Checkered Curves


 

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Jake Curtis splits his time between the multiple businesses he owns, and racing the small, local tracks that helped turn him into a top tier driver and former stock car series champion. But he’s still restless. He wants more. Much more. Professionally… And personally.

He wants to be on the speedways again. He wants the rush of adrenaline, the roar of the crowd, and the rumble of the engine at two hundred miles an hour again. He was forced into retirement and he wants to start and finish on his own terms this time around. And he wants the one woman in his life that makes him think anything is possible.

Candi has her personal chef and small catering business on solid ground, and she’s got her two best friends close by and they’re always willing to meet for coffee or home cooked meals complete with bottles of wine. She’s professionally fulfilled and she’s perfectly happy with her single status. So, why then, can’t she stop leaning more and more into her fun and casual friendship with Jake? Is it because her friends are in relationships, and think she and Jake would make a great couple? Maybe. And the truth is, deep down, she does, too.

But when Candi comes face to face with a man she thought she’d never see again, and new opportunities begin presenting themselves to Jake, they find themselves drawn into the comfort of each other, and asking if the risk to their friendship is worth the unexpected promise of something more… 

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One

Candi set her latte on the table, pulled out her phone, and typed out a quick text.

Hey. Have you talked to Cam yet?

Hey yourself. No, I haven’t.

Why not?

 I don’t know.

I’ll make you a deal…

 Bribery. I like it.

 Candi smiled.

Ha! If you talk to him, you can come over for dinner tonight.

 What are you making?

 Does it matter?

 Nope. Okay. I’ll talk to him this afternoon before I leave.

 Good.

 What are you up to?

 Meeting Lily and Alli for coffee. I just finished up with my client for this week.

 Lily and Alli? That can’t be good for anyone.

 Oh hush.

 Have fun. I’ll see you tonight. Are you sure you don’t want to tell me what you’re making?

 I’m sure.

“Why are you smiling like that?”

“And who are you texting?”

Candi shook her head and slid her phone back in her purse as her friends sat in two of the three additional chairs, using the fourth for their things. “Nosy much?”

“Yes,” Lily and Alli answered in unison causing the three of them to laugh.

“Seriously, who were you texting?”

“Yeah, who?”

“What’s with the third degree?”

“What’s with the defensiveness?”

Candi sighed and knew they’d continue hounding her if she didn’t fess up. “Fine. Jake.”

“Y’all have become close lately.”

“Have we? We’re just friends.”

“Uh huh.”

“Stop. Both of you.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“You’re not as innocent as you want anyone to believe. Don’t think I’ve forgotten what happened in my backyard.”

“Oh my god, really? That was forever ago.”

“Not quite that long. I’m still considering new furniture for the deck.”

Lily rolled her eyes. “I’m sure everything is just find by now.”

“Oohh… You’re admitting it? Finally.”

“You already knew.”

“Yeah, but you’ve been denying it all this time.”

“Told you not to ever admit to anything.”

Candi and Lily turned their gazes on Alli. It was Lily who said, “Never admit anything? You mean, as opposed to simply doing it all in front of everyone?”

“Or at least where everyone can hear it,” Candi added.

“That’s not fair. Not everyone can hear us and why should I be shy about getting it on with Jase? Y’all have seen him, right?”

Candi took a sip of her coffee, turning the cup around in her hands while glancing around the inside of Here and There Coffee Co.

It was crowded and a little noisy in the cozy little shop, but she didn’t mind. She was grateful they’d found a spot inside since it was cold and wet outside.

“What were you and Jake talking about?”

“Nothing. I was just checking to see if he’d done something he said he wanted to do.”

“Okay, and…?”

“And nothing. He said not yet, I suggested he could come over for dinner if he followed through.”

“Dinner, huh?”

“Seriously? You two need a life. We’re just friends.”

“I don’t know about that.”

Candi stuck her tongue out in a show of pure maturity. “Well, I do.”

“Is he okay?” Lily asked, a bit of concern in her tone of voice. Candi hadn’t meant to worry either of them, but she also didn’t know how much she was supposed to tell. Probably none at all, to be on the safe side since it would be Jake’s business. She also knew if she kept denying and dodging their questions, they’d just keep on her.

It was a good thing she loved them both of them.

“He’s okay.” She leaned forward. They did, too. “He wants to get back in a car.”

“What?”

“Really?”

“Yes. And he has been planning to talk to Cam about it. That’s all I’m going to say and unless Cam or Jayson brings it up, you know nothing. Do you both hear me? Nothing.”

“Got it.”

“Won’t say at thing.”

“Now, can we move on?”

“Sure.”

“Great!” They stared at one another, each in turn, then burst out laughing. “Okay… Okay,” Candi said, trying to get herself back under control. She swallowed a bit of coffee again and took a deep breath. “How was your trip, Lil?”

“It was great. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, but it was great.”

“Oh stop. You know exactly what you’re doing.”

“No. I really don’t.”

“Which thing are you talking about?”

“All of it, to be honest. I don’t know anything about brands or public relations or scouting talent or pitching JCM to anyone. And being out to visit orchestras and meeting studio musicians and recording a few things… Everything is over my head.”

“She says that, yet, nearly everyone she’s talked to on behalf of JCM has called us looking for more information,” Alli said, contradicting everything Lily had told them. “Plus… I’ve heard a few samples of what she’s recorded and it’s all so beautiful. And y’all know I don’t do classical music.”

Alli hated classical music, but she’d been to every band concert and solo competition Lily participated in during high school. Candi had, too. They’d been to as many of Lily’s performances in college as they could get to, which wasn’t a lot, but they’d tried. She’d always had their support.

When she moved to Charlotte to try a relationship with Cam, she’d seemed lost for a while. She traveled with him, but it hadn’t been enough. Anyone who knew her could see it.

Jake’s management company had come along just in time. She was signed as their first entertainment client, and through a friend of a friend with some pull with some music studios, they’d gotten her in to try a few things out. She was on her way to recording an album of her favorite concertos.

