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So, Tobey, how do you feel about replacing the man you claim taught you everything you know about being a crew chief?"
Tobey Harris squirmed a little in his chair, self-conscious in the glare of the bright lights, uncomfortable with the line of questioning introduced by the very attractive woman facing him from a matching chair. "I have nothing but the highest respect for Neil Sanchez. He's a great guy and I wish him success in whatever he chooses to pursue next."
"Can you tell our listeners why he was fired? It had to have been serious for team owner Dawson Ritter to dump the established crew chief this late in the season, with the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in the balance for your driver, Kent Grosso."
Tobey felt his eyes narrow in irritation. Remembering his onlookers, he tried to keep his emotions out of his voice and expression when he replied, "Neil left the team through mutual agreement, for reasons of his own. As I said, I think he's a great guy. Our team is ready for the upcoming race at Watkins Glen."
His interviewer nodded, making her wavy, shoulder-length chestnut hair sway against the shoulders of the thin white summer sweater she wore with sharply tailored slacks in a muted gray plaid. Her amber-brown eyes were focused intently on his face when she asked the next question. "All right, about the race. It will be the first you've called as a crew chief. How does the rest of the team feel about answering to a young man who was the crew chief's assistant less than a week ago? Especially a baby-faced guy who looks barely older than a teenager himself?"
A few onlookers snickered. Feeling his cheeks warm, Tobey scowled. "Oh, come on"
"Answer thequestion, Tobey," a man's voice ordered from the shadows behind the bright lights focused on Tobey's face. "You're going to hear worse."
Sighing loudly, Tobey struggled for patience. This was just a practice interview, he reminded himself. His owner and driver wanted to see how he would conduct himself when hit with the really tough questions. He would prove to them that he could handle whatever was thrown at himnot that he had expected anything quite like this.
"I've served as Neil's assistant for two years, including last year, when our team won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. I've been active in stock car racing for most of my life, and I've trained for this position for ten years, since I graduated high school. I have received the team's full support during this past week, and I have no doubt that we can take the No. 427 car to Victory Lane next weekend."
"Gonna have to take that chip off your shoulder, son," Dawson Ritter advised, stepping out of the shadows with driver Kent Grosso at his side. "You knew when you took this job that there was going to be talk about your replacing Neil. About your lack of experience as a crew chief. And about that baby face of yours, for that matter. You have to let it slide off your back and not get you riled up."
"I can handle it, sir," Tobey assured his employer. "Doesn't mean I have to like it, though."
With a snort of sympathy, Dawson clapped Tobey's shoulder. "Can't blame you for that. I haven't enjoyed this past week much myself. But we'll all stick together and we'll get through this."
Dawson nodded again, the bright lights reflecting off his balding head. Tall and thin, with piercing blue eyes behind bifocal glasses and prominent ears poking out of his fringe of gray hair, sixty-two-year-old Dawson Ritter had a stern face that belied his kind nature and sharp wit. He intimidated most people upon first meeting. Kent and Tobey had once agreed that Dawson reminded them both of their high school principals, but he was actually one of the nicest men Tobey had ever met.
There was nothing Tobey wanted more than to justify the older man's faith in him. Dawson had taken a risk in promoting an untried crew chief at this point in the season, and Tobey carried that weight with him this week as they approached the next race.
Kent Grosso shifted restlessly on his feet, his dark hair a mess from running his hands through it, his bright blue eyes shadowed as they had been since the painful decision to fire his friend and former crew chief, Neil Sanchez. Tobey knew how hard that had been for everyone involved. Despite problems with temper and drinking and women, Neil had his likable side, and he'd been a top-notch crew chief until his personal problems had spiraled out of control. Kent, especially, had felt a great deal of loyalty toward the man who'd taken him from rookie driver to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion in a relatively short time.
