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Title and Copyright Page

Love Around the Pit

Auto-Racing Sports Romance

Author: Dana Ervin


© Copyright 2016 by Dana Ervin

All rights reserved.

In no way is it legal to reproduce, duplicate, or transmit any part of this document in either electronic means or in printed format. Recording of this publication is strictly prohibited and any storage of this document is not allowed unless with written permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.Respective authors own all copyrights not held by the publisher.


This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person,

living or dead, is purely coincidental.


From the Author:

2 Special Bonus Stories INSIDE!

Thank you for purchasing this book.



Table of Contents


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LOVE AROUND THE PIT

Description

Brand new Team Boss, Suzie Kitchener, has a big task in hand. Abruptly plunged into the masculine world of Nascar racing, she is tasked with bringing the poorly-performing Team Neptune back into the top ten finishers. But with thirty-nine other teams snapping at her heels, she faces an uphill struggle.

When she sacks the aging team driver, replacing him with the handsome ‘Tick’ Garfield, the spotlight is on them both. Rumors abound, throwing her professional conduct, and their relationship into question.

Can Suzie turn the team around, quashing the doubts about her professional conduct? Will the handsome driver, with a reputation for drinking and womanizing be focused enough to bring noticeable results?


Chapter 1

Suzie Kitchener stepped up to the panoramic window of the VIP booth and inhaled deeply, relishing the heady scent of tire smoke, engine fumes, and the acrid tang of brake dust. She couldn’t help the smile that twitched her lips. It was as if she’d come home. It was true, she was no longer a nine-year-old kid on her father’s shoulders. She felt out of place in her business suit, heels, and blouse, although the other VIPs were just as smartly-dressed. But she’d still have felt more comfortable in scruffy coveralls, blond hair tucked beneath a baseball cap.

Below her, on a cement area randomly striped with black rubber, six men in lime green coveralls celebrated as their driver blasted back into the thick of the pack. The windows vibrated madly as the V-eight screamed. A cloud of tire smoke and track dust obscured her view until the hot winds cleared the air.

Suzie leaned over, her face almost touching the vibrating glass, trying to keep the lime green Nascar in view as it roared away to join the track, which ran parallel to the VIP booth. She watched as the car squeezed between two competitors, snuck out to pass the car ahead, and then it was gone, lost around the steeply curving oval track.

“Yes…” she hissed. Neptune Racing was already back up to twelfth place, despite the stop. The day was going well.

She’d arrived late—the result of a difficult board meeting—and missed the chaotic start that had cost four teams their cars. But with two hours of the race still to run, there would be plenty to see, including their new driver.

‘Tick’ Garfield was a recent acquisition for Neptune Racing, a deal recommended by Suzie herself. He was a good racer, with a solid record of high-place finishes. Nevertheless, Suzie knew her reputation within Neptune was in Tick’s hands. Her decision to retire Neptune’s previous driver had been difficult, but Harrison hadn’t gained a top ten place in the past two seasons. The other teams’ drivers were either younger, keener, or both.

Naturally, the pit lane scuttlebutt had decided Suzie was more interested in the new driver’s ‘stick’ than his track record, and his reputation as a hard-drinking womanizer hadn’t helped matters. But the fact remained, he was a good driver, and one who got the job done. His extra-curricular activities were irrelevant to Suzie, as long as Team Neptune benefited.

“So how’s your boy?” a man asked. She turned, to see Alec McNamara leaning dangerously close to her ear. The owner of Team Dysart, McNamara had also shown interest in Tick, but Suzie had been quick enough to snatch him from under McNamara’s nose. An old-school dinosaur, he believed himself and his money to be irresistible, and Suzie’s slick move had caught him by surprise.

“He’s doing well, Alec.” She folded her arms across her chest, aware of McNamara’s lechery.

“These new drivers always do,” he replied quietly. “Until they settle in, and then they get comfortable, sloppy, even.”

Suzie feigned surprise. “I’m sorry to hear that, Alec. Does this mean you’ll be letting Chester go after this race?” Grinning, she rubbed her hands together.

“Chester? What? No, I meant…” he stalled, flustered. McNamara fell silent, her comment about his newest driver burning his ears. Suzie smiled and turned to watch the cars thunder past. Their insane speed squeezed the roar of the V-eights into an approaching whine, then stretched them into an earth-shattering growl as they passed her.

“Neeeownggg…” she muttered quietly, as if she was ten years old again. The sound took her back to her childhood. Back then, she’d no inkling of the boardroom politics, the money-wrangling or the arguments between pit crew, driver and owner. She’d simply loved the sound, smell, and sight of scores of machines screaming past her.

Neeeownggg. Neeeownggg, Neeeownggg… Nowadays, it was all too horribly complicated for such innocent enjoyment. Her concerns over the new driver, and how to wring the best out of him plus the apparently-frustrated pit crew were high on her list of worries. And if Team Neptune didn’t perform, the boardroom would demand answers.

As a child, being a team owner had been a far-distant dream. As an adult, it was bordering on a walking nightmare. But there had been no way to resist the allure of Nascar, even knowing what it would cost her in lost sleep. The upside, of course, was total immersion in her childhood love of racing.

A lime green blur whined, then roared past the window, pursued by a pack of slower-moving blurs. She glanced up. Tick was still down in twelfth place, but only by a quarter second. She expected him to take eleventh before he came around again.

“The new radiator’s making a difference,” McNamara murmured into her ear. She cringed away from him, trying to hide her shock. No-one was supposed to know about Neptune’s improvements to the cooling system. The whole project had taken eight months of hard work, cloaked in secrecy, and had finally been fitted prior to qualifying. Who’d blabbed?

“The car’s performing well,” Suzie replied, neither confirming nor denying McNamara’s suspicions.

“Enjoy the advantage while it lasts. This time next week, everyone will have the same system and then…” He snapped his fingers. “We’ll be back on a level field.”

“See you on the track, Alec,” Suzie returned her attention to the race. She wanted to stomp away, but then Alec would know he’d rattled her. She maintained her calm posture, creating a mental list of people who could’ve given Neptune’s secrets to their rivals. None of the pit crew, except for the crew chief, knew anything about the new system. Even Tick was unaware of the change, aside from an extra eight degrees of oil and water cooling, which allowed the engine to perform better. No one in the boardroom had been told of the expensive replacement to the standard Nascar-approved radiator. Suzie had ensured the costs had been carefully disguised as consumable parts; tires, engines and transmissions all wore out at a frightening rate and needed frequent replacement.