Classical albums didn’t make much money, but to see the excitement on Lily’s face at the prospect of playing, of recording, of seeing her name in that way…Candi couldn’t have been more thrilled for her.

JCM had also hired her as a liaison of their own and she’d been knee deep in learning how to scout talent, public relationship, brands and brand management. She’d been embarking on a whole new career path than she’d had in Florida and whether Lily could see it or not, she was flourishing.

“I wonder why Jake didn’t tell me he wanted to drive again.”

“Why would he tell you?”

“Because he’s my boss and I see him every single day. He tells me pretty much everything, and if he doesn’t, Jayson does.”

“Which means Jayson must not know.”

Lily and Alli both turned to Candi again. “Oh no. I am not going to tell you anything else.”

“That means she knows more.”

“Of course it does.”

“How do we get her to tell us?”

“I don’t know. Maybe —”

“You know I’m still sitting here, don’t you?”

Alli glanced Candi’s direction. “Yeah, we know. But you’re not helping us out any.”

“Okay. Just wanted to make sure.”

“Do you think she knows he likes her?”

“I doubt it.”

“I —”

“What are y’all talking about? Who likes who?”

“You. And Jake,” Lily said as though it was common knowledge.

“Y’all think Jake likes me?”

“No. We don’t think he does. We know he does.”

“What exactly do you mean by like?”

“You know what we mean.”

“No. He doesn’t.” Does he? She was pretty sure he didn’t. They texted a lot, but they only saw each other during social occasions. And when he’d come over for dinner every so often, but none of that counted. They were just friends.

He didn’t treat her any different than she’d seen him treat Lily or Alli.

She was also pretty sure she hadn’t let him know, at all, that she liked him. She hadn’t planned on it. She didn’t know when it had happened, but one day she’d been talking to him at one of their friendly, everyone was included gatherings when it hit her.

Liking a man as more than a friend had been something she never thought would happen for her again after Italy.

It had been a wonderful trip. She’d learned how to cook Italian food, make Italian food that tasted nothing like what passed for Italian food in America. She’d seen some incredible sights, ruins, countryside. And she’d met a man who’d turned her world upside down in the best ways, then shattered it in the worst, most humiliating way.

She’d sworn then she would never get involved with anyone. She’d pour herself into work, which was exactly what she’d done by starting a personal chef and catering business, and she’d steered clear of men and dating and anything to do with relationships. Finding herself interested in and falling for Jake had not been part of any of her plans and she had no idea what to do about it.

She couldn’t tell him. She didn’t want to lose his friendship.

She couldn’t tell Nosy Nellie One or Nosy Nellie Two, either.

So, she’d been keeping it to herself, and it was slowly staring to get to her. She texted him more than she should. She arranged more and more of these little dinners knowing she shouldn’t.

If it was just that she liked him as a little more than a friend, she’d be able to handle it. Indefinitely. But it wasn’t only that. She wanted him. She wanted him in every single way and every single place she could think of. She was physically, sexually interested in Jake Curtis and she didn’t know what to do with any of that.

“I’m pretty sure he does,” Alli said, interrupting Candi’s thoughts.

“Pretty sure?”

“Fairly sure.”

“You don’t sound fairly sure. Besides, it doesn’t matter. We’re friends. We’re the only single ones out of the six of us. We have to stick together.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized what she said, saw the looks on her friends’ faces and groaned. “I didn’t mean it that way, dammit.”

“Sure you didn’t.”

“The six of us… We’re like the Brady Bunch.”

“Minus the step-sibling thing.”

“Well, yeah, minus that.”

“We are a pretty tight bunch, aren’t we? It’s kind of strange how it’s all worked out so far.”

“It is. Who’d have thought our lives would’ve changed so completely since Lily met Cam. New jobs, new homes, new businesses, new opportunities, new friends, new loves. Cam’s racing for another championship this season, Jake wants to get back into a car, Candi is cooking for all of Charlotte, and Jayson’s on the cusp of his first championship.”

Candi nodded. “I’m not cooking for all of Charlotte yet.”

“Okay, maybe not all, but house by house, party by party, you will be.”

“That’s really sweet, Alli. Thank you.”

“It’s the truth. You put your heart and soul into the food you make.”

“I think it’s my love language.”

“Nice. I think so, too,” Lily agreed. “Mine is music.”

“I don’t think I have a love language like that.”

“You have one. It’s friendship. It’s pulling the three of us together. It’s making connections work.”

“Oh, I like that. My love language is butting in.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“No. I did. And it fits. It’s the lawyer in me.”

“It’s the something in you, for sure.”

“Speaking of something in me…”

“Nope. No one needs to know what you and Jayson have been doing.”

“That is not what I was going to say, but now that you bring it up, I got a new toy in the mail.” Lily and Candi both rolled their eyes. “What? It’s really pretty and quiet and has an app that Jayson downloaded and —”

“Stop. Just please stop,”

“Fine. Prudes.”

“Not one bit,” Lily said defiantly.

Candi watched her friends banter back and forth. Heck, she’d been watching them banter since they sat down. She didn’t mind. She loved that they were all in the same city and state again. She was grateful for the times they could have coffee like this in the middle of the day and catch up.

She wasn’t a prude, either. She had her own small collection of toys and they’d talked about their sex lives since they were in high school and first times, but she didn’t have anyone in her life the way the two of them did. If she thought about it too much, she got a little jealous, a little envious, and that wasn’t fair to them.

It also made her think about Jake and the things she wanted him to do to her, and she was so much better off not going there. She was struggling enough as it was when it came to him.

“Much as I hate to do this, I need to get going.”

“I should, too. I have a mountain of paperwork on my desk to go through for a meeting later this week.”

“New client for JCM?” Candi asked casually. She finished the last of her latte and got up to get the cup on one of the trays set up for people to place their dishes.