Tobey was all too well aware that Kent was worried about the next race. There was a bond of trust between crew chief, spotter and driver, a rhythm that developed with time and practice. Things had been difficult all season between Neil and the team, but Kent had still known what to expect when he climbed behind the wheel and heard Neil's familiar voice in his helmet. It wasn't going to be easy for the driver to put his full faith in a new crew chief this late in the season.
That so-called practice interview hadn't helped, Tobey thought resentfully as Kent and Dawson moved away, talking in low voices.
He whirled toward the woman who hovered behind him. "Thanks a lot, Amy. You made me look like an idiot in front of Kent and Mr. Ritter. Not to mention the other guys standing around watching."
Amy Barber, Kent's PR representative, had the grace to look just a little rueful, even as she defended her actions. "Dawson told me to be tough with you. You need to be prepared for anything the media asks you and trust me, I could have been harsher."
It wasn't easy to be angry with Amy. Her wide-set, golden-brown eyes met his gaze evenly, and the expression on her pretty oval face was conciliatory. Not apologetic, exactlysince she believed she had been doing precisely what she was supposed to dobut not confrontational, either. She apparently understood why he was annoyed by the questions she had asked. After all, that had been the purpose for her asking them.
"That 'baby face' remark was below the belt," he growled, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I'mdoing my best to convince Kent that I'm ready to take charge of the team, and you probably undermined any progress I might have made this week."
"I was doing my job," she replied quietly. "And you should get used to it, because you're going to be seeing a great deal of me for the rest of this season."
He felt something tighten in his stomach in response to that promise? Warning?
Funny to think that he'd spent the past few months occasionally fantasizing about seeing more of Amy Barber.
He supposed this situation proved the old adage. Be careful what you wish for.
Okay, so maybe the baby-face remark had been too much. Maybe she could have handled the whole interview a bit more skillfully, Amy thought wearily as she drove toward home later that evening.
She tried to blame the audience for her awkwardness that afternoon. She'd been too aware of Dawson and Kent standing there watching her, judging her effectiveness in getting Tobey ready for the questions with which he would be bombarded all week. A few other team members had hovered in the background, wondering how "the kid" would handle his sudden shove into the spotlight.
But, no, she thought with an uncomfortably candid realization. It hadn't been the audience making her nervous earlier. It had been the interview subject himself.
Tobey Harris. Surfer-boy good looks. Blond-streaked, light brown hair worn touch-temptingly shaggy. Blue eyes framed in ridiculously long lashes. Dimples.
He'd sat in that chair, looking at her with such grave intensity, so different from the blustering, habitually flirtatious older man he had replacedand Amy's mind had gone blank. She'd actually had to force herself to stay focused on the job, which was hardly characteristic of her.
It wasn't even as if she had just met the guy, she chided herself. She had known Tobey for almost a year, ever since she'd been promoted by Motor Media Group, the public relations company for which she had worked for ten years, to full-time PR representative for Kent Grosso. Yet she had spent very little time alone with Tobey, since he'd tended to stay in the background as Neil's assistant, quietly and efficiently performing his job, doing everything within his power to hold the team together when Neil had started falling apart.
Despite his unassuming manner, Amy had noticed Tobey during the past year. Heck, any woman with a pumping heart and reasonably good vision had to notice Tobey Harris. But she'd kept her attention focused on this job she had worked so hard to obtain, telling herself that she would be a fool to risk her position by flirting with a cute younger man on the team. Between the demands of her job and her family, she didn't have time to flirt, anyway, since there was hardly a spare hour in her schedule if the flirting actually led anywhere.
Now that Tobey had been made crew chief, she was even more relieved that she'd kept that inappropriate attraction to herself. She would have to work quite closely with him and any imprudent actions in the past would have come back to bite her hard in the posterior. So, all in all, it was a good thing she'd resisted when he'd grinned impishly at her from beneath the mistletoe at the company Christmas party last year, when she'd just started working with Kent during the offseason. And that she'd disentangled herself rather quickly when Tobey had impulsively hugged her after Kent won at Talladega in April.