No, the only people with the necessary knowledge were the engineers at the company who’d developed the clever trick of hiding a core within a core, of adding extra cooling vanes inside the existing radiator body, so the coolant circulated twice instead of only once. The first working ‘Hot Core’ radiator offered an eighteen percent improvement on the standard rad, and was a bargain at only forty thousand dollars, plus five thousand for all subsequent units.

And now the secret was out—already.

Heads were going to roll, but later.

The pack roared past, led by Tick in eleventh place. Suzie grinned and curled her hand into a fist. Nearby, McNamara cursed quietly. Suzie was cheered by the gain. Tick was now pulling clear of the pack, gaining precious feet with every turn, but he had a long way to go before he caught the tenth place guy—Rob Chester of Team Dysart.

Unexpectedly, a camera zoomed in on Neptune’s car. Tick’s eyes, narrowed in concentration, filled the center of the screen. Suzie couldn’t hear the commentary, but watching those eyes took her back to the day she’d first seen the handsome driver.


Chapter 2

Tick had reportedly had a huge bust-up with Team Redworth, for whom he’d all but won the Sprint Cup. The word had gone out that he was considering an offer from McNamara, so Suzie had hurried to his trailer, where she caught up with him smoking an electronic cigarette. He pushed it into a pocket, but not before Suzie had spotted it.

“Not good for your bad boy image, Tick,” she chided, then glanced around. “But I won’t tell.”

“You’re a funny lady.”

“Why thank you, sir.” Grinning, she’d dropped into a small curtsey.

“What can I do for you, Ms…”

“Kitchener. Suzie Kitchener.” She extended a hand, which he frowned at.

“And did you come here to blackmail me? Are you going to tell the world I’m less than a man? Because I drink real whiskey, you know.”

“I don’t doubt that. No, I came to make you a proposal.”

“I ain’t interested in marrying you, lady.”

“You’re a real funny guy, Tick.” When he shrugged, she wondered if he’d be acting this way if a smartly-dressed guy was talking to him, instead of a smartly-dressed woman. Of course he’d take a guy more seriously. After all, this was very much a man’s sport. Neptune Inc. had cautioned her before she interviewed for the position of race manager. She got the job with little trouble, effectively becoming the team’s owner. She had complete control of the finances, with the power to hire and fire as she saw fit—unless the board overruled her. So her first priority was to restart the stalled ‘Hot Core’ project. Her second priority was a fresh driver to replace old dog Harrison, who elected to stay on as a test driver, although at a lower rate of pay.

“So what do you propose?” Tick grinned his trademark ‘Burt Reynolds,’ and waited for her to regain her composure. Most women lost their train of thought when he hit them with his grin. More often than not, they ended up in his trailer and then his bed.

But Suzie was quick to recover. “A drive with Team Neptune.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I already got an offer from McNamara.”

“He can’t afford you.”

“He what?

“I know the guy who does his books. They’ll promise you everything. At first, it’ll be rosy, but then it’ll start to slip. The pay will be delayed for some reason or another, and you’ll fall behind. You’ll dine out on I.O.U.s for a while, before he finally admits he can’t afford your pay, and would you take a cut—for the good of the team.”

Tick’s hands curled into fists. “That son of a b—”

“Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it…”

“No,” Tick muttered. “I knew there was something off about that guy. He was so damned evasive.”

“Whereas our accounts are available for scrutiny.”

“Neptune’s a big company,” he admitted.

“With a vested interest in motor sports.”

“Yeah. You guys make seats and wheels, yeah?”

“Among other things.”

“So you’re offering me a drive?”

“As the newly-appointed team owner, I’m empowered to offer you five percent more than McNamara offered, plus we can guarantee you’ll actually receive it.”

“Ten percent,” Tick replied without hesitation.

Suzie raised an eyebrow and inclined her head. “You’d prefer to take a chance with McNamara’s creditors?”

“Eight percent?”

“Six.”

“Seven.”

“Fine.” Suzie feigned exasperation. In truth, she’d budgeted for fifteen percent. Tick had been too easy to win over. She offered her hand and a huge paw enveloped it. His skin was warm, and surprisingly soft too, considering his profession. His brown eyes studied her as they shook on the deal. But when she tried to withdraw her hand, he trapped it between both of his.

“I will need this in writing, you understand.”

“Of… of course.” It took Suzie a moment to recover. She’d been prepared for his pantie-dropping grin, but the touch of his warm skin sent uncontrollable tingles along her arms. He held her hand tightly, but not painfully, as her thoughts crashed and collided like seashore breakers. Suzie turned her gaze away from Tick’s mesmerizing grin, knowing her self-control was close to its limit. She squeezed her eyes closed, cursing herself for being a weak-minded feminine fool. What was it about him that mesmerized women? He wasn’t anything special to look at. Sure, he was tall, dark-haired and muscular with a strong jaw, a winning smile and soft brown eyes. But apart from that…

Of course, most women would be swayed by his success, his determination to win and the fact he was always in the media spotlight. Plus, he was comfortably wealthy, easy on the eyes and sickeningly healthy. The success of his career depended on him staying as fit as an athlete.

Suzie was far too worldly-wise to fall for any of those shallow features. She valued other attributes in man, such as intelligence, and a sense of humor. Okay, Tick had them both, but that wasn’t why she was trembling like a teenager—was it?

“Can I have my hand back please?” she asked in a tight voice.

“Why? What do you plan to do with it?”

“Spend the rest of my life with it—if I ever get it back.” She tugged, and Tick released her. The blood roared in her ears; her balance was momentarily off… or was it the stiletto heels?

“So now you got me,” Tick said with a wide grin. “What are you going to do with me?”

Suzie took a couple of steadying breaths before she replied. “Come over to my trailer later.”

“Your trailer? Should I bring wine?”

“I meant the Neptune trailer,” she corrected. “The team’s trailer. I have no idea why I called it mine. I’ve never even been to bed—I mean, slept there.” Her stupid heart was hammering against her ribs. What in the hell was wrong with her?

