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Madeleine Felton zoned her father out. Yeah, it was her first time sitting in on a family business meeting, and she was excited to be here, but she wasn't in the least interested in anything to do with NASCAR. She'd pay attention when it came to her part.
She surreptitiously studied her thumbnail on her left hand. Dang. After this meeting she needed to call Nadine for an emergency manicure. There was the slightest tear in the corner of her nail, and if that sucker went it was going to hurt
"She doesn't even know what you said." Doug, Maddie's oldest older brother, tossed a sheaf of papers on the polished mahogany boardroom table dominating Felton Enterprises' inner sanctum.
"I'm the one who should be handling this. Maddie's gonna screw it up," Steve said. Her youngest older brother, four years older than her, shot her an apologetic look, "Sorry, Maddie, but you will."
What had she expected? That her big brothers might actually be glad she wanted to contribute something to the family business. "What? I'm not going to mess anything"
Doug, who fancied himself an expert in everything, cut her off. "What do you know about NASCAR?"
NASCAR? Pretty much nothing. She vaguely recalled something last year about Daddy expanding Sleep EZ's market share in the midrange motel-accommodations market through NASCAR sponsorship, but she hadn't paid much attention.
It didn't particularly bode well that Daddy, Doug and Stevie were bringing up NASCAR in conjunction with her joining the family motel business.
She didn't like the sound of this. At all. And she hated when Doug patronized her. "NASCAR? Let's see." She touched her fingerto her lip and pretended to ponder. "It's noisy and they drive really fast around a track for a long time."
She was being sarcastic, but really she didn't know a whole lot beyond that. And the most salient point was that she didn't want to, either. Noisy, dirty and a surfeit of testosterone and speedno thanks, she could just drive around Atlanta's beltway if she needed some of that.
"That's insightful." Doug shook his head.
"Enough," her father boomed, standing and planting his hands on the expensive tabletop. "I don't want to hear any more, boys."
Doug and Stevie always firmly put her in her place as the baby sister. They indulged her, patronized her, didn't take her seriously and she played right into it. If she wanted them to treat her like a capable adult, and she did, then she'd act like one. She shoved her hand with the torn nail into her lap and focused on her father.
"Your sister came to me a few days ago because she wants to be more involved in the business."
Stevie snorted and rolled his eyes. "Sure, Dad. She'll show up for work until there's a sale at Neiman's."
She narrowed her eyes but otherwise ignored Stevie's jibe. Her brothers weren't bad guys. They'd just all slipped into roles when her mother died. Her mother had been delicate, fragile, and in the end, had shattered. Maddie, nine at the time, was the spitting image of her mother. Her father and brothers had been determined to coddle and protect Maddie, as if she might shatter the same as her mother.
Alone, confused, lost without her mother, afraid her brothers and father might abandon her the same as her mother had, unsure she wasn't cut from the same cloth as her mother, Maddie had fallen into the role handed her. No responsibility. Nothing too taxing. No stress. No challenge. She'd just floated along, like a piece of flotsam carried downstream by the current, directionless, her path determined by others, but actually no path at all.
It had taken her years to figure out that despite the physical resemblance, she wasn't like her fragile mother. Or at least she didn't think so. Likewise, she'd come to realize that her childhood fears of abandonment if she didn't go along with her father and brothers that had carried over into adulthood, were unfounded. At least she thought they were. In both cases there was only one way to find out. The proof was in the doing. It was time for Maddie to take control of her own destiny, prove what she was made of, time for her to take on a job that would challenge her, test her mettle, other than the do-nothing jobs she'd had since college.
Both her brothers were important to the smooth running and growth of the family business. Maddie wanted to take her place in the ranks. Unfortunately, Maddie was the only one who realized it was time for a change.
"This job comes with flex hours so she can work it around shopping," Daddy said.
And didn't she just love being discussed as if she weren't in the room?
She had a degree in marketing with an emphasis on advertising and public relations that she never used. She'd interviewed for, and landed, a couple of entry-level jobs at ad agencies when she graduated from college, but Daddy had always nixed them before she'd ever gotten started, deeming them too taxing. And she'd gone along with him, playing the role she'd always played.
But she'd found out a lot about herself and her capabilities when she'd renovated and moved into the carriage house on her father's property. It had done wonders for her selfconfidence and fueled her ambition. She was ready to contribute to something more than her closet and Neiman's bottom line. But NASCAR? Thanks, but no thanks.
"I thought I'd be working with Sherman, Reichman and Burkholtz on the new ad campaign." At least that's what she'd proposed to her father. SRB was the ad agency on record for Felton Enterprises and Maddie had looked forward to collaborating with them.