Tobey had reached for her because she was the closest person to him in the excitement of the win, she had assured herself. He'd have hugged Dawson if the owner had happened to be standing in Amy's spot. But knowing all that hadn't made her heart stop pounding like crazy after the hug, nor had it prevented an uncomfortable couple of daydreams afterward.
So she had a weakness for pretty surfer-boy types, she told herself, parking the car in her driveway. She was also a bit too fond of chocolate, happily-ever-after love stories and TV reality shows. She knew when to let herself give in to the occasional indulgence, and when to make use of willpower.
Tobey Harris definitely called for willpower.
Pushing a hand through her work-tousled brown hair, she walked up the steps to the front porch of the small house she shared with her sister and their maternal great-aunt. She was really tired this evening. It had been a hot August afternoon, and she felt rumpled and sticky. Since she was late getting home, as she so often was, Gretchen and Aunt Ellen had probably already eaten, though she knew Aunt Ellen would have kept a plate for her. It would be so nice to have a quiet dinner and crash in front of the TV with a paperback for a few hours .
The minute she stepped into her house, she knew the peaceful evening she'd envisioned was highly unlikely. She could hear Gretchen's raised voice the minute she closed the door behind her. The teary, aggrieved tone let Amy know that her sister was on another rant, and she sighed, aware that this could go on all evening. Heaven save the world from hormonal teenage drama queens, she thought wearily.
Tossing her purse and briefcase onto a table, she moved toward the kitchen.
Aunt Ellen stood in the middle of the room, her back to the doorway, her hands planted firmly on her broad, stretch-pants-covered hips. Gretchen sat at the table, tears streaming dramatically down her round, flushed face, her full lower lip protruding in a pout.
Amy's question made both Aunt Ellen and Gretchen turn in her direction and start speaking at once.
"She won't let me"
"I told her there's no way"
"And it's perfectly okay because"
"I'm sure you'll agree with me that"
Amy raised both hands and spoke loudly. "One at a time, please. I have no idea what either of you are saying. Aunt Ellen, why don't you tell me?"
"Great," Gretchen muttered. "Hear her side first."
Giving her sister a quelling look, Amy nodded toward her great-aunt. "Go on."
"Gretchen wants to go to a sleepover at Brooke's house tonight. I considered letting her do so until I found out that Brooke's parents are out of townsomething Gretchen conveniently forgot to tell me. After that, of course, my answer was no."
Amy nodded. "Of course."
"Wait a minute!" Gretchen cried out, jumping to her feet. "At least let me talk before you make up your mind."
"Aunt Ellen has already given you an answer," Amy reminded her sister. "I'm not in the habit of overruling her decisions. Besides, my answer would be the same as hers. You're not having a sleepover at Brooke's house while her parents are out of town."
"But her big sister and brother are there. They're in charge. So, everything will be okay. Please, Amy."
Was there any more painful sound than a fourteen-year-old's high-pitched whine? Amy barely resisted the urge to wince as she replied firmly, "Callie is sixteen and Jacob is barely seventeen. I know them, remember? There's no way I would leave either of them in charge of a sleepover for you and your friends."
"I'm not arguing about this, Gretchen. Brooke and your other friends are welcome to spend the night here, but you're not staying at her house unless her parents are home to supervise."
"That's not fair. Jacob said he would watch out for usnot that we need babysitters. We're fourteen!"
"I said I'm not going to argue with you, Gretchen. Aunt Ellen told you no, and I agree with her."
"But all the other kids are going to be there "
"That's enough!" Amy didn't like raising her voice to her kid sister, but sometimes it was the only way to make herself heard. "Not another word about this, do you hear?"
Grumbling just beneath her breath, Gretchen flounced out of the room. Amy sighed, knowing the teenager could sulk for hours, which she probably would tonight, if some of her friends really had manipulated their parents into letting them spend the night with Brooke and her notoriously irresponsible older siblings.
She turned to her great-aunt. "How long has that argument been going on?"
"All afternoon, pretty much. Are you hungry? I kept a plate warm for you."
"I'm starving. Thank you.