Here and There sold all their drinks in ceramic cups and on ceramic plates. They didn’t have a drive through window or a to-go pick-up area.

They décor was warm and inviting. The chairs were padded so you could sit at a table for a little while without your butt going to sleep or getting numb, and they’d set up little areas with small sofas and overstuffed chairs.

They wanted their customers to stay and talk and drink coffee and eat delicious pastries.

They wanted it to feel like a home away from home.

She loved it.

“Yeah, I think so,” Alli said when Candi got back to the table to shrug into her coat and gather her purse. Winter in Charlotte was touch and go from year to year. Sometimes in January there was rain, like now. Other times, it was sunny and mild the whole month followed by a snowy February. “It’s a meeting with some really rich businessman about a new racing venture with an international driver. I haven’t read through all of it, yet and I need to do some information gathering on the guy’s current management company or agent if he has one and what their terms and conditions are for representation of interests here in the US.”

Everything Alli said was way over Candi’s head. She knew nothing about the law; criminal, entertainment, sports, civil, or otherwise, but Alli did, and Jake couldn’t have hired a better person to oversee everything to do with clients of Jake Curtis Management, Inc.

“And on that note, I, too, have to get going,” Lily added.

They hugged one another, then dashed outside into the cold afternoon rain to their cars. Candi would be happy when Spring arrived, and the sun came out and she could sit outside on the deck.

In new chairs. With a new table.

Yep. She’d just made up her mind. She might even gift her current outdoor furniture to Lily and Cam since they would have such fond memories of using it.

And if she was forcing herself not to think about Jake and the things they could do in those same chairs to wash the imaginings of Cam and Lily out of her head, well… It was probably for the best that way.

Two

“Hey Cam?” Jake Curtis poked his head into his business partner’s office. He’d been dreading the start of this conversation. He didn’t know how Cam was going to react and he wasn’t too keen on the rejection that may come in the next few minutes. But he also knew he couldn’t keep putting things off. He was only driving himself crazy. “You got a sec?”

“Sure.”

Jake took a seat across the desk, crossed his ankle over his knee, uncrossed it, wiped his hands down his khaki covered thighs. Now or never, Jake. And if it was never in this particular regard, then he’d have go about finding different avenues until someone said yes.

“Are you alright? You look a little green. Is everything going okay with the management company?”

“I want to field a car,” Jake blurted.

“A car? For?”

“Me.”

“Come again?”

“I want to build and enter a car for myself. Under the Stick Shift Motorsports banner.”

“For what series?”

“Top.”

“When?”

“Atlanta.” At least he had answers for all the questions so far.

“Atlanta? First or second?”

“First.”

Cam’s eye widened and he set the pen down that he’d been holding. “That’s only a few weeks away.”

“I know. We have that one frame that’s cut and ready to be put together.”

“You don’t need my permission to race, Jake.”

“I need your okay to field it under SSM, though.”

“I appreciate it. Can I ask… Why Atlanta?”

Jake shrugged. It came across as nonchalant, but the more he talked about this idea, the more hairbrained it seemed, the more nervous and unsure about it he became, but he couldn’t back down.  If he was ever going to do it, now was the time. He needed to get the wheels moving. A few were already in motion, just waiting for dots and crosses on some letters…

“Jake?”

“It’s always been one of my favorite tracks.”

“You know it’s not the same now, right? Not since they reconfigured it and repaved it. It races more like a super.”

“I know, but that’s also why I want to race it.”

“We could take a car over there anytime you want.”

“You know that’s not what this is about.”

Cam sighed and nodded. “I do. You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Jake, you haven’t driven one of the new cars. You haven’t been in a car on a track in a few years.”

He bristled but didn’t let it show. He knew Cam was trying to help, was playing Devil’s Advocate the same as Jake would’ve done if he’d been on Cam’s side of the desk. “I’m aware of that.”

“Okay. Why not the mid series?”

Jake looked across at Cam. He was younger than Jake by quite a bit. They were both strong willed, had heads of steam that never stopped and rarely slowed down. “How long do you think you have left in a competitive car at the top?”

“I don’t know. I… Maybe ten, fifteen years.”

“And that’s if you’re lucky.”

“Yeah. Okay, I get what you’re saying. Why now?”

“Enough time has gone by. I’m not as bitter anymore. Not as angry. Not as…” He shook his head and took a deep breath. “Maybe watching Jayson. Maybe watching you every week. Maybe all the new avenues we’re looking into and the directions we’re taking this company in. Maybe all the new talent that’s so young that I’m signing, that we’re giving chances to… Maybe I just need one more race, one more chance.”

Cam’s expression was serious, contemplative. “I get that.”

“No.” Jake countered softly, convicted by his own desires. “No, Cam. You don’t. You haven’t been here in this seat. You haven’t been where I am yet. You haven’t been watching from the sidelines, season in and season out. I didn’t get to go out on my own terms. I wasn’t in control of the end of my career. I was told when it was over. I was told no by sponsors, by team owners, people I’ve known my entire career. They looked at me like I meant nothing, like I wasn’t even worth their time anymore. You don’t know what that’s like.”

“You’re right. I don’t.”

Jake was never good with humbling experiences. He’d gone to Cam after their last wreck in Charlotte several years before, hat in hand to apologize. That whole season had been one that humbled him more than anything else ever had in his life.

This moment reminded Jake of that, and he wasn’t any better at it now than he had been then.

“I hope you never find out. I hope you race your last race in the best equipment, still on top, with people begging you for one more season. I don’t know what I’d do without this company, this partnership we have, these guys in the shop. I thought just being part of the sport would be enough. But it’s not. I need to race that top level one more time. The dirt, the local tracks… They’re fun and all but the speedways are in my bones, in my blood. They’ve always been what makes my heart beat.”

He loved racing on dirt, on small tracks, local tracks but they were side projects, things he did to keep himself behind a wheel, keep his name in front of people. Of the races he entered, he won more than he lost and that helped scratch the itch that had been driving him crazy since he retired from full-time professional racing.

