The long driveway leading up to Quest Stables was nearly a mile and quarter straightaway, a first-class temptation for a man who did his most memorable work in the fast lane. On some other day, Demetri Lucas would have shifted into sixth, pealed out, and torn up the road with the eighteen-inch sport tires. All in the name of testing the drag coefficient his engineers swore was nearly zero, of course.
Today, however, wasn't the time for testing drag coefficients. For one thing, his host's guests were beginning to arrive in for this weekend's wedding – not for an exhibition in speed and mechanical prowess. Although Hugh Preston might have done the same when he was younger, the years had mellowed him, and he probably wouldn't appreciate Demetri offering them a glimpse of such unique entertainment… at least not in the Preston backyard.
More than that, though, as difficult as it was for Demetri to believe, there were actually things on his mind that weighed heavier than drag co-efficients, Formula Gold racing, or even his upcoming race in Louisville. Things like Hugh's poor financial straits. Not to mention Demetri's own “Married Princess Incident” – otherwise known as “the three weeks in Monte Carlo that the Sterling PR team had labeled “bone-headed and reckless.”
Reckless was a label that seemed to follow him around like a black cloud. When he was seventeen, it had been fun and daring. Now that he was thirty-five, it seemed – sad.
Invariably, Demetri could feel his collar tighten, feel the high-velocity impulses kick up a notch, and in response, his foot floored the gas, gravel flying. The six-hundred horsepower engine was street-legal – on the Autobahn, not the horse country of Kentucky – and the answering roar was sweeter than music, better than sex.
Within seconds the main house tore into view, a sprawling red brick that was home to the Preston family and Demetri's current destination. As his foot moved over the clutch, he smoothly downshifted, the engine quieting to a more respectable purr. Someday he'd learn to how to live a little slower, how to live a little safer, but today wasn't it.
Parked cars lined the drive, including one sturdy tan Volvo that was trying to park – and doing a piss-poor job of it. Demetri didn't have a lot of respect for Volvo owners as a matter of principle. The cars were heavy tanks, built to withstand a nuclear blast, and he'd seen cruise ships that handled better. Which was why the driver was having so much trouble parking.
Demetri downshifted again, suspicious that this was fate's way of making him pay for speeding down the drive. Maybe the fates were expecting him to be grateful to the sensible tan Volvo standing between him and sixth gear. Maybe the fates were wrong.
He watched -- it was actually more of a penetrating glare -- as the sedan slowly reversed, inching to the right, braking, inching, braking, inching, ad infinitum. With the Volvo steering system and the driver's conservative refusal to cut the wheel properly, they were going to be here for a long, long time.
It took more tries, inching, braking, inching, braking, but at long last the Volvo eased into the space, finally. Finally . There was the small matter of the tires ending four feet from where the lawn lined the drive, however in the big scheme of things, four feet wasn't awful. The rear end wasn't out too far. In fact, it was almost…
Hell , Demetri took the shot.
Easily he slid his car in behind the other, wheels perfectly aligned along the edge. Now that was how to park a car….
He was still smiling smugly to himself when the Volvo's back-up lights flashed. Surely the Volvo would notice the car behind it. Surely the Volvo would stop. Surely…
The sound of slowly crunching metal was never a happy sound for a race-car driver. The specially designed aluminum chassis collapsed onto the honeycomb frame, pushing up into the middle of the car in slow-motion. The aerospace-quality chassis made of autoclave carbon fiber might have had a drag-coefficient of zero, but when rear-ended by rock-solid Volvo, the car was toast.
Demetri swore again, ripely, violently.
Of course, the Volvo escaped without a scratch.
Perfect. It seemed fitting, poetic justice even, and he rubbed his eyes. Fine. Round one goes to the fates. Lesson. Learned.
He flung open the door, not happy, yet prepared to apologize, prepared to own up to his own impatience. It was the right thing to do. It was the responsible thing to do, but then he noticed the driver and stopped.
He couldn't see her face, because she was leaning against the car, her hands at her temples, rubbing in circular motions. Instantly the anger disappeared. Was she about to pass out? He didn't see any blood, and with a suspension system that could withstand an earthquake, no way the Volvo would give her whiplash….
“Are you all right?” he asked, rushing to her side, then stopping when she held out one hand. He stood there, staring at the palm hanging in mid-air in front of his face. His gaze dipped lower, watching her breasts rise and fall as she took deep breaths.
Probably watching more than he should, all things considered, but at least he knew she was about to pass out any more. From what he could see, her breathing was great.
Then the hand dropped, and she turned to look at him, her face flushed, eyes shooting fire.
“When the heck did you zoom in behind me?” she demanded.
“Obviously while you weren't looking in the mirror,” he said, happy to see that she wasn't going to faint on him. Anger was much better. Especially since anger looked so … ho t on this woman. A cute, trim blond with nice curves… standing in front of his crumpled car, because Demetri had been reckless.
Oh, the fates were killing him today. He made himself stop noticing her curves.
“Couldn't you see I was parking? What did you do? Descend from the sky? And why ? Why on earth would you do a stupid thing like that?” She waggled a finger at him. “You should have waited. It's that sort of reckless maneuvering that will get you in trouble.”
He laughed, mildly amused. Demetri crashed on an almost monthly basis, and he'd never had anyone lecture him before. It was refreshing. Arousing. He was noticing the curves again, because in the tight, faded blue jeans, it was impossible not, too. The denim jacket was old as well, with some frou-four fringe around the chest that drew attention back to her…
“Are you listening to me?”
“Absolutely,” he said, eyes firmly on her face.
