by Dorien Kelly, Vicki Lewis Thompson, Nancy Warren
"Ow!" Roni threw the mascara wand into the hotel-room sink and grabbed a tissue. Holding it to her watering eye, she used all her favorite four-letter words. At the race track she was considered a mechanical genius, so why couldn't she manage to apply mascara without stabbing herself in the eye?
Once her eye stopped watering, she took a deep breath and surveyed the damage. Yuck. Bloodshot was not the look she was going for. Served her right for waiting until the last minute to present crew chief Judd Timmons with the new-and-improved Roni Kenway. In the two years she'd worked with Judd, he'd never indicated that he thought of her as anything other than one of the guys.
That was a compliment, in a way, because female mechanics weren't that thick on the ground in NASCAR, and she'd done her level best to fit in. But there was a huge difference between fitting in and becoming invisible. And it was time Judd's intense blue gaze registered on her when he looked her way. The man flipped all her switches. She knew when he approached by the scent of him—tangy aftershave that made her think of how he'd look in front of a bathroom mirror, a razor in one hand and nothing but a towel wrapped around his hips.
This demonstrated how far gone she was. She'd pictured him in the shower after the workday, water sluicing down his chest and over… well, everything.
She'd had endless debates with herself about the color and texture of his chest hair. She imagined it was the same chocolate brown as the hair on his head, and he'd have just enough to look manly, just enough to brush against a woman's bare skin when they… Confession time, she'd imagined making love with Judd Timmons.
Unfortunately, she had little hope he'd imagined making love to her. From his typical matter-of-fact expression when he looked at her, he apparently saw her as nothing more than a capable part of the Lovejoy racing team. She wanted him to see a hot babe, even if she was usually dressed like the guys in a brown-and-gold Nomex uniform with Goddess Chocolates emblazoned on the back.
When she'd discovered that the first race of the season at Daytona coincided with Valentine's Day, she'd taken that as a sign to get this party started. But here it was Friday morning, two days before race day, and she had yet to break out the makeup she'd bought over the Christmas holidays. After all her plans to dazzle him from Day One of preseason, she'd chickened out.
Instead of wearing her new clothes, one size smaller than her old stuff after two months on a diet, she'd appeared at the track in the comfortable jeans and faded NASCAR sweatshirts that hid her figure. Instead of styling her red hair the way she'd taught herself back in December after an expensive new cut, she'd pulled it into a ponytail as always. Her pricey makeup hadn't made an appearance until this morning, and now she'd messed it up because she was more nervous than a rookie waiting for that first green flag.
Grabbing the Visine out of her makeup bag, she held it over her stinging eye. Her cell phone played the opening bars of Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" at that critical moment, causing her to squirt a stream of liquid all over her face. She muttered a few more choice words.
A call from Lovejoy driver Tucker Merritt at this hour of the morning couldn't be good news. She was the closest thing he had to a friend on the Goddess Chocolates team, but she didn't think he'd call to chat this early. More likely he'd called because he had a problem.
She prayed that he hadn't suffered some misfortune that would keep him out of the race. That would suck on so many levels. Mopping her face with another tissue, she hurried into the bedroom. This day was not starting out well.
After taking a calming breath, she picked up the phone from the bedside table and answered it. "What's up, Tucker? You okay?"
"That son of a gun Timmons cancelled out of his part of the TV interview we were supposed to tape this morning."
Roni vaguely remembered the interview was on the schedule for midmorning. She had nothing to do with the media, so she hadn't paid much attention. "Is something wrong? Is he sick?"
"Hell, no, he's not sick. He just doesn't want to do the interview with me, so he's made up some garbage about how he has to concentrate on the car this morning so it'll be ready for this afternoon's practice."
Roni's stomach muscles tightened. All week she'd been hoping that the rift between Tucker and Judd would heal itself, but cancelling out of an interview wasn't a step in the right direction. Judd must still be ticked off about Loretta.
Last season Judd had dated a racing fan, a petite blonde named Loretta Sinclair. Seeing them together had been painful for Roni, but she'd endured, knowing Loretta was much more glamorous than Roni would ever be.
Then Judd and Loretta had broken up, but it was no cause for celebration. According to rumor, Tucker had seduced Loretta while she was still with Judd. With that story circulating, Loretta had wisely made herself scarce, but the relationship between Judd and Tucker was damaged, and team spirit had leaked out of the Goddess Chocolates crew like air from a punctured tire.
Roni had hoped the whole kerfuffle would be forgotten over Christmas break, but obviously it hadn't been. Tucker claimed to be innocent and Roni had given him the benefit of the doubt. She was in the minority, though. His playboy reputation worked against him as crew members aligned themselves with Judd.
She'd done her best not to take sides, because ultimately she wanted the two men to reconcile and get on with the business of racing. She wondered how she could diplomatically suggest that to Tucker. "Judd could be telling the truth about needing to concentrate on the car," she said. "I mean, it's the start of the season, and Daytona is—"
"You think I don't know that? It's even more reason to do the interview together. Everybody's talking about us not getting along, and if we show up on TV and act like we're friends, maybe the rumors will die down."
Tucker had a point, but Roni also knew that Judd hated making appearances under the best of circumstances. She made another stab at difusing Tucker's anger. "I wouldn't take this personally. You know Judd's not fond of the cameras. He's not glib like you."
"It's not rocket science! You sit in a chair, they ask you questions, you answer the questions. Piece of cake."
"For you." Roni had seen the blond twenty-four-year-old work the media. He was a natural. "It's not a piece of cake for Judd."