“I’ll be there,” he said, then lowered his voice. “And I can still bring wine if you’d like.”

“Just bring a pen.”


Chapter 3

The rest of the race had gone well. Tick caught up with the next pack of racers and taken tenth place from Team Dysart, then gone on to slice his way up to fifth. It wasn’t a podium finish, but it was ten places higher than Harrison had managed in his final year.

“Not a bad effort—for a rookie,” Suzie teased.

“Hah!” Tick retorted. “I got more years on the track than you, lady.” His disarming grin turned the insult into a well-meant quip.

“Still your first day on the job,” she reminded him. “I haven’t seen enough balls-out driving to make me want to keep you.” Her wink softened the jibe into a joke. But when Tick unzipped his coveralls and reached for his crotch, Suzie stared.

“If it’s balls-out you want; I can soon fix that.”

Suzie squealed and turned her back. “Tell me he didn’t!” she wailed. Her stiff hands formed blinkers around her eyes. When the gathered pit crew laughed, she knew she’d been had. Suzie turned cautiously to see Tick zipping up his coveralls again. His other hand formed a pistol, which he aimed at her. She scowled at him, then shook her head.

“You had a lucky escape,” the chief mechanic whispered to her. “I hear he has really big balls.”

Suzie raised an eyebrow. “Well, fifth place wasn’t bad for a first attempt. Maybe those balls can get him even higher in the next race.” She raised her voice. “Maybe we all can. Right, boys?” The crew cheered loudly, spilling their drinks on the carpet. They grinned at her, happy for their contribution to be acknowledged. All too often, the glamor of the race landed in the driver’s lap. Suzie was determined to promote the pit crew—the guys who worked so hard—as part of a massive team effort. Maybe she could give them the recognition they deserved, instead of living in the driver’s shadow.

****

“You want to do what?” The CEO gaped at her.

“I want to take the entire team on a photo shoot. I want each and every one of them to share in the glory of Team Neptune.”

“Why, for God’s sake?”

“Because, Jim, they share the burden of the work. Why should they live in the shadows while the driver gets all the praises?”

“Because, Suzie, the driver is the face of the team. He’s the pinnacle of everything they’ve put together. We can’t have a team of prima donnas taking the glory from the main man. Why do you think we pay him so much? He’s a goddam star!”

“They’re not prima donnas, Jim. They’re passionate, hard-working guys who make everything possible.”

Jim raised an eyebrow. “Passionate, are they?”

“Oh drop it, you male chauvinist dinosaur.”

Jim laughed. “Relax, Suzie. I’m teasing you.”

“Well… don’t.”

“What we have is a team. A team strives to one purpose—to win. And the winner takes the credit.” He leaned back in his chair. “That’s the way the world works.”

“It’s not the way my world works.”

Jim shrugged. “Do whatever you think is best. But be careful not to mess with the status quo. There’s a good reason mechanics aren’t in the limelight.”

“Really? What is it?”

“The driver stops getting all the glory. And glory is what drives them to win.”


Chapter 4

Suzie decided to go for it. She had new coveralls delivered, each one inscribed with the mechanic’s name across the back. Her enthusiasm was met with puzzled frowns.

“What are we doing here, exactly?” Bob the jack-man asked.

“I’m raising your profile, boys.”

“But why?”

“Don’t you want to be out of the shadows?”

“I didn’t realize I was in the shadows.”

Suzie dropped a hip and addressed the room. “Okay, how many fans do you imagine are aware that Bob is part of Team Neptune.”

“Zero,” the chief answered.

“And you, Chief. You’re top dog in this garage. How many fans even know you exist?”

“I’m not here for the fans. I’m here for the team.”

“And you ought to be recognized for your contribution.”

“But me going out with my name on my back isn’t going to get me noticed anyway,” Bob pointed out.

“Ah.” Suzie raised a finger. “It will if you’re willing to try a few moves from the football field.” She smiled as several of the guys glanced at each other.

“Go on,” Bob said.

****

“The guys are looking smart in their lime greens,” Tick said. He shielded his eyes from the afternoon sun as he walked back to the garage with Suzie. She’d booked an hour’s testing at the oval to give the rebuilt car a shakedown, and the crew some tire-changing practice.

“I thought they could use a make-over. And they’ve been drilling for the past hour, working on some new moves.”

“What kind of new moves?”

Suzie shrugged. “You’ll see. Or you might not, depending on how much visibility you have when you’re strapped into that thing.”

Tick slowed, and turned to look at her. “You’ve never been inside a Nascar?”

“Only when I was ten. My dad managed to sit me inside one for a few minutes. It was big inside.”

“Big for a ten-year-old, but not for an adult.” He looked her up and down. “You’ve filled out since then.” Suzie stopped in her tracks and gaped at him. He sagged and shook his head.

“I mean, you’ve grown up. You’re a woman now. You’re taller, you’re… curvier. You’re…” His head rocked as he searched for the right words.

“I’m what?” She raised an eyebrow.

“You’re prettier, is all.” He said in a low voice. His eyes moved from side to side to ensure he hadn’t been overheard.

“Hmm.” Her mouth turned into a tight line.

“What? I say nice things to you and you give me unhappy face?”

“Nice things,” she repeated. “I know what your little game is, Tick Garfield.”

“My game?”

“You have a reputation with the ladies.”

“Oh.” He smiled. “That game.”

“Exactly. So don’t try your flattery on me, mister.” She stiffened when he touched her shoulder.

“Okay, let’s clear the air right now. I might make naughty with the ladies at the weekend, but I’m here to do a job, okay?”

“Okay…” she said slowly.

“And that means no sleeping with the boss. So stop worrying.”

She laughed. “I’m not worried in the least.” She shrugged off his hand. “I just hate to see a grown man wasting his time.”

“Is that what it would have been?” he asked. “A waste of time?”

“Hey! What happened to not…” she lowered her voice to a hiss. “…sleeping with the boss?”

“I was curious. Nothing more.”

“This conversation is over,” Suzie hissed. “Hi, Chief!”

“Hey, Boss-lady.”

“Looking good, boys. Ready to play?”

“Well, they’ve been practicing, if that’s what you mean.”

“Good. I found you a driver. Not the best one, but he’ll do.” She slapped Tick’s back. “I hear he’s got balls.”

