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The wild cry splitting the silence caused Emily Littlejohn to drop the papier-mâché elephant currently making a sloppy mess of her kitchen table and cock her head. In the range of ten-year-old boy yells—of which she considered herself an expert— the current holler was closer to the ecstatic cry of a kid who'd whipped some computer foe than the dreaded cry that indicated Hospital. Now!
Still, she waited and sure enough soon heard, "Mom, come quick." Excitement bubbled through the words like oil from a gusher.
Since she and Darren were a family of two, Emily played the roles of mother, father and often best friend to her ten-year-old son. She knew that wouldn't last, so she did her best to treasure this time when Darren still wanted to be with her.
"Coming." She wiped her hands on the damp cloth. The elephant in progress tipped onto its trunk, hovered there for a second then keeled over. Looked as though she'd have to default to the pig the students in her second-grade art class had been making for ten years. That elephant was clearly too complicated.
She tended to forget to move when she was working and as she rose, her back reminded her that she'd been trying to turn a couple of balloons, some shredded newspapers and wallpaper glue into an elephant since she and Darren had eaten their after-school snack, two hours ago.
Jogging up the stairs got her blood moving again, but even at her top speed, she was still met on the upstairs landing by a bouncing dynamo. "Come on, Mom. You gotta see this. You'll never guess."
His face was lit with excitement, his eyes blazing blue with happiness. Something much more thrilling than reaching a new level in one of his computer games had to be the cause.
"You got an A in Math?"
Darn. He was too young for girls, and it had been a while since the infrequent visits or calls from his dad had lit him up. Stumped, she followed him into his room.
He raced to his computer and displayed the screen proudly. Even from the doorway she could see the NASCAR logo. Of course.
Darren's greatest enthusiasm in life was stock car racing, and his hero was Jason Bane, the local boy from their own small town in Minnesota who had taken the racing world by storm over the past five years.
Bane was prominently featured in her son's room. He grinned down from glossy posters at a replica of his ride that held pride of place on Darren's bedside table. Emily had personally painted the racing border on Darren's bedroom wall, repeating the motif on the bedspread she'd also created. Maybe they didn't have much in the way of money, but Emily used every one of her arts and crafts skills to raise their lives above the mundane.
"What is it?" She drew closer to Jason Bane's handsome face grinning out at her from the computer screen and wondered if he might be coming home for a visit. Something he hadn't done in twelve years. That would account for Darren's excitement. If the prodigal driver returned, would she have the courage to remind Jason Bane that they'd gone to school together?
Even if fate, or more likely Darren, threw Jason inher path, she knew she wouldn't. She'd had a major crush on the guy back in high school and he hadn't noticed her then. Now that he was a rich, famous driver, he'd never remember a girl he'd shared a couple of classes with back in Hammersfield High.
"It's a contest," Darren yelled in her ear. "And I'm going to win." He was so excited he couldn't stand still, hopping on one foot, then both. "We get to see a race, and you get a shopping spree. How cool is that? Jason Bane's sponsor is Bailey's Department Stores."
"What kind of contest is it?" Emily asked, finding it impossible to read the details on the screen with Darren jumping, squirming and yelling all at the same time.
"An essay contest. I have to tell what NASCAR means to me in five hundred words." He made a Pfflffi noise through pursed lips. "Easy."
He shook her shoulder. "We are going to Hollywood!"
It wasn't Hollywood, of course. The prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to the race in Homestead, Florida, in November, for the final race of the season. The prize included a thousand-dollar shopping spree at Bailey's.
"A thousand bucks, Mom. You could buy yourself a nice Christmas present. And I get to spend time with Jason Bane and go to a race, and hang out with the pit crew. Everything!" His emotions so overtook him that he tossed himself backward onto his bed and bounced to his feet again.
Emily almost hated to hear the excitement in his young voice. She'd never been able to afford to take him to a live race. And now he thought he was going to win his way there?