“That last part I do understand. You know I do. I’m you when you were younger. Better looking, obviously. Better driver, too.” Cam grinned. Jake smirked.

“But other than that, right?”

“Yep.”

“Jackass.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Say yes.”

“Done. What else do you need?”

“Let SSM put up half the entry fee and cover the cost of the build. I’ll take care of sponsorship and I’ll put up the other half of the fees.”

“Done.”

“Really? You’re not going to fight me?”

“Nope. Were you expecting an argument?”

“To be honest, yeah.”

“I get it. You may not think I do, but I get it. One day I’m going to want another chance, another shot, another car to race, another afternoon running two-hundred miles an hour. Just one more. Some guys get tired of it. Some guys are ready to let the racing go. I don’t think that’s going to be me and that’s definitely not you. If you want the truth, I’m surprised it’s taken you this long to come talk to me about this.”

“But you just gave me shit.”

“You didn’t think I wasn’t going to give you shit, did you? Jesus, Jake… It’s like you don’t even know me.”

“Asshole.”

“One and the same.”

“We’ll need to do something about a charter.”

“Let me look into that,” Cam said.

“You know a team that is putting one up?”

“I might. I’ve heard a few things. Let me look into the rumors. I have another idea for us to consider, too.”

“What?”

“What if we could find others to share the car with you?”

“Damn. What if we could?” It wasn’t something Jake had thought about before, but it was a good idea. They could give Jayson a chance at some tracks if he wanted them. They had a couple of other prospects they were looking at from some of the local and regional areas. What if they could field a full-time car, just with different drivers. It would be a way to help their small race team break out.

Stick Shift Motorsports had two championship drivers and some money and some sponsors for other series, but the big one? They had yet to even try. Jake wanted that chance. Jake wanted their team to compete with everyone else. He wanted them at the top, hoisting not only an owner’s championship trophy, but an actual championship trophy.

He wanted full sponsors. Big ones.

He wanted everything for their small company.

And he truly believed he and Cam could get it done. He just wanted it all right now.

Cam was still a full-time driver. Cam was still making money. He was also investing a lot of it into SSM. Jake had invested heavily, as well. They had other money that had been poured into them. But he wanted them to own it free and clear and be on top.

“If you want to try to make it into Atlanta, we need to get started like… Yesterday.”

“I know.”

“Okay. Let’s do it. I’ll start making some calls in the morning.”

“I’ll do the same and see if we can get another chassis on such short notice and put out some feelers for sponsorship.” He hadn’t expected Cam to agree so readily. He hadn’t expected Cam to agree at all.

He needed to have more faith in his partner. They were more than business partners. They were friends. They had the kind of relationship now that they should’ve had when Jake was still driving.

If he’d gotten his head out of his ass sooner, he might be in a car. He might be doing the thing he loved more than breathing.

He’d let jealousy get the better of him, self-pity, anger, and a number of other emotions he’d rather not look into right then. He was beyond all that.

He knew better what to expect of himself in a car now. He knew he wasn’t the driver he used to be. He knew he didn’t still have the edge, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to give it every bit of himself he had.

He stood and reached across the desk. Cam stood as well and clasped Jake’s hand. “Thanks.”

“I think it’s a great idea, Jake. I think it’ll be good for you and for us, and if you can’t find a sponsor, we’ll put SSMon the car.”

“I appreciate that. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

“You headed home?”

“Yeah. It’s been a long one. Sometimes both companies take everything out of me.”

“We can handle things over here if you need to put more time into the management company.”

“I’m doing good for now, but we’ll see. It’s growing quicker than I expected.”

“And don’t forget, you’re not as young as you used to be. You need more rest in your old age now.”

“One day you’ll be here, too.”

“But I’ll still have my looks going for me by then.”

Jake shook his head and wandered out of Cam’s office with the other man’s laughter trailing after him. He was grateful every day for the friendship they’d developed along with their business partnership. He hadn’t been sure how it would work out when Cam first approached him about it, but he was very glad he’d taken the chance.

Jake Curtis Management, Inc. was also one of those unsure things, how it would work, if it would work. He’d had a hunch that yes, it would and could, but there were management companies everywhere and that were run by people with larger brands and more widely known names than his, but it was growing by the day.

He was always surprised, though, when he got a call out of the blue from someone he’d never heard of, but who’d heard of him. Like the man he had a meeting with in a couple of days. A businessman from California who was into endurance racing and wanted to talk to Jake about an Italian driver.

Jake had no idea what he could have to offer either man, but he was willing to listen. He was always willing to listen and was sometimes surprised.

“Hey.”

Jake looked up to find his younger brother headed toward him. Jayson was coming from the other side of the garage, shrugging into a jacket. “Hey.”

“Are you heading out?”

“Soon. Why? Somethin’ up?”

“Just askin.’ Haven’t seen you much lately.”

“You see me every day.”

“I know, but… Where’ve you been lately?”

“What do you mean?”

“I dropped by the house last weekend and the one before that. Wanted to see if you were free to hang out or have dinner, a beer, anything.”

Guilt caused Jake’s cheeks to flush and was glad for the dimness of the few lights that were still on in the shop. “I’ve been a little busy with the companies and all.”

“You sure that’s all?”

“I…” He didn’t know what to say, exactly. He hadn’t been ready to tell anyone what he’d been up to for the last few months. He hadn’t been ready to tell anyone about the small, abandoned race track that he’d bought in western North Carolina the year after he’d retired.

He didn’t know why he was keeping it such a secret. Maybe he didn’t want to be questioned. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to think he was stupid for sinking money into something that wasn’t a sure thing, that he wasn’t sure he could bring back to life. Hell, maybe he couldn’t, but he loved that little track. He’d taken one look at it and saw all the potential it had. It just needed some tender loving care.

He could give it that. And he had been. On weekends when they weren’t at the shop for one reason or another, he was taking a trip west to work on the track.

