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June, Loudon, New Hampshire
How's it feel, Shelly?
Shelly eased off the throttle and went low in Turn Three, taking the bottom groove. "It's way too loose— keeps getting out from under me. I'm going to end up in the wall."
"Ten-four, chickadee. Bring it on in next time around, and we'll make some quick adjustments."
"Will do." Shelly sped through Turn Four, her pulse racing through her veins like quicksilver. Damn, but this car was fast. If they could just tighten it up a bit, they might be able to get themselves a much-needed win.
"Whoa," Al's voice came through on her headset as she roared past the start/finish line. "Loose or not, you're the fastest car on the track right now. That lap was twenty-nine-point-nine-four-four. Yee-haw!"
Grinning, Shelly pressed the mike button. "Maybe some wedge and a tiny bit of air pressure, Al. That should do it."
"Maybe just a tenth. Here I come, boys." Reaching the commitment cone, Shelly laid off the throttle and ducked down onto pit road.
"Watch your speed, Shel. That's it. Just a splash of fuel and two tires, okay?"
"Got it." Keeping an eye on the tachometer, she cruised to her pit stall, pulling in sharply as she hit the brakes.
No more cautions, she silently prayed as she took a quick drink of tepid water. There was no way they could make it on fuel to the end—not even close—but neither could anyone else. Still, they'd been the first of the lead-lap cars to pit under green, always a risk. But the risk out there was greater, running as loose as they were. Especially with Kyle Jordan on her tail, breathing down her neck.
Fourteen-point-two seconds later, she peeled out of her box—just ahead of Jordan, who had followed her in. "Great stop, boys," she said.
"Just stay out in that clean air, Shelly," came Al's voice. "Twenty to go once you cross the line."
From that point on, Shelly concentrated on hitting her marks, checking the rearview mirror every now and then, watching Kyle Jordan fall farther and farther back.
"Looks like Castillo is going to take Jordan," came her spotter's voice a few laps later.
Adrenaline surged through Shelly's veins as she rounded Turn Two, moving into some lapped traffic. "Aw, Rick, don't you worry. Castillo's got nothing for us today."
"Who said I was worried?" came Rick's reply. "Clear high. Clear all around."
"Five to go, Shelly. The little chickadee is flying now, ain't she?"
"Can it, Al," she chastised, though she couldn't help but smile. Truthfully, the chickadee thing was starting to grow on her, though she'd never let Al know. He only did it to irritate her—he thought she drove better when she was irritated.
Maybe she did. Didn't matter, not right now. All that mattered was that she continued to hit her marks, and that the field stayed green for four more laps. Four more just like this one and she'd have her second win of the year, just one less than Kyle Jordan, the current NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader.
Despite Shelly's win back at 'Dega, she was currently fourth in points, thanks to a run of bad luck that had started with a bad finish at Dover. They needed this win, and badly. Word had it that Steve Clayton's Pebble Valley Winery was looking to sponsor a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car next year, and they were taking a look at some of the most promising NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers. Shelly wanted that sponsorship.
"Next time by, you'll take the white flag," came Al's voice in her headset. She could hear his excitement, though he tried to hide it. Truth was, after two years of working together, she could read Al Spencer like a book. Probably why they made such a great team.
"Here comes the checkered flag!" Al all but hollered, making Shelly wince even as she grinned. "You got it! Yahoo!"
"Great job, Shelly," came Rick's voice, full of pride.
Shelly waved one fist in the air as she crossed the start/finish line, Roberto Castillo nearly half a lap behind in second position. "Thanks, guys! Everyone did a great job today. You're the best."
Not bad for a small-town girl from Alabama, she thought, smiling in self-satisfaction. She'd come a long way from that little dirt track in the northeast corner of the state where the soil was a deep, brick red and kudzu ran rampant.
She'd all but grown up there at the track. Missy Green had been a single mom struggling to make ends meet. She'd worked two jobs to put food on their table—checking at the local Grocery Barn during the day, and running the concessions at the track at night. There was never enough money for a babysitter, so while Missy worked, Shelly sat up in the grandstand bleachers for hours on end, completely enthralled by the slip-sliding action on the other side of the chain-link fence.
