By Abby Gaines
Twelve laps to go. Gracie Keene paused in her pacing of the pit area and watched the No. 572 Super Keene Racing car roar past. She willed Joe, the driver, to go faster. He’d held second place the past three laps—he needed to make that push into first.
He also needed gas. Gracie knew that the crew chief, Morris Blackman, planned to fill the tank and replace all four tires when Joe pitted on the next lap. Which meant at least thirteen seconds in the pits. Ample time to lose a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Gracie knuckled her chin, frowning.
“Worried?” a deep, gravelly, male voice asked.
She spun around to face Lucas Connor, owner of Connor Racing Group. “What are you doing here?”
Lucas grinned at her ungracious tone. She felt her cheeks heat. Crazy to have such a teenage reaction, given she was thirty-one years old and a widow. But the man was too darned handsome for her peace of mind…and too darned fixated on buying her team.
He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans, relaxed and confident as ever. Which he shouldn’t be, given his driver had crashed out of the race thirty laps ago. “Since my guy’s sitting on the sidelines, I thought I’d come visit. Looks like Joe might pull it off today.”
Gracie grimaced. “He might.”
“Something wrong with the car?” Lucas’s gaze sharpened.
She shook her head. “Morris wants four new tires.”
“Ah.” He glanced up at the crew chief, atop the war wagon. “And you don’t?”
Her hands fluttered at her sides. “Normally I wouldn’t argue. Morris is conservative, but he gets results. But today….”
“You have a feeling,” Lucas suggested.
She wished he didn’t read her so easily. Then maybe she wouldn’t have been such an easy mark three years ago. Of course, he’d probably forgotten the occasion that was such a sore point in her memory. He must have kissed dozens of women since then. Whereas she… Gracie hauled her thoughts back into line. “It’s probably nothing. I don’t have strong instincts when it comes to the team.”
“You’ve had four years running the place without Tom,” he said. “Your instincts are as good as anyone’s.”
He held her gaze and, as always, something in the blue depths of his eyes tugged at her. Something unwelcome. The night she’d kissed Lucas had been just a year after Tom’s death. She’d attended a party at a casino after the race in Las Vegas—she’d mingled with the crowd, yet felt all alone. Until Lucas came along. He’d become an unexpected, valued friend since Tom died, company when the solitude became overpowering. That night, he’d teased, charmed, then made some silly bet. She’d lost the bet…and the price had been a kiss.
A kiss that had started off as a joke, then become something more. A kiss she couldn’t forget, no matter how hard she tried, no matter how guilty she felt. As if she’d betrayed Tom.
What would Tom do right now? Every race day, Gracie agonized, trying to posthumously read his mind. He would agree with Morris, she realized.
Lucas said abruptly, “Take a chance on your instincts.”
His bossiness irked her, yet she was tempted. “For all I know, you’re trying to sabotage my driver, lower the value of my team before you make another offer.”
Lucas’s eyebrows knit together. “You don’t believe that.”
An edge of danger to the words.
She swallowed. “No.”
The TV screen at the base of the war wagon showed Joe coming into Turn Three—if she was going to override her crew chief, she had to do it soon.
“Take a chance,” Lucas said again, following her gaze. It wasn’t unheard of for a team owner to insist on a change in strategy, but it was rare.
“I’m not much of a gambler.”
“I happen to know that’s not true,” he said softly.
So he did remember that bet, that kiss! She searched his face for mockery, but found only an unexpected intensity.
“Gracie,” he said, and her name sounded urgent, exotic, on his lips. “Take a chance.”
The No. 572 car started down pit road. She drew a deep breath, steeled herself and called up to the crew chief. “Morris, we’ll take two tires and a splash. That’s an order.”
Gracie eased herself away from the celebrations in Victory Lane, exhausted now the adrenaline surge that had kept her on her feet through those nail-biting final laps had ebbed away.
She put a hand on the mesh fence, took a moment to steady herself.
“Congratulations.” Lucas stood in front of her—where had he come from?
She beamed up at him, proud of herself. And aware that without his urging, she wouldn’t have insisted the team play the pit stop her way. “Thanks. I owe you.”
“Dinner,” he said.
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
“I’m offering you a chance to settle your debt. Have dinner with me tonight.”
For once, they weren’t heading straight back to Charlotte. The track’s owners had scheduled a meeting with team owners and crew chiefs tomorrow morning to discuss upgrades to the track surface and facilities.
“I’m not selling you my team just because you gave me some good advice,” Gracie said acerbically.
That would be the focus of dinner, she was certain. Since Las Vegas, the sale of Super Keene Racing was the only thing Lucas talked to her about. The realization back then that his friendship, and his kiss, had been some kind of softening-up technique had made the whole incident even more distressing.
She couldn’t have dinner with Lucas, couldn’t sit opposite him for that long, looking into those eyes…
“Maybe I won’t pester you to sell me the team,” he said.
She snorted. “You plan to hypnotize me into giving it to you?”
He laughed. “Take a chance,” he said. “Have dinner, and I’ll consider your debt paid.”
She didn’t like this uncomfortable sensation of owing him. Maybe dinner wouldn’t be so bad…
“Fine,” she said.
Lucas picked Gracie up from her motor home at seven o’clock. He looked gorgeous in dark pants and dark shirt, a sports jacket slung over one shoulder. He ran an appreciative gaze over her midnight-blue dress.
“Nice,” he said. His eyes, a deep blue, alighted on her lips.
Gracie pressed them together. “Let’s go.”
The restaurant was candlelit, its tables draped with snowy white cloths. Lucas ordered a bottle of chardonnay, her favorite.