Stick Shift Motorsports and JCM, Inc. were great, but he’d needed a project. Something physical. Something that would occupy the rest of his time. He needed to be doing something. He didn’t know how to sit and twiddle his thumbs. That kind of thing would kill him pretty damn quick.

Sure, what he’d told Cam about the businesses being a lot some days was true, but mostly what he did on weekends if he wasn’t racing some smaller series, he was sitting around his house watching ball games or tinkering in his shop at home. He’d needed something else to do. Everyone else he knew had someone to go home to or go home with and he hated to admit it, but he was jealous and so fucking lonely.

He had feelings for a woman and had no idea how to tell her, how to show her that he wanted to be more than friends with her.

Chickenshit to the core. That’s what he was.

But…

“Are you seeing someone?” Jayson asked, interrupting Jake’s thoughts.

“What? Why would you ask that?”

“Because you’re being…weird.”

“No, I’m… Nah. I’m not seeing anybody.”

“That’s a shame, man. We really need to work on changing that.”

“No, we don’t.”

“Sure, we do.”

“Jase…”

“All I’m sayin’ is I don’t want you spending your time at bingo parlors or bowling alleys.”

What the…? “Bingo parlors? And what’s wrong with bowling alleys?”

“Just sayin’…”

“Right. Well, you don’t have to worry. I’m not playing bingo or bowling strikes. I’ve just been busy.”

“Uh huh. I —” Jayson’s watch chimed, and he glanced at it. “Dinner time. You want to come? Alli wants to try that new Cajun place that just opened up.”

“Thanks, but you go on.”

“You sure? You can ride with me, and you can tell me all about whatever it is you’re hiding.”

“Jesus… Yes, I’m sure. Get out of here.”

“You should bring her around some time.”

“There is no her.”

“Uh huh.”

Jake waved Jayson off and turned away, taking the stairs up to his office. There really wasn’t much that he needed to do but shut his laptop down and grab his own jacket. It had gotten cold earlier in the week and hadn’t let up. Winter was always a crapshoot. It could be mild for three days, then on the fourth they could have rainstorms or snow coming across from the mountains. Though, lately they’d gotten some crappy weather coming up from the gulf.

It was unpredictable from year to year anymore.

But the weather outside made him think of fireplaces and sex.

Basketball if there was nothing else to do.

He’d take sex any day of the week and all damn day on Sundays. Problem was, there wasn’t a woman in his life for him to have sex with, so when he wasn’t working or racing or tending to his new hobby, he was sitting in front of a fire watching grown men run up and down a court with a ball while other men tried to steal it.

As entertainment went, he supposed he could do worse.

He flipped the light off and headed back downstairs. He stopped halfway and looked out over the garage. Partially built cars sat beside each other. Tool cases took up most of the longest wall in the shop. Through the far door sat a second garage with part of it sectioned off for decals and car wraps. Every so often they’d paint part of a car, but it was mostly body wraps now.

There were checkered flags pinned to the walls, and a trophy case that Jayson was slowly filling up.

Not for the first time, Jake was in awe when he took it all in. He owned this. Well, he co-owned it, but still… It was in existence because Cam reached out with the idea and together they’d put different decades of experience under one roof, and it was one of the best things Jake had ever done.

Cam brought youth and a knowledge of the new cars and money from winnings and sponsor relationships. Jake brought the rest of the sponsors, some old school ones that like him, didn’t know where they would fit in the current world of racing, and he’d spent a lot of time working with Jayson in the simulator, helping him understand all the tracks he’d never been to before. Jake was starting to find that he was good with mentorship, teaching, developing, and scouting talent. It’s one of the reasons he’d started JCM, Inc.

He really liked Cam’s idea about looking for drivers to share the car Jake would be building for Atlanta.

He hadn’t traveled to most of the races last season, but he wanted to start going back out on the road and if he was racing some weekends, that would keep him at some of his favorite tracks. He’d get to spend a little more time with Jayson, too. That boy was going to win a championship in the next season or two. He’d come close, but there were still places on the pivotal tracks where he was still getting beat. Jake couldn’t hide his pride, though, both as Jayson’s boss and his brother.

Sometimes Jake still had to pinch himself over that fact.

For so long he’d thought there was no one left in his family, that he was the only one. Sure, if he’d been able to make one of his marriages stick, he might’ve been able to add one or two to the family tree, but it was too late for that now. He was too old for kids.

Of course, then there was the woman he was interested in, the one who ticked every single box he had and then some.

Candi.

He had it bad for her. No one knew. Not their friends. Not Jayson. No one and Jake intended to keep it that way. He and Candi had carved out a tenuous friendship, something wasn’t willing to fuck up.

She’d been hurt. He figured she didn’t want to take a chance on love again. And hell, after the disasters of his marriages, he’d pretty much accepted that he wasn’t meant for that happily ever after kind of life.

But if ever there was a marrying kind, it was her.

And if there was ever a man who’d fucked up that grand ol’ institution, it was him.

What a pair they’d make…

Three

Jake stood at the door and stared at it. He didn’t know what he wanted it to do. Maybe open on its own. Maybe disguise him. He didn’t know, but what he did know was that he needed to knock on it and get it over with.

Nerves weren’t something he was too familiar with, but more and more nerves were becoming a daily companion.

He’d been nervous heading in to talk to Cam earlier. He was nervous about his meeting with the businessman about a prospective international client for JCM, Inc. And he’d been getting more and more nervous about seeing Candi in any situation.

He was still trying to figure that one out.

He didn’t know how to get it under control, but he needed to figure something out.

She didn’t know how he felt, and he’d been having the devil of a time keeping it from her.

It had been years since he’d even considered dating anyone. After his last marriage failed, he’d pretty much resigned himself to being a bachelor the rest of his live. He’d been divorced one too many times and he wasn’t interested in going through another one.

He hadn’t been looking to fall for Candi.