“You need me to prove it?” Tick whispered.

“Go get changed,” she replied tightly. She tried in vain to block the mental image of Tick reaching for his crotch.

“Yes, Boss-lady.”

“Here,” the chief said. He held up a small set of lime greens.

“Okayyy…” Suzie said slowly. The chief turned them around. ‘The Boss’ was written across the back in large, looped letters. Someone had been creative with a spare set of coveralls.

“You like?”

Suzie smiled and dropped a hip. “Yeah, I like. Thanks guys.”

“Thank Bob. It was his idea.”

“Chief!” Bob protested. His colleagues laughed heartily.

“It’s okay, Bob,” Suzie said. “They’re great.”

“Really?”

“Really. Except… wearing a skirt today turned out to be a bad idea.”

“You can change inside.”

“I’ll wait until Tick is finished.” She leaned closer to the chief. “Wouldn’t want to accidentally see his balls, would I?”

“Of course not, Boss.” The chief struggled to keep his face straight.

Suzie rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me you believe the gossip crap too.”

“Of course not, Boss.” the chief said again.

“Chief, there’s nothing going on between us. I wouldn’t want to see his balls for an extra year’s salary.” When he whistled, she continued. “And that isn’t as much as you’d imagine.”

“Of course not, Boss.”

“Oh, drop it, would you?”

“Of course, Boss.”

“Chief, you and I are going to fall out.”


Chapter 5

Tick roared off down the track, showering the crew with dust. It hadn’t rained in weeks and the skidding tires had struggled to find grip.

“Does that always happen?” Suzie asked.

“We sometimes sneak around with a brush,” the chief said. “If we get enough warning of a stop, we can sweep the area clean inside of a minute. But it builds up quickly during a race.”

The six-man crew stood outside the roller shutters, lined up in two rows of three, exactly as Suzie had suggested earlier. At a signal from the chief, the front row took one step to the left, and the back row stepped forward.

“Nep-toon!” the single line called out. They exploded into life; four of the men collected wheels from the stack outside the garage. Bob lifted a lightweight car jack, and the remaining crewman seized a fuel dump can.

“Go!” They marched forward to the cement wall that protected the pit from the track. The four wheels were set on the wall in two pairs. The other two crewmen stood between them, waiting for their driver to arrive.

“Team Neptune ready, Boss.” At that moment, the roar of a Nascar engine cut through the air. Suzie stared as two of the wheel-men leap-frogged the cement wall, landing in a crouch. A moment later, the other two wheel-men followed, landing beside their colleagues, who were already rising and turning. Wheels were snatched from the wall and carried to the far side of where the car would stop. The other two wheels were dropped to the ground and leaned against the wall. The jack-man laced his fingers together, and the refueller put a foot into them, stepping up and onto the wall. The wheel-men closest to the wall reached up and lowered the refueller to the ground. Bob, who had carried the car jack to the wall, sprang up and performed a somersault, landing with his arms wide. The wheel-men lifted the jack as Bob spun, to place it in his hands.

Suzie glanced at the chief, who was nodding and smiling. The whole performance had taken less than ten seconds.

Bob the jack-man turned to face the oncoming car as Tick roared toward them. Suzie was startled by the car’s speed, even though she’d seen tire changes a thousand times. Her eyes widened as Tick roared into the space bracketed by the four tires, and stopped exactly on the money. Bob went to work, hoisting over three thousand pounds of car into the air inside two seconds. Suzie watched in awe as two wheels were pulled clear and two fresh ones were fitted. The car hit the ground, the crew scampered around to the other side, and the process was repeated. She counted out fourteen seconds before the rear wheels were spinning and the lime green Nascar was roaring away.

“Nep-toon!” the crew yelled as they jumped clear. Tick threw her a casual wave as he passed, blasting her with noise and dust. Suzie pressed a hand to her forehead as the car dwindled to a toy, then swept left around the banked track and out of sight.

“That’s our first routine,” the chief said.

“Your first?”

“We have other ideas. If we can develop them quickly enough, the public will never see the same one twice.”

“Looks like the guys had fun.”

“They were getting bored with the same old scrambling-about. This has given something to get their teeth into.”

“Bravo!” Suzie clapped her hands, and the crew grinned. “Who knew we had our very own cheerleading team?”

The pit crew hurried the tires back to the garage, stacking them in readiness for the next drill. Suzie leaned closer to the chief.

“How’s the cooling system performing these days?”

“Still eight degrees’ advantage over the standard design.”

“More horsepower?”

“The output varies, but yes, it makes a noticeable difference.”

“Forty grand well spent,” Suzie said. “But I’m curious to know how McNamara heard about it.”

“It didn’t come from me. And none of the crew know about it. I connect the hoses personally, so no one sees the inner core.”

“We still have a mole in the system, Chief.”

“I’ll let you know if I hear anything, Boss.”

“Thanks.” Suzie fell silent, relishing the roar echoing back from the banked track as Tick gunned the Neptune car around the far side.

“Nep-toon!” the crew called, and the carefully-choreographed circus act rolled out of the garage once again.

The second pit stop was a full second faster as the crew warmed up. It seemed the play-acting was good for their reactions. Suzie made a note to encourage them whenever possible. As Tick roared away and the crew scrambled to retrieve the changed tires, the chief pressed a finger to his ear.

“Tick?” Suzie asked. The chief nodded, then headed for the garage, leaving Suzie alone in the hot afternoon sun. He returned less than a minute later, barely ahead of the performing pit crew.

“Here.” He handed her an open-face white helmet.

She stared at it as her hands moved automatically. “Ah… what’s this for?”

“You put it on your head!” he yelled over the approaching roar.

“I know that, Chief. I mean what—”

“No time to explain. When he stops, get in the other door.”

What?

“It’ll be good for you to see things from the other side.”

“Hey, wait. I can’t—”

“Here he comes!”

“Chief!” Suzie protested, but he was already ushering her to the passenger side, even though Tick was still moving at close to a hundred. The crew crouched, tensed and ready. Tick parked the Nascar perfectly, and the passenger side was lifted. Wheels were pulled off, and replacements were pushed into place. The buzz guns whined, and then the car was dropping. The crew melted away, leaving the way clear.

