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Stacy Evans checked her makeup for the third time since pulling into the parking lot at Cargill-Grosso Racing. Cosmetics were low on her list of worries, but at least they were something she could control. The butterflies on caffeine flitting around in her stomach clearly had minds of their own. There would be no taming them until she exited this job interview.
Stacy wanted the team's newly posted position as Kent Grosso's pit crew strength and conditioning coach so very much. Too much, really. While she loved NASCAR and the excitement that swirled around it, that wasn't the big reason she was here. The personal stuff, though, she had to push aside if she had any hope at all of remaining collected through her talk with team manager Nathan Cargill. With her lack of an exercise physiology degreeheck, any kind of a college degree, for that mattershe was lucky to have been asked to interview.
Sure that her mascara hadn't produced a single stray fleck, that her lip gloss was perfectly applied, and that she wasn't about to commit one of those interview atrocities of giving a direct and sincere speech about her qualifications with a bit of her morning granola stuck between her teeth, she turned her rearview mirror back into position. Before exiting the car, Stacy spoke her employment mantra.
"Overdeliver," she said in a firm voice.
So far, that mantra had given her the confidence and drive to escape the dark chaos that had been life growing up with Brenda, her mother, and to move up from being an assistant at a crowded Charlotte gym to having her own packed list of wealthy, private clients who swore that Stacy was a miracle-working fitness trainer.
Overdeliver. Whatelse could a girl do? Except maybe fail, and no way on earth would she do that. She'd watched her mother fail, and it had been an ugly lesson that she had no intention of repeating.
Stacy exited Maude, her beloved rust bucket of a vehicle, then opened the sedan's back door to extract the slim leather portfolio that contained additional copies of her résumé and letters of reference, plus a little something that she hoped would clinch the job for her. She had prepared days for this interview, scouring the Internet for all the information she could obtain on other racing teams' strength and conditioning coaches, and their failures and successes, not to mention all the info she could dig up on Kent Grosso's pit crew. She had come up with what she believed were the optimal set of exercises to focus on each crew member's core strength. And to bolster her confidence, she had splurged on a new, trim navy-blue suit, one that accented her athletic shape without flaunting her other attributes, which were often too apparent for her own comfort.
Although it was still earlyjust before nine on a sunny North Carolina springtime daythe Cargill-Grosso lot held its share of tourists anxious to look into No. 414's shop, and maybe even get a glimpse of driver Kent Grosso, or his dad, NASCAR legend and new team owner, Dean. Plenty of fans milled in front of No. 507's shop, too. Driver Roberto Castillo might be new to NASCAR, but his prior open-wheel racing wins had given him immediate notice.
To the left of the garages sat the small museum and gift shop. She'd been there as a fan, but would be skipping them today. Instead, she walked to another long and low-slung building that she knew held most of the administrative offices. Before stepping under the shady portico, Stacy paused for three deep, cleansing breaths. Maybe it was a little odd that a high-energy girl thrived on yoga, but she figured there were worse personality quirks out there.
The building's reception area was empty, except for a receptionist. She smiled up at Stacy from her seat behind a mahogany reception desk.
"Good morning," she said.
Stacy was afraid that her answering smile was a little nervous around the edges. "Hi, I'm Stacy Evans. I have a nine-o'clock appointment with Nathan Cargill."
The receptionist checked the computer monitor in front of her, then said, "Welcome, Ms. Evans. If you'd please sign in, I'll let Mr. Cargill know you're here."
While the receptionist phoned Nathan Cargill's office, Stacy took in some details. Shiny brass letters on the wall behind the reception desk proclaimed Cargill-Grosso Racing. If she'd had a second longer to snoop, she would have checked out the framed photographs over by the shinyand quite filledtrophy cabinet to see if Nathan Cargill was in any of them. The few photos she'd seen of him on the Internet were of the business variety, as though he'd switched off his soul just before the camera's shutter had clicked. Based on those pictures, were she to pin one word on the man, it would be unapproachable.