He hadn’t been looking to fall for someone he hadn’t even kissed. How did that kind of thing happen?

Liking someone, sure, but he was well beyond liking her and he had no idea what to do about it. He didn’t want to lose the friendship they had. It was important to him, special.

She was important to him.

She was special to him.

He could talk to her about things he wasn’t ready to talk to anyone else about. She made him feel comfortable, at home with himself, with her. There was no pressure between them. There was no tension.

She was the first single female friend he could remember having and if he somehow fucked it up, he’d never forgive himself.

At the same time, he didn’t know how long he could go on without telling her how he felt. He was afraid it was going to just slip out one day with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. And he was afraid if it happened that way, she would run like hell.

He didn’t think she was interested in falling in love again. At least not anytime in this century. And probably not with someone she trusted as a friend.

Standin’ there wasn’t going to get anything moving, though.

Finally, he lifted his hand to rap on the door, but it opened before he could.

“I wondered if you were going to stand there all night staring at the door or if you planned to knock.”

He smiled, feeling heat creep up his neck. “Had to work myself up to it.”

“Why? It’s only me.”

His response was to give a shrug and change the subject. “Smells amazing in here,” he said as he stepped inside.

Candi grinned. “But…” She placed a hand on his chest to keep him from proceeding further into the house. He wondered if she felt his heart studder. If she felt his breathing change. If she felt anything at all. “You did talk to Cam, right?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Good.” She patted his chest.

“What’s on the menu tonight?”

“I thought I’d try out a new recipe for chicken parmesan. You can be my taste tester.”

Jake’s stomach rumbled at the mention of food. It was a weakness of his and everyone knew it. “You don’t have to twist my arm,” he replied, following her into the kitchen.

As she opened the oven to check on dinner, Jake tried not to stare at the way she filled out the jeans she wore, the way they stretched across her hips and thighs, the way his fingers itched to touch her, to run his hands over her curves.

He wondered if she knew how beautiful she was, how sexy he found her.

That he longed to run his fingers through her short, honey colored hair. That he wanted to peel every stitch of clothing from her body. That he wanted to stare into her pretty light green eyes as he took her…

Jesus… The thoughts he had about her…

He couldn’t let himself get caught up like that.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked, trying to focus on something, anything but the way he wanted her.

“Do you mind taking the plates to the table?”

“Not at all.” He knew how she liked her table set from the times he’d been to dinner at her house. Then again, maybe he was just looking for any excuse to make an impression, no matter how small.

Candi turned to him and leaned against the counter. “It’ll be ready in about five minutes.”

“I’m not in a hurry.”

“Good. Then you can tell me how things went. Would you like a drink?”

“Tea?”

“You know better than to ask that.”

‘I do.” She handed a glass over to him and he was careful not to touch her fingers. Not that he didn’t want to, but he didn’t trust himself. He got some ice from her freezer, then poured tea from the crystal pitcher set nearby. “What did you do to the tea? It tastes different,” he wondered after taking a sip.

“I added some raspberry syrup to it. I wanted to try it. I usually always order a flavored tea when I eat out, so thought I’d make some at home. Do you not like it? I can make some plain sweet tea, if you want.”

“I don’t want. I like this. I just wasn’t expecting the taste. It’s good.”

“Are you just saying that?”

“Really?”

“Okay,” she said, giving up the argument. A timer chimed annoyingly loud, and she grinned, turning around to pull a casserole dish from the oven. She inhaled and moaned, and the sound went straight through him.

It was going to be a long night if he couldn’t get his head screwed on straight.

She set the dish in the center of the table, then stepped around it to grab a small, towel covered basket from the microwave. “There’s a salad in the fridge.”

“Got it.”

She was seated by the time he’d closed the refrigerator door. He sat across from her. “What different about this chicken parm?”

“I made baked spaghetti, then added the chicken to the top with the cheese on top of that.”

“It really does look delicious. Smells delicious.”

“Thank you. So, what did Cam say?”

“He said yes.”

“Really?” She paused in filling his plate. It was something she always did. She served him before serving herself. He didn’t know why that way. Maybe didn’t know, but he didn’t expected it. “I’m so happy for you, Jake.”

“Thanks. Me, too. It’s a weight lifted, you know?”

‘Yeah, I think I do. He even brought up keeping the car through the season if we can find a few other drivers to sign on.”

“Is that… Are you okay with that?”

“I am. I wouldn’t be able to do it full time. I’m swamped as it is., but I really need to do this.”

“I understand.”

“But it would be awesome sometime to fight for owner’s points.”

“How soon would you be able to do that?”

“Maybe as soon as next year. The year after, definitely.” He dug into the food and could’ve come from the taste alone. It was rich and creamy, and the chicken was seasoned and breaded to perfection. “This is one of my all-time favorite foods.”

“I’m glad.” She tucked into her own plate and for several minutes, they ate in silence. Then, “Are you going to be able to get a car ready in time?”

“I think so. There will be a lot of late nights, some early mornings, some days I don’t leave the shop at all, but it’ll all be worth it to feel the roar of the engine, the power of it beneath me, the feeling of flying without ever leaving the ground.”

“Well, you know if there’s anything I can do to help you, I will, right?”

“I do.” It was the truth but hearing her say it like that meant more than she could possibly know. “There is one thing…”

“Name it.”

“Come to Atlanta with me.” Why on earth had he said it like that? “With us, I mean. All of us.” There. He corrected it.

“Really? Are you sure?”

He loved that she was caught off guard, that it lit up her eyes. “Of course. You can ride in the RV with me. I don’t know if Jayson and Alli will ride over with us, but there’s more than enough room.”

“I won’t be in the way?”

“Not one bit. It’s big enough to sleep The Brady Bunch, but if it’ll make you feel more comfortable when we get to the track, I can find someone to bunk with. I was going to say I could bunk with Cam, but no… Not that wouldn’t be a good idea.”

