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A chip the size of Lake Lloyd on his shoulder, Bryan Garrison walked through Daytona's busy garage area.
They needed more speed.
He nearly laughed aloud at the ridiculous wish. Every team wanted, needed, craved speed. Wasn't that why they were all in this crazy business?
Still, he'd like his team's practice times to be better.
"What are you doing here?" a familiar voice called from behind him.
Clenching his jaw, Bryan turned to face his brother-in-law, Parker Huntington. "Walking."
"You're supposed to be in the hauler, interviewing."
"I don't need a physical therapist," he muttered, ignoring the pain in his knee as he dodged a war wagon of equipment being pushed toward pit road. "I'm managing fine on my own."
Parker raised his eyebrows. "Are you now?"
Parker knew he wasn't. And the humiliation rolled over Bryan anew.
His family had coddled him and nagged him, then outright demanded he see a professional about the continuing pain and stiffness in his knee. In a weak moment, he'd relented. So Parker had him interviewing physical therapists at the track. At Daytona. Less than a week before the opening races.
'Cause, gee, he didn't have anything else to do but make sure Cade and his teammates had cars worthy to race in the biggest event of the year. To be a strong, supportive leader for his teams. To uphold the Garrison family tradition of trophies and championships.
Legends of excellence. Success was expected, not hoped for.
Garrison Racing International had won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series trophy last year with a longtime driver, who was now running only a partial schedule and training a developmental driver. Their newest full-time driver, Shawn Stayton, had finished fourteenth last season and clearly had more successful years ahead. The third driver in the GRI stables, Bryan's younger brother, had missed winning his first championship by only sixty-four points.
Bryan intended to have that trophy again—this time with Cade's name on it.
And if that was all he had to worry about, his life would be blissfully, pleasantly single-minded. But, no. He had physical therapy interviews. And family to deal with. And now in-laws.
Though supposedly firmly single people, both his brother and sister had gotten married in the last two years, and now Bryan had to bear the burden of romance. In fact, love was so full in the air, he was surprised the clouds hadn't blossomed into baby cupids, their bows pulled back, their faces wreathed in smiles.
Disgustingly trite for a completely, utterly temporary emotion.
Aggravation, obligations and heartache were all love got you. He and his ex-wife's divorce attorney had made sure of that.
Still, he was doing his family duty. Didn't he always? He'd already met with Beverly and Amy, both young women straight out of college. Knowing he'd have them screaming for their mommas inside a week, he'd sent them on their way.
He'd also interviewed a Swedish exchange student named Sven, who, given the size of his hands and biceps, would someday give a helluva massage to society chicks in upscale spas, but he wasn't really Bryan's type.
Then he'd met a former army sergeant, Mack Bowman. Mack was a no-nonsense guy built like a pit bull who barked orders even when he was simply making conversation. This was someone Bryan could relate to. No small talk. No fear he'd be offended by Bryan's short temper. A guy who understood the pace and commitment of racing, since his brother was the hauler driver for another team.
Bryan had decided to hire Mack. All he had to do was get rid of the last interviewee.
Suddenly he saw his perfect opportunity to do so, plus make his brother-in-law break the news. "I want to hire Mack," he said to Parker.
"You still have to interview Darcy."
"No, I don't. Tell her the job's been filled." Considering the business settled, Bryan started to walk off.
Parker stepped in front of him. "Surely you're not going to dismiss her without the courtesy of a simple introduction."
Bryan sighed. His brother-in-law, for all his polite manners and blue-blood vocabulary, had a rod of titanium for a spine. And he was determined as hell. Who else, really, could have managed to charm Bryan's stubborn sister?
"You need to give Darcy a chance," Parker added.
"She's a widow."
"Love and pain are the last things I need."
Parker sighed. "I seriously doubt Darcy will burden you with her personal troubles. She's a professional."
Bryan increased his pace. "Yay for her. I want to hire Mack."
"Darcy is lovely, smart and extremely competent. And she needs the job."
Fighting a wince, Bryan kept moving. He already had anger and regret living with him every day. He didn't need guilt to move in, too.
But they didn't call him "Steel" for nothing.
"I don't need to know about the drama," he said briskly to Parker. "Can she do the job?"
"She can. She's simply had a hard time dealing with her husband's passing," Parker continued. "She needs a change and—"
Bryan held up his hand. "I thought you weren't going to tell me her personal troubles."
"No, I said she wouldn't."
Next thing, Parker would launch into a story about how this poor woman was devastated and she would be unable to get out of bed unless Bryan gave her a job. Arguing with the man was futile. As head of Huntington Hotels International, Parker charmed, schmoozed and worked deals with everybody from high-powered corporate executives to the waitstaff at his restaurants. "Fine," Bryan said, feeling like a sap. "I'll talk to…"
"Darcy." Parker gave him a confident smile. "Darcy Butler."
Bryan started to turn away, then stopped. "What's so great about her?"
Apparently, Parker had been waiting for this opening. "She's firm, but kind. Smart, but not a know-it-all."
"Unlike some people we know."
Since Parker knew this comment was directed at him and he was used to the ragging, he simply nodded and moved on. "She's specialized in athletic rehabilitation, and she can handle herself." He paused, looking amused. "Around you or anybody." He slid his hands into the pockets of his charcoal pants, which looked neat, pressed and comfortable, despite the oppressive heat. "We're also friends. She's the therapist who helped Allen get back to work so quickly last year."
