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Daddy, I'm getting really hot in this dress. I'd like to go home, please."
Ethan Hunt looked down at his daughter's flushed, pleading face and decided he wanted the same thing she did. "We'll go soon, doodlebug," he promised. "When the band starts playing again we'll say our goodbyes and head out."
"Okay." Sadie pushed one of the frosting pansies from her piece of wedding cake around on her plate. "It's been fun and all, but"
"It's time to get home and take care of your Zanies, right?" He was surprised he'd been able to talk Sadie out of bringing at least one of the fanciful stuffed animals and her handheld computer game to the wedding reception. She was seldom without one of the toys and the game of fantasy creatures she nurtured in their make-believe world.
Sadie perked up a bit. "Yes," she said. "I do need to get online before bedtime." She rested her chin on her hand and stared across the lawn at the bride and groom greeting well-wishers under a big live oak tree. "Sophia's wedding dress is so pretty. She looks just like a ballerina with that sparkly, swirly skirt and flowers in her hair."
"She's a very pretty bride," Ethan agreed. Sophia Grosso and her groom, Justin Murphy's, Easter-weekend wedding and reception was being held on the lawn of Justin's Lake Norman home. The guest list was a who's who of NASCAR.
"Hey, Sadie, you look very pretty in that dress. Want to dance with me?" Trey Sanford asked, coming up to their table.
"Hi, Trey. No, I don't want to dance," Sadie said politely, not at all impressed she'd just been invited to dance by one of NASCAR's most eligible bachelors. "Thank you for saying my dress is pretty, but it's too hot."
"I hear you,"Trey said, flipping a finger under the lapel of his sports jacket. "Really warm for April. Hi, Chief," he said, giving Ethan a half salute and a grin as he pulled a chair up to their tiny table, turned it around and straddled it, folding his arms on top of the backrest.
"Trey," Ethan acknowledged with a nod. Trey Sanford was the youngest brother of Ethan's boss, Adam Sanford, the owner of Sanford Racing, one of the oldest race teams in the business. He drove the No. 483 Greenstone Garden Centers car. Ethan was his crew chief.
"Where's Becky?" Sadie asked as Trey snatched some icing off Sadie's piece of cake and popped it in his mouth.
"She's around somewhere," Trey said, a frown etching a furrow between his eyebrows as he licked frosting off his fingers. "She'll show up when the music starts again." Ethan stopped worrying about the unsuitability of Sadie's velvet dress and focused his attention on the younger man. Trey and his fashion-model girlfriend, Becky Peters, had an on-again, off-again relationship, the ups and downs of which tended to affect his driving.
Trey didn't look too concerned at the moment, so Ethan let himself relax. "C'mon," Trey coaxed. "Just one dance."
"Becky will dance with you when she gets back," Sadie pronounced around a mouthful of cake. "She's a good dancer."
The band struck up a lively country tune and a line dance began to form. Trey stood up. "Well, if you won't dance with me I'd better go find Becky before she has to come looking for me. See you at the shop, doodlebug."
"See you, Trey."
Sadie watched the handsome driver walk away. "Becky's thinking about breaking up with him again," she said matter-of-factly.
Sadie's cheeks reddened a little. "I I overheard her talking on the phone to her friend. I wasn't eavesdropping. She was talking to her in the car while we were driving to the shop. I couldn't help but listen."
"That's okay," Ethan said, slightly taken aback. Becky had been good enough to help him out by taking care of Sadie the past couple of days since the nanny he'd hired only a week earlier had broken her leg in two places. But he wasn't certain discussing her love life in front of an eleven-year-old was appropriate. Should he say something to Trey's girlfriend? He decided against it. After all, she had helped him out with Sadie as a friend, not an employee, but it only made him more anxious than ever to find a suitable nanny for his daughter.
"I like Becky. We had fun together. Look, there she is. She's pulling Trey out on the dance floor. They look really nice dancing together. Just like Barbie and Ken."