"Well, princess, you will be indirectly. The best way to facilitate expansion is to grow our customer base.You can't run with the big dogs if you stay up on the porch. Felton Enterprises and Sleep EZ are fully committed to our NASCAR sponsorship."
"NASCAR?" She was not feeling good about this.
"Yeah. We've got one of those noisy cars that goes fast around the track for a long time," Doug said.
Her father ignored Doug's sarcasm and sat back down in his oversized leather chairthe veritable king of the boardroom.
Doug and Stevie were younger replicas of their father. All three Felton men shared a square jaw, thick neck and a short, broad build. They could've been extras in a 1930s-era movie on pugilists. Everyone always said it was fortunate that Maddie'd inherited her mother's refined features. She supposed, but it had taken her a long time to realize her personality ran more along the lines of her father's.
He cleared his throat. "Maddie, I want you to take over from Stevie as Felton's liaison and spokesperson with NASCAR."
"Me and NASCAR?" Could there possibly be a worse fit than her and stock-car racing? She knew nothing about racing and she was pretty sure if she did she wouldn't like it. "I'll be doing a lot of phone work to set up interviews and stuff?" she asked hopefully.
"Some of that, of course. You'll be working with Kelsi Morris. She's Chalkey Racing Enterprise's handler for Team Three." She felt as if he were speaking a foreign language. It must've shown on her face. "Team Three drives the Number 76 car that we sponsor. You'll host the prerace events and the skybox in addition to arranging driver appearances at our locations and coordinating driver ad shots. Stevie's been handling this, but at the rate we're expanding I really need him focusing on overseeing the new training program. He can turn over the files to you when we're through here. And you'll have an assistant who'll coordinate your travel arrangements and general administrative work."
Travel arrangements? "You mean, I'd actually have to go to the races?" She'd envisioned a nice office jobmeetings with Creative, interfacing with media, overseeing implementation. She had never, ever envisioned herself as part of NASCAR racing. This was so not her cup of tea.
"Maybe it's too much." Doug exchanged a concerned look with their father.
"I can keep working it. I'll figure out a way to do both," Stevie chimed in.
This was familiar territoryher father and brothers deciding what was best for her, making sure nothing was too difficult. It'd be so easy to let everyone fall into the roles they'd played since her mother died and her brothers and father began to treat Maddie like a piece of rare Dresden porcelain.
Her father shot her a questioning look.
It'd be simple to slide out of the race track thing, but where'd that put her except right back where she'd started? She'd wanted the opportunity to prove herself and this was definitely a challenge.
"No. It's not going to be too much." She stiffened her spine and pasted on a smile. "I'll do it."
TUCKER MACRAY GRIPPED the steering wheel and fought to bring the car down going into the sharply banked Turn Three at the Atlanta track. It was too tight and he rode it too high. He completed the test run and rolled past the NASCAR track official posted at the pit road and into the garage area. He unbuckled, climbed out of the car, pulled off his helmet and ran his hand through his hair. He welcomed the cool, early spring air after the heat of his test run.
"Still pushing coming out of Turn Three?" asked Mike Snellings, his Chalkey Racing Enterprises crew chief.
"Not as much, but it's still there," Tucker said, stepping away from the car, getting out of the way of his team, who were intent on doing their job. Out of the garage and off the track, these guys could kick back with the best of them, but at work they were all about the car and getting the team to Victory Lane.
Tucker and Mike crossed from the garage to the Number 76 Chalkey hauler parked opposite the garage in line with all the other haulers. He and Mike didn't always agree, but Tucker was relieved that they both trusted and respected each other and their commitment to winning. Tucker knew respect and trust between a crew chief and driver could make all the difference in a winning season. Mike knew his business.
"The steering felt tight going into the turn. It was hard to get it down on the track," Tucker said.
"I noticed you were higher on the top than you like to be," Mike said, following him down the short chrome aisle that cut through the back of the hauler. Davey, Tucker's hauler driver, stood cleaning the already spotless drawer fronts in the alcove before the front of the hauler that housed what Tucker always thought of as "the war room."
"Good run, man?" Davey asked.
Tucker shrugged. "It was all right. It's gonna get better."
Tucker walked into the war room and put his helmet on the table in the center of the room. What had one of the guys called it? Techie paradise. It was decked out in state-of-theart. Four plasma screens mounted on one wall, DVD and stereo equipment on another, computer with wireless Internet on the third. Pit seating horseshoed around the table. It was tight but comfy quartershome away from home where he and the rest of the team could grab a moment of privacy and downtime at the track.