She drew in a breath, her mouth twisting as if she were going to argue. Then she took a step away from her car, looking back toward the front of his. The mouth twisted more. “Oh, heck,” she whispered, the denim clad shoulders sagging. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Her voice was a rich Kentucky drawl that slid down his throat much smoother than bourbon ever had. He had always had a thing for blondes, but lately they'd been trending toward the icy cold of professionally-done platinum rather than the warm taste of golden amber. Still, professionally-done platinum had bought him a world a trouble, so maybe it was time for golden amber…
Actions. Consequences. Lesson. Learned.
“I'm fine,” he told her. “How are you?” he asked, looking her over, ostensibly checking for injuries. The narrow glance she shot him told him better than words that she didn't buy the act for a minute. “You looked like you were going to faint.”
“Mister, the only thing dented on me is my pride,” she said, meeting his gaze before shaking her head sadly and turning her attention back to his car -- what was left of his car. “Good God almighty, I can't believe this. Look at that thing. Folded like a cheap lawn chair. I've never even had an accident, and my first one has to be some European whoop-di-do that would crunch up if you hit it with a cotton ball.”
“That could have been you . That is exactly what I'm talking about. Why do something so stupid in a flimsy little car like that? Do you want to end up all smashed like your car?”
Demetri swallowed, then took an involuntary step backwards. “I'm fine. In fact, I'm more than capable of handling that machine,” he began. “You're the one –”
“Who doesn't have a crunched up car,” she said, pointing to the bumper of her Volvo, which had escaped completely unscathed. “Barely a scratch.” Then she looked at his vehicle. “I don't know why car makers make cars like tin cans. You'd think they'd make them sturdy.”
“That makes them slow,” Demetri explained feeling strangely compelled to defend his car, possibly due to the way the fender was dragging the ground like a broken leg, and the hood was folded up into the windshield. The pain was like his own. An Italian work of art was not designed to withstand impact from a Volvo. It seemed – ignoble, somehow.
Her head lifted, the bright eyes capturing his imagination in ways she probably wouldn't appreciate. “You got a problem with slow?” she challenged.
“Some people like to drive fast,” he pointed out, not really wanting to argue with her, but he did like the way she talked, even if he didn't completely like the things she said. And he couldn't kiss her, and an argument kept her talking… and so he was human. So what?
Her hands settled on her hips, cute, curvy hips that he had told himself not to notice. Not noticing, not noticing at all.
“Some people like to die. I prefer neither.” Her face paled, and fire lit her voice. “That really was a mighty fool thing to do.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It was.”
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
“I should have waited. I didn't. I'm sorry.” He'd been prepared to own up to his impatience from the moment he'd stepped out of the car. This was the first solid opening she'd given him, and seeing the look of surprise on her face made him supremely glad he'd waited. “I get a little impatient sometimes.”
“Mmm.” She pondered him for a moment, and Demetri enjoyed the way her gaze softened and cut over him, like a physical caress if a man were so inclined to think that way – which Demetri was. As quick as it came, the moment was gone, and she focused on the car again. “You know, I'll be able to feed an entire undeveloped nation for what it's going to cost to repair that little ding in your fender.”
He took in the damage to his car, one of only five experimental versions in the world. Rockefeller couldn't afford to fix his car. No way was he going to make her pay for it. It had been his fault. He'd be the bigger person. “If you need to settle this under the table, that'd be fine, but I'm not sure you could afford it. Don't worry about it.” He looked at her, waiting for her to appreciate his generous offer.
She laughed at him. Laughed at him. Humbling, demeaning, and slightly irritating.
“When you get an estimate, send it to my assistant, and I'll take care of it.” She scribbled a phone number on a piece of paper. No name, just a number. If it hadn't been for the way her mouth bowed up like a flower, or the way her blue eyes reflected turquoise in the afternoon sun, he probably would have left it at that.
“You're a friend of the Prestons?” he asked curiously.
“Family,” she snapped, looking mildly insulted.
“I've never seen you before.”
“I've never seen you, either, but that doesn't amount to a hill of beans, does it? Next time you should be more careful in that driving. You could get yourself killed that way.”
“I could give you lessons,” he offered.
“In how to drive like a crazy person? Thanks, but no.” It was a dismissal, and in case he didn't get the point, she presented him with a perfect heart-shaped rear, tightly encased in denim. As she walked toward the house, her hips swung back and forth like a pendulum. A connoisseur's smile flared on his lips. A man could get lost in that rhythm, or at least distracted.
Maybe better men than him had tried, but probably no one more stubborn. If he were smart, he would ignore his urges, leave her alone, get his car fixed, and pocket the bill.
But Demetri was reckless, and he spent most of his life laughing at the fates. Habits were hard to break, and some were impossible.
Once out of sight of the stranger, Elizabeth Innis caught her breath, and resumed fanning her face, because Lord knows, she was overheating, and it had nothing to do with being twenty-eight years old and being in her first car accident ever. Not that the accident wasn't traumatizing enough, but the hot flashes running in her blood weren't anxiety. That was 100% pure, all natural-lust.
As a rule, she stayed away from men like that: dark and handsome in those ways of soap opera villains who were always hiding deep, traumatic secrets. No, Elizabeth had sky high standards.
In her world purview, she clung to the idea of true love, but knew that for every prince, there was a whole oceanful of frogs that were green and slimy and caught flies for a living. No, thank you. She was holding out for the one, the only -- true love, with a capital T and a capital L. Not that that meant she wouldn't be picky about finding Mr. Right. None of that high-living, high-loving, hot-dogging for Elizabeth, no sir, which meant staying away from exotic looking men in exotic looking cars with an All-American physique that set her off fanning again.