"Ms. Evans," the receptionist said. "You'll find Mr. Cargill and Mr. Noble down that hallway, in the first conference room on your left."
Stacy felt her butterflies kick into high gear. While it made good sense that Kent Grosso's crew chief, Perry Noble, would be involved in the decision, no one had mentioned that he'd be in the interview. Much like Nathan Cargill, Perry Noble had a reputation as an exacting man. Both Cargill and Noble in the same room smacked of a "bad cop/worse cop" kind of interview.
"Thank you," Stacy said to the receptionist.
As she followed the other woman's directions, Stacy pulled back her shoulders, pinned on a smile and prepared to do battle. Heaven knows she'd survived worse.
The door to the conference room was slightly ajar just enough that she could see Nathan Cargill seated at the far end of the long conference table, with Perry Noble to his left. As she took in Nathan Cargill's features, her butterflies suddenly lurched to a halt and then began a new dance. This one shimmied with the rhythm of attraction. Stupid butterflies.
Stacy had never thought about whether she had a "type" of man that attracted her. Now, with no thought at all, she knew. Nathan Cargill was totally, absolutely and undeniably her type. His dark hair was perfectly cut, and his gray eyes danced with amusement at something Perry Noble had just said. But his smile remained reserved, as though it was something he didn't bring out too often. Down to the knot in what she imagined had to be a very expensive silk tie, he was elegant and hot. Definitely hot. He bore the stamp of one of those incredibly rich power brokers who could change the course of countless lives with one swipe of his pen.
She clutched her portfolio a little tighter in her left hand and prepared to knock once she stopped shaking.
"You may come in, Ms. Evans," he said in a deep voice before she'd had the opportunity to quell even one of those butterflies.
Oh crap! Had he been watching her gawk at him all this time?
As Stacy Evans entered the room, Nathan assessed what he knew about her thus far the important things. Things that a résumé could never divulge, but observation could. She had curiosity, which he considered a good thing in an employee. Except when that employee was spying on him, as Ms. Evans just had.
She clearly had drive. Her stride as she came to the far end of the room was longer than one would expect of someone her height. Take away the stilettos she was wearing, and he'd put her at five foot four, at best. Still, she carried herself as though she'd topped out at six feet.
Finally, she blushed easily, which meant she cared what others thought of her. She would have a tough time conning him, too, with the way her every thought shone through her blue eyes. Since he was all about team and team play, he'd put both of those attributes on the good side of her ledger. On the whole, none of that fully balanced against the fact that without a college degree, she was grossly underqualified in an academic sense. Still, after checking her references, he'd been curious enough about her to invite her to interview.
Nathan rose as she neared. He noted that Perry hadn't bothered to do the same. It was a small thing, but it annoyed Nathan. Whatever conflicts the team might have should stay within the team and never be seen by the outside world. Perry had already made it abundantly clear that he thought Harley Mickowski, the pit crew coach and one of the team's top mechanics, too, was doing an acceptable job in making sure the crew was fit. The numbers showed that Perry was wrong. Common sense said that if the over-the-wall pit crew followed Harley's exercise regime, they were going to be in a world of hurt. While as sharp as they came when dealing with the physical mechanics of a pit stop, Harley had made friends with a few too many cheeseburgers.
Ms. Evans, on the other hand, was fit. Very fit.
She held her hand out to him. "I'm Stacy Evans, which you already know. Just as I know you're Nathan Cargill," she added with a smile.
If she'd been rattled coming in the door, she had done a great job of recovering.
"Hello, Ms. Evans," he said, shaking her hand. He'd been right about her height. If she were barefoot, he'd wager that she was almost a foot shorter than he. She was a knockout, though. Not his typehe preferred Harvard MBAs with their glossy exteriors and sharp witsbut a knockout nonetheless.