"How's it hanging, Tuck?" Marcus Chalkey asked from the corner where he sat surfing the Internet.
"Good." Tucker pulled a cold ginger ale from the minifridge and automatically passed a diet cola to Mike. "Want a drink, Marcus?"
"I'm good, Tuck, I'm good," Marcus said. Dan Chalkey owned the team and Marcus was his oneand-only offspring, which was the one-and-only reason Tucker let the guy call him Tuck. That nickname came loaded with bad memories.
Tucker wasn't sure whether Dan sent Marcus along to keep an eye on things because Tucker was the rookie driver on the team or if Marcus just came along for the ride because he didn't have anything else going on in his life. Maybe it was a little bit of both. Regardless, Marcus pretty much stayed out of the way. He'd commandeered the one corner of the war room and sat parked in front of the computer, Internet-surfing most of the time. Aside from calling Tucker the annoying nickname, Marcus seemed okay. Heck, half the time Tucker forgot Marcus was around. He was sort of like another fixture in the hauler.
Tucker popped the top on his ginger ale and he and Mike sat opposite each other.
"Okay, we'll look at the track bar adjustment. Anything else?"
"That's it. I couldn't get it to come down, but I think that'll take care of it."
"I'll have Larry take a look at it. We'll have you set. You've got a good shot at the outside pole at Bristol." They'd spent the day testing and tuning at Atlanta, home to Chalkey Racing Enterprises, in preparation for the upcoming race at Bristol this weekend.
"Yep. If we can get it down on the track, we'll give 'em some racing." Running at Bristol was like dropping in on an old friend. The short, tight track frustrated some of the drivers, and tempers were almost guaranteed to flare, but Tucker had raced many a Saturday night at tight short dirt tracks throughout the southeast before he'd hit the NASCAR Busch Series and now the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series big leagues. He'd take anAtlanta or New Hampshire any day over Talladega.
Mike nodded. "We'll have it by the time you're through with the advertising people."
This was the part he didn't like, didn't wantthe advertising. Tucker loved stock cars and everything about racing. Racing was an out game. Every time he got behind the wheel his goal was to out the competition: outsmart, outmaneuver and outdrive the field. Just as simple and just as complicated as that.
He could drive. He loved getting behind the wheel, hurtling along, with all his energy and focus on the track and the moment. Talk about a rush. Not a day went by that he didn't thank God for racing. Ad shoots were another story.
"I just want to drive and work on the car," Tucker said.
"That's not exactly true. I want to drive and I want to win."
Snellings laughed. "We're kicking ass and taking names." Tucker grinned. They were doing okay. Six races into the season an article by a noted sports columnist had tagged him as one of the top two contenders for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year title. And he knew he wouldn't be on his way if it weren't for Snellings's and the rest of the crew's experience, and it didn't hurt that he was a little more seasoned from the circuit than some of his rookie counterparts.
On any given day when his personal world was going to hell in a handbasket, he could get behind the wheel of a race car and for that length of time, all was right with Tucker Macray's world.
His two favorite places to be were behind the wheel or under the hood. But now he was about to do his obligatory time in front of the camera while Mike worked out the kinks. "I'll check back in with you when I'm done."
"Not necessary, but whatever you want to do," Mike said. They both knew Tucker would show back up at the garage afterward. It'd been an adjustment for both of them. The Number 76 driver last year had been very hands-off. Tucker was used to working on his own car and was just the opposite. It wasn't a matter of not trusting Mike and the team. It was just the way he was made. If he'd been a cowboy, he'd have never turned his horse over to someone else's care.
Tucker stood. "I'll see you later." "Yeah. Smile pretty for the camera." Mike smirked. "And why don't you see about getting a decent haircut on the way?"
Tucker laughed and ran a hand over his head. "What? And break a tradition? Race fans wouldn't recognize me and it'd deprive the announcers of filler material."
It'd been the second race of the season and he'd driven the hell out of the Daytona track, barely avoiding a spinout ahead of him that had taken six cars off the track that day. Afterward, one of the TV announcers had jokingly commented that if he kept driving like that, maybe he could earn enough money to get a decent haircut or at least a good brush. He'd been officially, publicly dubbed Bed Head Macray.
He liked the place he'd been getting his hair cut for the past fifteen years. So what if he had a little bit of a cowlick. He wasn't doing one of those slick, pretty-boy salon cuts and he wasn't doing hair gel. And the craziest thing had been all the letters from fans telling him they liked his "bed-head hair."
One day, in the annals of stock-car racing, he wanted to be known as the best NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver on the circuit. But everyone had to start somewhere, and for now he was known as the Number 76 Sleep EZ driver with bed-head hair.