“Awww…” Suzie moaned. She was still trying to fasten the open-face helmet. The chief pulled open the flimsy door, exposing the sturdy tubular cage inside.

“In, in…” he urged. Suzie squeezed past the steelwork and dropped into the deep seat. The car rocked from side to side as the jack-man worked to raise the driver’s side. Tick glanced across as the chief connected the six-point harness and tugged the straps tight. A raised thumb hovered in front of Suzie’s face. Too shocked to do anything other than raise a hand, she watched as the chief retreated and closed the flimsy door, locking it securely.

The car hit the ground, bounced once, and a huge hand pressed against her chest as the garage blurred into streaks of color. The noise was staggering. Not an ounce was squandered on luxuries such as soundproofing, or cushioning. She was strapped into a Kevlar bowl, trapped in a steel-and-fiberglass box, propelled forward by seven hundred fifty horsepower.

She screamed, but it was completely lost in the harsh noise. She’d nothing to hold onto except the straps across her chest. The track slid across in front of her, climbing steeply to her right, falling away to her left. The car tilted over as they hit the first corner. G-forces pushed her down into the seat, and she suddenly understood why Kevlar was used. Her weight doubled, and she would have crushed ordinary cushioning, altering her position drastically. Not too bad for a passenger, but problematic for a driver.

The V-eight roar echoed back at her from the wall, which was getting closer and closer. She gripped the belts tighter, hoping Tick knew what he was doing. Abruptly, the corner ended, and the car hurtled down the bank toward the yellow line at the left side, closing to within a few inches of the penalty-earning zone. But Tick kept his wheels on the correct side, teasing the edge as he hit two hundred. If he was practicing for race day, some poor official was likely to get a headache watching for a transgression. Suzie glanced across to see Tick grinning at her.

“The road!” she yelled. “Keep your eyes on the road!”

“There’s nothing coming!” he yelled back.

“Forward! Forward! Forward!” she howled. She wanted to point at the windshield, but she was too afraid to let go the belt. Fortunately, Tick nodded and turned his attention to the next corner, which was already looming, a gray mountain streaked with black. Suzie was squashed down into the seat again as they roared around, climbing to gain height so he could trade it for speed on the way out.

And then they were back on the flat, facing the long straight which would take them back to the pits. Suzie was shocked to realize they’d completed most of a lap—in the space of a few stunned breaths. As Tick pulled over to the left, and closer to the pit wall, he yelled across to her.

“Now do you see why I love this?”

“You’re all crazy! The whole damn lot of you!”

“I know, right?” He grinned. The car maintained an insane speed. Suzie glimpsed tiny, dark figures ahead. They grew larger very quickly. At the last minute, it seemed, the car shuddered to a halt, and her side rose into the air faster than an elevator.

“Can I get out now?”

“Take a look around,” Tick shouted over the unsteady grumble of the engine. “Tell me what you see.”

“Not a damn thing,” she replied. “Except what’s ahead.”

“That’s all there is. Sometimes you get a glimpse in a mirror, or see another car alongside, but only from the corner of your eye. The focus is on what’s out there!” he jabbed a finger at the windshield.

Suzie’s side of the car hit the ground. “Can I get out now?” Dark figures darted past the hood. Tick’s side rose into the air. Buzz guns whined and screamed.

“One more time around the block,” Tick called. His side hit the ground and a huge hand squashed Suzie back into the most uncomfortable, yet strongest seat known to man.

She screamed.


Chapter 6

“How was it?” the chief asked. Suzie trembled from head to foot as he unfastened the helmet’s chin strap.

“I think I might go throw up somewhere.”

The chief patted her shoulder. “Have a glass of milk. There’s some in the chiller.”

“I had no idea the ride was so insane—and so damn loud. I mean, it’s noisy enough out here.”

“But now you have a better idea of how hard he works.”

“How hard you all work. How does that thing…” She indicated the car. “…not shake itself to pieces?”

The chief tapped the side of his nose. “Know-how, Boss. And over sixty-five years of racing stocks.”

Suzie frowned. “You don’t look old enough to have been around that long.”

“History, Boss. Stock cars have been around since 1949. They looked a little different back then, though.”

“I’m sure they did.” Suzie pressed a hand to her mouth as her stomach turned over.

“Milk. Chiller.” The chief ushered her toward the garage.

“Sure, sure. Urp…” Suzie pressed a hand to her mouth and hurried inside, unsure if she was going to make it to a sink in time. The milk would have to wait.

****

“Are you feeling any better?”

“Hmm?” She lifted her head from the pillow and tried to focus on the speaker. The trailer rocked as he stepped inside.

“Sorry I made you ill.”

“Oh, it wasn’t you…” She let her head fall back. “It was the noise, the smells, the vibration…”

“The G-forces? The speed?”

“All of the above. But don’t mention anymore. Right now, I’m visualizing a crystal blue Italian stream.”

“A calming influence?”

“Water always soothes me.”

“I’ll need to remember that.”

“What? Why?” What are you planning? A seduction?

“Because some of the oval tracks have restaurants beside rivers, or lakes. You’d like them.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Can I sit down?”

“Why?”

“Because these trailers weren’t designed for people over six feet tall.”

“Oh, okay. Sure.”

“So are you hating me now?”

“Hating you? Why would I?” Instead of answering, Tick indicated Suzie’s prone body. “Oh. I see. No, I don’t hate you. I’m annoyed at my own weakness.” She cringed, hating herself for admitting her feelings to an employee. How was she supposed to create respect when she talked that way?

Tick clasped his hands together and sighed. “I used to be pit crew. Not a very good one, but I had a place on Team Carlson.”

“I don’t think I heard of—”

“They fell apart a dozen years ago. But I had a few years with them. One day I made some smartass comment about how easy the drivers have it while we did all the work.”

“You said that?”

Tick nodded. “Next thing, I was being strapped into a Nascar, just as you were today.”

“They took you for a run around the block.”

“Ten blocks. They made me endure ten fucking laps. I was sick on the third time around. And again on the fifth. And the seventh…”

“They should have stopped.”

“Nope. It taught me a valuable life lesson.”

“Never shoot your mouth off in front of the boss?”

“Nope. I still do that today.”

“So what was the lesson?”

“Never eat a fried breakfast before a drive.”