Mentally, Gracie gave him until their appetizers arrived before he asked her to sell Super Keene Racing. Their appetizers came and went. So did their entrées. She ordered dessert, her favorite crème brulée. Still, Lucas said nothing about the team. They talked NASCAR, of course, discussed which drivers had a chance of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the rumors about changes in the car specifications for next year.
Lucas made her laugh with his impersonation of his crew chief, who was known for his blustery manner. She returned the favor with a joking commentary on the perfect race—which naturally involved her driving beating the pants off his.
When their coffees arrived, Gracie couldn’t handle the suspense another moment.
“Why don’t you give me your best offer?” she said. “So I can turn you down.”
“My best offer? Hmm, let me think.” Silence stretched between them, until she was ready to scream.
At last, he leaned forward, smiled slowly. “My best offer is breakfast.”
Her mind rushed to disturbing, dangerous conclusions. “Did you just say…”
“Have breakfast with me tomorrow,” he said, “in my motor home.”
She drew herself up, ready to tell him what he could do with that outrageous suggestion.
“Between now and breakfast,” he said smoothly, “we’ll each sleep in our own beds.”
She blushed a mighty red and he chuckled.
“Dinner hasn’t been so hard, has it?” He reached across and ran a finger down her cheek, heat trailing in its wake. “Why not take a chance on breakfast?”
“Fine,” she mumbled, beset by the alarming thought that if she turned her head just a little, his finger would find her lips. She mustered the strength to say, “I’m still not selling you my team.”
Lucas opened the door of his motor home before Gracie knocked the next morning, and the smell of bacon drew her in.
“Mmm,” she said.
He smiled at her rapt expression, and she felt a quiver deep inside.
Turned out Lucas could cook. Bacon, scrambled eggs and fried tomatoes—what more could a woman want?
“Tell me about your life outside NASCAR.” He poured her a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
It was easy talking to him about her parents, her sisters, the ranch in Texas where she’d grown up. In turn, he told her about his family—unlike her, his background was pure NASCAR. All the time, she expected him to use the topic to segue into a discussion about her team.
When they got to coffee, she asked him again. “Now are you going to make an offer?”
He laughed. “As a matter of fact, I am. How about you fly back to Charlotte on my plane?”
She groaned. “I meant an offer for the team.”
“My offer,” he said deliberately, “is to fly you home.”
“I have my own plane here.”
“Mine’s nicer,” he said. “Take a chance, fly with me.”
She sighed. “Fine.”
Lucas’ glance was quizzical, searching. She would have said it was almost anxious, if she hadn’t known he possessed more confidence than any man rightfully should. “I hope,” he said, “that when I make you a real offer, you’ll say more than ‘fine.’”
A real offer. So this was about the team, after all. Gracie found herself blinking fast. Which was stupid, because she didn’t want anything from Lucas.
They left right after the meeting with the track owners. Gracie buckled herself into her plush leather seat. They were still on the ground, yet when Lucas sat beside her, she wondered if the plane’s cabin had a pressure problem. Air seemed to be in short supply.
“All right?” he asked. His large hand closed over hers on the armrest she’d pulled down between them as a barrier.
She gulped. “Fine.”
“Of course,” he said dryly.
He left his hand there a moment longer. When he released her, she felt cold.
After takeoff, Lucas opened a bottle of champagne. He poured two glasses and set them on the coffee table.
“Let me guess,” she said, “this is where you offer to buy the team?”
He shook his head, and the gleam in his eyes set her heart thudding.
“If you’re trying to stress me out,” she said, “it’s working. I’m almost tempted to sell.”
“Gracie,” he said, “I regret that kiss in Vegas more than anything.”
She caught her breath, and he smiled ruefully. “I didn’t expect to win that bet, but I couldn’t resist making it,” he said. “Then, when I won…I couldn’t resist kissing you.”
It was one thing for her to feel bad about that night; quite another for him to look as if he’d sucked a lemon. “I’m sorry you made such a big mistake,” she said sarcastically.
“The reason it was a mistake,” he took her hand in his, rubbed a thumb over her knuckles, “was because it was too soon for you after Tom died.”
“Oh.” The word came out very small and soft. Gracie’s heart shifted, expanded.
“I waited another year,” he said, “before I tried to talk to you again. But you still felt guilty about the kiss.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“You would only talk business, so I started making offers for the team. I’d have bought it if you agreed,” he said, “and I’d have tied you down as a business partner. But the team wasn’t what I wanted.” The intensity in his eyes struck deep into her core. Involuntary, she curled her fingers around his.
“You’ve spent most of the last twenty-four hours with me,” he said. “Relaxing, hopefully seeing I’m not such a bad guy.” There was a question in the words.
“You’re not a bad guy,” she murmured.
“When you went with your instincts during yesterday’s race I decided to take a chance that you were ready,” he said. “I’m hoping I don’t have to keep offering to buy your damn team just to talk to you. Hell, Gracie, if I have to spend forty million dollars to keep you in my life, I will. But I’d rather do it like this.”
He leaned forward, touched his lips to hers.
His mouth was firm, yet coaxing. The kiss was like Vegas, but sweeter. Without the guilt. Gracie’s lips parted in response. Lucas groaned, and she sensed the enormous restraint it took for him not to grab her and pour three years’ worth of pent-up desire into the embrace. She knew just how he felt.
There would be time for that later, she thought. Plenty of time.
When Lucas drew away, his voice was shaky. “What do you say, Gracie? Will you take a chance on me? On us?”
Her heart soared, her smile became a laugh. “Yes please,” she said. “That would be perfectly fine.”