“Jake…”

“I can bunk with one of the crews,” he continued, hardly stopping to hear her or catch his breath. “Or hell, I can sleep in a hauler. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Jake, stop. Please…” She rolled her eyes and gave him a smirk. “I can share if you can. And if it’s big enough for The Brady Bunch, then it can surely handle us.”

If she only knew.

“Okay.”

“Whose RV is it?”

“Mine.”

“Oh. Why’d you get one so big?”

He gave a half-hearted shrug and with a straight face said, “Compensating.”

“Oh, I…” He couldn’t hold it. He grinned and winked. He only had to wait a few seconds before she answered with a grin of her own. She shook her head. “You’re bad.”

God, she had no fucking idea just how bad he wanted to be with her. “Guilty.”

“Thank you for asking,” she said, steering the conversation back on track. “I’d love to go. I’ve never been to a race in Atlanta. I don’t know why that is, exactly. It’s not like it’s too far away or that we wouldn’t be able to find something else to do too, but… I’ve been wanting to see it since they made all the changes to it.”

He liked when she rambled. She didn’t do it often, but when she did, he found it cute and fun and it always made him smile.

“Good. Then that’s what we’ll do,” he said, tucking back into his plate, hoping he hadn’t made a mistake. He had a hard enough time being alone with her for dinner, or being around her when all their friends were around. How was he supposed to handle being in an RV with her for several hours on the way to Atlanta? And how was he supposed to handle sleeping in the RV with her sleeping in the RV, too? He’d said there was plenty of room and there was, but… Talk about a test of his restraint.

“So, I’ll get to watch you race.”

He nearly dropped his fork and choked on the food in his mouth. He nodded, and carefully finished chewing then swallowed. “Yeah.” He hadn’t thought about that.

“You don’t seem thrilled about it,” she teased.

“Nonsense. You’ve seen me race before.”

“I have, but that was years ago and before I knew you.”

“True.”

“I know this is a big deal for you, Jake. I don’t know if you’re nervous or scared or excited. I guess all of that would be normal to feel.”

“I don’t know how I feel, exactly. Excited, yes. There are some things that need to get taken care of in the next few weeks if it’s going to work out. It’s more than a little late in the game to be trying this.”

She glanced at him with concern. When was the last time a woman had looked at him that way? Had a woman ever looked at him that way, like she was worried about him? “Should you wait until later in the season?”

“Probably. That would be the smarter thing to do. Or even next season.”

“Then why don’t you?”

“Because I’m an impatient cuss.” He offered a wry smile. “When I want something this much, I can’t sit around and wait. It drives me crazy, the anticipation.”

She offered her own wry smile. “I’m the opposite. I’ll sit on something for so long that I often lose whatever opportunity was there.”

“You don’t capitalize on the excitement.”

“No. I capitalize on the fear or uncertainty or whatever it is that’s keeping me from acting.”

“You didn’t do that with your business.”

“That you know of. You don’t know how long I’d wanted to do it, to go out on my own.”

“What made this time different that you were able to jump?

“I think… I mean…” She sighed and dropped her gaze from his. “I think what happened when I left Italy really helped me realize that there were things I could control and things I couldn’t and since romance wasn’t an interest of mine, and I needed a job, I decided I didn’t want to work in anyone else’s kitchen. I didn’t want anyone being able to make choices and decisions for me. Whether I was good enough or what they needed in the moment or even what they wanted. I didn’t want that feeling of the rug being pulled out from under me again.”

There were a lot of things she’d said right then that hit him straight in the gut.

She didn’t want romance was one of them and what the hell was he supposed to do with everything going on inside him where she was concerned?

The other was… “I understand exactly what you’re saying. I didn’t go out on my own terms. Teams and sponsors and even the governing body of stock car racing… They all decided for me when I wasn’t good enough anymore, or too old, or…” All those feelings from that last season came back in a flood and the emotion was near enough to knock him out of his chair.

“That’s why you want to go out there again?”

“Yeah. It is. I want to know for myself if I still have something or if I don’t, but I want to make the choice. I want to build my own car, be the one who owns it, be the one who decides.”

“We’re alike in a lot of ways,” she said softly.

“We are.”

“I’m glad we’re friends, Jake.”

“Me, too.” He wanted to say more, to give the moment something more, but the crack in his heart just wouldn’t let him.

He was firmly in the friend zone, and few things had ever stung quite like that realization.

Shit.

Four

Good luck with your meeting today.

Jake smiled.

How did you know I had a meeting today?

Alli.

 Of course.

Thank you.

Let me know later how it goes?

 I will.

He felt Alli glance his way, but he tried not to let on that the text messages from Candi made him feel like he could conquer the world. He needed to play it cool as Darian Cross settled into the conference room chair after placing a file folder on the table in front of him. Jake had a similar folder, but it sat between he and Ali.

Jake couldn’t say he wasn’t nervous right then. Meeting a man like Darian Cross was something that hadn’t happened too often in Jake’s life, professionally and definitely not personally.

He thought back on his conversation with Candi last night about nerves and going after things he wanted. He’d started his management company on a whim, and he was glad that he had, but there were moments when he’d questioned the wisdom of the move.

He knew he had a lot to offer the right clients and he loved what Lily was starting to do with the entertainment side of the brand. She thought she didn’t have what it took, but once she got out there, mixing with others in music whether they were classical musicians, rock and pop, singers, studio or stage, once he’d helped put her in touch with a few people he knew, she’d taken off.

He was happy he’d been able to help give her that kind of confidence.

He needed some for himself and he’d never been shy about putting himself out there in a professional sense which was why he’d agreed to this meeting.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Cam said, walking in. He took the chair on the other side of Jake, then stood again, offering his hand across the table. “Forgive me. I’m Cam Carter. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Darian Cross,” the other man said, standing briefly. “It’s a pleasure. I’ve been a fan for a while.”

“Thank you.” Cam took his seat again and Jake wondered if Darian Cross had ever been a fan of his. They were similar in age but came from very different places in life.

