A Taste for Speed
by Dorien Kelly
Sarah Stanton felt someone watching her, and not in the semi-interested way that her undergraduate students sometimes did. This was intense, startlingly so. She glanced around the crowd milling under the festive white tent but couldn't spot the watcher. After a moment she decided that she'd probably imagined the sensation. She was jet-lagged and as far out of her usual academic element as she could imagine. The only thing a private NASCAR prerace party held in common with a college lecture hall was Sarah, herself.
The things a professor must do in the name of research…
Sarah smiled as she took in the activity around her. Last night Dean and Patsy Grosso, owners of Cargill-Grosso Racing, had flown her with them in their private jet from North Carolina to California's Sonoma Valley. In a little while she would witness her first NASCAR race. Just in time, too, since this fall she would be moving from Larchmont College's general business faculty into its motorsports management program. The Grossos were donors to that program and also active participants, inviting interns to work at Cargill-Grosso Racing. And now they'd agreed to take her on as their summer project, bringing her to races so that she could get up to speed—so to speak—before classes started.
Like many residents of the Charlotte area, Sarah appreciated what NASCAR had brought to her hometown. She hadn't been an active fan, though. Between her classes and the writing she did to stay on the tenure track, her outside amusements were few—some biking and tennis, a bit of casual dating and weekly gatherings with her colleagues.
The prickly feeling on the back of Sarah's neck had fully subsided. Amen to that, too. She rather liked her personal life below the radar. Standing at the podium while teaching was attention enough these days.
She looked to her right, where the Grossos had been detained by representatives of Smoothtone Music, hosts of this gathering, and more important, sponsor of their son Kent's car. Sarah was content to be standing at a tall café table on the outskirts of the crowd. Here she could enjoy the warm June breeze that slipped off the surrounding dusty brown hills and type notes into her PDA. The Grossos had already introduced her to so many potential program contacts that if she didn't get the information down now, it would slip away in the haze of excitement.
Suddenly that tingly feeling crept over her…and stronger this time, too. Sarah looked up from her phone's small screen, and her gaze locked with a man's. Not any man, either. Small wonder she'd tingled. He was one of the most drop-dead gorgeous males she'd ever seen. He wasn't the glossy, overgroomed sort, but more of an "I've lived and loved every minute of it" guy.
Sarah couldn't bring herself to look away. She'd bet that she wasn't the first woman to be so drawn, either. He appeared to be a handful of years—or maybe a few more—beyond her own forty-two, but he wore those years well. Very, very well.
Her watcher's dark blond hair was a bit long for him to be the corporate type, and his tan spoke of a man who spent a great deal of time outdoors. A smile played about his mouth as he inclined his head in a gesture of curiosity and something more. If she were the sort to flatter herself—which, generally, she wasn't—she'd call it admiration.
"Earth to Sarah," she muttered to herself, forcing her attention away from Sonoma's answer to a Greek god. She focused on her phone, but didn't yet have the mental wherewithal to actually read what was on the screen. Until her brain reengaged, however, she would fake it, since gawking at a stranger wasn't her usual gig. In the midst of her faux note-taking, she allowed herself another glance at the handsome stranger. He gave her a full-out grin.
The unwelcome heat of color rose on her face. Honestly, she couldn't recall the last time she'd blushed. Suffice it to say that it must have been a few decades ago. And as a mature, independent woman, she knew she couldn't slip from this tent and hide, as impulse dictated. She could, however, search for her composure on the way to the wine-tasting table.
Quelling the urge to take one last look at the man, she instead pocketed her PDA, slipped into the crowd and joined a group sampling small pours of wine. Sarah selected a Chardonnay from the offerings. The wine was smooth and rich against her tongue, its taste bringing to mind both citrus and a sweet whisper of her mother's peach pie. She let her eyes slip closed as she savored the mix of flavors and the calming moment.
"There you are, Sarah," Patsy Grosso said from beside her. "I thought for a moment that we'd lost you."
