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Crystal Hayes was glad of the familiar chaos as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams arrived for the race at Charlotte. The town was abuzz with activity, and the fast pace of track deliveries from Softco Machine Works kept her mind off the little thingslike her bank balance.
Thursday morning, she swung the company delivery truck out the bay door of Softco's east shop. The complex had grown from its humble beginnings as a single bay garage to an impressive complex of three modern machine shops, two warehouses and a ten-person office. There was an apartment over the office, where Crystal had lived since her husband, Simon, died two years ago.
But she wasn't thinking about that today. In particular, she wasn't stressing about how long a twenty-eight-year-old woman could live above her parents' business without looking pathetic. Today, she was headed for the speedway in Charlotte and the Dean Grosso garage to be part of the pulsating hive of activity surrounding a premier NASCAR event.
She pulled the truck onto Deerborne Street and headed north toward the interstate. When she got up to speed, she popped a vintage Creedence CD into the player, in the mood to get nostalgic. Her father had played Creedence, Pink Floyd and Nazareth in the truck when Crystal was a child riding along on deliveries, and she still had a soft spot in her heart for classic rock.
She toured past the Rondal Bicycle Factory and the Pearson Furniture Warehouse before traffic increased and the landscape turned to retail businesses. The bright red, Treatsy-Sweetsy ice-cream parlor sign rotated slowly in the distance, its stylized, red TS towering above the surrounding buildings. Crystal could almosthear her childhood voice begging her dad to stop for a butterscotch cone.
She smiled to herself as Creedence rasped on about the calm before the storm.
She thought about the forty-odd dollars in her pocket. She'd planned to treat herself to a pizza on Saturday night, which would leave her with just enough for groceries until her next Softco paycheck. If she splurged on a cone, she'd have to compromise somewhere else.
A part-time job as a delivery driver, combined with the occasional advance check on her short stories, didn't exactly provide for a high lifestyle. But she wasn't touching Simon's military widow's pension and life insurance policy, not even to relive the childhood memory.
The rotating sign loomed closer.
She could taste the velvet smooth ice cream, the crisp waffle conemade daily on site, as they had been for thirty years. She could feel the melting butterscotch oozing over her fingers in the hot, May sunshine.
Oh, to hell with the pizza.
She stomped on the brakes, gluing the unwieldy box of a vehicle to the hot pavement. The tires protested with a screech, but she made the corner, parked across four marked spaces in back of the lot and shut down the diesel engine.
She rounded the building and approached a small patch of garden between the street and the front entrance. There was a black Lab tied to a spindly shrub at one edge of the sparse lawn. Somebody had brought him some water in a Treatsy-Sweetsy ice-cream bowl, but he wasn't drinking it.
He was staring off down the sidewalk, twitching at the end of his lead.
He watched one car approach, brows up, ears quirked. Then it passed without slowing, and the anticipation leeched out of his body. He moved onto the next car, growing alert, obviously expecting his owner to appear at any second. He had gray fur around his muzzle, and a chunk missing from one floppy ear, testifying to a long, probably less than pampered, life.
Crystal drew his attention, and he watched her with big, brown eyes. For a second, she was tempted to buy him a burger. But she quickly reminded herself that she was broke. She'd already compromised her Saturday night pizza. Plus, she reasoned, the owner might not appreciate random strangers feeding his dog.
The small Treatsy-Sweetsy dining room was a whole lot cooler than outside. It was also completely empty, so she walked straight up to the counter. She looked up at the menu board, debating between a regular and a large cone. She wasn't worried about the calories, only the price. She had a naturally thin frame, and a metabolism that was very forgiving of her abuses.
"Help you?" asked a young, ponytailed girl in a pink and white striped blouse and dangling white, plastic earrings.
"A large butterscotch cone."
The girl nodded and rung the price into the cash register. "Two seventy-five."
Crystal handed her a twenty and glanced back at the dog.