This was going to have to stop, she reminded herself, giving herself one last wave for good measure, and then tucked her hands away. After all, she had a reputation to preserve. The magazines said she wore a chastity belt under her tight-fittin' jeans and was so clean that she squeaked when she walked. Elizabeth didn't mind the talk one bit. Her music fans ate it up, and in Elizabeth's mind, that chastity belt was worth its weight in gold -- gold records that is. Still, her reputation had one drawback – men saw it as a challenge.
Like the exotic looking driver of the car she'd crumpled. Hopefully he'd contact her assistant and let Elizabeth pay for the damage and then she could put the whole matter behind her. After all, she wasn't here to puddle at the feet of some dark stranger. She had a wedding to sing for, a woebegone cousin to cheer up, and two weeks worth of R&R.
Her chastity belt was staying right where it was, because there wasn't a place in her life for hot-looking strangers who took darn-foolish chances…
..even if he could overheat her with a glance.
Her hand started fanning all over again.
The Preston study was an impressive testament to the legacy of Quest stables, the stables that Hugh Preston had built from scratch, one winner at a time. Dark wooden bookshelves lined the walls, filled with a combination of business books and racing books, the same skills that had made Quest Stables one of the largest racing operations in Kentucky. Hugh had handed over the reins to his son Thomas a long time ago, but Hugh was still active in the process, picking out horses with the same eye for a winner.
As Demetri waited for the old man to arrive, his gaze wandered over the room and all the racing memorabilia that it contained. A trophy case was filled with the old-style, two-handled cups that had been awarded so long ago, and pictures of the horses that had raced under the Quest name. The green walls were covered with framed news clippings of the stable's winners. And now, all that history, the Preston legacy, was in doubt.
Not if Demetri could help it.
As a rule, Demetri didn't play Sir Galahad well. Racing was a solitary occupation, moving from place to place. When the cars hit the track, friends turned to competitors, never a good idea. And as for his family, all that was left was his father, and he didn't speak to Demetri unless he was forced to. It made for a solitary life.
Yet Hugh Preston had always been there for Demetri -- a lot of the times with a sharp rebuke, or a grizzled shake of the head. A poor substitute for family, but Demetri would take what he could get. And for his friend, Demetri would wear the Sir Galahad mantel, no matter how bad it fit.
“There's a tow-truck dragging a cracked up car from my drive, and I'm certain it belongs to you. You, a prize-winning Formula Gold driver, with a slew of records behind you. Which leaves me scratching my head, wondering how it came to be gotten in such poor shape?”
Demetri turned and greeted the old man with a one-armed slap against the shoulder. At eighty-seven, Hugh Preston still moved with the hurried pace of a much younger man, and spoke in a voice that was almost musical, with long-ago traces of an Ireland brogue, the hard swagger of Brooklyn, and the meandering drawl of Kentucky, all blended together in one.
“The accident wasn't my fault,” defended Demetri, although technically, if someone wanted to split hairs, or argue over ‘facts' than yeah, he probably shared some of the burden of responsibility, or most of it.
Hugh settled his frame in a leather chair and poured out two glasses of bourbon. “That's what the guilty ones always say,” he said, taking a long sip of bourbon, and ending with a contended sigh.
“It'll take a few weeks for my engineering team to repair, but Louisville in the fall has a certain appeal.” A blond appeal, with wide blue eyes and a smart mouth. A smart, extremely kissable mouth….
Nope. Not going there.
“Hopefully you're driving skills will improve before the race next week. Are you coming to the dinner tomorrow?”
“I don't know,” answered Demetri, because Preston social events were different from the social events of the racing circuit. On the circuit, Demetri was on display, a showman for the cause. The Prestons would expect merely the man, and Demetri wasn't comfortable when the mere man was on display. Some things were best left in the dark.
“So who's the blond that backed into me?” he asked nonchalantly, deciding to go there after all. In the end, the sun rose on a daily basis, an old dog couldn't learn to play fetch, and Demetri was born to pull the wheel against the skid. “I think I scared her. Drives a tank of a Volvo.”
“That'd be Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth who?” he asked, rolling the name over in his mind. Elizabeth .
Hugh frowned. “That'd be ‘just Elizabeth' to you, Demetri. She's like family to me.”
The slight hurt, but Hugh would never realize that. Demetri's smile was too polished, too practiced. “I would guess she doesn't need your protection, Hugh. She seems capable of making up her own mind.”
Hugh's harsh bark of laughter was answer enough. “Now what was that I was reading in the tabloids about you? A married princess? Whatever got you thinking that was a good idea?”
Demetri shrugged, the picture of casual indifference. “She was lonely. I thought I could help. I didn't know her great aunt owned forty-seven percent of Valencia Products and would pull her sponsorship of the team.”
“Elizabeth isn't lonely. She doesn't need your help.”
“All right. Lesson learned. Message received. Hands off. But she should have checked her mirrors,” he felt the need to add, because she should have looked behind her. However, Demetri wasn't here to play, and he'd had made polite small-talk long enough. “Tell me what's going on, Hugh. The stalls are empty. I heard there won't be any Quest horses at the Keeneland sales. Thomas said that he's losing McMurray's horses and the Thornhill's, too. How much longer until this racing ban goes away?”
“Not long,” answered Hugh, which wasn't much of an answer.
Thoughtfully Demetri swirled the ice in his glass before looking up. “Let me give you the cash to cover the expenses until then.”
“No,” said the old man, not even waiting to reply.
“Talk to Thomas. He'll agree.”
Hugh scoffed at that. “You don't know my son very well.”
It was true, Demetri had never bonded with Thomas the way he had with Hugh. Thomas had a hard, uncompromising edge that reminded Demetri of his own father, whereas Hugh had been impulsive, reckless, a risk-taker, but a man who had grown wiser as he had gotten older. “He can't be prouder than you,” Demetri pointed out.
“Prouder, and in some ways, more stubborn.”
