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"The racing community is in mourning today following the loss of one of our most beloved personalities. James "Jinx' Hammond, two-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion and tireless ambassador for the sport of stock car racing, was known first and foremost for his skill behind the wheel. But when that career was taken from him in a tragic run-in with a drunk driver that left Hammond a paraplegic, he started up Hammond Racing, Inc., along with his wife, Kellie.
"This next season, watch for eighteen-year-old racing sensation, Jamie Hammond, who will bring his father's legendary Number 56 car out of retirement and show fans everywhere that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. We extend our deepest sympathy to the friends and family of Jinx Hammond."
"I swear, Jinx," Kellie Hammond murmured. "I never met anyone who had worse luck than you."
What had her late husband always said? Life has at wisted sense of humor. Me, I'm one of life's better jokes.
She stared at his grave site where moments before a freak snow cloud had covered up the sun and sent a minor ice-and-snow storm swirling through the crowd of mourners. The grounds had cleared out faster than a pit road after a race, leaving Kellie to offer her husband a final farewell in private.
The solitude suited her. She stood within the biting embrace of the storm, her head tipped back. Snow pelted her face, mingling with her tears of grief. The icy flakes melted into her hair and the in-your-face, flamered silk skirt and jacket she wore, an outfit Jinx had chosen personally for the occasion. Not that she cared if her clothes were ruined. She'd never wear them again.
God, she missedJinx.
She'd never met anyone better able to find laughter in tragedy. Not when a drunk driver had confined him to a wheelchair at the height of his racing career. Not even when pancreatic cancer had cut his life short only a few months after his fiftieth birthday. A blizzard at his funeral? It was only to be expected.
"You had a bigger heart than anyone I've ever met. "She dropped the silky checkered racing flag she held onto his coffin. "I'm going to miss you, sweetheart."
She sensed a presence behind her and turned, assuming she'd find her son or father standing behind her. Instead, she found the one man she least wanted to seeLucas "Bad" Boyce.
The years had been kind to him, his black hair still rich and full, his bottle-green eyes still as direct and astute as ever. She'd first met him when he'd been a tall, lanky twenty-one-year-old. Now, pushing forty, he'd matured into one of NASCAR's most revered drivers, timidation that had earned him the nickname "Bad Boyce" that the fans and media slurred so it sounded like "Bad Boyz."
"You're going to freeze if you keep standing out in this," she said, instantly wishing she'd kept the foolish comment to herself.
He nodded in agreement, snow sinking into the thick waves of his hair and sliding down the hard-cut planes of his face. "So are you."
She shrugged. "It's just a little snow. Jinx would have found it funny. Especially the mad dash to the cars."
A slight smile touched Lucas's mouth. "Yes, he would have."
Then his smile faded as though it had never been, which was much more in keeping with the attitude he'd always taken toward her. He approached, coming to stand beside her. She'd forgotten how tall he was, how the strength of his personality surrounded him like an aura.
It amazed her that he could crawl in and out of his stock car with such ease and grace. Years of practice, she supposed, combined with a lean muscularity that left his female fan base drooling in delight. She shivered, hoping he'd put it down to the weather, rather than her reaction to him.
"Are you ready to leave?" he asked.
There wasn't anything left for her here. Jinx was gone. Though he'd have appreciated the amazing turnout from his many friends and family, he wouldn't have wanted her standing for endless hours in the middle of a blizzard grieving his passing.
She glanced around for her son. "Jamie"
"He left with your father." He shocked her by slipping a large, capable hand beneath her elbow. To the best of her recollection he hadn't touched her in nearly nineteen years. In fact, he'd done his best to avoid being anywhere near her. "Careful. The snow's made it slick through here."
She would have preferred to be alone, but couldn't think of a polite way of making the request, not with Lucas intent on taking charge of the situation. "I have a limo waiting."
The snow lightened as they walked, and by the time they'd reached the road, the sun slipped free from behind the cloud cover. At her approach, the chauffeur climbed from the driver's seat to open the door for her, but she waved him back. Turning to Lucas, she offered her hand. "Thank you for coming," she said formally. "Jinx would have appreciated the fine send-off."
He took her hand in his, holding it, instead of shaking it. She struggled to conceal her alarm. Surely he didn't plan to make a pass at her husband's funeral? It would be the perfect capper to the worst day of her life. "Lucas"
He must have picked up on her distress, because he released her hand. "I know this is bad timing, Kellie, but I need to see you." He shot her a look that had her automatic protest dying before it could be uttered. "As soon as possible."