Sarah smiled. "It was more a matter of my finding the wine bar."
"You're a wine lover?" Patsy asked.
Though they had met casually at a number of college fund-raising events and chatted more intimately on the cross-country flight to Sonoma, they were still in the "getting to know you" phase of friendship. And what Sarah had seen of Patsy thus far, she liked.
"Wine within my budget, without a doubt," she said to Patsy.
"All the more reason you need to meet Steve."
"He's a very dear friend of the family. I think you'll enjoy him. Come on over and say hello."
"Sounds wonderful." Sarah took another sip of her Chardonnay, then fell in next to Patsy, who was already threading through the gathering.
"Quite the party, isn't it?" Patsy commented as they paused to let a couple pass the other way. "Hang on, though. Dean and Steve are right ahead… just the other side of the sweets table," she added with a quick flick of her prettily manicured nails.
Sarah let her gaze roll past the chocolate fountain— never an easy task—to the two men Patsy had gestured at.
In this crowd, what were the odds? Apparently one hundred percent in favor of meeting Mr. Perfect…who was giving her yet another resistance-melting smile.
If Patsy hadn't been right next to her, she probably would have played coward and turned heel. As it was, she must have slowed enough to get Patsy's attention.
"Is everything okay?" Patsy asked.
"I'm fine," Sarah fibbed.
Patsy gave Sarah a perceptive look. "Steve has a way of slowing women a step. He is easy on the eyes, isn't he?"
"Not painful at all," Sarah agreed. Actually, there was something vaguely familiar about him, and not just because they'd been checking each other out. But she had no time to try to place him, because here they were.
Patsy made the introductions. "Sarah, this is Steve Clayton. Steve, this is Sarah Stanton, a new friend of ours."
He offered his hand, and after switching her wineglass into her left hand, she took it. His grip was warm and firm. While her brain prompted her to be businesslike, every other cell of her body relished the moment.
"Hello, Sarah. It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
"Finally?" Patsy asked, but all Steve gave her in response was a crooked smile and a shrug. And Sarah couldn't seem to pull her attention from Steve. What would she have said, anyway? "We've been staring at each other like two teenagers" didn't seem a very dignified response.
"Enjoying the Chardonnay?" he asked Sarah, then released her palm.
"Good. It's mine."
"Yours?" For one endless instant, she wondered if she'd somehow ended up with his glass. Then she managed to put his words into context. "Wait… you own the vineyard?"
"Wow! How wonderful! That must be an amazing job."
Now that she had some more information, she wracked her brain for where she'd seen him before. Maybe she'd seen his picture in one of her wine or food magazines?
"It's a challenge," he said. "And there's nothing better than a good challenge." The glint in his blue eyes let her know that she wasn't mistaken in reading another level of meaning into his words.
She took a final sip of the small tasting pour of wine she'd received. "Very true."
"You'll have to visit Pebble Valley while you're out here," he said. "Our new tasting room opened this past spring. I think you'd enjoy it."
"I'd love to, but this is a quick trip for me," she said.
"We're introducing Sarah to the world of NASCAR," Patsy said.
"For work or pleasure?" he asked Sarah.
"I think life is best when both combine, don't you?" she replied.
His smile grew. "Absolutely. I've lived my life doing just that."
"This is work for me, in a way. In the fall I'm joining the motorsports management faculty at the college where I teach. I'd feel a fraud teaching racing management without first getting out here and seeing it in the real world."
"Sarah's at Larchmont College," Dean told Steve. "That's how we met her."
Steve nodded with obvious recognition, which surprised her. Larchmont was well respected by those on the east coast, but it wasn't much heard of out here.
"Steve's knows the Charlotte area well," Dean said. "He retired from racing just a few years before me."
Sarah finally made the connection. If she hadn't been so distracted by whatever this strange current was that ran between them, she would have recognized his name immediately.
