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Seize the Day. Eli Ward knew there were some fancy Latin words for the motto he'd adopted back when he was a kid, but the plain English version had always fired him up just fine. This weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Bristol, Tennessee, would be no different. Seize the Day. Win the race.
Generally he preferred to do his seizing, and his winning, on more than two hours' sleep, but if that was all he'd had
Eli bit down on a yawn as he crossed the stretch of grass in front of the motor home belonging to Gil Sizemore, owner of Double S Racing. His boss.
Gil's phone call, and his impatient demand for a meeting right now, had forced Eli to roll out of bed a couple of hours earlier than planned. Result: eyes pinker than a scared bunny's, a killer thirst and a fog around his brain that he hoped would clear up any second.
A couple of kids rounded the side of a nearby motor home and dodged past him, shrieking at full volume. The headache drilling a hole in Eli's forehead mined a new seam of pain.
He slipped his sunglasses on as he knocked on Gil's door. He'd been in such a rush to get here, now was the first chance he'd had to wonder what this meeting was about. Gil had sure sounded cranky.
Eli was surprised to find himself wishing he hadn't spun out in the closing laps of last weekend's race at Michigan.
Surprised because he didn't waste time on regrets. He couldn't change that piece of history, any more than he could change the other sucky results he'd delivered over the past couple of months. You had to move on.
The motor home door opened. Quinn Parrish, founder of Rev Energy Drinks and Eli's biggest sponsor, stared down at him. Gil hadn't mentioned Quinn was in on this meeting.
"Come in." Quinn jerked his head toward the interior.
Eli stepped up, eliminating most of the height difference. Gil's motor home was one of the nicer ones around. Plushly restrained, like the man himself. Built-in black leather sofas lined both sides of the navy blue-carpeted living area. A matching swivel armchair backed a desk. Model stock cars filled a display case on the opposite wall, but Eli knew better than to think Gil Sizemore played games. His boss sat on the far sofa, arms folded across his chest. At around forty years old Gil might be one of the youngest team owners in NASCAR, but he commanded respect in every quarter.
Eli caught a strong whiff of trouble emanating from Gil's and Quinn's matching stony faces. Between them, these two men held his future in their hands. Suddenly it felt as if they had him at a disadvantage.
He shook off the moment of uncertainty. He was a great driver and they knew it. "Good morning, gentlemen." He shook hands all around, then settled into the armchair.
The hot seat?
Eli grasped the initiative, just as he liked to out on the race track. "Quinn, I haven't seen you since last weekend, and I'd like to apologize for letting Rev down. I thought I'd nailed a top-five finish, but I underestimated Jeb Stall-worth's willingness to risk a smash. He pulled it off, I didn't. I'm sorry."
Few people could resist a genuine apology, and Eli meant every word.
"Take off those sunglasses," Gil ordered.
Rats. Eli shoved the shades up onto his head and tried not to wince against the glare of the August sunshine slicing through the vertical blinds behind his boss.
"Late night?" Gil asked.
Which was not a guess based on the state of Eli's eyes. Eli would bet Gil's informant was his nephew Marcus, a rookie in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. The guy who wanted Eli's job.
"If I'd known about this morning's meeting, I'd have come home earlier," Eli said shortly. He was twenty-eight years old, he didn't have to account for his every move.
"You left The Corral after 5:00 a.m.," Gil said.
"And Marcus knows this because, what, he was out for an early morning run?" Eli should have had the eighteen-year-old thrown out of the nightclub, but he'd figured Gil wouldn't appreciate a fake ID scandal. Besides, he was young enough to remember the thrill of crashing a club underage. He'd kept an eye on Marcus without realizing the brat was returning the favor.
"Marcus didn't have a 7:00 a.m. appointment with a personal trainer paid for by this team," Gil snapped.
Damn. "I'll call Jodie to apologize."
Gil continued, "Nor did my nephew overturn a table full of drinks"
"I was ducking a punch," Eli protested. "You don't like drivers getting into fights." It'd been damn hard not to sock the guy right back. Eli could never figure why some men had to prove their machismo by lashing out at anyone richer or more successful than they were.
