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Tara Dalton was beginning to panic. The whole point of her coming to the NASCAR Awards Banquet, aside from enjoying the company of the most famous stock car drivers in the world, was to arrange for later interviews with Dean Grosso, this year's winner of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, and Adam Sanford, the owner of Sanford Racing. She'd called in a lot of favors to be invited.
She'd arrived at the hotel early, specifically to set everything up for when the festivities ended. What she hadn't anticipated was that one of the four elevators would be out of commission and it would take her forever to reach the ballroom on the forty-third floor of the luxury hotel. By then dinner was already being served and she'd lost the opportunity to socialize with the people she'd hoped to sweet-talk.
Now the ritziest, glitziest night in NASCAR, the culmination of Champions Week, was over, people were making for the exits, and her mission remained unaccomplished.
"Come on," Tara urged her sister, Mallory, and started toward the dais at the front of the immense gilt-and-crystal ballroom.
"But everybody's leaving," Mallory objected.
"That's why we have to hurry. Before they get away."
Mallory looked back at the bottleneck at the doors. "I don't think that's going to be very soon."
She was right, of course, but Tara didn't think the middle of an impatient crowd was the place to persuade her subjects to give up precious vacation time to accommodate her.
Bucking the steady tide of people heading for the hallway and the bank of still-operating elevators, Tara began to understand how a salmon must feel swimming upstream. Fortunately the people she wanted to talk to at the headtable had apparently decided not to fight the stampede and instead, had commandeered two of the vacated round tables immediately below the dais, where they were sipping wine and talking among themselves.
Tara glanced over her shoulder. Mallory had stoppedor more likely, been stoppedto talk to a guy Tara didn't recognize. Mid-thirties, Tara guessed, and from what she could see, not bad-looking, but then, Mallory had never had any trouble attracting men.
"Mall," Tara called out.
Eyes keenly focused on the man, her sister raised a hand and nodded in her direction. Tara knew she'd break away eventually but she didn't want to wait. Patience had never been one of her virtues. She spun back toward the head of the room and moved on, practically at a run.
No one near the dais seemed to pay any attention to her except Adam Sanford, who was currently glancing her way. Being noticed by a guy who was drop-dead gorgeous was nice. Of course, Mallory had her back to him. Once he saw her, Tara would cease to exist. Over the past ten years Mallory had played wholesome girl-next-door roles on various TV dramas. Recently she'd been picked up as a regular on Racing Hearts, the New York-based TV soap opera about stock car racing families. Now everyone in NASCAR seemed to recognize her.
Tara focused on her targets.
Dean Grosso and his wife, Patsy, were talking with Milo Grosso, Dean's grandfather, and Kent, their son. A few feet from them, Adam Sanford seemed engaged in a deep discussion with his brother, Trey, Sanford Racing's driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and another heartthrob. Neither of them was smiling.
Tara was tempted to zero in on the two Sanford bachelors, but the Grosso family was closer and in her path.
"Come on, Milo," she heard Kent say to his great-grandfather. "Let's make tracks."
Dang. She didn't want them to escape, but by the time she made her way around a group of people who were blocking the aisle, Kent had escorted the elderly gentleman to a side door, held it for him, and they'd both disappeared through it.
Double dang. Convincing them to participate in her project might have been easier if she could have gotten them all together at one time, but that was probably being unrealistic. They could just as easily have ganged up on her to say no. The interviews she had in mind for Dean and Patsy would have to be separate and private, anyway, since there were things she wanted to discuss with them that were sensitive.
"Mr. Grosso," she called out above the din of the cleanup crew stacking dirty dishes into large tubs to be carted away to the kitchen. Dean turned in her direction.
She extended her hand. "First, I want to add my congratulations on your winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship."
He smiled in the practiced way of celebrities and met her eyes as they shook hands. She could see by his expression that he regarded her as just another fan, someone to be polite to.
"I think I've been to most of your races," she said, essentially confirming his impression, "at least in the last ten years. My parents have a motor home that they take to all the tracks. They think you're the best. So do I."
"My name is Tara Dalton." When the name didn't elicit any response, she added, "I write books about sports figures."