One of Cade's pit crew members had been hurt in Pocono, but after several months of therapy, he was back, fit and ready for the new season. Despite his pessimism, Bryan was impressed. "If she's a friend, and you set up the interviews, why all the others?"
"If I presented you with a fait accompli you'd have balked."
Fait… Hell. Who said stuff like that?
Still, he got the gist. If Parker had rolled Darcy Whoever out on stage as his already-cast therapist, Bryan would have rejected her outright. Ornery? Definitely.
But then that was practically the Garrison family motto.
Bryan addressed the one detail he could deal with. "If she helped Allen, then she understands racing, right?"
"Her uncle is a NASCAR official, and her husband was a firefighter who used to volunteer at the races in Concord." He paused, his voice quieted. "He died about two years ago, fighting a fire in a local furniture store."
"Sorry to hear it."
"She just needs a change of pace." Parker's gaze met Bryan's. In addition to the obvious determination in his eyes, there was now a hint of humor. "Oh, and she's a great cook."
"Why didn't you say that to start with?"
"The way to a man's heart…" He started off. "It's nice to know the cliché hasn't died."
Yeah. That would be true. If I had a heart.
Shrugging, Bryan headed toward the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series No. 56, Huntington Hotels International hauler.
Great. Now I can add commercial hack to my aches and pains.
He spoke briefly to a couple of crew members from another team, then waved at a fellow team owner. Their expressions varied from giddy to annoyance. The races being run in the next week were the most important of the season. Money, prestige and momentum would greet the ones who performed well. Frustration and humiliation awaited the rest.
The qualifying races would be held the next day, and all three of NASCAR's national series would race through the weekend. Everybody had a prediction on the weather, track conditions and what their competitors had under the hood.
Though gray clouds rolled in the sky overhead, the scent of grilled meat permeated the air. Team chefs, many doubling as hauler drivers, were gearing up for the lunch hour—which really amounted to about ten minutes. It was make or break time, but it was also a kind of homecoming. Back to the routine. Back to what they all loved.
After exchanging brief greetings with several of Cade's crew members, Bryan slid open the hauler door. The interior hallway was small—most of the space was occupied by locker-type bins full of equipment—but there was still a gathering of people around the microwave waiting for popcorn with all the anticipation of the next world peace treaty.
Though Bryan said nothing, conversation died. The guys backed against the walls to let him pass. Nobody looked directly at him.
One thing was for certain… when you were pissed off all the time, and didn't bother to hide that fact, working your way through a crowd could be an actual pleasure.
He walked down the hall, toward the cab of the hauler, then opened the door to the office/locker room/den. "Ms. Butler, I'm Bryan Garrison, I'm hoping we can—"
His words ground to an abrupt halt. The get this over with quickly part of his sentence died suddenly in his dry throat.
She's tiny was all he could think.
Tiny, blond, golden-eyed and lovely. She looked like an elf. A fairy sprung straight from the pages of a children's book.
She extended her hand, taking his in a surprisingly firm grip, those huge, deep, tawny eyes focused intently on his face. "Good afternoon, Mr. Garrison," she said with the faintest hint of an accent he couldn't quite place. "I appreciate you seeing me. I gather you're a busy man."
"I—" He cleared his throat. His knee hurt before, but now he wasn't sure how long it would support his weight. What was wrong with him? "Yes, I am. The qualifying races are tomorrow."
"Aye." Pausing, flushing, she looked away. "Sorry. Yes, I know." She shrugged as her gaze slid back to his. "I spend a lot of time with my Irish grandparents. Their Old World language is a habit I can't seem to break."
"No need to." In fact, he found the music of her voice both arousing and comforting. He shook his head and extended his hand toward the sofa. "Have a seat."
"Thank you, but you're the one who should be sitting." She grasped his hands and, seemingly without exerting any force at all, managed to maneuver him to the corner of the sofa and slide his injured leg along its length. "Is your limp always this pronounced?" she asked, reaching for the throw pillow on the floor and propping it beneath his knee.
"Well…" He hadn't been limping. Had he? "No. I mean, I'm—"
"Fine?" She smiled briefly, then dropped the bulging black bag she was carrying to the floor and knelt to search through its contents. "You, Mr. Garrison, are not fine. Your knee is severely wrenched, you're in pain, and I bet you're surly about it."
Bryan narrowed his eyes. A move that had caused grown men to cringe.
But Darcy Butler wasn't even looking at him.
"I. Am. Not. Surly," he said, biting off each word.
She looked up at him, her full lips shining with pink glossiness. "Naturally." She approached him with a plastic pouch that she bent in half. It made a popping sound, and he knew, from lots of experience, that it was releasing a freezing gel. "Isn't that better?" she said gently as she laid the pack on his knee.
He closed his eyes on a wince, though he knew the cold would help in a couple of seconds. "Sure." Forcing himself to look at her, he added, "I'm supposed to be interviewing you, so—"
"I don't know how you can even concentrate, the pain you're in." She laid her hand on his chest and pressed him down, so that his head rested on the arm of the sofa. "Why don't you rest a bit, then we'll talk later?" She rose. "I could fix you some lunch."
As she turned to leave, Bryan literally looked around for the control he'd somehow lost. "Stop."
She glanced at him over her shoulder. Her eyes were sparkling with humor, as if she knew he was frustrated, and she knew she'd caused it. "Yes, Mr. Garrison?"