"Look, Gil, I admit it was a late night. But I was on my own time and I met this girl" he caught the roll of Gil's eyes but he carried on "it was her twenty-first birthday and her family lives in Australia. She was depressed because she had no one to celebrate with "
"Don't try and tell me your mindless partying was an act of charity," Gil roared.
Hell. Gil never lost his temper. What was going on?
Whatever it was, Eli suspected his explanationthe girl had gone overboard on her first legal night of drinking, so he'd stuck around until she agreed to go home in a cab wouldn't cut any ice.
Besides, she'd been a lot of fun and he'd had a darned good time, so he couldn't exactly stake a claim to sainthood.
"Being a NASCAR driver is a job, not a hobby to fill the hours between parties," Quinn said.
Eli knuckled his forehead. "I know that." He needed water, but now wasn't the right time to get up and pour himself a glass from the bottle on the counter.
"Which means you don't get to turn up just when it suits you." Quinn stretched out his legs and eyed his expensively casual shoes as if they could grant him insight into Eli's behavior. "Of course, you're the driver and I'm only the sponsor." His tone was ironic, but Eli knew better than to smile. "But I figure that when you drive the way you have the past month, Eli, you don't go out with one girl after another. You stay in, and you fix whatever the hell is messing with you on the track."
Quinn had made millions from Rev Energy Drinks. The old-fashioned way, not by relying on his caffeine-infused product for energy. He'd slogged through years of setbacks before making it big.
Lucky for Eli, racing had always come easy. Until recently.
"Should we be talking to Kevin about the car?" Gil asked. Kevin Horton was Eli's crew chief.
"The car's fine, Kevin's doing a great job," Eli assured him.
"So the problem is the driver." Gil stated the obvious. Then one side of his mouth softened. "Eli, if you're having personal issues, Quinn can leave right now and we can talk. Hash it out."
Eli recoiled. "I'm fine, Gil, but thanks." In his nearly two years at Double S, Gil had never tried to force a personal conversation on him. Maybe he'd been here too long, maybe he was in a rut.
Gil's mouth returned to its hard line. "In that case, I need to lay down the law."
"If your attitude to race preparation doesn't improve, starting today, your future at Double S will be severely limited."
The sudden sick feeling in Eli's stomach had to be hangover-related. No way would Gil fire him. And if he did, there were other teams, other cars. Eli's entire life was proof there's always another opportunity out there. No need to worry.
"You can't fault my attitude on the track, and that's what matters," he pointed out.
"You need to make the Chase," Gil said flatly.
Now that, Eli wouldn't argue with. The top twelve drivers, based on series points after the race at Richmond in four weeks' time, would qualify to compete in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. They would go into the last ten races of the season with their points reset at a level the other drivers couldn't match. Which meant only those twelve had a chance to win the overall NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship for the year.
Eli was currently eighteenth in series points. He could still make the Chase if his results improved. Fast.
"The Chase is my number one priority," he assured the other men.
"You need focus," Gil told him. Gentleman Gil's favorite F-word. To listen to him, you'd think every disaster could be averted, every problem solved, with just a little more focus.
Eli's approach to life was simpler. You played the hand you were dealt as best you could. And when it didn't pan out, you folded and moved on to the next round.
Still, he nodded in response to Gil's homily. It wouldn't hurt to focus some more these next few weeks.
"No more nightclubs between now and Richmond," Gil elaborated.
"Hey!" Eli protested. "That's how I relax. I'm no use to the team all wound-up."
"I don't like to set limits on your personal life, but you don't have anyone else advising you on these things." Other times, Gil joked that Eli was lucky not to have family to interfere. His own family was always poking their noses into his life, albeit in the nicest, slightly bemused way.
"Then there's the girlfriends," Gil said. "I'm sick of the parade of one-minute wonders through my garage. Get rid of them. Why not stick with just oneget yourself a steady girlfriend."
Quinn must have seen Eli's horror. He looked as if he was stifling a smile. "Cheer up, Eli. You might find it refreshing not to date a different woman every week."
"No more serial dating, got it," Eli said. Because he had no choice, not because who he dated was any of his boss's business, or his sponsor's. One of the best things about being an instantly recognizable NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver was that women found him attractive and, like him, had no illusions about a relationship lasting. Everyone had a good time.
Gil looked relieved to have his way.