Demetri sighed, taking another long sip of his drink. This was going to be harder than he'd thought, and he had known coming in that it wouldn't be easy. That was all right, though. For Hugh, he'd work a little harder. Demetri polished off the last of the bourbon and then put the glass on the table next to him. “Ten years ago, somebody spotted me a loan to move my father's startup to the big leagues. I repaid the money, but that man wouldn't take a decent interest rate on the loan.”
Hugh smiled and waved if off with a careless hand. “I liked you, Demetri.”
“It was a bone-headed move,” Demetri reminded him.
“You were a friend.”
“So are you. Take the money. It'll be an infusion of cash to tide Quest over until the ban has lifted.”
Hugh shook his head, not even hesitating once. “Put your wallet away. First Elizabeth, now you.”
There was that name again. Rolling in his head, and he could feel the itch in his fingers, the ache in his body, the challenge. Always the challenge. “Elizabeth?”
“The money's not needed here,” answered Hugh, slamming down his glass. “Thomas won't take any loan, and I don't want to discuss it any longer. For over sixty years I've been picking out the best legs, the biggest hearts, and the horses that kept going when they had nothing left to give. After I retired, Thomas ran these stables with honor and integrity. They're not going to take that away from us now.”
“Talk to Thomas. Please.”
Hugh sighed, downed the remainder of his bourbon and shook his head. “No.”
Okay, so the honest-aboveboard ways weren't going to work. Not a surprise. “My teammate wants to stable some horses here. Would you mind if I show him around?”
“Stabling horses here? While we're still restricted? Is this another cockamamie way of throwing money in my direction.”
Demetri had been stabling horses at Quest for nearly ten years, and in the past few months, as the problems with the racing association had intensified, he'd had to pull them out as necessary, but not until he absolutely had to. And that didn't mean that he couldn't add more horses to the Quest stables. Boarding fees didn't bring in nearly as much as stud fees or racing purses, but whatever worked.
“No,” he lied. “Definitely not. He's new to horses.” Actually, Oliver didn't know that he was stabling horses at Quest. But he would soon. Demetri would buy them, Oliver would ‘own' them, and Quest would stable them. Everybody was a winner.
Oliver was in his debut season as the number two driver for Team Sterling, with the promise of a great career ahead of him, assuming he didn't muck it up. Young at twenty-two, he was powerful and aggressive, and what he didn't have in brains, he made up for in grande cahone and gamesmanships.
Some of the other drivers didn't care for Oliver, they said he was too aggressive, too manipulative, always chasing the top step of the podium, rather than driving for the team, but that was the exact reason that he and Demetri worked well together. It wasn't about the team, it was only about the win. And James Sterling, former CEO of Sterling Motorcars, and the principle executive for Team Sterling, was building up his reputation by picking drivers who drove to the edge.
Drivers like Demetri.
For a moment Hugh studied him, looking right through him, but Demetri didn't flinch. Finally Hugh nodded. “Bring him to the barbeque with you tomorrow. Maybe he can keep you out of trouble.”
“Sounds like a plan,” answered Demetri, rising from the chair and heading for the door. “I'll see you tomorrow.”
“Are you forgetting something?” asked Hugh.
Demetri looked around blankly. “No.”
“Are you planning on walking all the way back to town?” The faded blue eyes danced with mischief.
“Call me a cab?”
“You're a cab, and if you give me your promise to keep your hands off my great-niece, then I'll let you borrow one of the trucks.”
“You don't need my promise,” answered Demetri, because he knew it was a promise he couldn't keep.
Hugh moved to the desk, rummaging for a moment, before throwing a set of keys in Demetri's direction. “I know I'm going to regret this. And try not to smash up this one, Demetri.”
Demetri grinned. “I always try.”
“That's what I'm afraid of.”
Elizabeth found her cousin Melanie riding in the paddock, sitting on top of a big gray with flashing white stockings who looked speedier than Elizabeth ever wanted to travel. However, Melanie was of a different mind. She wanted to ride faster than some nuclear-powered rocket, and Elizabeth wished her all the luck in the world with that.
Everybody had a gift. Elizabeth could sing, and Melanie could talk to horses. Maybe not in words, but when you saw Melanie with a horse, you knew that two-way communicating was going on. Melanie would murmur sweet nothings to the thoroughbreds, and when they were out on the track, those sweet nothings could make them move like nobody's business. Baby talk, was how Elizabeth used to tease her cousin. After Melanie started winning her races, Elizabeth stopped her teasing.
For a few seconds she watched her cousin ride, noticing the way the horse and the rider moved together, and noticing the tell-tale droop in Melanie's smile. At that unsightly sight, Elizabeth squared her shoulders and pushed all the bad things out of her mind, including the inopportune car-crush -- along with the correspondingly inopportune, hot-looking car-crusher -- out of her mind, (and hopefully out of her loins). Briskly, she waved, looking just as bright and perky as a woman who had not just wrecked a car that cost more than God, nor lusted after a man that had she had no business feeling the heat for. “Hey, cuz. Ready to race?”
Melanie's mouth curved up at the corners, and she dismounted, hopping down to the dirt. “Bet you twenty I can beat you out to the ridge.”
Elizabeth snickered. “I don't bet with jockeys. I'm absolutely certain there's something against that in the Bible. Don't know where to find it, or specifically what it says, but I'm comfortable in my decision.”
“Spoilsport,” answered Melanie pulling a face, and hollered at one of the stablehands, asking for another mount for Elizabeth -- hopefully something not quite so zippy. Elizabeth found herself more than satisfied when the man led out a pretty little brood mare, soft brown with a coal-black mane. Courting Christy was what they called her. A pretty name for a pretty horse.
Gingerly, Elizabeth climbed into the saddle, taking a deep breath and adjusting to the discrepancy in heights.
