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"Heidi, guess what?"
Heidi Kramer glanced up from escorting her last patient of the daya Siamese catand its owner out the back door to the parking area and smiled. Steve Grossoall six feet of him topped with a mop of sun-streaked hair and the bluest eyes this side of a clear summer skywas standing in the middle of the waiting room of the Ridgemont Animal Clinic.
Heidi took note of the blooming cactus he was holding and grinned. "You've decided to take up gardening?" she joked as she came back toward the reception area, passing the examining room and collecting the chart for the Siamese from the door bin on her way. She made a couple of notes and went behind the front desk to refile the chart.
Steve leaned across the counter, placing the cactus on the desk in front of her. "Better," he hinted.
"You got accepted into the MBA program at the university?" she guessed, her eyes widening with pride. Steve had been talking about going back to school for his master's in business. His job as spotter for his cousin, Kent Grosso, the hottest driver in NASCAR, was more of a freelance positionnot one designed to provide long-term financial security. He'd been thinking the higher degree would enhance his chances of getting a more secure job.
"Better," he said again. "Think you and me. Long-term."
"I give up." She laughed, seeing the excitement in his eyes. "Just tell me."
"I got a full-time position with Maximus Motorsports salary, full benefits, even an office." Everyone in the area knew that Maximus Motorsports was one of the most successful organizations around at producing teamsand driversthat topped the charts andcreated some of NASCAR's most recognized names, including that of Kent Grosso.
"Wow," Heidi said. "This is huge news." She put down her files and came around the desk to hug him. "It's terrific news." Her mind raced with the advantages this offeredfor both of them. He'd be working right here in town. They could start seriously planning a future together, one they'd talked about off and on mostly onfor months. "But wait, you love spotting races."
"I can still be a spotter. In fact that's part of the deal."
Heidi squealed with delight and tightened her hold on him. "This is amazing. This is fantastic. This is perfect," she said, punctuating each statement with a kiss. "Congratulations, honey. I am so proud of you."
Two years earlier, they'd met at a computer seminar at the local business college, gone for coffee after class and talked until the clerk in the coffeehouse started mopping the floor and turning out the lights. That night Steve had begun her induction into the world of stock car racing by explaining his role as a spotter.
"Spotters are positioned on the roof above the track with binoculars and a two-way radio to the driver and pit crew," he'd explained.
She'd never forgotten the shocked look on Steve's face. "Because I've never been asked that before."
"I mean, you get in a car, you've got sideview and rearview mirrors," she'd said and Steve had laughed.
"You've never gotten up close and personal with a race car, have you?" Then he'd explained about the absence of mirrors and presence of safety features that significantly limited the driver's visual field. "The spotter's job is to guide the driver through anything that happens on the tracka crash, debris on the track, working his way through a pack of cars to the front."
"And you get paid for this?"
He'd grinned. "Not all that much. It's a freelance thing. I get paid by the race."
"So don't quit your day job, right?" she'd said.
Steve had shrugged. "I make enough to get by."
But once they began to dance around the idea of taking things to the next level, Steve had talked a lot about the need to get into something more secure. And now it had practically dropped into his lap. He reached over and retrieved the cactus in its hand-painted clay pot and placed one hand over his heart. "So will you please come to Phoenix," he sang. "You can fly on Kent's jet with me," Steve added, fudging the words to suit his purpose. He flashed the dimpled smile that in all the time they'd been together had never failed to send Heidi's heart into overdrive.
"Phoenix? What about the Talledega race this coming weekend?"
"Front-office job means front work for the team," Steve said, still grinning. He set the cactus on the counter and lifted her in a hug, swinging her around in the open reception area. "Oh, babe, do you know what this means?"
"You're on the payroll?" She returned his hug.
"Big-time," he assured her.
"But this is so out of nowhereI mean, you didn't say anything about a position opening up."
"That's just it. It's a whole new position," he said, his blue eyes sparkling with excitement.
"Put me down and tell me what happened," she said, taking his hand and leading the way down the hall to her small office. She was well aware that she was buying time while she digested what this news might mean for the two of them. She was also aware that she was refusing to acknowledge niggling doubts that muttered "red flag" and "caution." A salaried position meant they could afford to talk seriously about a life together marriage, a family. Wasn't that what they'd both been wanting?
"It was totally out of nowhere," he said happily as he shut the door and plopped onto the small sofa in the corner, pulling her down to sit next to him. "Okay. I get this call from Dawson to stop by the office." Dawson Ritter was the owner of Maximus Motorsports, and because Kent drove for Maximus, technically Dawson had always been Steve's boss as well as Kent's. "And when I arrive, Kent is there with Dawson, grinning at me like the cat that swallowed the canary, but saying nothing."
