see. "Is he doing okay?"
A comma of a dimple teased one side of her mouth. "Flying as right as ever, thanks."
"And you? You're doing okay?" Because he sure as hell wasn't.
Her smile took pity, her gaze softened. "We already did that part."
"Right. Sorry. My mind's"
"On the race?"
Actually, it had gone back seven years to the night of the kegger celebrating her class's high school graduation. The night of the pants-around-his-ankles incident. The night he'd backed her into the wall and listened to her breathe.
He still wondered how long she'd been standing there, why she'd stayed and watched instead of skittering away. If she'd been as turned on as he'd thought. If she dreamed about that night the way he did, for no reason that made any sense.
He cleared his throat, went back to what she'd asked him. "Yeah. Farron Fuels is always a big one for Butch."
"For all of Dahlia," she reminded him sagely, her hometown pride strong.
He nodded in response, knowing her family, along with the others whose businesses thrived on the income generated by visitors who'd come to the spring drag racing series to see "Bad Dog" Butch, would get the bad news soon enough.
Thanks to one Artie Buell, son of the local sheriff, who'd messed with Butch's wife at a local watering hole where she'd stopped for a drink with Sunshine's wife last night, this weekend's Farron Fuels was the last one for Butchwho would've landed behind bars and had to forfeit the race if Trey and the others hadn't kept him from kicking Artie's ass.
Butch had no use for a town where a supposed upstanding citizen, one related to what passed for the law, didn't know that a married woman's no meant no. So this year's race was it. Corley Motors, one of the biggest outfits in top fuel dragster racing, wouldn't be coming back to the Dahlia Speedway.
And once he'd finished his business here and cut his personal ties with the town, that meant neither would Trey.
Cardin turned the torque wrench over in her hands, a thoughtful crease appearing between her arched brows. "It has to be strange to have grown up here, yet never visit. Except during the Farron Fuels."
He wanted to tell her it wasn't strange at all. That these days he didn't think of Dahlia as anything more than another quarter mile strip of asphalt he needed to get his driver down as fast as he could. But he didn't say anything, just waited for her to dig deeper for whatever it was she wanted.
She did, switching from a gentle trowel to a more painful pick. "Surely you miss seeing old friends? Spending time at home? Hanging out with Tater, as inseparable as you two were?"
He missed Tater, sure. They'd been best friends before either of them could spell his name. But the only thing that would've kept Trey here had never been his to come home toeven though she'd sought him out and was standing in front of him now.
And so he shook his head.
"Hmm." Her tone said she didn't believe him. "There's not anything about Dahlia you miss?"
"Nope," he said, and knew he lied.
"Nope." Another lie.
"Not even Kim Halton?"
Kim Halton had been the girl on her knees when his pants had been around his ankles. The girl who'd finished what she'd started, then left Trey alone to pull up, zip up and deal with the girl who had watched.
"There is one thing."
"I miss seeing you."
"Pfft." She fluffed her fingers through her bangs, hiding behind her hair and her hand. "When did you ever see me before?"
He wondered if her refusal to look him in the eye meant her cool was all a ploy. Then he wondered how much of the truth she really wanted.
He went for broke. "You mean besides the time you stood there and watched Kim blow me?"
Color rose to bloom on her cheeks, but it was her only response until she gave a single nod.
That one was easy. "I saw you at school, in the halls, shaking your ass on the football field. I saw you every time I came into your family's place for a burger or a beer."
"That was a long time ago, Trey," she said, her voice broadcasting her bafflement. "At least"
"Seven years," he finished for her.
Her frown was baffled, too. "You say that like you've kept track."
"I have." He knew exactly when he'd moved away from Dahlia. When he'd last seen her except in passing at the annual Farron Fuels.
"I don't get it. You were two years ahead of me in school. We didn't exchange more than a couple dozen words."
Words had nothing to with the heat she'd stirred in him then. That she still stirred now, a stirring he felt as his blood flowed south. "So?"
"So, there's no reason for you to miss seeing me."
"None you can think of, you mean."
"Hold up." He lifted a hand. "Forget about me missing you. Let's talk about the nickname instead."
That got her to laughing, a throaty, bluesy sound that tightened him up. "Hey, I had no idea it would stick. You can blame that on Tater."
She returned the wrench to the shelf, her fingers lingering, her lashes as thick and dark as the bristles of an engine brush as she lifted her gaze coyly to his. "At least most people think it's about you cracking the whip over your team."
That was because most people hadn't been there to hear the gossip about him whipping it out for Kim Halton.
He was lucky their secret had stayed close. That no one knew he couldn't have cared less about Kim. That, instead, he'd wanted the girl watching from the doorway as Kim stroked him. The one too close to his doorway now.
He moved to block it. "I suppose it could've been worse."
"You're right." She paused, added, "I could've called you Speedy."
Ouch. But he grinned. "Maybe I was wrong when I thought I'd missed seeing you."
"I'd say that's a distinct possibility." Coy was gone, a come-on in its place. "Especially since I'm right here, and you're still missing seeing me."
He was pretty sure his definition of missing and hers of the same word were two different things. That didn't mean she wasn't right. That he wasn't overlooking something vital.
He crossed his arms and widened his stance, furrowing his brow as he gave her an obvious once-over. "I'm seeing you now."
Her tongue slicked quickly over her lips. "You're too far away to see much of anything."
There were less than three feet between them. He came closer, backing her into a waist-high storage locker. "Is this better?"
"You tell me," she said.
He leaned in, flattened his palms on the stainless steel surface, one on either side of her hips, and hovered, her body heat rising, his breathing labored and giving him away. "Not as better as it needs to be."
Her hesitation in replying wasn't about uncertainty, or impropriety, but about making him sweat, making him wait, making him want and ache. He was doing all of those things, strangling on the tension that was thick in the trailer around them, and robbing him of his air.
Finally, she moved, her hands coming up, her palms pressing to his chest, her fingertips finding his nipples and rubbing circles where they dotted his shirt. He shuddered, and she tipped forward, nuzzling her nose to the hollow of his throat.