The stable-hand opened the gate and the two cousins took off ‘racing,' which was Elizabeth's word for a nice, steady trot, curving among the sturdy branches of the black walnut trees. Riding with her cousin through the hills and valleys with the wind at her back, Elizabeth felt like a kid once again.
The afternoon was crisp and cool, the last of the bright yellow leaves valiantly fighting against the November wind, carpeting the grass in a patchwork quilt of red and gold. In the distance, the smoky smell of burning leaves drifted in the air as the rituals of the first true cold snap of autumn commenced.
The ridge overlooking the winding valley had always been their place to go, a place to forget all the troubles of the world. They dismounted, and pulled up a plush field of bluegrass, perfect for sitting and watching the clouds skate by. Melanie sighed, her face not nearly as happy as Elizabeth wished it were.
Quest Stables was in serious financial trouble, and to Elizabeth's way of thinking, it was time for the Prestons to face facts. Their prize thoroughbred, Leopold's Legacy, had been pulled from the racing circuit because his pedigree was in doubt, and until the Prestons could get the mystery of his parentage resolved, things weren't so rosy.
“Melanie, you should be happier. Your brother's getting hitched on Saturday, but you don't look happy, and Robbie's going to see right through those fakey smiles. I keep wanting to help, y'all keep turning me down, and it's getting real old, real fast. However, because I am determined, I'm not giving up, and by the way, how are y'all paying for this wedding? At least let me help with that.”
“Grandpa put some money down on a race in Saratoga, won big, enough to cover the wedding, but I thought Dad was going to blow a gasket.”
Elizabeth clucked her tongue. “And now Uncle Hugh's been driven to gambling…”
Melanie snorted inelegantly, a sound echoed by the mare behind her. “Grandpa isn't driven to anything he doesn't want to do. Elizabeth, do you remember when you were in bad financial straits and needed help? I tried to help, and what did you tell me?”
“I didn't say anything,” lied Elizabeth.
Melanie glared, and Elizabeth felt a twinge of remorse. So Elizabeth repeated her words in a quiet whisper. “I said I didn't want charity, not from my family, not from anybody. But this is different.”
Melanie nodded, in a completely annoying fashion. “And you made it all on your own, didn't you?”
“Yes,” answered Elizabeth, wishing Melanie didn't have to be so… right.
“So, why do you think the Prestons are any different?”
The Prestons . Elizabeth sighed, because there was that dividing line again, like the Mason-Dixon line, the Great Wall of China, and the Berlin Wall (before they tore it down) . The Prestons were her family, God bless ‘em, but Elizabeth and her momma weren't part of the inner circle. It wasn't something that was rude or snooty or mean-spirited at all, but geographical instead. The Prestons lived right outside Lexington, and Elizabeth had grown up in Tennessee. Between the mad dash from one singing gig to another, guitar and singing lessons, and the odd jobs to pay the bills, it was only during the holidays that Elizabeth spent time with her cousins, and sometimes, on a rare golden occasion, a whole summer week.
Those hot summer days were the best, riding horses until she could barely walk, eating watermelon on the porch, Brent and Andrew trying to out-wrestle each other, and giggling with Melanie over Robbie's goofy little-brother antics. On those days, Elizabeth had watched her cousins with greedy eyes. She wanted that warm closeness of the Prestons. That after-dinner moment when two thousand conversations were all going on at once, and it didn't really matter that nobody could hear a word. The Preston family kept together through thick and thin and that was all that counted.
Staying with the Prestons these past few days had once again reminded Elizabeth of what she had missed growing up. The grass was always greener, especially in Kentucky. She brew out a wistful breath.
A few feet away, the two horses were grazing under the scraggly canopies of the bur oaks that dotted the countryside. Melanie's mount -- Something to Talk About – now that was a true character, the gray was showing off and prancing around, like he just knew people were watching.
Horses were the Preston's life blood and now that blood was slowly being squeezed off. If the Prestons truly thought Elizabeth was just going to pack up her marbles and go home, they had another think coming.
“I have the means, you know it, and y'all are family.”
Furiously Melanie shook her head, short blond waves flying from the force. “No. I think it's nice of you to offer, Elizabeth, but we're not angling for handouts. We're not that desperate yet. I don't want to hear another word.”
“I want to help,” Elizabeth insisted.
“Elizabeth you sing. You don't know anything about horses or stables or financial matters. You help out by being here. Let somebody else take care of the rest.”
Elizabeth sighed, throwing a piece of grass at her cousin, wishing it had magical powers that could make her family see sense, instead of having Melanie look at her like some space alien come down from Planet Helpless.
“I'm capable of doing a whole lot more,” she said, but her cousin went right on talking, as if Elizabeth hadn't said a word.
“Yeah, like getting into car wrecks. I heard about your accident in front of the house. At first, I didn't believe it was you. I mean, it's not like you drive fast enough to do any damage to anybody, but then they said Demetri ran into you .” Melanie started to laugh, and Elizabeth could see no humor in this situation, and thought it was downright – tacky to laugh at someone who had suffered such a tragic misfortune.
“It's no cause for laughing, Melanie,” she answered, wounded, wounded to the quick.
“You don't know,” answered her cousin, gasping between giggles.
“What don't I know?”
“Demetri Lucas. He's a race-car driver.”
Demetri Lucas. Race-car driver.
Oh, she didn't want to know his name. She preferred to keep him as the hot-looking driver with the heavy-hands and the lead-foot.
A race-car driver, and didn't that beat all? Elizabeth didn't like car-racing. Cars were tools, a means to get from one place to another, not some durn-fool bleacher sport that took away good Sunday afternoon television programming. “Driving cars. Now isn't that the most useless pastime ever? I mean, why in heaven's name does anyone want to fly around that track, flying round and round, wheeling around the corners, and oh, Lord, I'm making myself queasy just thinking about it.”