“Mr. Cross, why don’t you start us off.”

“Right. I have a driver out of Italy who wants US representation as he seeks to build a brand here. And please, call me Darian.”

“Will he be joining us today?”

“No. He’s on a flight right now and will arrive later tonight. We tried to get him here for this, but he had some personal things to take care of before he could leave, and I can’t delay some business meetings that I have scheduled later in the week that will have me in Texas then back home to California. If all goes well, though, perhaps the two of us can arrange for him to meet you tomorrow or the day after.”

Jake nodded and flipped his file open. Enzo Garibaldi. Thirty-two years old. Endurance racer throughout Europe. No championships, but a lot of seat time. “Why JCM? We’re pretty new. There are more experienced, well established management companies who could give him a much better start with deals and brand sponsors.”

Darian frowned. “Is that your sales pitch?”

“No. It’s the truth. I’m not going to beat around the bush and I’m not going to blow smoke.”

“Okay. I can appreciate that. The truth is Jake, I like you. I used to watch you race. I liked the way you took care of business on the track, and you always seemed pretty smart. The way things ended for you was unfortunate. Most other management companies are run by suits like myself or former ball players. I’m not interested in ball players representing my driver. I want someone who understands racing, what drivers go through inside and out, the unique personality that drivers have. Also, being a smaller company, Enzo would get more personalized representation not to mention being associated with someone who was a championship driver will do more for his reputation than anything else.”

“Kind of a who you know.”

“Yes.”

Jake was impressed. Darian had done his homework. Not that he’d expected anything less of the man. “I don’t know much about endurance racing, but you’re right, I do understand drivers and I know more than my fair share about being one day in and day out. He’d have access to Cam from time to time, too. May I ask how well you know Enzo Garibaldi? How you met him? What your relationship with him is?”

“I ran a few exhibition races here and over in Europe and met Enzo around one of the courses about a year ago. He helped show me a few tricks of the trade, taught me more about the car than I’d known, and I’d known a lot already. We struck up a friendship of sorts, and when I started looking into getting a seat in actual races with a team, he tried to help. I wasn’t successful, but he was. He got a seat as an alternate. He doesn’t have high enough credentials, yet, but he will. He’s really good and I think with the right mentorship and the right guidance off the track, he’ll get where he wants to go one day which is where I want to go, too.”

“And where is that?”

“Victory lane as the overall champion at the end of a season.”

Jake understood that. God, did he ever understand that. There wasn’t a feeling in the world that was better than victory lane with a championship trophy in your hands. He missed the individual race wins. He missed the checkered flags. He missed his name atop the leaderboard.

He folded his hands on top of the table in front of him and leaned in. “I don’t know if I can do everything you’re looking for with Mr. Garibaldi since I don’t have the kind of racing experience that you’re into. I never had the chance to try it, but we can get in him in front of some people in the racing world here, introduce him to Cam, to one of our young drivers, and get him in and around the stock car garages and tracks and go from there.”

“He doesn’t have a large social following.”

“We know and we’ll see what we can do to help him with that. Does he speak English? A lot of his videos on social media are in Italian, which is understandable for Europe, but here he’ll need to do most of his social in English.”

“He speaks it very well.”

“Good. Do you have any other questions for us?” Jake had never been very good with meetings, when to begin or end them and this instance was no different. He wanted to get out of the room, get out of his suit and tie, and get down on the garage floor. Not that this wasn’t important because it was. It would be a huge deal for JCM, Inc. but without actually meeting the driver, talking to him, and getting a read on him, Jake really didn’t know what else he could say and what more Darian could add.

“Do you miss racing, Jake?”

That wasn’t the question he was expecting. “I still race.”

“I think you know what I’m asking.”

He did. “Yes.” He felt Cam’s and Alli’s eyes on him as he tried to find the words to answer the question beyond the one word, but he wasn’t sure there was more he could say that would offer anything more.

He could go on and on about it, but the simple fact was, yes, he missed it. He missed it more than anything else in the world and he could say that, but if Darian Cross knew anything about racing which it seemed he did, then he’d know that just saying yes encompassed everything else.

Racers were meant to race and when they no longer could, it was like a hole in their soul. He fucking hated the hole that had been left inside him.

Darian nodded and the small smile that crossed his lips told Jake that he understood everything Jake had left unsaid.

“I think I have everything I need. When Enzo lands, I’d like to tell him when he can come by and meet you, talk to you himself. I like what I’ve heard. I like what I’ve seen, and I think you’ll be the right fit for him and what he’s looking to establish here.”

“Excellent.”

“Why don’t you let me handle those details, Jake,” Alli offered.

“Okay.” Everyone around the table, shook hands, then Alli walked Darian out, the two of them talking quietly. He was left with Cam who leaned back against the table with his arms crossed over his chest. “What do you think?”

“I think it’s an interesting opportunity. Endurance isn’t something we ever talked about with SSM, but it would something cool to be associated with, even on the peripheral.”

“It would.”

“And there have been a lot of stock guys who’ve raced the 24 Hours in Daytona over the years.”

“Has anyone ever approached you?”

“No, but I’d love the chance.”

“If I’m honest,” Jake said, “So would I.”

*

Alli typed out a quick message and pressed send…

Hey. Would you be interested in catering a small dinner for JCM in the next few days?

 Sure. Casual or formal?

 Casual. It’s for that prospective new client and I thought it would be a nice thing to do instead of a meeting room or restaurant.

 I’m happy to do it.

Great. I know it’s short notice.

 It’s fine. I don’t have any evening events on my calendar.

 I love you, Can. Let me nail down the details and I’ll let you know when.

 I love you, too.

Fast Facts

Series: Stick Shift Motorsports, Book Three

Publisher: Lissa Matthews

Genre: BBW Sports Romance, Contemporary, Steamy Romance, Friends to Lovers

Length:

Format: eBook

ISBN:

Other Books In The Series:


Book One

Book Two

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