"You had no idea why they wanted to see you?"
"None. Dawson gets that look he has like the world's falling in around him and tells me he's concerned about how the season is going so far, especially for Kent."
"Well, yeah. Dawson wants Kent to repeat as champ."
"Exactly." Steve stood and started imitating Dawson's habit of pacing. "Then he says, 'Grosso?' I figured he was talking to Kent, but he was looking at me. 'Kent's got this idea that we need a go-between.'"
"Go between what?" Heidi asked.
"That's what I said," Steve replied, shaking his head. "Answer? He's created a new positionteam liaison to coordinate things between the front office and the team."
"Wow," Heidi said.
"But that's just part of the position. Dawson wants someone to take on some of the advance work with Kent's public relations rep, Amy Barber."
"She works for Motor Media Group?"
"Yeah. Dawson wants his own person on-site getting things set up at various venuesraces, public appearances, hobnobbing with sponsorswhatever. My role is to help Amy work out any problems before he and the team get there. And I'll get to continue as Kent's spotter."
"So he's sending you to Phoenix for how long? And what about Talledega?"
"I'm heading to Phoenix tomorrow. Kent's scheduled to do the keynote speech for the national meeting of sales reps for Vittle Farms." Vittle Farms, the national leader in the production of organic foods, was Kent's primary sponsor. Their corporate headquarters were located not five miles from Heidi's clinic. "From there Kent and I will go on to 'Bama."
Heidi couldn't help mentally counting the days that he would be away. "That's almost a week," she said softly.
Steve sat back down and took her hands. "Hey, I thought you'd be happy about this. This is what I'vewe'vebeen hoping for. It's the kind of joband financial securitywe can build a future on."
"It's wonderful news," Heidi said, her enthusiasm sounding forced in spite of her best attempts to hide her doubts.
Steve frowned. "But?"
"It sounds like you'll be on the road a lot," she admitted.
"So, come with me," Steve said softly. "It's Phoenix."
Heidi was sorely tempted to chuck her responsibilities and surrender to Steve's plea. They both loved the desert. When they had been in Phoenix the previous November, she and Steve had hiked in the mountains and enjoyed the city with its fascinating mix of Old West and sophisticated contemporary culture. And there on a mountaintop less than a year after first meeting, they had declared their love for each other and started to entertain the idea of marriage and a family.
"I'll even go horseback riding," Steve joked, reminding her of the day they had rented horses in Phoenix. Heidi had been incredulous that this man who grew up around horses was not only nervous, he was terrified of sitting atop a live animal. Heidi, a seasoned rider, had still been laughing about that as they shared a picnic supper and watched the sunset from atop Saddleback Mountain. And then he had said the words she had been longing to hear.
He repeated them now. "Hey, I love you and I want us to build a life together. That life can start today."
"Say it againthat first part," Heidi said as she had that day on the mountain.
Steve leaned in to kiss her. "I love you," he whispered as he kissed the lobe of her ear. "Love you," he said as he trailed kisses along the curve of her neck. "Love you higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, forever and a day"
She kissed him backonce, twice, a dozen times. She lost count.
"So is that a yes?" Steve said when they came up for air.
"It would be wonderful, but you know I can't come," she said, forcing herself back to the reality of her responsibilities. "Clare's out of town and somebody has to mind the office."
Dr. Clare Wilson owned the clinic. Heidi had worked for her for the two and a half years since she'd gotten her license in veterinary medicine. In addition to being her boss and former professor, Clare was also Heidi's mentor, the closest female friend she'd ever had.
"Maybe Clare should stop running around the country organizing protest marches and take care of her business," Steve said, getting up and moving to the other side of Heidi's desk.
Clare was a nationally respected spokesperson for animal rights. "That's not like you, honey. Her advocacy work is important and that was the deal when she took me on here. Besides, you're not the only one working for our future. Clare and I have been talking about my buying into the business over time, becoming a full partner." As soon as the words were out she realized that she'd only made things more complicated. If she became Clare's partner she would have even less time to travel with Steve. "I mean down the road," she added, "after I finally finish paying off my student loans."
Steve ran a hand through his hair. "This partnership thing well, I mean it's just that my new job gives us the kind of security we had thought maybe we'd need from your work if I went back to school."