He was still standing at the end of the yellow rope, twitching at something he saw down the street, his expression hopeful.
"Your change," said the girl, and Crystal turned back.
"What's with the dog?" she asked.
"Animal Control's coming for him."
This surprised Crystal. For some reason, he hadn't struck her as a stray. He seemed intelligent and, well, dignifiedif the word could be applied to an old dog with such a battered ear.
"Is he lost?" she asked.
The girl shook her head, jiggling her plastic earrings and swaying her ponytail. "There was a car accident this morning." She pointed. "Old man hit the tree."
Crystal stared back, seeing the white gash in a stately, old oak.
"Old guy was killed. Dog was fine."
Crystal's heart instantly went out to the poor dog, and her chest tightened painfully. His owner wouldn't be coming back. And the city pound would
She swallowed, not allowing herself to think about what might happen at the pound.
"Did he have relatives?" asked Crystal. Maybe there were children or grandchildren who'd take the dog.
Another shrug. "Didn't know his name. Came in here alone a lot." She took a sugar cone from the stack and opened the ice cream bin.
Crystal watched the girl form a scoop of the swirled butterscotch, feeling like a heel for indulging in something as silly as ice cream when the poor dog was probably about to be put down.
It's not like somebody was likely to adopt him. The pound was full of bright, lively puppies. Who would choose an old, gray-whiskered dog with a bad ear?
The girl balled up a second scoop, while Crystal felt an impulse growing within her.
"If I give you my name," she said, half her brain telling her to shut up, the other half urging her on. "Will you tell the pound people I've got the dog?"
The girl stopped mid scoop, staring blankly at Crystal.
"I'll take care of him until they check for relatives," Crystal explained. How sad would it be if somebody put the dog down, then a relative showed up later? She knew the pound didn't keep stray animals for long.
"You're taking the dog?" the girl asked, clearly confused.
Crystal nodded. "Do you have a pen?"
The clerk seemed to remember she was in the middle of making a cone. She added the second scoop and handed the cone to Crystal. Then she pulled a pen from under the counter.
Crystal quickly jotted down her name and number on one of the Treatsy-Sweetsy napkins and handed it to the girl. "Tell them to call me if they find a relative."
The clerk nodded bemusedly, while Crystal turned for the exit, telling herself she hadn't lost her mind. There was nothing wrong with occasionally being a Good Samaritan.
Out on the hot sidewalk, she gingerly petted the dog. He sighed and gazed up at her, giving his tail only a cursory wag. But his round eyes closed while she scratched between his ears.
Okay. That was one question answered. It didn't look like he'd bite her.
Carefully balancing the melting cone, she untied the rope from the shrub and coiled a few loops around her free hand.
"There we go, doggy," she crooned. "You want to go for a car ride?"
Predictably, he didn't answer, but stared silently up at her with an expression of benevolent patience. He seemed confused when she started to walk. But after a moment, he came willingly enough.
Across the parking lot, she opened the passenger door. Again, he gave her a curious stare.
"Up you go," she prompted.
He jumped onto the floor of the truck.
Crystal patted the seat.
He gave her a look that questioned her wisdom, his brows knitting together. But when she patted it a second time, he gamely hopped up, curling into a little ball.
She shut the door, refusing to examine the logic of her actions. It was a temporary fix, just until the old man's family could be contacted. And if no relative showed up, well, she'd deal with that later.
On the way around the cab, she licked a dribble from the back of her hand, then she swiped her tongue across both scoops a few times, making her way down to the solid ice cream before hopping into the truck.
She turned the key in the ignition.
"Okay, dog," she said aloud, with a forced note of bravery in her voice. "Looks like it's you and me for a while."
She gave the dog the rest of her ice cream, then put the truck into Reverse.
Rufus, as Crystal had decided to call the black Lab, slept soundly on the soft seat, even as she maneuvered the Softco truck in front of the Dean Grosso garage. Engines fired through the open bay doors, compressors clacked and impact tools whined as the teams tweaked their race cars in preparation for qualifying.
