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"Like a snappy lube on steroids," Payton Reese grumbled to himself. Team members hustled this way and that, the buzz of engines getting last-minute adjustments bounced off the trailers and the pungent smell of oil and gasoline filled the early-evening Virginia air. "What did I get myself into?"
"Whaddya say?" His cameraman, Neil Bukowski, flipped his baseball cap backward and got ready to tape.
Payton refocused, reminding himself this duty was temporary. This job and these interviews were a means to an end. Six more months max and all the noise, the crowds and smelly stock-car fumes would be nothing but a bad memory.
"I said where the hell is Rachel Murphy?"
NASCAR had arranged for him and his television station, WJAZ 11, to have unlimited access to the entire Murphy family for the weekend. Since qualifying runs, which determined starting positions for tonight's race, he'd had plenty of time with Justin Murphy, Justin's uncle Hugo and the Fulcrum Racing team, but not one second with Justin's sister, Rachel.
"Might be a long shot," Neil said, his southern twang edged with sarcasm. "But I'm gonna guess that an engine specialist spends a bit of time in the garage."
His co-workers had been giving Payton crap since the day he started on the job several months back. In the beginning, most of their comments had been downright nasty, but then Payton had hung some pictures on his office walls of Denali, K2, Cerro Torre and other mountains he'd climbed through the years, and suddenly all that ribbing had turned decidedly good-natured.
They had a point, though. Charlotte's newest sports-caster should know a thing or two about NASCAR. Then again, how complicated could this sport be?Popular as all get-out, but it wasn't rocket science.
"Yeah, but which one is the Fulcrum garage?" he asked.
"Over there." Neil balanced his camera on his shoulder with his right arm and pointed with his left. "See the one with the No. 448 car in it?"
Justin Murphy's car. Duh. Payton passed several garage stalls at the Richmond track and ignored the throbbing in his back. He'd have to get some heat on it pretty soon to make it through the race.
Keep moving. Just keep moving.
Justin's carefree laugh sounded above the rest of the ruckus before Payton spotted his dark brown head bent in conversation with his uncle Hugo, Fulcrum's crew chief; his second cousin and spotter, Dennis Murphy; and another man Payton had yet to meet. He signaled to Neil. "Start taping."
"You never know what clip's gonna come in handy." He smiled. "Hey, Justin."
The driver glanced up, and his expression turned cautious, as if bracing himself for an onslaught from some crazed fan. Payton couldn't blame the guy, especially not after watching him at the hospitality tent. Everyone had wanted a piece of him, from teenagers to grandmothers, toddlers to grown men.
Once he recognized Payton, he visibly relaxed. "Well, if it isn't Mister J-A-Z."
Payton nodded at Justin's uncle and cousin. "Hugo. Dennis."
"Payton, have you met Wade Abraham?" Hugo patted the back of the man sitting next to him. "He's our car chief."
Hair, skin and eyes all dark, the man looked more model than mechanic to Payton.
"Wade, this is Payton Reese, WJAZ's sportscaster for a brand-new show they're calling On the Road."
Payton shook the man's hand and immediately noticed the strong muscles in his forearms. Coulda been a climber.
"How do you like working for Fulcrum, Wade?"
"Dream come true, that's for sure." Wade grinned.
"I'm learning a lot working for Hugo."
Payton studied the darkening sky. "Think the rain'll hold off until after the race?"
"Not a chance," Dennis said.
"I don't know about that," Hugo said. "Last time I checked, the radar was looking pretty good." He tipped his head toward Neil. "You still taping?"
"Yes, sir, if it's all right," Payton said. "We'll wrap things up tonight after the race is over. That is, if I can get some time to talk with Rachel."
The Fulcrum men glanced at each other and snickered.
"She still avoidin' you?" Hugo asked.
"Sure seems like it." The most he'd ever seen of Rachel was the back of her orange-and-brown Turn-Rite Tools uniform. He and Neil would walk into a room, and she'd walk out.
Normally, he wouldn't think twice about a woman avoiding him. Some had better common sense than others. Problem was he'd assured his new boss the first episode of On the Road's NASCAR Families series would be completed by the end of this week, and a special about the Murphys wouldn't be complete without Rachel, daughter of the late Troy Murphy and one of the few women fundamentally involved in racing operations these days.