"And?" Heidi said. There were isolated momentsoccurring lately with more frequencywhen it seemed to Heidi as if he often assumed that her career ambitions somehow took second place to his. Admittedly Steve wasn't as single-minded about racing as other members of his family, but there were times and this was one of themwhen she had to remind herself that he was a Grosso. He'd grown up in a world where aside from family, racing came first. "It is my profession," Heidi couldn't help reminding him.
"I know. That came out wrong. I'm disappointed about Phoenix, that's all." He got up again, seemingly at loose ends. Clearly this was not the way he'd pictured her reaction to his news.
She walked over to where he stood by the window and put her arms around him. "I really wish I could go with you," Heidi said.
"It's just with this new job and the season really getting rolling, this might be the one chance we have for a while to steal some time to be together," he said, leaning his forehead against hers. "Lately it's like we're on different schedules and I miss 'us.'"
Us time. Steve had coined the phrase shortly after she began traveling to the races with him. From the start, he had always made sure they had some time to be together away from his responsibilities as Kent's spotter and the often overwhelming world of racing.
Heidi touched his cheek. "I know and I hate it, too. Hey, how about I drive you to the airport?"
"I can take my truck."
"Yeah, but if you do that, what reason would I have to be waiting for you when you get back?" she whispered and kissed him.
IN ALL THE TIME they'd been dating the one thing Steve had never gotten used to was the way Heidi's reaction to any given situation could still throw him off course. He had been so certain she would share his joy in the new opportunity that he'd driven straight to the clinic right after his meeting with Dawson and Kent had ended.
He'd seen her through the front window of the clinic, admiring her professional demeanor as she dealt with her patients and their owners. Garbed in lab coat with glasses perched atop her blond curls was always a turn-on. He'd tried biding his time until the last client left, but this news was too good to keep.
And she had been as thrilled as he'd imagined when he'd first delivered his news. But then as he outlined the details, her eyes had told a different story. In spite of her smilealways heart-stoppingly radiantthe sparkle in those baby blues had gradually dimmed with the innate caution and reserve with which, he'd learned early on, she approached life in general.
The other thing he had learned about Heidi Kramer in the time they'd been together was that her childhood had left scars. Her family had moved arounda lot. Constantly starting over in a new school as her father followed his work across the country, she had learned how to protect herself with a veneer that was sometimes hard to penetrate. On the surface, she was all sparkle and quick wit, easily working her way into the very heart of any social gathering. But early friendships she had trusted had withered and died and as an only child with a mother fighting her own demons and a father who was seldom around, Heidi had compensated by finding her way on her own. It explained a lot her uneasiness around his sometimes over-the-top family as well as her preference for quiet times alone.
Still, he had really thought that she would see the upside of his new position. It meant they could afford to talk seriously about a real future. But then he'd said that dumb thing about her workalways a speed bump with Heidi. The one thing she'd never wavered on was the fact that one day she hoped to have her own clinic, and she was certainly a great vet. If she couldn't have her own place, then partnering with Clare would be the next best thing.
"Is Heidi going to meet you at Talledega?" Steve's cousin Kent asked as the private jet pushed back from the team hangar and out toward the runway.
"She has to work," Steve said as he concentrated on fastening his seat belt.
"She could catch a ride with Tanya," Kent said. Tanya Wells and Kent were newly engaged and caught up in the throes of wanting to share their bliss with every other unattached couple they met.
"She has to work," Steve said again and strained to catch a last glimpse of Heidi standing near the hangar.
Steve left for Phoenix on Wednesday. After his work there he would head straight to the Talledega race in Alabama before returning home on Monday. Seeing him off at the private airport where NASCAR drivers and owners housed their private jets, Heidi had hugged him hard, then waved until the plane was well down the runway. And all the while she was asking herself why his new job felt more like a threat to what they had together than an answer to the future they had begun to plan.
She had no doubt they wanted the same thingto spend the rest of their lives together. But all of a sudden she had serious doubts about how they were going to accomplish that without one of them having to make compromisescompromises that might be all right now, but that in the long run they might come to resent having made.
Her parents' experience had taught her that. Her mother had abandoned a promising career as a concert pianist in favor of following her husband's job. But over time her mother's deep sadness and regret over what she had sacrificed had been at the root of the depression she suffered throughout Heidi's youtha depression that had very nearly destroyed her parents' marriage.
There were two lessons she had learned well in her lonely youth. First, she would one day have a stable home in a community where she knew her neighbors and where her children went to one school. And second, she would build a career in a profession she lovedone that gave her an identity of her own.
After watching Kent's plane lift off, she sighed as she walked back to her car. Sometimes it seemed the closer that she and Steve came to building a life together, the more obstacles they found along the road.