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"He's looking over here again."
Sheila Trueblood flicked her gaze in the direction of her favorite waitress, Mellie. "That's because you keep staring at him."
"He started it. And he's not looking at me. He's looking at you."
"Why would he be doing that?"
"It's so sweet. He's still carrying a torch. Why, I can't imagine. How many times have you turned down his dinner invitations?"
Sheila felt her face heat. "I lost count, and I'm sure Gil Sizemore has more important things on his mind than me. Like counting his millions."
"He has so many he probably hires people to count for him."
"No doubt. Maybe he keeps looking over here 'cause he's thirsty." Sheila nodded meaningfully at the coffeemaker. "Do you have any idea who could solve that problem for him? "
Mellie shrugged. "He'd rather see you than me." But she smiled and sailed off with a coffeepot in her hand.
Sheila sighed. "At least she's smiling for once." Maudie's Down Home Diner was currently packed with afternoon customers in search of great pie, coffee and industry gossip. The diner had become a central hangout for everyone who lived and worked in the world of NASCAR racing. Located in Mooresville, North Carolina, and in proximity to many of the race shops, customers could be anyone from NASCAR officials, mechanics, drivers, orin the case of Gil Sizemore race team owners.
Sheila turned back to the peach pie she'd been cutting before Mellie started in with her teasing about Gil. It's not as if she had to look at him to describe him.
The vision was permanently etched on her brain.
At six foot three, his body powerfully built, he looked more like a cowboy from another age than a successful, modern businessman. When you added in his deep, confident voice, wavy, dark brown hair and hot blue eyes, well, it was quite a package.
She was a simple and practical woman who'd fought and scraped for everything in life since her birth in a rundown trailer park to an unwed mother. And even if the wide expanse of her and Gil's careersher, diner owner; him, multiple-car owner in NASCAR's top seriesdidn't separate them, then the fact that he was a wealthy Charleston blue blood who'd probably had an etiquette coach since age five easily put the cherry on the sundae.
The two of them dating? It was laughable.
Besides, she'd trusted a hot, charming guy with big plans and dreams once and wound up with a lot more than just the usual sense of betrayal and heartbreak.
She'd wound up in prison.
If Gil Sizemore, or any of her friends, found out that deep, dark secret well, she couldn't even let herself think about the consequences.
"I had apple," a familiar deep voice said, startling her to the point she gasped as she glanced up. "Now I wish I'd chosen peach."
"Hi, uh Gil. Ah" She ground to a halt. The man did know how to rattle her normally unshakable nature. "Would you like a piece of peach?"
He flashed his perfect, straight white teeth in a smile. "Are you offering?"
Had she included his smile in her description? She couldn't recall. In fact, she probably couldn't spell her own name at the moment. "Sure. That's my job. Pie server."
He angled his head. "Why do you put yourself down? You're a business owner, just like me."
"We're nothing alike."
And, as had been the norm lately, she let the differences get to her. She knew her anger was rooted in both her past and the power he had over her feelings. Her longing for him wasn't productive or acceptable. Sure, there were sparks between them, but why couldn't he let them be? Why did she have to see him several times a week and be reminded of what she couldn't have?
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Did you want something besides pie?"
"You." He paused significantly. "And dinner. Will you join me?"
She whipped the cloth off her apron belt and began wiping the countera nervous gesture she hoped he never caught on to. "I have to work."
"You can't take one night off? Mellie could watch the diner."
"She has a three-year-old daughter to take care of."
"What if I provide a reliable babysitter?" Suspicious, Sheila narrowed her eyes. "Who?"
"That's very generous." So why didn't she trust the gesture? He seemed like an honorable, sincere man.
But then many did. At first.
"Why do you want to go out with me?" she asked, her tone bordering on accusation. "You could have anybody."
"Hmm." He angled his head, as if trying to decide. "Could it be your malleable personality?" When she scowled, he laughed. "No, more likely it's your strength, your work ethic, your compassion, fire and determination." He stepped closer, his gaze roving her. "Your beautiful face and warm eyes."
"Stop," she said weakly, a wave of pleasure rippling down her spine. "I'm none of those things."
He lifted his hand as if he might stroke her cheek, then changed his mind and let it fall back by his side. "Yes, you are."
What woman on the planet could resist that kind of sentiment?
She could. She'd heard it all before, after all. Now that she finally had control of her life and her future, she wasn't about to
"Maybe we could talk about Mellie," he said. "On our date," he added, furrowing his brow. "She's lost weight. She seems on edge all the time. Is she okay?"
He'd noticed Mellie's weight loss and mood changes? Sheila had been telling her friendsdubbed the Tuesday Tarts because they met in the diner's back room on that particular dayand they'd been telling her not to worry, that raising young kids was hard and Mellie would bounce back.
Of course, there was that flirtation with Bart Branch.
"You" She stopped and wished she had a sip of water to soothe her suddenly dry throat. "You're concerned about Mellie, too? "
Mellie Donovan and her daughter, Lily, had appeared in town in April like a gift from heaven. Mellie had been added to Sheila's reliable staff, and in return Sheila had provided the apartment above the diner. She'd become like a sister. Over the past several months though, she'd changed, become distant. She had always been shy and slightly guarded, but something was up with her. Mellie refused to confide, and Sheila was at the end of her rope in figuring out how to reach her.
"See, we have something in common," Gil said, breaking into her thoughts.