Ethan flicked a quick glance at his daughter. She was watching the dancing with a smile on her face. She meant it as a compliment, Ethan realized. She loved her Barbies and still kept them on prominent display in her bedroom, both the one at their home and at her grandparents', where she spent even more time during the racing season.
"They have trust issues, though," she said, looking very serious.
"Did she tell you that, too?"
"No. I saw it on Oprah. It was a show about couples that fight a lot. A guy and his girlfriend had the same kind of problems as Trey and Becky, except he was an insurance adjuster and she was a teacher. I figured it out from what they said. Do you think I should talk to Becky about it? I mean if she comes over to stay with me again?"
Ethan cleared his throat and didn't smile. "No," he said. "I think we should let them work it out for themselves."
"Yes, I imagine that's best," she said in a very grownup voice.
Where did the kid get this stuff? Ethan wondered. She was always working out theories, thinking through the possibilities, coming up with fanciful and not so fanciful explanations for what made things tick. She wasn't a genius, but she did fall into the gifted category, and that was why he'd let his late wife's parents, Ford and Martha Pelton, talk him into sending her to the exclusive private school a few miles outside of Concord, North Carolina, where they lived. It was a good school and he didn't begrudge the high tuition fee, but it was also on a year-round class schedule and that was a real problem right at the moment. Sadie was on a six-week spring break that coincided with the month-long South American cruise that Ford and Martha had given each other as a fortieth-wedding-anniversary gift.
Martha had found a permanent nanny with impeccable references to take over for them, but when the woman broke her leg two days after Ford and Martha took off on their cruise, he had no backup for Sadie's care. He was on his own.
He hated to admit it, but he wasn't used to being a full-time parent. Laura's parents had always been there for him, and when Sadie had been small he'd justified their spending so much time with her as his effort to help assuage their grief over the loss of their only child. Since he'd taken over the crew chief's job at Sanford Racing, he had even less time for parenting than he had before.
He worked eighteen hours a day. He seldom slept in his own bed two nights in a row. He traveled four days out of seven, forty weeks of the year. Being a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crew chief wasn't a nine-to-five kind of job. It was a 24/7 commitment. Especially when your driver was having a bad season like his was.
Trey Sanford was going through a rough patch. He'd been finishing in back of the pack most races this season, a tough pill to swallow after his great start at Daytona in February and his championship season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series the year before. Trey's patience was wearing thin. Hell, so was Ethan's but he didn't dare let it show. He was working on a tight budget, with a team that was beginning to show signs of strain and friction. He wondered some days how much longer his team owner, Adam Sanford, would put up with the situation before he started to make changes.
Adam wouldn't be firing his driverhis baby brother that was for sure. Even if there were issues in Trey's life serious enough to bring Sanford Racing down with him.
The most logical person to go would be the guy who was supposed to hold the team together, call the shots, get the job done. In other words, the crew chief. One Ethan Daniel Hunt. Of course getting fired from his job would solve his other problemnot being there for his daughter. He'd have all the time in the world for Sadie then, and maybe that wasn't such a bad idea.
"Daddy, you're not eating your cake," Sadie remarked, eyeing his untouched piece. "Aren't you feeling well?"
"I'm fine, doodle," he said, pushing the piece of chocolate cake in her direction. "Just don't you make yourself sick eating too much frosting."
"I won't. In fact, I think I'll save it for lunch tomorrow."
Ethan felt his chest tighten with something akin to panic. Lunch tomorrow. Without a nanny to watch over her, he'd have to take her to the shop with him again. What would he do with her there all day? And the day after that? And the one after that? The agency better come through quickly.
"I was thinking we should stop in the kitchen and ask Aunt Grace if she has something to cover my cake with. I don't want to get frosting on the car seat."
"Good idea," Ethan praised her. "I should have thought of that."
Sadie beamed at the small compliment and he sucked in his breath. She had Laura's smile, and her eyes. Each day that passed she looked more and more like his late wife.
"We'll say our goodbyes to Justin and Sophia now," he said, standing up and holding out his hand for the plate of cake. "Then we can leave through the backyard and not get waylaid by anyone on our way to the car."