His boss's warning came back to taunt Payton. You do a special on the Murphys first, you might not get the Grossos. Do the Grossos first, and you might not get the Murphys. Either way, you'll never get Rachel.
"She's in there." Hugo signaled toward the interior of the garage. "Going through her lists for the tenth time. Head on in there. She won't bite."
"Much," Justin added with a grin.
Bite all you want, sweetheart. With any luck, it'd take his mind off the pain in his back.
Payton headed into the garage with Neil following him. It was cooler in the shade, especially with the concrete floor. Rows of fluorescent lights hung overhead, and several guys in Turn-Rite getups leaning against a tool cabinet acknowledged him as he walked by.
As he rounded the back of Justin's car, he spotted, poking out from under the hood, the cutest female bottom he'd ever seen. Stopping for a second, he admired her lines.Yep, he'd bivy up with Rachel Murphy any old time.
Behind him, Neil cleared his throat.
Payton took another step and entered her peripheral line of vision. "Rachel?"
"What?" She hadn't exactly snapped at him, but she hadn't warmly welcomed him, either. Her long, reddish ponytail stuck out from the back of the Fulcrum Racing baseball cap. He'd been surprised to find she had long, wavy hair. He'd pictured a woman engine specialist with a short, no-nonsense cut.
When she didn't come out from under the hood, he moved to her other side for a better glimpse of her profile. She might have grease smudged on her cheek and neck, but there was nothing masculine about this woman. Matter of fact, she was kind of cute.
Strangely enough, cute made him nervous. "What's a pretty lady like you doing in a greasy pit like this?" Did he really say that?
She turned her head slightly and, even in the shadow of the hood, he saw her hazel eyes flashing, felt the burn of a nasty comeback forming in her mouth. He braced himself for the icebreaker, got ready to chuckle it off for being such a fool, but nothing came. She went back to her engine.
"Yeah, I know." He decided to help her out. "Just what you need. A funny guy." Now he'd pissed her off. He laughed anyway, thrown off his mark. "I'm Payton Reese. Sportscaster with WJA"
"I know who you are."
"We're doing a special on your family."
"Good for you." She came out from under the hood balancing several spark plugs in one hand while examining another one with a magnifying glass.
The engine she was working on looked like nothing he'd ever seen before. "Want some help with that?"
Her eyebrows formed an are-you-out-of-your-mind arch.
"Good call. I don't know diddly about cars." He flashed her a grin. When in doubt, it usually worked with women. Not this one. Common sense in spades. Completely unfazed, she tossed a spark plug into the garbage, grabbed another one, studied it and submerged herself under the hood again.
So much for small talk. "Not many women involved in NASCAR operations. How'd you get to be an engine specialist?"
She didn't bother answering that one.
"A Murphy. Right. I'm full of dumb questions." This was going nowhere. He caught Neil's eye and dragged his finger across his throat. With only a shrug as final encouragement, the lanky guy turned around and loped away. "I called off the cameraman, okay, Rachel?" Payton said. "Can we chat for a few minutes?"
She glanced back at him, suspicion lingering. After ducking out from under the hood, she wiped her hands on a clean rag and watched Neil head out of the garage. A petite thing, she was a good head shorter than him.
"The race is starting soon," she said.
He could definitely take that as a no. "Can I find you after the race?"
"You can try."
"All right then, I'll try to catch you later." He tipped his hand and stayed positive. "Good luck tonight. Hope the weather holds."
By the time he joined back up with Neil, Hugo and Justin were long gone. Frustrated, Payton headed away from the Fulcrum garage, not sure where he was heading. He turned to Neil. "Man alive, is she cagey."
"Can you blame her?"
"What am I missing?"
"I'm surprised you didn't find it in your research."
"Read a lot about the Murphys." There wasn't much specifically about Rachel, except for tidbits like graduating summa cumm laude from Virginia Tech. She was one smart cookie. "What happened?"
"Several years ago some reporter got out of hand. Asked how much truth there was to the rumor that her dad's screwing around had caused her mother's suicide."
Payton cringed. No wonder. His research had indicated Rachel had only been about two when her mother had killed herself. Not long after, her dad had died in a hit-and-run. "Some idiot actually asked that?"