She'd been racing karts by the time she was ten, mucking out stalls at a nearby stable to earn money since more often than not any extra cash Missy had went straight to the local liquor store.
And while other girls her age were hanging out at the mall and going on dates, she was busy clawing her way up the ranks, racing everything from midgets to late-models to modifieds—and winning every title imaginable. She'd gotten her big break when Adam Sanford had come to their little dirt track to watch her in action. He'd offered her a ride in Sanford Racing's NASCAR
Nationwide Series car on the spot. She'd left Alabama right then and there, and never looked back.
And now she was climbing out of the No. 411 Zippi-Print car in Victory Lane to a shower of champagne, her team surrounding her in a big group hug as they whooped it up. Today's win had moved her into second place in points. Sure, it was still early in the season, but she'd proven that she could hang with the big boys.
She was good enough to drive in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series—there was no doubt about it. Even Adam thought she could do it. Only problem was, fielding a second NASCAR Sprint Cup car was expensive. San-ford Racing would have to snag a huge sponsorship deal even to consider it, which is where Pebble Valley Wines came in. All she had to do was convince Steve Clayton and his investors that she was the right man— well, the right woman in this case—for the job.
Shelly reached up to adjust her purple hat, pulling her ponytail through the opening in the back just as the Victory Lane reporter shoved a microphone in her face.
"Congratulations on your first win at Loudon, Shelly. How's it feel?"
"It feels good," she answered with a smile, a plan forming in her mind even as she spoke.
Time to be proactive. She'd fly to Steve's winery in the Sonoma Valley herself—first thing Monday morning—and plead her case.
"As the only female driver in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, do you feel any added pressure to prove yourself?" the reporter asked.
She got this question all the time. It was getting kind of old, actually, but she just smiled for the cameras as she gave the same answer she always did. "Nah, not really. I've got the best team possible, and I think my skills speak for themselves," she said confidently. "Besides, the car doesn't really care what chromosomes the driver's got."
And it shouldn't matter to Steve Clayton and Pebble Valley Wines, either, she mentally added. She was the right one for the sponsorship, no doubt about it.
All she had to do was prove it.
Damon Tieri reached for the remote, muting the volume on the enormous flat-screen television that dominated the wall opposite where he sat. "That's Shelly Green's second win of the season, isn't it?" he asked, watching the woman in question toss her blond ponytail over one shoulder as she soundlessly answered the reporter's questions.
It was hard to believe she was old enough to drive, much less drive a race car in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. She looked more like someone's kid sister, he thought, watching as the camera panned in on her face, the close-up revealing a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
Someone's cute kid sister, he amended.
"She's good," Steve Clayton said, then took a swig of beer.
Damon just nodded, reaching for his own beer. "Kyle Jordan looked strong. I wonder what happened there at the end?"
Steve just shrugged. "He didn't have anything for No. 411 car. Green was fast all weekend. I told you, she's good."
"You're sure a NASCAR sponsorship is the way to go?" Damon asked, the same old doubts creeping back into his mind. He couldn't help it—he was a money man, and sponsoring a NASCAR team was damn expensive.
"It's the best publicity we can get, and it makes sense to use my connections to NASCAR," Steve said. After all, he'd been a NASCAR champion before he'd retired to become a vineyard owner and apprentice winemaker, under the tutelage of Kyle Markham. "But we need to sponsor someone young. An upstart, someone smart and successful."
Damon nodded. "Someone like Kyle Jordan, you mean."
"Not necessarily. Besides, I don't want to rush into any decision. You need to get to know the sport a little better first, and then we'll talk about narrowing down the candidates."
Steve had a point. Damon was new to NASCAR, new to racing in general. It was all a far cry from Wall Street, where he'd made a fortune not just for himself, but for his clients, too. Tieri Capital Management had been one of the industry's most profitable hedge funds, earning a near-record sum before the market had become unstable, at least to Damon's practiced eye. He'd gotten out just before the crash, earning his peers' awe and admiration and his clients' eternal gratitude.
