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The near-deafening roar of the red Ferrari's engine vaulted through her veins. Her limbs vibrated as the low-riding race car hurtled forward. Concentration and survivor's instinct took over as images left, right and center flew by too quickly for recognition. The speedometer teetered at I59 mph. Oh, God. The car held the ground on two wheels, barely missing the guardrail as it made the long turn and pointed straight ahead.
A plume of smoke burst on her right as motion met the inanimate concrete wall. Almost there. Her heart thundered in her ears. Almost. Red and white flashed in front of her. One hundred ninety seventy-five fifty thirty twenty
Within seconds she was surrounded. The door was yanked open and the smell of burnt rubber, exhaust fumes and gasoline swirled in the air.
She pulled off her helmet and a head full of wild spiral curls sprung out around her face like a dark auburn halo. Her five-foot-five inch frame was dwarfed by the towering, bulky pit crew. The throb of the engine still pumped through her veins. She stood on wobbly legs.
"Great job, D.J.," Mike, the pit boss, said, clapping her on the shoulders. "Took that turn like a pro. See you in two weeks?"
"As always," she said, pride and adrenaline lifting the corners of her full mouth. She made her way off the track, toward the locker room, while the team pushed the car away.
The locker room was no more than a testosterone-drenched boys' clubhouse, complete with backslapping, ribald jokes, cussing, beer guzzling and plenty of naked behinds. They'd grudgingly made room for her when she started racing about two years earlier, and once they witnessed her skill behind the wheel and her resolve to be respected in the locker room, she became one of the boys. Although there wasn't a man among them that wouldn't give his left nut for five minutes of her time off of the track.
To them she was just D.J., the pint-size race car dynamo that could beat some of the best of them on a bad day. Back home in Baton Rouge, she was Desiree Janel Lawson, twin sister to Dominique, younger sister to Rafe and Lee Ann, older sister to Justin and daughter of Senator Branford Lawson. In the cacophony of those larger-than-life personalities in the Lawson home, Desiree felt lost, a shadow. But here on the track she had found her footing, which wasn't one of a political celebrity, "the daughter of," "the twin sister to"here she was a person with her own identity.
Weekend racing had become her secret passion over the years. She had always had a love for fast cars and would spend hours as a teenager watching the Indy 500 or the NASCAR races on television. She'd confessed to her twin sister, Dominique, that one day she would get behind the wheel of one of those babies, which Dominique had summarily dismissed as being ridiculous, dangerous and out of the question. What man in his right mind would want a woman who always smelled of fumes and gasoline? Not to mention that their father would be apoplectic and the press would have a field day.
So Desiree kept her dream to herself and began taking lessons in New Orleans, away from prying eyes. She could never come out publicly, she mused as she stripped out of her gear and got into the shower, but she could still enjoy her passion. The idea that it was her very own secret made what she did, twice a month, that much more exciting. The only one who knew about her "getaway Saturdays" was her best friend, Patrice Lamont, who was waiting in the lounge.
"You do realize I now have a heart condition because of you," Patrice said as the two walked through the building and out into the parking lot.
Desiree laughed. "I'm sure you'll be fine after lunch."
"Humph. So you say."
They'd driven down in Desiree's very conservative black Volvo, a far cry from the lightning-fast Ferrari. Desiree's door locks chirped and they got in. She pushed the key into the ignition. "Where do you want to go for lunch?"
"How about Emeril's place in the Warehouse District?"
"Sure. We haven't been there in a while." Desiree zipped the car out of the space. "And, uh, try to keep the speed under seventy."
Patrice sat back and held onjust in case.
Of course they arrived at Emeril's New Orleans in record time. Patrice barely had enough time to get her story out about the latest scandal on Capitol Hill in D.C. before they were being escorted to their table.
"This is not a good time to be under an ethics investigation in the middle of an election year," Patrice was saying as they sat down.
"No time is ever good. My biggest issue is that the Democratic Party, whenever they come into full power, winds up getting beat up on every issue by the Republicans. And instead of taking a stand, they collapse. They need to learn to fight below the belt, too." Desiree fanned open her menu.
Patrice shook her head. "I have to agree. We need some backbone."
"My two favorite guests."
Desiree and Patrice looked up into the ruggedly handsome face of Paul, the general manager.
He leaned down and kissed each of their cheeks. "How are you ladies today? It's been a while."
"Just fine, Paul," Desiree said. "I've been salivating thinking about the andouille and chicken jambalaya."
"I will oversee it myself." He turned his Mediterranean blue eyes on Patrice. "And what about you, Ms. Patrice?"
"I think I'll have the Creole fried chicken."
"Excellent choice. But, of course, whatever you choose at Emeril's is excellent. I'll put your orders in myself and send your waiter to get your drinks. Enjoy your meal."
"Hmm, if he wasn't gay, I would eat him up," Patrice said under her breath as she watched him walk away.
Desiree snickered. "I know you would. But what else is new?"