"And I should care because… ? He needs to do the interview anyway. Besides, this isn't stage fright. It's a slap in the face. He hates my guts."
"I have to believe you both can move past this. You're professionals and you used to be friends." When Roni had joined the team two years earlier, she'd been struck by the warmth between the crew chief and the driver. Judd had treated Tucker like a kid brother.
Tucker laughed bitterly. "He refuses to listen to anything I have to say. He's made up his mind about me, and so has most of the crew. You're one of the few people who hasn't assumed I'm guilty."
"Because you told me you're not."
"Yeah, I told Judd, too, but he—"
"Tucker, don't forget you have the full support of Jake Lovejoy. That's huge."
"I know." Tucker sighed. "If I didn't have Jake pulling for me, I'd wonder if this was all worth it, but because of him, I'll hang in there. Anyway, I don't have to take this BS from Timmons. I'm calling Lovejoy."
Roni sucked in a breath. "Don't do that. You'll only make things worse."
"Like it could get any worse."
It could, Roni knew. They had a whole season ahead of them in which things could get way worse. "Tucker, please. Let it go. Do the interview alone. You'll be amazing, as always."
"Nope. I'm calling Lovejoy. Timmons needs to be there."
She recognized that stubborn tone. Once Tucker dug in his heels, there was no changing his mind. "Okay. Good luck with the interview." She also prayed Tucker wouldn't get Judd in trouble. Starting the season on the owner's bad side wasn't a good idea.
"Thanks. So, are we on for pizza in your room tonight? If you'll put in the order, I'll bring the beer."
Friday night was the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, and last season Roni and Tucker had formed the habit of sharing a pizza and watching the race on TV in her hotel room. At first she'd thought it odd that he'd rather come to her hotel room than invite her to his private motor home parked at the track, but he said it relaxed him to get away from there for the evening.
She knew Tucker counted on the camaraderie, especially these days. Because of that she was tempted to use their pizza night as a bribe to keep him from calling Lovejoy.
But a plan was forming in her mind, and if Tucker chose to skip sharing a pizza with her the plan wouldn't work. "Sure, we can do that. Come over about six."
"See you then." Tucker hung up.
As Roni clicked off her phone, she began to plot. Somehow, some way, she'd maneuver Judd into stopping by her room tonight while Tucker was there. With her as referee, she might get these two blockheads to start talking to each other.
She had to admit that Judd might not appreciate her interference, and his resentment might screw up her romantic plans. But that would be true only if she failed. If she succeeded, it was a win-win situation.
As Judd Timmons walked into the garage area on Friday morning, the scream of power tools blended with the roar of stock car engines being prepped for Sunday's race. He loved every decibel. His appreciative gaze swept the immaculate space where teams worked side by side, their efficient harmony in sharp contrast to the fierce competition that would take place this weekend.
Lovejoy fielded three teams in Sunday's race and tried not to show favoritism, but everyone on the circuit knew that he'd pinned his hopes on Tucker Merritt in the No. 414 car currently sponsored by Goddess Chocolates. Because of that sponsor, the No. 414 car's paint scheme was brown and gold with an eye-catching toga-clad woman painted on the hood.
Judd walked toward the car and inhaled his favorite perfume—the scent of burnt rubber mixed with exhaust fumes and hot motor oil. This was his dream job, or at least, it had been until Tucker had betrayed his trust.
Tucker was young, blond, charismatic and barely twenty-four. He was what Judd had yearned to be, what the football injury to his knee had prevented him from being—a NASCAR phenom. But Judd had accepted that disappointment and realized that his true calling had probably been crew chief, anyway.
He liked being the one who pulled it all together, the one in charge of the analytical side of the race. In large part due to Judd, Tucker had achieved some remarkable feats in his short career. Judd had taken satisfaction in that.
Or he had, until the ugly business with Loretta last year. He couldn't say for sure that the bad blood between him and Tucker had caused the season to go south toward the end, but he suspected it had been a big factor. He'd considered leaving the team, but that had seemed cowardly and likely to cause more rumors, so he'd stayed.
Now he wondered if that had been wise. Everything about the kid irritated him. How was Judd supposed to help Merritt take the No. 414 car to a winning season when all he wanted to do was cram Tucker's pearly whites down his throat?
Leaving now wasn't an option, though. No one with any sense of honor left a team at the beginning of the season. So he'd stick, which meant he had work to do. The No. 414 car hadn't performed well in the qualifying race, which meant Tucker would be starting Sunday's event at the back of the pack. Nobody on the team was happy about that.
As Judd headed over to join the rest of his crew already at work on the car, someone laid a hand on his shoulder. He turned and discovered Orville Fen-ster, the Lovejoy team manager. Orville motioned him outside and Judd blew out a breath. He had a pretty good idea what this was about.
Orville, a fiftysomething guy with a string-bean physique and not much hair, left the garage and strode across the tarmac toward the Lovejoy team hauler parked in the infield. It was understood that Judd would follow.
Besides transporting race cars, the gigantic hauler served as a combination clubhouse and meeting room, which made it the ideal place to discuss sensitive subjects. Orville probably wanted to talk about the TV interview Judd had cancelled out on.
Judd pulled the brim of his Goddess Chocolates ball cap lower over his eyes and stepped out into the sunshine. The forecast called for cold and clear— great for racing. The track sat empty with no practice sessions scheduled at the moment, but the infield buzzed with activity and several people called out to Orville and Judd as they made their way to the hauler.
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