Her alarm increased. After all these years, what could he possibly have to say to her? And why now, right on the heels of Jinx's death? She could only think of one reason, one she'd prayed she'd never have to deal with.
"I'm fairly busy right now," she stalled. "With Jinx gone, I have a lot to do in order to get ready for the season. We're only two months out. Testing at Daytona is coming up in no time."
"This can't wait. Will you be at the shop tomorrow, or should I come by the house?"
"What's this about, Lucas?" she asked.
To her intense frustration, he shook his head. "Not here. Not now. It wouldn't be appropriate."
"And tomorrow would be?" She asked the questionmore sharply than she intended. "Lucas, you can't simply demand a meeting without explaining what'sgoing on."
"It's business. Unfinished business between me and Jinx." He leaned past her and opened the limo door. "I'll explain everything at our meeting tomorrow."
Panic shot through her and Kellie opened her mouth to ask more questions. But one look at his face warned her she wasn't going to get anything more out of him. Lucas had always been that way. Focused, determined, hard and that was his good side. Once the "bad" kicked in, you crossed him at your own risk.
Granted, she'd never seen him lose his temper. He wasn't like Hammond Racing's star driver, Cole Whaling, whose explosive temper rivaled his charm and good looks. No, Lucas had a steely self-control. But that steel also made him immovable when he chose to take a stand. Clearly, this was one of those times.
"Fine," she said, caving to the inevitable. "Come to the house at one tomorrow."
He inclined his head in agreement. Then after seeing her safely ensconced in the back of the limo, he lifted a hand in farewell and disappeared in the direction of a sleek black Jaguar. It suited him, she thought. Fast, dark, dangerous.
And one hell of a ride.
She hadn't changed.
Lucas pulled away from the curb and eased the powerful car through its gears. How was that possible? After nearly two decades she shouldn't still look like the teenager he'd taken to his bed for that one incredible night of foolish bliss. And yet, Kellie remained one ofthe most beautiful women he'd ever seen.
Long, curly white-gold hair framed a heart-shaped face dominated by huge violet-blue eyes that somehow managed to hide the avarice he knew was lurking in her greedy little heart. She'd kept her figure in good shape, remaining lean and toned through the years. Granted, when he'd known her, her figure had been more coltish, more of a suggestion of the woman to come. Perhaps he should give her credit for sticking with the same man for so many years, but Lucas had been taken in by women before and considered himself a wiser man for it. Other men were weak or witless when it came to a woman like Kellie, but Lucas had lived and learned. Now in her mid-thirties, she was a woman at her most powerful and even more breathtaking, if such a thing were possible.
He'd kept his distance from her all these years, much as he'd keep a wary distance from a basking cottonmouth on the verge of striking. But that was no longer possible. Jinx had seen to that. He'd made an offer that Lucas had found impossible to refuse, not that it had taken much thought to figure out why the offer had been tendered. From the research he'd done on the company, HRI seemed sound, with excellent people in the key positions, with one unfortunate exception.
The gorgeous, grieving widow. Clearly Jinx didn't trust Kellie to keep HammondRacing, Inc. running without help, despite having spent the last eighteen years of her marriage learning the ropes. It had always amazed Lucas that no one saw through her facade, though Jinx must have or he'd never have gone looking for a business partner for his wife.
Even so, it defied understanding. Those on the outside considered her one of the top businesswomen in stock-car racing. She was also adored by everyone who came into contact with her, exuding a sparkling graciousness full of warmth and sunshine, a polar opposite to his own rougher-edged personality, he conceded. Regardless, the bottom line remained the same. While Merry Miss Sunshine might prove a huge asset to both HRI and its various sponsors, if her judgment proved faulty on the business end of things, it would explain Jinx's decision.
How would she react to the information he'd present to her the next day?
Lucas pulled onto the beltway around Charlotte andkicked up his speed, determined to curb his curiosity about her before it burrowed in and took hold. Kellie could take care of herself. She'd proven that over the years. In the meantime, he had his own plans for the future, and if he wanted to see those plans come to fruition, he'd have to maintain his focus.
He couldn't afford any distractions, particularly the sort of distractions packaged with endless legs, a figure capable of making grown men weep, the face of an angel and a puckish sense of humor. Altogether, it represented a lethal package, one he'd have to avoid at all costs. Too bad, really. Because he knew for a fact that one night with her was more heart-stopping than getting caught up in a thirty-car wreck at Talladega.