Read an Excerpt
Dane Guthrie stood in a shadowed corner of the overcrowded room, watching the party atmosphere around him roll as smoothly as his team pushed the race car around the infield garage. He, however, found the whole experience tedious, bordering on ridiculous.
Small talk, tiny topics, forced smiles and too-perfect clothes. He was as uncomfortable and out of place as a set of square tires.
"Come on, man," Bart Branch said, walking toward him with a pair of beer bottles in his hand, one of which he handed to Dane. "It's a party, remember?"
The successful NASCAR driver, who was the veteran at Dane's new team, PDQ Racing, had been glad to have him onboard, but had already decided he needed to lighten up and wouldn't hear that Dane didn't have a choice about being serious. He just was.
"How could I forget?" Dane asked, his sarcasm obvious.
"You could at least act like you're having a good time for my sponsor's sake."
Sponsors. They were the reason Dane had been tapped, along with Bart's PR rep, to attend the event in the first place. PDQ's owner, Jim Latimer, was representing them at another party, so he'd been unable to attend. With so much going on the week before the season-opening races in Daytona, the staff was stretched thin. Obviously. Only desperation would lead Jim to send Dane as company representative for a social occasion. He was a damn crew chief, not a marketing guru.
Still the people at EZ-Plus Software, Bart's sponsor, had gone to a lot of trouble to attract press, NASCAR insiders and their customers.
They'd rented out an entire restaurant and filled it not only with people but with three bars and several tables loaded with appetizers, desserts and even a chocolate fountain. White lights flickered on every available surface, even dangling from the ceiling, and balloons in Bart's colors of red and orange bobbed in the corners like buoys in the sea.
Drinks in hand as they talked in small groups or hovered around the food tables, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Drawing a resigned sigh, Dane focused on Bart. With his blond good looks and bright baby blues, he was a hit with women. His intelligence and dedication made him equally popular with guys. Sponsors and fans loved it all.
"I didn't get a chance to talk to your crew after practice," Dane began. "How'd things go?"
Bart grinned as if he knew talking about work was the only kind of chatting Dane was capable of. "We ran well in the draft. I'm not sure how great we'll qualify, though. How'd Kelsey do?"
Dane's rookie driver had come over this season from open-wheel racing. That transition was a challenge in itself, but press, colleagues and experts often considered her just a pretty face and questioned her ability to win in NASCAR.
"She stayed relatively calm. She didn't wreck herself or anybody else," Dane said.
"That's success the first time at Daytona. She'll get the hang of it."
Despite the naysayers, Bart was encouraging, classy and respectful toward Kelsey. Both Dane and his driver were grateful to have such a supportive teammate. "She's listened to your advice. That's helped a lot. I think the criticism and intense press has gotten to her a little."
"Yeah, well, I guess I know something about that, too. At least they're talking about her driving ability, not what her idiotic father has done lately."
Dane was a bit surprised by the bitterness in Bart's voice, even though he supposed the other man had a right. His father, Hilton, was currently in prison, serving a twenty-year sentence for bank fraud and embezzlement. He'd been a fugitive for the better part of a year, he'd been caught in a long-term affair, he'd cheated his customers, his family and his employees out of both their reputations and millions of dollars, and all of it had been splashed endlessly across every media outlet available.
"She has to learn to block that stuff out," Dane said, figuring he didn't know Bart well enough to ask him how things were going with his family—even if he knew what to say. "If she can focus on driving, she'll do well, and everything else will follow."
They moved on to talking about handling, whose car among the competition looked good or lousy, and after a few minutes, Kelsey walked over and joined their conversation. For the first time all night, Dane relaxed. He was content talking about drafting, tires, restrictor plates and straightaway speeds. These were things he expected, he could calculate and strategize about.
That voice, however, was unexpected.
As he watched Kelsey's eyes widen with surprise and pleasure, then Bart's spark with interest, he closed his own.
He hadn't heard that voice live in over fourteen years. Recorded in high-tech digital sound, he'd sat in many dark rooms, wondered about the past and the present, and let her words soothe his soul. The continued weakness after so much pain was a part of him he both resented and would never admit.
Bracing himself, he turned to face Lizzie Lancaster.
With her tall, slender body, fiery hair and deep-blue-ocean eyes, she was as stunning as her pictures, different than he remembered in person. She was more polished, wore more makeup and less clothes. In a sparkly silver dress, with miles of sleek, tanned legs exposed, she lit up the room and stood out clearly as a superstar. Even in the presence of several.
Before he could say a word, she pulled him into a tight hug, brushing her lips over his cheek as she leaned back. "It's been a long time."
The scent of her exotic-smelling perfume and the warmth of her mouth lingered even after they were no longer touching. His stomach clenched.
"Yeah," he managed to say, clearly recalling the rainy spring afternoon he'd watched her climb on a bus and roll out of town and out of his life.
"I'm a big fan," Bart said, after a quick, surprised glance at Dane. Clearly his cool quotient had gone up if he warranted a hug from Lizzie Lancaster.
"Oh, yeah?" Lizzie smiled widely at Bart. "Same to you."
While Bart and Kelsey gushed over Lizzie, and she introduced the various people surrounding her—a manager, a publicist and an assistant—Dane said little. Not that he was ever talkative, but at the moment he could hardly hear his own thoughts over his heart's pounding.
What was she doing here?