Melanie stopped her giggles and her eyes got that sly little gleam that indicated she wanted to pry. “So what'd you think?”
“I didn't think anything,” Elizabeth answered, lying through her teeth. “What's there to think?”
“Elizabeth, you're not blind.”
“And I'm not dumb, neither.”
Melanie nodded once, in that smug, supercilious way of people that know they discovered the truth, when someone doesn't want them to discover the truth, because sometimes the truth is better left undiscovered. “He's hot.”
“If you like that sort of look….,” answered Elizabeth, idly strumming her fingers through the grass, because she didn't usually go for the dark and dangerous look in men. Her normal type was clean-cut and upstanding. Men who took ‘no' for an answer and didn't quibble.
“Every woman likes that sort of look.”
Elizabeth looked up and arched a brow, smug and supercilious, too. “Even you?”
“Still nursing a hurt?” she asked, because Melanie had fallen for the wrong sort once. It seemed like every woman was destined to be a fool once.
Melanie shook her head. “Older and wiser, just like you, I bet. Are you still nursing a hurt?”
There was forgiveness, and then there was spotted-dog stupid. Elizabeth blew out a breath. She had been snookered once -- and by the man who sired her -- but now she was older and wiser, too.
Sadly she checked her watch and sighed. Play time was over. She walked over to her mount, leaves snapping under her feet. Gently she rubbed the velvety nose, letting the mare know that even though she wasn't as fast as the colt, she was still special to Elizabeth -- especially since she was taking her back over the ridge to the stables.
“Courting Christy, you're a nice lady, aren't you?” she crooned, the hose neighing softly.
Melanie nodded. “She is, too. Not a mean bone in her body.”
“She should have a nicer name. Flower or Buttercup, with those flirty eyelashes of hers.”
Melanie shot Elizabeth a telling look. “I don't name them. I just ride them. And speaking of, I do have a job to do.”
Elizabeth took a last look at the long, sweeping valley. “Don't remind me. I've got a meeting in the city tonight. Album covers. You would not believe all the hoop-di-do that goes into deciding what goes on a cover. I could tell you stories that would curl your hair.
“You're going to leave? I thought you were staying at the house until after the wedding?”
“I'll be back late tonight, Melanie. You think you can sneak out a bottle of apple wine and we can sit on the veranda and gossip?”
Melanie raised shocked eyebrows. “I don't drink apple wine any more, Elizabeth, only Chardonnay. Do you?”
Elizabeth was shamed. “No,” she lied. Three lies in one day. It was a world-record, but Elizabeth knew exactly where the blame belonged.
The hot-looking driver with the heavy-hands and the lead-foot.
“So did Robbie invite him to the wedding?” she asked, the words flying out of her mouth before she could stop them.
Melanie leaped into the saddle, as graceful as a ballet dancer, and waggled a warning finger at Elizabeth. “Be careful, Elizabeth. That snowy-white reputation that you're so proud can disappear like that.” Melanie snapped her fingers, as if Elizabeth couldn't comprehend the graphic on her own.
“Like I'd do something stupid with that man? You know me, cuz. Cautious is my middle name, my first name, and my last name, too,” she answered, dismissing the idea, all while new ideas were seeping into her mind, ideas that were distinctly uncautious.
She shook her head, flitting all those ideas out of there.
Hopefully this time, it'd work for good.
Whenever there was a wedding in the works, the wind blew a little softer, the nightingales sounded a little prettier, and even Seamus, the family dog walked around with a bounce in his step and a song in his bark. The Preston household might have been dreary lately, the pall of the scandal touching everything in ways that Elizabeth had never imagined, but in the hectic days leading up to Robbie and Amanda's wedding, things were perkier and livelier. Betsy, the capable manager that ran the house, had the staff take out the best china, guestrooms were dusted, the silver was polished, and everything was set out for Jenna Preston's white-glove inspection.
That evening, when Elizabeth got home from the meeting in town, she opted to do a little inspecting of her own. Said subject of inspection? One Demetri Lucas, whose car she had recently demolished, and whose image kept cropping up into her mind, and other places that she didn't want any man cropping up into. Hopefully a hard dose of reality would help matters. After climbing atop the fluffy yellow guest room bed, she studied her laptop screen, and stumbled across the first of many, many, many damning sins. The most recent being that he had just lost a key endorsement from Valencia Products, because he'd been boffing royalty. Elizabeth sniffed contemptuously.
Not only was he irresponsible, but he was also plain stupid. Thinking he wouldn't get caught? Durn. The man might as well be blonde.
To be fair, he did have some business sense, but it was that hard-nosed, hard-hearted shark behavior that Elizabeth didn't like. Besides his race car driving, Demetri Lucas bought and sold companies like other men played the slots. He didn't care, didn't participate, only signed on the bottom line, made a bucket load of cash and then moved on to either the next venture, or the next princess, whichever caught his roving eye first.
And apparently his roving eye had been caught many, many times.
She was cursing the man six ways to Sunday when her cell phone rang.
“Liz?” Her manager was the only person who called her Liz. Thank God for small favors, because Liz was a short-cut name; it didn't have nearly the regal grandeur of Elizabeth. And at five foot four, Elizabeth wanted all the regal grandeur she could get.
“Tobey?” she said, kicking back on the bed. “What are you calling for? If you're calling me about the album cover, I'm not going to listen. I told you tonight that I didn't like that last mock-up of the cover, and I meant it. I sing country, not heavy metal. Use something prettier than black. What's wrong with yellow? Or pink? Or maybe one of those soft teals? I think –”
Elizabeth stopped. “What?”