"Oh, of course," she said. "I've heard about your racing accomplishments, Steve."
He smiled. "And now I'm working to be known for my vineyard's accomplishments. So tell me…how do you feel about our NASCAR world so far?"
"Interesting…surprisingly complex…." She smiled as a parallel occurred to her, and then she raised her glass in salute. "Very much like your wine."
"And very much like you, too, I think," he replied.
Sarah didn't believe in all of that romantic nonsense, like the crowds melting away until there were only two people left in the world, but this moment seemed to be coming darned close. She wasn't sure how long they stood there simply smiling at each other, but however long, she could have gone longer.
Dean cleared his throat, then nudged his friend. "Hey, we'd better get down to pit road if you want a chance to see your godson before the race."
"Right," Steve said absently, then repeated the word in a firmer voice. "Patsy, will you and Sarah be coming down to Kent's pit stall, or did you have other plans?"
Sarah glanced at Patsy. She'd told Sarah on the flight to Sonoma that watching her son race wasn't something she did particularly well.
"We don't have to," Sarah began to say, but Patsy cut her off by telling Steve and Dean that they would be down directly, and the men should go on ahead.
"Really, we don't have to do this," Sarah said. "If you'd prefer to be in a suite, I have some track management folks I need to chat with. We can just head on up and watch from there."
"Oh, no, it wasn't my little issue with watching," Patsy said. "I'm trying to get better about that for my daughter-in-law's sake. I just wanted to know without the men here to eavesdrop… what was that all about?" She tilted her head in the direction that Dean and Steve had taken.
"I have no idea," Sarah replied with absolute honesty. She'd been in love twice in her life, and neither of those men had ever looked at her with such focus and intent.
Of course, she didn't recall being so immediately transfixed by them, either.
"That was some chemistry you two had humming along," Patsy said.
"It was that obvious?"
Patsy laughed. "Beyond obvious."
A warm tingle danced its way once again to Sarah's fingertips.
Chemistry. It just might be addictive.
Steve had one question for himself, and damned if he could answer it. Specifically, what was it about Sarah Stanton that had captured his attention?
She had to be a good fifteen years older than the women he dated. At fifty, he could—and did—date twentysomething-year-old lingerie models and actresses. He liked them for their general lack of desire for commitment and their uncomplicated natures. Steve had been married twice and would sooner gnaw off his right arm than marry again.
Sarah dressed more like a nun than a catalogue model, yet he could tell from the way she'd sampled her wine—in fact, even the way in which they'd earlier watched each other—that she was one innately sensual woman. The contrast intrigued him, even if she wasn't at all his type.
Except that when he should have been meeting and greeting and talking up his wine in the Smoothtone Music tent, he'd spent most of his time speculating on how buttoned-up and hair-tied-down Sarah had landed in the middle of that more glamorous crowd… and then speculating what she'd look like with her hair loose and one or two buttons—or more—undone on her white, short-sleeved blouse.
Steve laughed aloud at just how fully and instantaneously he'd become wrapped up in this woman. Clearly, everything about her had caught his attention. And she'd sure kept it once he'd had the opportunity to talk to her.
"Want to share the joke?" Dean asked him as they walked toward the pits.
"Good enough," Dean said.
And that was the great part of being a guy. Steve knew that single question would be the end of any interrogation from Dean. But the bottom line remained the same. There was something quirkily attractive about Sarah Stanton beyond her subtle good looks, and that was all Steve needed to know in order to determine his next move. He'd made a fortune in racing based on his immediate reaction, and he'd carried that awareness into the rest of his life. Instinct was good. Overthinking could really mess with a guy.
"We'd better move it along if we're going to catch Kent," he said to Dean, who nodded and picked up the pace.
By the time they'd made it to the No. 414 car's hauler area and pit stall, they barely had time to get with the team for the opening prayer and the National Anthem.
BACK TO TOP
BACK TO THE BOOKSHELF