As always, when she visited the garage area, Crystal experienced a vicarious thrill, watching the technicians' meticulous, last-minute preparations. As the daughter of a machinist, she understood the difference a fraction of a degree or a thousandth of an inch could make in the performance of a race car.
She muscled the driver's door shut behind her and waved hello to a couple of familiar team members in their white and pale-blue uniforms. Then she rounded to the back of the truck and rolled up the door. Inside, five boxes were marked Cargill Motorsports.
One of them was big and heavy; it had slid forward a few feet, probably when she'd braked to make the Treatsy-Sweetsy parking lot entrance. So she pushed up the sleeves of her canary-yellow shirt, then stretched forward to reach the box. A couple of catcalls came her way as her faded blue jeans tightened across her rear end. But she knew they were good natured, so she simply ignored them.
She dragged the box toward her, over the gritty, metal floor.
"Let me give you a hand with that," a deep, melodious voice rumbled in her ear.
"I can manage," she responded crisply, not wanting to engage with any of the cat-callers.
Here in the garage, the last thing she needed was one of the guys treating her like she was something other than, well, one of the guys.
She'd learned long ago that there was something about her that made men toss out pickup lines like parade candy. And she'd been around race teams long enough to know she needed to behave like a buddy, not a potential date.
She piled the smaller boxes on top of the large one.
"It looks heavy," said the voice.
"I'm tough," she assured him as she scooped the pile into her arms.
He didn't move away, so she turned her head to subject him to a back off stare. But she found herself staring into a compelling pair of green no, brown no, hazel eyes. She did a double take, as they seemed to twinkle, multicolored, under the garage lights.
The man insistently held out his hands for the boxes. There was a dignity in his tone, and little crinkles around his eyes that hinted at wisdom. There wasn't a single sign of flirtation in his expression, but Crystal was still cautious.
"You know I'm being paid to move this, right?" she asked him.
"That doesn't mean I can't be a gentleman."
Somebody whistled from a workbench. "Go, Professor Larry."
The man named Larry tossed his own back-off look over his shoulder. Then he turned to Crystal. "Sorry about that."
"Are you for real?" she asked, growing uncomfortable with the attention they were drawing. The last thing she needed was some latter-day Sir Galahad defending her honor at the track.
He quirked a dark eyebrow in a question.
"I mean," she elaborated, "you don't need to worry. I've been fending off the wolves since I was seventeen."
"Doesn't make it right," he countered, attempting to lift the box from her hands.
She jerked back. "You're not making it any easier."
"You carry this box, and they start thinking of me as a girl."
Professor Larry dipped his gaze to take in the curves of her figure. "Hate to tell you this," he said, a little smile coming into those multifaceted eyes. "Odds are," Larry continued, a teasing drawl in his tone, "they already have."
Something about his look make her shiver inside. It was a ridiculous reaction. Guys had given her the once-over a million times. She'd learned long ago to ignore it.
She turned pointedly away, boxes in hand as she marched across the floor. She could feel him watching her from behind.
He was just like the rest.
But then, she remembered his apology for the team member's ribald remark. She couldn't help but smile at that. When was the last time anyone cared how she felt about being the subject of sexual overtures?
"Hey, Crystal." Dean Grosso greeted her as she set the boxes down on the workbench. "I see you met my brother, Larry."
Crystal glanced back at the tall man who still stood beside her truck. Dean's brother? Really? She would have pegged Larry as much younger than Dean.
"Is he really a professor?" she asked, dusting off her hands and tucking her chestnut hair behind her ears. In the past couple of months, her hair had grown out to a nondescript style. But until she figured out her economic life, she didn't want to spend any money on a haircut. Plus, anything she could do to look plain and boring was a good thing in her world.
Crew chief Perry Noble approached, pulling a pen out of his shirt pocket.