"Oh, don't go hating. Just because I have a lusty appetite for men " She took a sip of her water, then took a lemon wedge from the china bowl on the table and squeezed it into the water.
Desiree looked at her from beneath her lashes and bit back a smile. Lusty was putting it mildly. Patrice had more men and more dates than she could keep up with. What she needed was a personal assistant to help her keep it all straight. There were times, though, that she envied Patrice and her cavalier attitude about men and sex, and her sister Dominique, as well. Certainly, she'd dated off and on, nothing really serious. Most of the men she met really wanted to get close to her sister Dominique or sought entree into the political life dominated by her powerful father. So she tended to keep her love life, such as it was, to a minimum. But if she was truly honest with herself, the real reason was her
attraction from afar to Spence Hampton. She'd spent too many nights wishing that it was her in the passenger seat of his car or that she was the recipient of his dimpled smile and hungry stares. They'd known each other since their late teens, when Dominique brought him to the house for one of the family's massive Independence Day barbecues. She thought her heart would stop and she had to concentrate on not staring at him. But Spence was her sister's friend, always had been, and that was a line that she didn't cross.
"You haven't heard a word I've said. What are you thinking about?"
Desiree blinked. How long had she been daydreaming? She gave a light toss of her head. "Sorry. Just the race." She focused on Patrice. "So.what were you saying?"
Patrice pursed her lips, feigning annoyance. "I was telling you we should double-date next weekend."
"Because you need to get out and I want to make sure that you do. Jay has a really cute friend."
Desiree propped her elbow on the table and rested her head in her palm. "And who is Jay, may I ask?"
Patrice frowned. "Didn't I tell you about Jay?"
"Oh." She waved her hand dismissively. "I met him at the Laundromat."
"What? Why were you in the Laundromat? You have a washer and dryer in your town house."
"And your point is?" Patrice picked up her glass of lemon-flavored water. "You can always tell who a man lives with by his laundry."
"Oh, right. What was I thinking." She shook her head as the waiter approached and placed their entrees in front of them.
"Can I get you ladies anything else?"
Patrice glanced up and ran her cinnamon-tinted eyes up and down his lean body, zeroed in on his name tag, then back up to his face. She ran the tip of her tongue across her bottom lip. "What would you suggest, Felix?" she asked, clearly not interested in anything on the menu.
Desiree had a mind to kick her under the table but watching Patrice in action was always fascinating.
A slow, lazy smile eased across his wide mouth. His lids lowered just a fraction over his dark eyes. "I'm sure I can find something that would interest you. A light wine or something a little stronger? And, of course, there is dessert," he added with only the slightest hint of his South American accent.
Patrice drew in a breath. "Yes, I think I'd be interested in dessert."
He turned to Desiree. "And you, ma'am?"
"I'm fine, thank you."
He gave a short nod to both women. "I'll bring the dessert menu."
Patrice returned her attention to her meal.
"How do you do that?"
Patrice glanced across the table. "Do what?"
"That! That thing you do with every man you meet."
Patrice frowned slightly. "You mean, let them know that they are totally male and I notice it?"
"Is that what you call it?" Desiree took a forkful of food.
Patrice shrugged her right shoulder. "I like men. Plain and simple. All kinds of men. Testing my attraction to them is exciting. It doesn't mean anything. It's just harmless flirting. You should try it. Let yourself go. It's very liberating."
Desiree swallowed slowly. "I don't want to flirt and tease and play games." She put down her fork. "I want something real and someone who is real with me. Is that so wrong?"
"Desi, you're much too serious. I have to tell you, if I wasn't your best friend and didn't know that you were this crazy, secret race car driver, I would think that you were really an uptight, reserved, conservative chick. But I know that you're not, sweetie. The thing is, it doesn't matter what I think. You have to be who you are." She raised her glass to her lips. "But you could always put a little more dip in those hips," she added with a wink and a smile.
Desiree thought about their conversation, one that they'd had on several occasions in the past, as she prepared for work at the city council. She'd always tossed off Patrice's commentaries about her lack of sustained or even intermittent relationships as Patrice's way of validating her own lifestyle. But the more she considered it, the more she had to admit that Patrice was probably more right than wrong. Although she'd never told anyone about her thing for Spence, not even Patrice, maybe it was long past time to forget him once and for all. So that she could actually find someone that could light that same spark in her the way Spence did whenever she saw him. Maybe.
Got a delivery, boss," Jacques, the day manager, said, poking his head into the busy kitchen. All hands were busy preparing for the weekend rush.
Spence glanced over his left shoulder, not missing a beat while whisking his famed cream sauce to simply smooth perfection. "Have Michelle take a look. It should be the new glassware that I ordered."
"Will do." The door swung closed behind him.
Spence dipped a spoon into the sauce and took a small taste. His dark chocolate eyes momentarily closed in instant euphoria. "Peter," he called out with a lift of his cleft chin, peering across the rows of stainless-steel preparation tables, simmering pots and sizzling skillets. "Take over from here." He wiped his hands on his pristine white apron and began his preinspection of the menu.