"Honey," she said, in that tone she hated hearing come out of her own mouth, "There are going to be a lot of kids who enter this contest. I don't want you getting your hopes up too high."
He looked dumbstruck. "But who writes the greatest essays in the world? Mr. Donaldson said I'm real creative." He patted her on the back. "Mom, I can ace this."
"I know you can, Dar. You just have to remember that life isn't always fair."
No one knew that better than Emily. Who'd once had her head filled with the same kind of naive belief in life that she recognized in her son. Amazing how a bad marriage and nasty divorce could cure a person of believing in happy outcomes.
Well, she'd let him write his essay, encourage him as much as she could and then be there when his young world fell apart. Again.
Jason Bane was suffering writer's cramp from signing his name so many times, but at last the two-hour publicity event was almost over. The main level of Bailey's flagship department store was bustling, and lots of folks were hanging around to watch him and the very pretty young starlet beside him, also signing pictures of herself.
He still hadn't quite gotten over the fact that because he could drive fast, people wanted him to do other things he had no natural talent for.
The cameo appearance in a family comedy movie had been fun, but Jason had never been so bored in his life. All that sitting around waiting for someone to call "Action" wasn't his style. He preferred remaining in action until someone yelled at him to stop.
Even now, after sitting at a table for two hours, his feet were tapping and twitching. He needed to go for a run or shoot some baskets or something, just to get rid of the excess energy. The workout would have to wait, however. He had another appearance right after this one.
At last he'd signed the final photo, grinned his last grin, and could thankfully shake out the stiffness from his signing hand.
He rose, then remembering his manners, turned to his signing partner.
"Thanks. It was great meeting you."
His "winning grin" as the press people liked to call it, was threatening to crack from overuse, but he pulled it out one more time.
"Her name's Sydney," his assistant, Paige, whispered in his ear.
The starlet also rose from her seat and stretched. It was the kind of stretch you couldn't help watching if you wanted to call yourself a red-blooded man.
"I'm parched," she said, running the tip of her tongue over luscious pink lips. "Going to slip off for a quiet drink. Care to join me?"
"Thanks, Sydney," he said with a regret he was far from feeling, "but I've got to run to another event right after this one."
She shrugged. "Maybe next time."
"You got it." Where he would have shaken hands goodbye, Sydney was more a kiss-on-the-mouth type. She pulled away slowly and slipped a card into his breast pocket. "Call me."
The young woman left with her own handlers and he turned to Paige Summer, his personal assistant and Randy Oldham, Bailey's marketing guy. "I cannot believe you turned down heaven." Randy sighed.
"Not my type," he said. Paige handed him a tissue and he wiped away the sticky lip gunk Sydney had left on his mouth.
"I don't envy you the money, and I sure as heck don't want to be driving a track at one-eighty miles an hour," Randy said as they walked away from the signing area, "but I envy you those women who throw themselves at you."
"It gets old," he promised.
The three of them took the elevator up to the executive level of the store. Back when his greatest ambition was to drive faster than anyone else on the planet, Jason hadn't thought a lot about the rest of life as a NASCAR driver, but now that he was in the club, he'd discovered that there was a lot of activity that had nothing to do with driving. Sponsors were vital. And the sport wouldn't exist without the fans, so he cheerfully did his part to make both sponsors and fans happy. First by winning as many races as he could, second by being accessible.
It wasn't tough. He remembered all too clearly being a young boy in a no-account town, a kid with dreams that were so big it sometimes hurt to dream them.
Those dreams had brought him here, along with a lot of hard work, and some talent. Whenever his hand tired during an autograph session, or a fan got a little too enthusiastic, he tried to remember that boy from Hammersfield, Minnesota, and he tried to treat every fan as if they were him twenty years ago.
"The contest's had great response," Paige informed him as they rode up. "More than ten thousand entries, didn't you say, Randy?"