Everyone—his father included—thought the time was ripe to launch a new fund, but Damon just wanted to slow down, to focus on his future. What better way than to partner with Steve Clayton? After all, Damon enjoyed the finer things in life—expensive suits, fine cuisine, excellent wines. And with champion wine-maker Kyle Markham and Steve Clayton, Pebble Valley Winery was positioned to be among the best in the world. They just weren't marketed well, and that was something Damon planned to rectify.
Besides, with the current situation on Wall Street, investing in a winery—especially one with Steve Clayton's name behind it—seemed like a far safer hedge. With his business acumen, Steve's image and Kyle Markham's natural talent for winemaking, they were sure to be a success.
All they needed was the right driver to serve as the 'face' of Pebble Valley. Someone good-looking and well-spoken enough for a national ad campaign. Steve was right, Damon realized. This wasn't a decision they should rush into. He glanced back at the television screen, at Shelly Green, who was now hoisting a trophy in the air with a triumphant smile. It was infectious, the way it lit up her face, and he couldn't help but smile back at the TV as he hit Stop on the DVD player.
"So Kent Grosso is out, then?" Damon said as he laid down the remote.
Steve nodded. "I'm afraid so. Actually, I really want to find a diamond in the rough, someone we can help make a star. Let's just focus on the NASCAR Nationwide drivers."
"Makes sense. What time is your flight to Daytona?" Damon asked, glancing down at his stainless-steel watch.
"Brent Sanford is meeting me at the airstrip at three," Steve said, checking his own watch. "I should probably get going."
"I'll probably stay a couple of more days," Damon said. "I've still got a lot to catch up on here, but I'll head down to Daytona by the end of the week."
"Sounds good. Make yourself at home, and let Rosita know if you need anything."
Damon nodded. "I appreciate it." His cell phone began to vibrate against his hip. He reached for it, glancing at the number displayed. Courtney. He'd call her back later.
"Just give me a call if you have any questions. And it probably wouldn't hurt to watch the rest of the DVDs there." Steve tipped his head toward the stack of cases piled up beside the DVD player. "I've got all the NASCAR Nationwide races back to Daytona in February. See if anyone stands out to you."
"Sure will," Damon agreed, reaching for Steve's hand and giving it a friendly shake. "Have a safe trip back."
A half hour later, Damon stood thumbing through the stack of DVDs, a glass of Pebble Valley's excellent Merlot in one hand. It was only then that he remembered that Courtney had called. He dug out his cell, looking to see if she'd left a message.
She hadn't, and he was surprised by the sense of relief he felt. He'd been dating Courtney Snow off and on for four years now, and things had grown stale. It wasn't that he didn't care about her—he did care, quite a bit. Their relationship was easy, comfortable, predictable, even. But something was missing, something he couldn't quite put his finger on.
His family adored her, of course. She was exactly the type of woman they expected him to marry—beautiful, well-educated, from a good family. On paper, she was perfect. Only his heart wasn't entirely convinced, and time was running out. They'd reached a stalemate of sorts. He either needed to propose or permanently end it—he wasn't sure which.
Ending it would probably break his mother's heart more than Courtney's, if truth be told, and maybe that was answer enough. Still, he'd spent a lifetime doing exactly what his family expected of him, and it was a hard habit to break. But marriage? He needed to be a hundred-percent sure before he made a commitment like that.
Whatever the case, he really wasn't interested in talking to Courtney right now. Instead, he took the case marked Daytona—February and opened it up, taking out the disc and popping it into the slot on the front of the machine.
The darkened screen flickered to life, and Damon headed toward the leather chair he'd occupied earlier, taking his wineglass with him.
Just as he sat down, the doorbell chimed. "Rosita?" he called out.
He waited, listening for the housekeeper's quick footsteps, but the house remained silent. The bell chimed again.
Puzzled, Damon hit the stop button on the remote and strode off toward the front hall, setting his wineglass down on the hall console.
"Can I help you?" he asked as he pulled open the door to find a woman standing there, her back to him.
Looking as if he'd startled her, the woman turned to face him, peering up at him curiously with big, crystal-clear blue eyes. Shelly Green, he realized at once. The same woman he'd just seen hoisting the trophy on TV.
"I'm here to see Steve Clayton," she said, her voice a smooth, Southern drawl. She looked every bit the sweet little-sister type she'd looked on TV, with her flowery sundress and blond ponytail.