"You wrote Hoops and Happiness" Patsy Grosso interjected from beside her husband.
Tara grinned. It was always a thrill when people recognized her. "Yes, I did."
"And Rolling Uphill. I cried my way through that book." Patsy looked up at her husband. "You remember it, the story about the boy in a wheelchair whose dream was to participate in a marathon." She turned back to Tara. "I couldn't put it down. Such an inspirational story, and you wrote it so touchingly."
"That's very kind of you."
"Of course. Great book," Dean agreed.
She doubted he'd read it, but the compliment was appreciated nonetheless. It had been an uplifting story but also an emotionally taxing one for her to write.
"I was hoping," she continued, "I might get a chance to talk to you tonight. I'm writing another book, this one about NASCAR moguls and legends. Naturally no account of NASCAR would be complete without mentioning the Grosso family. I called your office this week to set up an appointment with you, but your secretary said you weren't giving any interviews right now. I know this is your vacation time, and I hate to impose, but the truth is I'm on an extremely short deadline. I'm hoping you might be willing to make an exception and give me a couple of hours of your time."
NASCAR raced ten months out of the year. The two months between the end of one official season in mid November and the beginning of the next in early February was the only time racing families had to themselves. Tara recognized that imposing on that well-deserved hiatus, especially on such short notice, was poor form, but she had little choice.
"The person you really want to talk to about the early days of NASCAR is my grandfather, Milo," Dean reminded her. "He drove in the first NASCAR race on the sands of Daytona Beach, and he'd love to tell you all about it."
Milo Grosso and his wife, Juliana, still attended many NASCAR races. In his early nineties, he was remarkably steady on his feet and reputedly still sharp mentally. He loved to recount the scandal that had led to the animosity between the Grossos and Murphys, a half-century-old feud that Tara would have to discuss at least briefly in her book. It didn't seem likely the old gentleman would give her any new information, since he'd already told the tale so many times, but that was one of the fun parts about interviewing people. You never knew what they were going to say. Her goal tonight, however, was Dean and his wife, Patsy. They were the ones with the emotional story Tara hoped to explore, a story of heartbreak and perseverance, and perhaps now a story with a new, happier ending.
As part of her research process Tara received e-mail alerts from her search engine whenever key words or phrases she had specified were mentioned on the Internet. Among her list of names were the Grossos. Recently a bulletin board about missing and exploited children had introduced the name Gina Grosso. Apparently a newborn by that name had been stolen from a Nashville hospital three decades ago.
Dean and Patsy once lived in Nashville. A coincidence?
An exhaustive search of newspaper archives revealed that Dean and Patsy's baby daughter, Kent's twin sister, had disappeared from the hospital shortly after her birth and was never seen again. Wow!
Such an event must have had a profound effect on the young parents, yet they'd managed to keep it to themselves. Dean had been able to go on, build a successful racing career and, with Patsy, have a model home life. How they'd coped with losing a child in such a dramatic way would make an inspiring story, one that could help other grieving parents deal with similar tragedies. First, of course, Tara would have to convince them to talk about itsomething they'd never done in public.
"Everybody's heard of Milo Grosso," Tara said with a smile. "I'm sorry I missed him tonight, and your son, but I must tell you my real interest in writing this book is getting your personal perspective on team building, especially since you've just bought Cargill Motorsports. Not only are you retiring as a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, but you've become a team owner. I'd love to get your views on the two roles, what different leadership skills they require and how you plan to change Cargill-Grosso Racing."
Dean smiled modestly. "That's all very flattering, Ms. Dalton, but your questions are a bit premature. As a driver I'm old news, and as an owner I'm too new to give you any credible insights. Maybe you can check back with me in a year or so. By then I should have collected enough wisdom or at least some storiesI can share with you." His expression was self-deprecating and playful, as well as, Tara felt, sincere.
"The person you ought to interview," Patsy informed her, "is our son. Kent's a NASCAR Sprint Cup winner, too, and he's competing against his own father. I'm sure he can give you a perspective nobody else can."