"One small thing." And it was essential she remind herself of that fact. "The rest of our lives are complete opposites."
Gil leaned against the counter. "So you've been saying. We could always fight during dinner. We seem to have that down pat."
She tried to look shocked, but wasn't sure she pulled it off. "You're a customer. I don't fight with you."
"Yes, I am. And, yes, you do."
Okay, that simply wasn't fair. She was in self-protection mode, and he seemed to never run out of ammunition. "Maybe you're just threatened by my assertiveness."
He shook his head. "Nope. That's not it."
"Oh, I think it is. You just don't"
"Hey, Sheila! How 'bout those veges?"
Gathering her professionalism, Sheila glanced over at Dan the Veggie Man, as he liked to call himself. "You're a lifesaver," she said, then smiled brightly. "Just take everything around back. I'll meet you."
Dan saluted her. "I'm all yours, honey."
"Do you go to dinner with him?" Gil asked, scowling as Dan strolled out the front door.
Noting Gil had straightened to his full, imposing, sexy height, Sheila's mushy, susceptible heartthe one she fought to keep under armorgot, well mushy. "No. He's a vendor."
"So, you don't date vendors or customers?"
"Hey, Sheila!" someone called from the end of the counter. "Are you growin' those peaches over there?"
"You" she pointed at Gil "go back to your table and take this." She shoved a peach-pie-laden plate at him. "I have work to do."
Gil leaned forward and whispered, "Don't look now, but you're doing it again."
She turned her head and found them nearly nose to nose. "What?"
"Fighting with me." He tapped his finger at the corner of her mouth. "And we could be doing something much, much better."
"Amigo, that's a lost cause."
Gil chased his peach pie with coffee and fought the urge to agree with his driver. "She'll come around."
Rafael O'Bryanpart Brazilian, part Irish and all ambitionscoffed. "Sure, she will."
Gil was suddenly reminded the other man had recently gotten engaged. The reclusive driver was in love with a reporter, of all people. "I thought you were all cupids and arrows now."
"I am. For me. You and Sheila are a whole different story."
"What's wrong with me and Sheila?"
"For one thing, there's no and."
Gil paused with his mug halfway to his mouth.
Rafael extended one hand. "There's you " Then he extended the other in the opposite direction. "There's Sheila."
Rafael shrugged. "Got me."
The man was a veritable clam. And since his driver was certainly as stubborn as Sheila, maybe Gil could get some advice on working through the wall of defensive pride surrounding the woman of his dreams. "Why do you think we're opposites?"
"You're Mr. Blue Blood. She's Ms. Blue Collar."
"Women care about that stuff. Especially a woman like Sheila."
"Why especially her?" Gil asked, though he was pretty sure he knew.
"She's been through a lot. She's struggled and fought and become successful." Rafael held up his hands. "I don't know anything personal, but I know it fits."
"Same recognizes same."
Inclining his head in a nod, Rafael sipped his coffee.
Gil wasn't sure about Sheila's past, but he knew he was out of ideas on how to get her to see him as more than a loyal customer. He'd been attracted to her for months and had asked her out unsuccessfully for those months, as well. She'd always brushed him off, and they'd clashed over her constant need for distance as well as random political and social topics that came up whenever they were around each other.
He'd dated plenty of women in the meantime, trying to set aside his attraction to the diner owner, but he always felt like a fake. He was posturing, trying to show Sheila and the rest of the racing world that he was an available guy who could have anybody. Even Sheila seemed bent on pointing out he could have anybody.
Those who knew him well and were familiar with his short attention span with women had done nothing but try to point out the differences between him and Sheila. Was that the reason he couldn't forget her or set their attraction aside? Was his continued pursuit sheer stubbornness on his part? Did he simply have a thing for golden-eyed redheads?
Or was there something more?
He watched her walk around the counter and move to a table of customers. She laughed at something one of the guys said, then patted his shoulder. Gil had to resist the urge to go over and punch the guy.
Oh, yeah, there's definitely more.
"Why do you want to be with her?" Rafael asked, jumping into Gil's fantasy of Sheila smiling at him instead.
"She's hot," Gil said automatically, but when Rafael shook his head, Gil added, "not just physically."
He cleared his throat. There was something extremely awkward about discussing his romantic feelings. "I don't knowexactly. But I can't forget her. I can't pretend I don't want her."
"You've got to step up your game."
"A lot like the difference between being in the Chase and not."
Gil started to argue, then nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, it's a lot like that."
"All or nothing."
"Then I'd suggest your first step is to get her to look at you like she'd rather kiss you than punch you."
"Okay, that's a good plan. How" Gil stopped. "She's glaring at me now, isn't she?"
Great. Months of wooing for nothing. Did guys actually woo these days?
Maybe not usually, but he certainly had been, and Sheila had thrown the block at every turn. What did it take for him to get the message?
He moved his gaze toward her, found her staring at him and everything inside him warmed.
That's what kept him on the hook.
He knew she was attracted to him. He knew something was holding her back.
He wasn't sure what strategy would work; he didn't know if he should even continue to try, but he wasn't giving up yet.
However, he did have another critical job at stake at the moment. Embarrassed to have one of his guys with an up-close-and-personal view of the humiliation that had become his love life, he looked back at Rafael. "If it's all right with you, I'd like to focus on winning the championship now."
"No kidding?" Rafael nodded sagely and seemingly without irony. "I think that's a good move, boss."