"Good," she said. "This has been fun. Especially the Easter-egg hunt and the piñata and everything. I didn't think there would be games for kids at a wedding reception. That was cool." He'd been surprised by how many children had attended the outdoor wedding and reception, and the activities the bride and her family had provided to entertain them. There were fifteen or twenty kids from toddlers to teenagers running between the tables, dancing with the grown-ups, stuffing their faces with cake and punch, and no one, least of all the bride and groom, seemed to mind.
Ethan glanced around the table-dotted lawn. All those people were making time for their families despite demanding careers of all kinds, not just NASCAR. He wanted Sadie with him full-time, not shuttling back and forth between two households like a little vagabond. He was beginning to suspect Ford and Martha, now heading into their seventies, wanted that, too. It was up to him to make it happen; he just wasn't sure how.
"Look. There's Justin and Sophia." Sadie held out her hand and he folded his own around it. She was small-boned and slender, but not fragile and prone to illness as Laura had been. She was stronger than she looked, and one of the things she'd inherited from him was a rock-solid constitution. She was almost never sick, thank heaven.
They caught up with the bride and groom as they were getting ready to take the dance floor, said their goodbyes and moved on toward the kitchen, where his adopted sister, Grace Winters, was overseeing her catering crew.
Grace's catering van, stenciled with her company nameGourmet by Gracehad been pulled close to the back door of the brick-and-frame house. Black-and-white-clad waiters moved back and forth, in and out, carrying trays of canapés to the tables, returning dirty flatware and dishes to the van, beginning to break down the steam tables and warming ovens they'd set up hours earlier.
"Hi, sis," Ethan said, giving Grace a quick wave.
"Hi, yourself," she called back, summoning one of her young assistants as she motioned for him to help her lift a large box into the van.
"I'll get that," Ethan said, taking a quick step forward, reaching for the heavy plastic tub before Grace could lift her end of it. "You'll ruin your dress." Ethan frowned as he and the youngster heaved the box into the back of the truck. Where was that slacker brother-in-law of hers? Tony Winters was supposed to be a partner in his sister's catering business. Supposed to be her right-hand man, but he was nowhere in sight.
Ethan had been good friends with his late brother-in-law, Todd, but the dead man's older brother was another story altogether.
"Thanks, Ethan." She ignored his comment about ruining her dress and sent the young assistant on his way with a smile. "What are you two doing here?" she asked, wiping her hands on the big white apron that covered her from neck to knee. She wasn't wearing chef's whites, or even utilitarian black and white like her staff. She was dressed in some gauzy, summery pink dress that brought out the gold in her hair and the blue in her eyes, because she was supposed to be dancing and drinking champagne out there on the lawn with the other invited guests, not loading a truck.
Ethan opened his mouth to say just that, but she gave a slight shake of her head and a wave of her hand, warning him off. "I'll talk to him," she said, almost reading his mind, as she so often did. They'd been close ever since her mother had first brought the tiny, golden-haired three-year-old to their house when Linda and his dad, Dan, started dating. Ethan had been eleven and it had been love at first sight. She'd been his baby sister, his favorite, from that day forward, even after his half sister, Hope, arrived some years later.
"Aunt Grace, I need a take-out box," Sadie explained, showing Grace her piece of cake.
"We can arrange that." She flagged down another of her helpers and gave the red-faced girl instructions. "LaDeena will fix you up. Sit with me until she gets back." She motioned to a nearby cedar picnic table and took a seat herself with a little sigh of relief. "My feet hurt," she said, sliding out of her pumps. "These are definitely not the shoes for catering three hundred guests."
"That's because they're dancing shoes," Sadie pointed out.
"Since we're on the subject, why aren't you dancing?" Ethan asked, aware his frown was arching a deep furrow in his forehead. "Why are you back here and not out front? You're a guest, too."
"I'm also the owner of this business," she reminded him. "The buck stops here."
"Where's Tony? Isn't this what he's supposed to be doing? The grunt work? You're the talent. He's the brawn, right?