“I'm not calling about the cover. They're going to change the background color.”
Elizabeth blew out a breath. “Well thank heavens for that. So why are we chatting when I'm supposed to be on vacation?”
“I got another call from the shampoo company, Softsilk. They're determined to get you. The woman said they have new line coming out next year. Soft, sexy, womanly. That was their words. They want you to do the spots.”
“Why did you call me with this? I sing. That's it. I don't want to do commercials or product placements, or be some shill for some shampoo that will probably make my hair fall out. I told you ‘no' the last five times you asked me. No, no, no. What I use on my head, what I put on my face, what jeans I wear, what car I drive is nobody's business but mine, and I'll be damned if Elizabeth Innis is going to help sell somebody else's products. I'm not telling you something that you don't already know, Tobey. Why are you calling, and this time, please tell me the truth.”
“Frank called. He heard you were in Kentucky and thought it'd be good for you to do a local concert ten days from now. It's for the University of Louisville, the Wednesday night before their homecoming game. Skew your demographics younger.”
Frank was the manger of Five Star Records, Elizabeth's label, and when Frank told Tobey to jump, Tobey asked how high. Elizabeth didn't mind, that was Tobey's job, but Elizabeth wasn't a business person. She was an artist. And everybody knew that artists were temperamental. Even though Elizabeth wasn't temperamental, that didn't mean she couldn't pretend when it worked to her advantage.
“Tobey. I'm on vacation. My cousin is getting married day after tomorrow and I'm singing in the wedding. I need this break. I've been on tour for the last twelve months. Now, I love my band, but do you know how many hotels that is? Do you know how many frequent flier miles that is? More than I can count, Tobey, but I bet it's not more than you count. I bet you can tell me exactly how many frequent fliers I've logged, can't you? Let me make this clear so you can understand. I'm not doing any concerts here. I'm tired. Can't you hear the tension in my voice? I don't know why you can't, cause this phone connection sounds pretty good to me.”
“Frank's got something lined up, Liz.”
Elizabeth glared at the phone, which did absolutely no good, but it made it her feel better. “Let me repeat what I said, because I'm thinking this phone connection must not be as crisp as I thought. I'm not dong any concerts here. Not one. I'm tired. This is my family time, and nothing gets between me and my family time.”
“Frank already lined it up,” he answered, just like he hadn't heard a single word that she'd said.
Elizabeth snorted. “Well, tell him to unline it up. I'm on vacation. It's three weeks, Tobey, not three years. Nothing trumps family for me. You know that.”
“The money's good, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth hmmphed into the phone. “Do you think that matters? If it's going to start mattering to me, then I need to fire you, because I'm not making as much money as you're telling me I am. Do I need to fire you, Tobey? Don't tell me yes, because you're about as L.A. as I can handle. Everybody told me to get a Nashville agent, but I liked you, even if you were L.A, but maybe they were right, Tobey. Maybe I should get a Nashville agent.”
“Don't make me go back to Frank and tell him no,” he begged.
“Go back to Frank and tell him no.”
“Oh, Elizabeth…” which he only called her when he was really, really, really up a creek.
“Oh, Tobey…” she said, and she knew she was starting to get all soft, and she didn't want to get all soft. She needed to be tough and hard-edged with a spine that wouldn't break, no matter how much battering it took. Elizabeth took a deep, strength-injecting breath, happy to feel the steel return. “Now you listen—“
Suddenly she stopped, a light-bulb flashing in her head.
“How much money are we talking about?” Elizabeth asked carefully.
Tobey named a figure that raised her brows, and her brows -- which were perfectly arched -- didn't usually raise that far. That was all it took for her to change her mind. “Sign me up, Tobey. I'll do it. Get the band down on the next plane out of Nashville. Actually, not the next plane, but maybe Monday next. At least let's give them the weekend off.
“Why did you change your mind so fast?” he asked suspiciously. Rightly so. A wise one, that Tobey. That was why she liked him.
“Might want to buy something,” she hedged, even though the plan was already formulating in her head.
“Couldn't you give me a hint?” he asked.
“Whoa. Gotta go, Tobey. This phone is breaking up. Darn cells. Hate the things.” Elizabeth made crackling noises into the phone and then snapped it closed. A concert would be the perfect solution and hopefully the Prestons would think so, too.
“It looks rather deserted, don't you think?” asked Oliver Wentworth, squinting in the direction of the empty pasture, and Demetri tried to see the stables through Oliver's eyes.
Oh, yeah, the grounds outside the Preston homestead were impressive. Over two hundred acres, perfect for the thoroughbred horses that were being trained there. At one time, there had been over five hundred horses stabled on the premises. Today the numbers were dwindling. The practice track stood silent, only a few horses wandering in the pasture, grazing quietly.
Demetri took it all in, and shook his head sadly. He didn't want to see Quest through Oliver's eyes.
Next to him, Oliver leaned against the wooden fence and looked on, completely unimpressed. “So this is what a horse farm looks like?” he asked.
“Normally Quest is a little busier,” answered Demetri, feeling the need to defend the proud stables because of course, soon ‘Oliver' would be stabling horses here as well, but they had a long way too go, and Demetri was going to have to work this slowly. Being from England, Oliver's idea of horses ran toward polo ponies and fox hunts, not Kentucky Thoroughbreds.
At first, Oliver hadn't wanted to come to the barbeque, but Demetri had casually mentioned that there might be women there -- single, attractive, and lonely women -- which perked up Oliver immensely, who was tall and golden-haired, with a playboy's eye.