Suzie nodded as she considered his words. “Good advice.”

“I didn’t set out to make you sick.”

“It was a bonus though, admit it.”

“Nope. I’m sorry, really. I only wanted you to taste real excitement.”

“I got a different taste in my mouth right now.”

“I should leave you to rest.” He stood up.

“How did the pit drills go?”

“You better ask the chief that. I only saw a blur. I’m sure they shaved a couple seconds off their first time.”

“I thought so.”

“The car was singing today, though.”

“That’s great,” she managed.

“Okay. Maybe see you later, then?”

“If I can heal myself.” She forced a weak smile onto her face as he squeezed her shoulder. A peculiar tingle warmed her chest as he moved toward the door. “Tick?”

“Yeah?”

“That was a great ride, by the way.”

He smiled. “That comment is loaded with innuendo.”

“I know. Now get out… please.”

****

The next race was a huge success - not least for the pit crew. Their routine went perfectly. They managed to forward-flip over the wall without mishap as they raced to service Tick’s car. Once complete, they helped each other back over the wall as if they were marines on an assault course, ending their show with a victory dance on the top of the wall. The crowd roared approval as they forward-flipped off the wall and back into the safety of the pit area. The chief was convinced the track officials would have something to say, but he was having too much fun to care. Team Neptune’s tire change had made the other teams look clumsy and disorganized.

“Someone’s gonna get hurt if your guys keep clowning around,” Alec McNamara complained. Suzie ignored him. Instead she cheered as Tick passed Team Dysart and kept climbing until he reached fourth place, finishing eighteen seconds behind the third-place driver. Given another thirty laps, Tick would have caught him. He’d simply run out of time.

“Maybe I should get myself an illegal cooling system,” McNamara muttered.

“It’s not illegal, Alec,” Suzie reminded him. They simply haven’t imagined the design to be possible.”

“Still shouldn’t be allowed. How’s it work, anyway?”

Ah-hah! Suzie struggled not to smile. He doesn’t know anything about the design. “It’s pretty standard, Alec. If it was radical, the scrutineers would have already investigated it.”

“So it’s hidden inside something legal, then?”

Oops. Suzie realized she’d already said too much. “It’s pretty standard, like I said.” As McNamara walked away, Suzie knew a potential leak had been eliminated. If the engineering company had told McNamara about the new cooler, they’d have also told him how it was put together. McNamara had heard a rumor, nothing more.

Tick walked into the garage, his arms thrown wide. Suzie stayed back as he was mobbed by the pit crew. Several man -hugs were exchanged. The chief offered a firm handshake, then stepped back.

Tick grinned at Suzie. “Do I get a hug from the boss?” He nodded at her lime greens, still emblazoned with ‘The Boss’ across the back.

“Not where the photographers can see us.” She offered her hand. But he threw his arms around her instead. The pit crew cheered and clapped as she tried to free herself.

“Get off!” she yelled. But Tick held on for another few seconds before releasing her. “You idiot!”

“What? I did good today, right guys?”

“You know what the press have been saying about us, about our so-called relationship!”

The chief cleared his throat. “Okay, boys. Let’s go clean up.” He ushered the pit crew out of the garage.

“I don’t care what the press says,” Tick said.

“But don’t you care that it bothers me? That the only reason I brought you into this team was to sleep with you?”

“And did you?”

Suzie stared in disbelief. “Why, you thick-headed, half-witted Neanderthal!”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

“I’m not! Don’t you see how much it hurts me?” She narrowed her eyes. “And don’t you see what it says about you?

Her words touched a nerve. “What does it say about me?”

“That you’re only here because you have a dick. Not because you’re any good at driving!”

“I have balls. You said so yourself.”

She pressed a hand to her head. “Fucking hell, Tick. Don’t you get it?”

“Not really.”

She sighed. “Because sleeping with the lady-boss is okay for the guy. But it makes me look cheap and manipulative.”

“Really?” He frowned.

“Yes, really.”

“I’m… sorry. I didn’t look at it from your point of view.”

“Of course you didn’t. You’re just a guy. A…a—”

“A thick-headed, half-witted Neanderthal?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

He considered her for a moment. “It’s a good thing I’m too stupid to understand an insult like that.”

“I know you’re not stupid,” Suzie said. “But you have no idea how awful the rumors make me feel. Even the CEO made a comment…” Her throat tightened, strangling her speech. She drew her hands down her face. Tick opened his arms and beckoned her into his embrace. After a moment’s hesitation, she gave in and let him hold her.

“There, now. Is it really so bad?”

“No,” she admitted. I feel safe here, even though I shouldn’t have given in to him.

“I’ll keep the nasty rumor-mongers at bay.”

“How, exactly?”

“I’ll tell the world I’m gay.”

She stared up at him. “You seriously expect them to swallow that? After all the women you’ve had?”

Tick sighed. “Can I let you in on a secret?”

“Sure. Of course.”

“I didn’t sleep with ninety percent of the women I’m reported to.”

“As if I believe you. You have a great reputation as a womanizer.”

“And where did you read about this ‘great reputation,’ might I ask?”

“In the papers?” The statement, started with confidence, emerged as a question once she realized her error.

“The same papers that have you down as cheap and manipulative?”

“I see your point.”

“The media is easy to fool. Give them a juicy rumor and they run with it.”

“I bet you enjoy your fake reputation,” Suzie murmured into his chest. “Hey, you said ninety percent! What about the other ten?”

Tick shrugged. “I was young and foolish.”

“So you haven’t had another woman since… when, exactly?”

He frowned as he searched his memory. “Seven months, I think. Maybe eight.”

“But they must be throwing themselves at you!”

“They’re throwing themselves at a fantasy. Sure, I have needs, but most days I’m too damn tired to bother. You’ve seen how hard I drive.”

“It was intense,” she admitted.

“Imagine how it sounds with forty cars around you, all pushing and shoving with their engines screaming.”

“I feel sick thinking about it.” She grabbed a handful of his t-shirt and pressed her face against the material. His skin was hot against her cheek.

“You’ve seen pictures of me with lots of different women, but the truth is…” he glanced around, then lowered his voice. “Most of them go home disappointed.”

“Only most of them?”

“Yeah. The others get autographs, or a peck on the cheek.”

“I’m curious. Where do you put these autographs?”