"What did Rachel say?"
"Nothin'. Locked right up. Live. On national TV. Hasn't talked to another reporter since."
All the more reason for a decent interview with Rachel. He'd promised his producer something different, something special, something that'd boost the station's ratings, and quiet time with the elusive Rachel Murphy might be his ticket to hosting an extreme sports show at National Sports Network.
Payton refocused again. No cracks in the rock, he found a handhold. No handholds, he used a daisy chain. No daisy chain, he went around the flat bastard. When one way up a mountain face didn't work, there was always another route.
Failure was not an option.
"PIT TIMES WERE GOOD."
"No. 467 car was all over me tonight
track cooled down fast
" Sound bites of conversation swirled around Rachel as she sat in the passenger seat and silently stared out the wet window. Although the sky had waited to open up and dump on them until after the race was finished, the heavy winds and lightning would've made flying home a nightmare. And since the motor-home drivers usually avoided traffic by taking off as soon as the races began, they had no place to stay at the track.
That had left only one option for a decent night's sleep; Hugo had called ahead for rooms at one of the hotels in the area that catered to NASCAR teams, and, wet and wired, the team had climbed into her uncle's rented Suburban.
yeah, but how'd the No. 414 car do?"
springs might've been off
As the sun had set and the track had cooled down, Justin's No. 448 car had gotten loose. Fans loved the night races, with all the lights, the cool air and sparks flying, but they meant more guesswork for Rachel. With practice during the day and racing at night, the car adjustments tended to be a bit of a crapshoot.
"When's Dixon gonna fork out for a chassis simulator?"
"Ain't never gonna happen."
"His wallet's so tight, you can't squeeze a dollar bill in."
"Hey," Hugo cautioned. "No bad-mouthing the owner around me. You're all getting paid, aren't ya?"
Rachel didn't need a private company jet, but this wasn't the first time that Fulcrum owner Dixon Rogers's stingy habits had affected all of them. How'd he expect them to perform as well as the top teams when he refused to invest in additional research and development, or shell out for more wind tunnel time?
"Sixteenth is a respectable finish," her uncle said, "but we can do better."
Damn right they could do better. The last fifty laps of Justin positioning himself and then not having the power to make a move had about killed her. The urge to stomp her feet and throw her clipboard out the window overwhelmed Rachel. As usual, she stuffed it. Her uncle and the rest of the team didn't need her adding drama to the already disappointing finish.
They drove out of the rain and up to the hotel's main entrance. Justin and the rest of the team piled out of the rented SUV as Rachel cracked open her door.
Hugo stopped her with a hand on her arm and inclined his head. "Rachel, honey, you and Johnny got to work together figuring out what's wrong with that engine."
It's the exhaust manifold, she wanted to yell. She'd been trying to tell Johnny Meline, their engine builder, that NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow changes necessitated more modifications than Fulcrum had already made. Meline wouldn't listen to her.
"I know one day you want to be a good crew chief, but, remember, there's a lot more to it than the technical stuff," her uncle said without judgment. As stoic and distant as her uncle could sometimes be, he'd always been there for Rachel throughout her life, no matter what. The only way she knew how to repay him was to not cause him any more problems.
"I'll take care of it." Somehow. On my own.
She climbed out of the car, lost her balance on the rain-slicked pavement and tumbled right into
Whoa! Payton Reese. He must have been waiting for them at the hotel.
He reached out to steady her with arms as hard as rock and barely shifted with her weight. Rachel glanced into his cobalt-colored eyes. She hadn't noticed it before at the track, but his eyes were the exact deep blue of that classic Ferrari coupe Justin had been coveting. Only there was nothing steely about them. Confident to the point of cockiness, but not cold.
"You okay?" His hands, solid and warm, stayed on her arms until she righted herself.
"Thanks. I'm fine." When he let her go, she noticed a slight chill had settled in the wet night air and wished she could snuggle back up to all that heat.
Reporter, Rachel reminded herself. If not scum of the earth, he had to be darned close to it. All those people cared about were ratings and getting the nasty inside scoop on whatever story they were working on for that day, regardless of whether or not digging into the details messed with other people's lives.