Watching the girl he used to love—the one he thought he'd spend his life with—as she flirted with Bart, chatted with Kelsey and drew every eye in the room to her was physically painful. She'd made him vulnerable to that pain. A weakness he'd sworn he'd never feel again.
He didn't belong at this party. He'd never belonged with her.
Of course, the drivers easily captured her attention, and Dane was happy to hover in the background.
"I heard you're singing the national anthem before the race next Sunday," Kelsey said.
What? Obviously, this was the one time he probably should have pulled his head out from under the hood of his race car and paid attention to a press release.
"It's a big honor," Lizzie said. Her gaze met Dane's. "A long way from the press box at the local short tracks."
"You're a race fan?" Bart asked.
"Sure. Dane and I went to high school together near Myrtle Beach, and you couldn't be around him without following racing."
"Oh, yeah?" Bart's eyes grew speculative. "High school sweethearts, huh?"
"We were, as a matter of fact," Lizzie said.
The smile slid off Bart's face, replaced by disbelief, mirroring Dane's own feelings. They were total oppo-sites. He certainly couldn't picture himself with the woman she'd become.
And yet, here they were, standing less than a foot apart, and all he wanted to do was run in the opposite direction.
He gripped his beer bottle and fought the impulse to do just that. "It was a lifetime ago."
As Lizzie stared at the living embodiment of her past—and the hard, closed expression on his handsome face—she found herself filled with regrets for the first time in a very long time.
Hadn't she boarded a bus to Nashville with nothing, and hadn't she made her dreams come true with her music career? Hadn't she been honored with awards and platinum-selling CDs?
Staring at Dane, she found it hard to believe he could see her after so many years and still be angry. She couldn't possibly have hurt him more than he had her. She lifted her chin. "It certainly was."
So why was she letting a guy she'd known long ago shake her confidence and force her to question the choices she'd made?
Her decision had been the right one. If she'd stayed with Dane, she'd likely be married with kids and driving a minivan by now. Would she really trade that life over all she'd accomplished?
True, there were times she missed him, missed the wide-eyed, adolescent love they shared and wondered what might have been. She'd be cured once she moved on to the next stop in her tour.
But, for now, the second thoughts were there, lurking.
She linked her arm with Bart's. His uncomplicated flirting was much easier to deal with. "So, my staff and I have a pool going on the race. Should I bet on you?"
Bart puffed out his chest. "Absolutely."
Lizzie squeezed his arm. He was adorable. The exact opposite of the silent and intense Dane. She glanced over at Kelsey. "I don't know, maybe us women stick together."
"My crew chief here is certainly confident," Kelsey said, shrugging. "And I haven't wrecked anything yet."
"He always was a sharp guy," Lizzie said, shifting her attention toward Dane, searching for any sign he felt the same stomach fluttering she did.
He simply looked bored.
She suddenly wished she'd resisted the urge to come to him. The need to simply stand near him again. After all they'd been through together and apart, she'd wanted to see his reaction to her. Either because of her feminine ego or the memory of her broken teenage heart, she wanted to know if he ever thought of her.
Shaking away the need, she concentrated on what Bart was saying. Even if Dane had issued the ultimatum, she was the one who'd made the decision to leave. She didn't have to convince anyone that she was happy with her life and that leaving him had been worth it. If only she could convince herself.
A rep from EZ-Plus Software joined the circle, saving Dane from having to comment on his confidence in winning the race.
Because she knew him so well, Lizzie figured she was the only one who saw relief jump into his vivid green eyes as the conversation moved away from him and onto the party.
"Do you want some champagne?" her assistant, Maggie, asked in her ear.
Grateful, Lizzie nodded while the EZ-Plus guy explained how impressed he'd been with the light show on her latest concert tour.
"I told Lizzie that would be the highlight of the show," Ronnie Filmore, her manager, said with a wink to the group.
"And here I thought people came to hear me sing," Lizzie said dryly.
At her comment, a hint of a smile appeared on Dane's lips. Which, unfortunately, disappeared the moment he realized Lizzie was watching him.
The man was as aloof and rigid as the English butler Ronnie had hired to watch over her Nashville estate. He was supposed to "class up the place," according to Ronnie. But if the house's over-the-top twelve thousand square feet alone didn't give her class, then Lizzie was personally out of ideas.
"It's all about layering, darling," Ronnie said with an expressive wave of his hand, the heavy ruby ring he always wore flashing beneath the lights. "You need the voice of a generation and great lighting." He winked and everyone laughed.
Everybody knew Ronnie was a great manager. The trouble was, Ronnie knew it better than anybody.
And while Lizzie appreciated confidence—singers didn't perform in front of fifty thousand fans without oodles of it—she was less patient with arrogance. Even less tolerant of bragging.
But wasn't that Ronnie's job? To promote her and manage her career?
She was just feeling out of sorts because of Dane. He'd attracted her, distracted her and annoyed her all in the space of ten minutes.
And it occurred to her at that moment that Dane would hate Ronnie.
A quick glance at her ex confirmed the thought. He managed to look aggravated, scornful and bored all at the same time.
Gorgeous, too. Don't forget gorgeous, Lizzie.
Maggie pressed a glass of champagne into her hand, bringing Lizzie abruptly back to the discussion—which had moved on to the merits of dry ice machines on stage.
"Thanks," Lizzie said to her assistant, then took a bracing sip of the sparkling wine.