“I could show you, but you’d need to undress first.”

She lifted her head from his chest and stared into his soft brown eyes. A snarky comment formed on her lips, but she held it back. She couldn’t blame him for having some fun. Who the hell was she to judge him anyway? She didn’t own him; he was a grown man, free to sleep with whomever he chose. So what if he signed a few boobs or butts? As long as he turned up sober in the morning and raced as hard as he could for the team, his private life was none of her concern.

But the thought of him drawing his pen across bare breasts sent a warm tingle through her body. A crazy impulse seized her, and she tried to remember if she had a Sharpie in her purse. Wouldn’t it be refreshing, just for once, to let go of her dignity and get him to sign her body? She started to pull back, ready to expose her chest to him, when the reality of her daydream hit home.

What if the chief, or one of the crew walked in? What if a sharp-eyed camera caught a glimpse of their activities? No, she decided. It was a stupid idea. But the crazy notion set her heart hammering with excitement; her ears were hot and her breaths erratic.

“Okay, okay, calm down,” she murmured.

“What was that?” Tick asked.

“Nothing. Just a crazy thought.”

“Really? As crazy as ‘Okay, Tick. If you finish third in the next race, I’ll let you sign my boobs too’ sort of crazy.”

She stared at him for a long moment before speaking. “Third?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You really think you can grab third?”

“I could if my mind was being driven crazy by the thought of you saying yes to my proposal.”

“You really think I’d stoop to something like that?”

“You might. Imagine how good you’d look in the boardroom.”

“With your scribbles all over my chest?”

“I keep my signatures low. Usually just above the nipple.”

Oh my God!

“Tick, this is massively inappropriate.”

“It’s only a little fun. It won’t mean we’re married, or anything.”

Suzie sighed heavily. “For third place?”

“Third place, next race.”

“I’ll do you a deal. You finish third—or above—in the next race, and I’ll let you sign my chest.”

“Your boobs. Not just your chest.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, one of my boobs.”

“Deal.”

“But you have to do the pit crew first.”

What?

“Yep. Deal, or not?”

“The whole pit crew?”

“All six. And the chief.”

Tick groaned, then smiled tightly. “Okay, you win. The whole pit crew, then you.”

“Deal.” She offered him her hand. She thought he’d squeeze hard, just to exact some revenge, but his grip was warm and soft. She shivered. A small, mischievous part of her already pictured how it would feel to expose her chest to him.


Chapter 7

Tick did it.

Damn him, he actually did it! Suzie thought. The garage exploded with roars of delight. Everyone hugged everyone else. Even the crew chief let down his defenses for a moment and wrapped her in his arms.

“Nep-toon!” they all yelled as the lime green car roared past. Tick’s arm was thrust out of the window, three fingers held high.

“He did it, he did it!” Suzie cried. The entwined pair danced around in a circle, bouncing on the soles of their feet. As she celebrated, part of her remembered the price she’d have to pay for his victory. But it wasn’t as if she’d sold her soul, was it? She’d only agreed to let him draw on one of her boobs. It was a small concession. She wondered what she’d have to do to encourage him into a second place finish—let him sign her butt? Maybe she’d get away with a scribble on her other breast instead. But first, she’d have to get drunk. There was no way she’d be able to lift her shirt without some Dutch courage.

She half-expected him to hurry over to her immediately after the presentation was over, but Tick remained cool, only looking at her when he’d man-hugged the pit crew. She squealed as she was lifted off the ground and spun around, held tightly in his arms. He was hot against her body, a mixture of oil and masculine musk. A happy warmth infused her, unearthing the best memories of her days at the track, both as a child and as an adult. Her arms slid around his neck and she pulled herself against him, pressing her cheek against his.

“Well done, you crazy Neanderthal!”

“I’m too dumb to stay out back,” he replied. “I had to see what was going on up front.”

“You did it! You fucking did it!”

“What can I say? I was inspired.” His eyebrow lifted, and she knew he was going to demand compensation for his efforts.

“Later, big guy, later.” She patted his chest and he lowered her to the floor.

“As long as you don’t run out on me.”

“I won’t. I promise.” I hope I can do this, she thought. If I can’t, I’ll be in a lot of trouble.

****

The party was chaotic. Pit lane girls, scantily-clad in hot pants and tight t-shirts, were everywhere. Pit crew mingled with owners and drivers as if everyone was equal. For tonight, Suzie thought, they were. She mingled with the crew for a while, avoided McNamara as much as possible, and introduced herself to the other owners. Most were considerate about Tick’s victory, with only a few looking sore. McNamara was grouchy. She bought him a drink in the hope he wouldn’t start blabbing about Neptune’s cooling system.

The party lasted three hours. Suzie spotted several drivers with Sharpies, writing on various parts of female anatomy. She caught glimpses of soft, pale flesh, and her cheeks burned. Sooner or later, Tick would expect her to do the same. It was her own fault, she knew. She’d promised him, enticing him with the promise of her body—or a glimpse of it, at least. Did that make her a slut? Or was she simply utilizing an advantage none of the other owners could match?

She swallowed another slug of whiskey, wondering if it even mattered. The result was what counted, nothing else. And it was only a harmless bit of fun, wasn’t it? Simply some high jinx at a party, that everyone would forget by morning.

She hoped.

Tick didn’t track her down until ten o’clock. He was grinning the happy grin of a drunk, although he was still steady on his feet. He held a half-empty bottle of whiskey in one hand, and a Sharpie in the other.

Suzie sagged. Here it comes, she thought. The moment I’ve been dreading. But Tick didn’t issue any demands. Instead, he seemed content to chat amiably about the race. He described, using the bottle and the Sharpie as cars, to demonstrate how he’d fought his way up to third place, wrecking his tires and almost running out of gas in the process.

But as eleven o’clock approached, Neptune’s pit crew gravitated toward her. They flanked their chief, forming a tight semi-circle around Tick and Suzie.

“What’s going on?” she asked warily? Were they going to hold her arms while Tick exacted his promise from her body? She edged backward, watching for any signs that they were preparing to pounce. Drunk or not, they wouldn’t dare touch her—would they? With her back to the wall, she began to feel trapped.