"Ms. Evans, this is Kent's crew chief, Perry Noble," Nathan said. "He'll be sitting in on the interview." That was intended as a nudge at Perry, to remind him that he'd lost all decision-making power on this issue when he'd decided to do an end run to Dean and Patsy Grosso. Big mistake, since Dean and his wife and business partner, Patsy, had seen the need for improved physical training on the No. 414 over-the-wall pit crew as clearly as Nathan had.
Stacy went around the table and held out her hand to the crew chief. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Noble. I don't often get to meet a NASCAR legend."
Nathan bit back a smile as Perry stood and shook their latest interviewee's hand while giving a gruff hello. Even Perry had to cave a little under the woman's sincerity.
"Why don't you have a seat opposite Mr. Noble?" Nathan suggested as he sat.
When she'd had a chance to settle in, he pulled his copy of her résumé from his folder and watched as she provided Perry with an extra copy. Add prepared to her list of attributes. He'd been surprised by the number of interviewees they'd seen who'd apparently decided to try to wing it.
"I don't know if you're much of a NASCAR follower, Ms. Evans," Nathan began to say.
"Oh, I am. I've been following it for years!"
He gave her a few extra points for enthusiasm. His father's entire existence had centered around his team and NASCAR. Nathan's, far less so. Since his father's murder six months ago, Nathan had been acting as team manager for the Grossos until Dean and Patsy could find someone to fill the position. Although he'd grown to love NASCAR more and more, daily, Nathan grew more impatient to get back to his consultancy business in Boston. But this was his job for now, and he would give it his full attention.
"Then you have probably read the articles about Kent's less than stellar performance this season," he said to Ms. Evans. "Some of that is going to come with the fact that, except for Perry, most everyone is new this season. The pit crew lacks cohesiveness. The pit stop time has been creeping steadily upward, which is why you're here, today. We feel that more physical conditioning will improve their times."
She looped a strand of her shoulder-length blond hair behind her ear as she nodded earnestly. "Oh, definitely. Since your over-the-wall crew members are new to each other, it was tough to research them as well as I might have otherwise, but I did see that you have some strong guys former football players, mostly. They have body mass, but I'm not so sure that they've had the sort of conditioning lately that would help keep a low center of balance. Would you happen to have a copy of the program that Mr. Mickowski has been following?"
Nathan glanced over at Perry, who shook his head. Nathan was pretty darned sure that was because Harley had never committed his workout program to paper. And if he had, it would have read "this week, spend a couple of hours in the gym."
"I'm sorry, we don't," Nathan said to their earnest interviewee.
"That's okay. I was curious, more than anything. I know that I would focus my program on increasing core strength and developing greater balance and agility. Working with such coordinated effort involves not only strength, but having the specific tasks imprinted on the proper muscle groups." She reached into her portfolio. "I have a few different training options mapped out. Nothing can be firm until I've personally assessed the crew, of course, but would you like to see my concepts?"
"That won't be necessary, Ms. Evans." Nathan's idea of a workout was his four-mile morning loop on the country roads around the headquarters. Whatever she had whipped up would be wasted on him.
Color climbed her throat and painted its way across her face. He'd rattled her again. For an instant he felt sorry for having done so, but if he gave her this job, she'd better get used to some flack. He was a nice guy compared to what she'd face in the way of resistance from the crew. If Perry and Harley weren't on board, her training would be taking place on one long, hard road. And judging by the stony expression still on Perry's face, he remained unconvinced. And Perry and Harley would be just the beginning of her problems.
The over-the-wall crew was growing restless, too. Some teams, who'd been together for a while, just flew in for races and then returned to their hometowns during the week. Because these guys had never worked together as a unit, Harley had already required the nonresidents to take temporary housing here, around Mooresville. All of them were itching to be back home.
Nathan could relate. His hunger to leave was nearly a living thing, the way it had begun to consume him. Usually, he did a decent job of containing his frustration, but facing this woman's sincere enthusiasm, he felt more an outsider than ever. He wanted to admire her and grudgingly didbut more than that, he wanted to be done with this process and gone from this room. He looked across the table at Stacy Evans.