Tara certainly planned to talk to him at some future date about that and moving from Maximus Motorsports to join Cargill-Grosso, as well as the twin sister he'd lost. Her interest at the moment, however, centered exclusively on his parents. She could tell them specifically why, of course, but she didn't think this was the appropriate time or place. Tonight was a very special, very happy occasion. She didn't want to bring up sad memories. Not only did it have the potential to spoil the evening for them, but it would probably backfire on her.
"An excellent suggestion, Ms. Grosso," she said.
"Call me Patsy, please."
"Thank you." Tara looked around. "But where did they disappear to?"
"Left a few minutes ago," Patsy explained. "NanaMilo's wife, Julianahad gall bladder surgery recently. She'd fully recovered, but he still worries about leaving her alone. Kent arranged with the catering staff for them to take the service elevator downstairs, so his great-grandfather could avoid the crush outside in the hallway. Milo is remarkably spry for his age, but still "
Tara smiled. "Smart move."
"Excuse me," Dean said to the two women, "I need to catch Nathan before he leaves." He slipped behind his wife. "I'll only be a minute," he told her.
Just then Mallory hurried up to Tara. Heads turned, as they always did when she entered a room or joined a group. It wasn't that she was dressed flamboyantly. Her fawn-colored full-length gown this evening, while stylish and elegant, wasn't nearly as extravagant as some of the outfits women had worn at this banquet. Yet, even with only minimal makeup and jewelry, her natural beauty and grace drew attention.
Tara made the introductions.
"I've seen you on Racing Hearts," Patsy remarked. "I love your character "
While the two women chatted about the popular soap, Tara used the opportunity to make her way over to where Adam and Trey Sanford were still in deep conversation.
"Wait a few days, until the heat is off," she heard Adam tell his younger brother, then he caught sight of her approach and immediately changed his tone. "So I thought I might get it for Mom for Christmas."
"She'll love it," Trey remarked smoothly, as if that was what they had been talking about the whole time. The intense, almost troubled expressions on their faces didn't quite gel with a discussion of what to buy their mother for Christmas.
"I've got to run," Trey added, backing away. "I told my date we'd stop by her apartment for a minute on the way uptown so she can change clothes. See you at the party."
Trey turned and fled through the same side door Kent and his great-grandfather had taken, presumably to use the service elevator as well. Tara was surprised more people hadn't caught on and started using it, although she didn't imagine a woman in silk, satin and precious gems would be particularly thrilled at the prospect of standing next to soiled table linens and smelly garbage cans. After all, an unwritten reason for attending any banquet was to see and be seen.
"It must be getting crowded," Tara commented to Adam.
He regarded her as if he hadn't seen her before. So he was into playing games, disguising his interest behind a facade of cool indifference. Okay, Tara liked challenges, too. The only question was whether she should match his aloof tactics or engage him.
"What's getting crowded?" he asked.
"The service elevator. Isn't that where your brother just went? The Grossos used it a little while ago and now the Sanfords."
"If only the walls could talk."
He crooked an eyebrow. "About what?"
"Why, the interesting people who've ridden it. About the conversations exchanged in the few precious seconds between floors. Maybe even stolen kisses."
"You're a romantic," he remarked, his emerald-green eyes twinkling now as he looked her up and down unabashedly. "I don't believe we've met."
"We haven't." She stuck out her hand. "My name's Tara Dalton."
"Hello, Tara Dalton." He encased her hand warmly in his. "I'm"
"Adam Sanford. Yes, I know."
If the gleam in those gorgeous eyes had indicated nonchalance initially, it signaled curiosity now. "I'm flattered that you recognized me."
There was no reason he should be. He was the owner of Sanford Racing, and his handsome face had been displayed in newspapers and magazines frequently enough to make it familiar to most NASCAR fans and a fair percentage of the general population, as well.
"Such modesty." She didn't try to disguise the note of mockery in her comment. Then she tilted her head to one side as if she'd just caught on. "Oh, are you supposed to be here incognito? Don't tell me. I've blown your cover."
He guffawed, a rich, deep rumble that was utterly masculine and definitely beguiling. "Are you here with someone?"