“I think…” Tick began, waving the Sharpie. “The time has come, Lady-boss.” He nodded to Bob, who was on the end of the line. Bob reached down, then pulled up his t-shirt. Tick’s name was scrawled across his chest, stretching from navel to neck.

“Holy shit…” Suzie muttered. She hadn’t expected his signature to be so damn big. One by one, shirts were lifted, revealing Tick’s handiwork. Tick watched her closely as the masculine chests were exposed. She realized then, the guys had formed a screen, ensuring no-one would be able to see her when Tick moved in to write on her skin.

They must have planned this together. The last shirt, the crew chief’s, was lifted. Tick had signed every chest, exactly as she’d insisted. Only hers remained unmarked.

“Ready?” he asked. The Sharpie was uncapped, ready to deliver looping lines to her chest. Eight pairs of hungry, drunken eyes studied her chest, already undressing her. Suzie wrung her hands together. A cold sweat sprang up on her skin.

No way, she thought. No way can I do this and still be their boss tomorrow.

“I…” she began.

“Ahhhh…” Tick raised the pen. “I told you she’d change her mind.”

“We all did,” Bob added. “Sorry, Boss, but you need to be part of the team.”

“Yeah, Boss,” Tick grinned. “Get them out. You promised.”

“I can’t,” she said in a small voice. “Not with everyone…” …staring at me.

“Turncoat!” Tick called. “You’re not one of us. You think you’re better than us.”

“Okay!” she yelled. She knocked back the last of her whiskey and put down the glass. “I’ll do it.”

Tick stared. “You will?”

“But just you.” She turned her back on the pit crew and pulled the t-shirt from her jeans.

“Just me, huh?”

“The deal was between me and you.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Sorry guys.”

The chief shrugged. “As long as you keep your promise, that’s all we care about.”

“Is it?” Bob asked. Disappointment crumpled his young face.

“It is, Bob. One day, you’ll enjoy the benefits of being a driver. Until then…”

“I stay on the sidelines and watch, I know.”

Suzie took deep, steadying breaths as she lifted her t-shirt to her neck. Tick moved around so he could see her better. He’d put down the bottle already, and was holding the Sharpie ready. Suzie watched his eyes and she pulled up the underwired cups, raising them until her breasts dropped out. Tick’s eyes widened, as if he hadn’t believed she’d go through with it.

“Come on, then,” she whispered. “Let’s get this over with.” Her ears were hot again, and her heart was hammering. Tick leaned in; his hot breath brushed her bare breasts. She inhaled deeply, holding it as the Sharpie touched the skin above her navel. She tried not to twitch as the fiber tip tickled her. Tick hummed quietly as he drew long loops, spelling out his name more slowly than he needed to.

Okay, let him look. He’s earned it with all his hard work today. As long as no one took a picture, or told the other teams what had happened here, it would cost her nothing, and ironically, exposing her boobs might actually gain her some respect.

“This is harder than I thought,” Tick muttered.

“I thought that was my line,” Suzie said quietly.

“It’s harder to sign a chest which has boobs on it—not that I’m complaining.”

“You prefer guys?”

“Hell, no. It’s just that… well, you’re so curvy.”

“Why thank you. You say the sweetest things.” The Sharpie slid across her skin, then onto the underside of her right breast. She shivered as it approached her nipple.

“What’s taking so long?” Bob called out.

“I’m having difficulty concentrating on my ABCs,” Tick replied.

“Can we help?”

“Stay right where you are, mister!” Suzie warned.

“Yeah,” Tick added. “You haven’t earned this.”

“Keep going,” she urged. “You must be nearly there by now.”

Tick sighed. “I am so goddam tempted to kiss your nipples right now.”

“Oh, wow…” Suzie trembled, imagining the pit crew’s reaction if Tick gave in to temptation. Her mind buzzed at the idea of his mouth on her, of his big hands squeezing her breasts… “Stop it!”

“But I’m only half-way done,” Tick complained.

“Not you. Me.”

“Why, what are you doing?”

“Never mind. Just finish up, will you?”

“Then stand still. You’re squirming.”

Suzie realized her hips were rolling around. She tried to stop, but strange feelings were rippling through her pelvis. Heat flushed her lower body, driving her to distraction. A deep ache she’d almost forgotten was spreading outward. Her chest tingled, and her nipples hardened.

“Oh, boy.” She pressed her lips together as her pussy tingled.

“Yes, Boss?”

“Just keep writing, Tick. Don’t stop.” He was onto her left breast by now.

“Wow. Your nipples are standing to attention, Boss.”

“Quiet!” she hissed. “They’ll hear you.”

“Okay, okay. But I’ll be sad when this is over.” He finished with a final loop, and straightened up. His gaze stayed on her chest.

“Finished?”

“No, wait. I forgot to dot the ‘I’ in Garfield.” The Sharpie pressed against Suzie’s left nipple. A delightful shock exploded through her breast.

“Oh, my God! You are so finished.” As she began to pull down the bra cups, she imagined the pit crew leaning in the hope of getting a peek. Their masculine frustration was tangible, their disappointment evident in their deep breathing.

Very well, they’d get a peek. Still holding her shirt up, she turned, proving to them that she’d allowed Tick to sign her chest. Seven pairs of eyes stared for the one second glimpse she allowed them—and then her shirt came down.

“That’s it, guys. Show’s over.” To her surprise, they applauded, cheering loudly enough to attract the attention of the other bosses and crew. But with the guys arranged around her, no one else saw a thing.

“This is between us, right?” Suzie asked. “No one breathes a word of this to anyone.”

“Absolutely, Boss,” the chief said. “Anyone says a thing, they’re off the team.”

“Thank you, Chief,” Suzie said. “And now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, who wants another drink?”

The entire team raised their hands. “Nep-toon!”


Chapter 8

The rest of the evening was a blur. Everyone drank until they were happy, and no one got violent. A rubber-limbed Bob was helped home by the rest of the crew, and the chief elected to stay at the bar as Tick headed for his room. Two girls intercepted him at the door, and he signed the butts of their Daisy Dukes before sending them on their way. When Suzie met his gaze, he shrugged and headed for the elevator.

“You can’t keep girls away from a guy like that,” the chief said.

“I guess it’s the glamor of the sport.”

“That it is.” He returned to his drink. Suzie checked her watch and was shocked to see it had gone midnight.


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