Eli seized the opportunity to dig for some wiggle room. "But, guys, there are no guarantees in NASCAR. I'll put more focus into my driving, but I can't promise I'll make the Chase."
Quinn looked amused. "Here's a guarantee for you. If you don't make the Chase, Rev will pull its sponsorship at the end of this season."
Eli's heart lurched, then thudded double-time. Gil didn't look surprised at the threat; he'd obviously had this conversation with Quinn already. Probably over coffee at six this morning, as Eli was staggering to bed.
No wonder Gil's nerves were frayed. Were he and Quinn in cahoots, playing good cop, bad cop to make Eli toe their line?
"I have another guarantee." Gil's gravelly voice cut through Eli's thoughts. "If you don't make the Chase, if you lose us a twelve million dollar sponsorship, you'll be out of that car. I'll give the ride to someone else."
Not good cop, bad cop.
Bad cop, worse cop.
"Do I make myself clear?" Gil switched into the Charleston-patrician mode that created a distance between him and whoever incurred his disapproval.
"Clear," Eli agreed, dryness turning his mouth into a dustbowl.
He needed sleep.
He needed water.
He needed a miracle.
Two hours later, the sun had gone and a misty drizzle hung in the air. As Eli crossed from the hauler to the garage, he tried to revel in the smell of damp, warm pavement, in the babble of excited fans, in the clash of music blaring from the infield and merchandise offers echoing over the PA system.
But Gil's threat to take away the only thing that mattered had sucked all the joy out of the weekend.
In the garage, his team was putting the final touches to the No. 502 car before his practice. A lot of drivers were superstitious about green cars, but Eli never felt anything but lucky behind the wheel of his green-gold-and-white beauty.
If I could get Gil off my back, I'd find my groove again.
"Hey, Eli." One of the guys clustered around the car hailed him.
Eli plastered on the ready smile they expected. His team liked that nothing got him down, unlike some drivers who let their bad mood pervade the whole operation.
Eli might not be the most reliable guy in the world when it came to dating or early nights. But when it came to facing life's problems with a grin and a shrug, he was a shoo-in.
Kevin Horton, his crew chief, was reading the No. 502 car's setup details on his PC screen with a critical eye. "We'll look at putting in a round of wedge after we see how you go in those turns," he told Eli.
"Great. The guys had the car in beautiful shape yesterday."
Kevin nodded approval of Eli's sharing the credit for his eighth-place qualifying. Qualifying well wasn't his problem. The problem was the dozen or so places he'd been losing during the races when he even finished.
Farther down the garage, Eli saw Dixon Rogers, owner of Fulcrum Racing. Fulcrum was the gold standard, the team Eli had longed to drive for ever since he started racing. Top of the list of teams he planned to approach for a new job, starting Monday. If Gil didn't want him, Eli wasn't about to hang around at Double S. Maybe he should have a word with Dixon now .
Kevin flipped the laptop closed. He glanced over Eli's shoulder. "Your fan club's arrived."
Eli heard the clatter of high heels on concrete, the breathy giggles and whispered speculation ("Is that really him?"). Women. He fought the urge to turn around. A driver in a NASCAR garage forbidden to flirt was like a dieter trapped in a candy store.
"Nice blonde in a tight red T-shirt." Kevin never failed to spot the talent. "Too bad she's not here for me."
"Too bad she's off-limits for me," Eli muttered.
"Looks mighty interested, too," Kevin commented with a distinct lack of sympathy.
"Maybe one date wouldn't hurt," Eli said.
"You wanna ask Gil?" Obviously his crew chief knew about Gil's ultimatum.
Eli sighed. "I'll head to the hauler, avoid temptation."
He turned, and immediately spotted the blonde in the red T-shirt. She was a knockout, with a great smile. He had to walk right by her and her friends; it would be rude to ignore them.
"Hi, ladies." His gaze lingered on the blonde.
She lowered her lashes in a flirty way. "Hey, Eli, think you can beat Linc out there tomorrow?"
Ha, a question about his job! He had a right, a duty, to answer. He took a moment to explain exactly why he would literally run rings around his teammate Linc Shepherd in tomorrow's race, which led to more questions from her and her friends, all charming women. Even if they did press so close it was difficult to get away. The volume went up as they chatted.