"Yep. Close to eleven thou. You're one popular dude with the kids."
"We've got media waiting up top," Randy explained. "Local and national and the press conference is going on the Web live. We've already chosen the winner, but—"
"You read all those entries?"
"Heck, no. Interns. Crystal Bailey and I reviewed the top ten. Frankly, it was a tough call. There's some great kids out there. Wish they could all win."
Jason nodded, thinking once again of his young self. "Let's make sure and send them all something, okay? A signed photograph, and we should include a letter from me telling them—I don't know—to me they're all winners. Something like that."
"Great idea, 'course the postage—"
"Don't cheap out on me, Randy."
The department store PR man sighed. "We'll include a coupon for Bailey's, too, and maybe a perfume sample for the moms."
He nodded. "Can't have ten thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine little NASCAR fans and future Bailey's shoppers disappointed, right?"
"Right." The elevator sighed to a halt, but Randy took an extra minute to brief Jason and handed him a page of printed speaking notes.
Before heading to the next smilefest, Jason opened his mouth wide, as though about to chow down on the biggest burger in history, and then did a few facial limbering exercises an actress had shown him. They'd dated for a little while, but the thing he remembered her most fondly for was the exercises that helped him get through a long day of holding his smile in place.
When he was done, he checked to make sure his shirt with his sponsor's logo was still clean. He nodded and they headed out of the elevator.
The boardroom contained maybe twenty people. Paige murmured in his ear as they entered, reminding him of everybody he should know by name, so that when he got into the middle of things, he was ready.
Crystal Bailey came up first and they kissed in that European style he'd never quite gotten used to. One cheek and then the other. Crystal was the granddaughter of the original Bailey who'd founded the store and, though she was older than his mother, she was a fine-looking woman. She also had a sharp eye for business, making Bailey's one of the leading department store chains in the nation.
He shook hands with the other execs and said "Hey" to the media people, all of whom he knew.
"Well, if we're ready," Crystal said, and led him to a table where a huge glass tank was filled with envelopes containing essays by kids all wanting to come hang out with him and send their parents shopping at Bailey's while they did it.
Camera lights were adjusted, he heard the whirr of a TV camera, Crystal said a few words about the contest then turned things over to him. He'd read the notes, and then put them aside. Now, as he looked at the camera, he imagined he was speaking to the kids themselves. "I can't believe how many of you kids took the time to write and tell us what NASCAR means to you.
"There are some great writers out there and I'm proud of you all for taking the time and effort to write an essay. I want to tell you right here and now that I think every one of you is a winner and even if you didn't win the big prize, you'll be getting a little something in the mail from me and the good people at Bailey's." Beside him he felt Crystal stiffen, but he figured it was good PR for all of them and if he said on TV that they'd send stuff out, then Randy was less likely to try and wiggle out of the obligation.
"Now," he continued, "it was a real hard decision to make, but in the end, we chose an entry." He picked up the paper in question. "The lucky person who will be coming to Miami in November to hang out with me and my team is Lizbeth Monterey. Lizbeth, you did a great job in your essay, which we'll be putting up on the Web site for everybody to read. I'm looking forward to hanging out with you and your folks when you come to the race in November. Thanks again, kids, for taking the time to write these wonderful essays." He grinned at the camera. "See you at the track."
Crystal took over again and he sat down to read Lizbeth's entry. She sounded pretty smart for a twelve-year-old, saying she hoped to be a driver herself one day, which he was sure Crystal had liked. 'Course, little Lizbeth had kind of ruined the feminist effect by including a hand-drawn picture of him standing by his car. She'd drawn little hearts all around them both.
He shook his head. The rest of the finalists' entries were stacked neatly beside the winner and idly he flicked through the envelopes. They'd come from all over. Seattle, Washington. Nome, Alaska. Missouri, North Carolina and Hammersfield, Minnesota. He almost laughed when he saw that last postmark. His own hometown.