When Oliver had made the team last year, the press had kidded that Demetri was like an older brother to Oliver – a lousy older brother. People expected a lot from the elder sibling. They expected responsibility, maturity, vigilance, and watchfulness. Demetri had none of those qualities. He never had, and he wished that people would stop expecting it from him. No matter how wild his antics, or how reckless his driving, they still expected more. Idiots . At one time, he'd had a younger brother, Seth. Demetri had come up short for Seth, and he hoped that Oliver wasn't watching too closely, because he worried that someday he would come up short for Oliver as well.
Demetri had yet to tell Oliver his grand plan to have Oliver stable some thoroughbreds at Quest, because Oliver's first priority was always Oliver, and Demetri had yet to figure out an angle, or possibly debt obligation, which he could use over Oliver's head. But he would. Eventually.
Oliver grinned. “Fascinating, now can we go have dinner?”
“You're hungry?” Demetri felt vaguely disappointed that Oliver hadn't gone all cowboy at the sight of horses. It seemed… un-American, which considering Oliver was British, wasn't a total surprise. Still, Demetri had hoped.
“I'm not hungry for food, old man. I'm only here for the women.”
Demetri slapped him on the back, not hungry either – except for her.
A smile crossed his face, and he could feel the burn inside him. “Watch and learn, Oliver. Watch and learn.”
It took a foolish woman's heart to skip a beat when she saw six-foot-something worth of trouble walk out onto the manicured lawn. The barbeque dinner for Amanda and Robbie had gone along smooth as molasses, but then he walked outside, and Elizabeth found herself looking, which turned into ogling, which turned into lusting, and it was all downhill from there.
Dressed in dark jeans, exactly like ninety-nine percent of the other men, he still stood out. He was handsome, but there were other nice-looking men here, too. No, there was something distinctly different about Demetri Lucas. Some dangerous song that called to every woman in the place, some unspoken melody that played havoc with the female senses. Greece is where the gossip sites had said he was born, and now Elizabeth understood the appeal of exotic, foreign men.
His face was proud and arrogant, as if he didn't care what anyone thought, and Elizabeth thought to herself, that well, if you looked like that, you didn't have to care, because the women were already lapping it up in spades. She could tell. They'd walk by him, a flirty gleam in their eyes, hoping to earn a smile or even better a touch, but Mr. Demetri Lucas was too busy --
-- too busy looking at Elizabeth.
There was a dark gleam in those appraising eyes, like she was some prime piece of horseflesh, rather than the bubble-brained woman who smashed up his car.
What was even worse than that was the shiver in her arms, the compulsive need to lick her lips, and the general twitch under her skin that made her nervous as a twelve-years-old.
Frankly, that wasn't quite the truth. That wicked gleam made her feel every single bit of her twenty-eight years, reminding Elizabeth that she long past puberty, knew the real story about the birds and the bees, and had woman parts that were designed to fit a man's parts -- perfectly. Although she'd recorded a few songs that delved into the shadowy mystery of passion, they'd been written by someone else, because Elizabeth had never felt the burn herself. She had never known that long lick of desire between her shoulder blades. Never truly felt that heavy throb between her thighs.
Restlessly she stalked around the yard like a stray dog looking for a place to land. She moved from one place to another, always trying to escape the magnetic draw of his eyes, but never quite succeeding. Elizabeth pulled up a lawn chair and talked with Melanie, with Uncle Thomas, and Aunt Jenna, chattering like a blue-jay, all nonsense, because if she didn't talk, she'd find herself looking in his direction, checking to see if he was still watching.
Which he was.
Elizabeth shivered again.
Oliver was already in his element at the party. The junior driver for Sterling Motor Cars was standing next to Demetri, and in less than an hour, he'd met one long-legged blonde, one brunette with sultry eyes, and one redhead with pouty red lips. Still he wasn't satisfied. Oliver loved them all with passion rarely seen in Britain, his stunts, nearly, but not quite, eclipsing Demetri.
From across the way, Hugh met his eyes, and Demetri nodded once, lifting his beer. If Hugh had noticed the way Demetri's attention kept slipping toward Elizabeth, he showed no sign of it. In the large crowd, it was unlikely, and Demetri's attention slipped toward her once again.
Oliver saw where Demetri was looking, and nudged him in the ribs. “Do you know who that one is?”
Demetri frowned. “She's one of the Prestons,” he said, sounding like he knew exactly who she was.
“It's Elizabeth Innis. Country and western singer. Her last eight records went platinum. Pity she's not your type,” commented Oliver, his wandering eyes firmly fixed in Elizabeth's direction.
“I didn't know I had a type,” said Demetri, stepping in between Oliver's wandering eyes and the country and western singer that Hugh – who was his friend – had warned him off of.
Oliver sidestepped Demetri neatly. “That white dress isn't just for show. Pure as the lamb, but eyes that promise so much more. Sexy, but innocent enough to drive a man wild with anticipation. The advertisers have been after her in droves since she first went platinum, but she always tells them no. I think even Valencia was trying to get her some toothpaste or shampoo or something. She told them no, too.”
“Definitely not my type,” said Demetri, with a regretful sigh, but wishing he could change types – for a little while.
Oliver grinned as if he could read his mind. “What a shame. Why if you were to hook up with someone like her, we'd have sponsors plying us with money left and right. Advertisers love that happily-ever-after fairy-tale world that she sings about. ”
“Why don't you go into advertising?” asked Demetri, because Oliver lived to manipulate the press, always thinking of new and better ways to play games. At twenty-two, Oliver was too young to know that the man who lived by the media, died by the media. Demetri knew it, only he usually didn't care.
“I hate the pesky buggers, but a man has to survive, and until I get your notoriety, then I'll content myself with my little machinations.”
“That's fame, not notoriety,” corrected Demetri.
“You say tomato, I say, how do they say it in Kentucky? Horse pucky. Now, if you took up with a woman like that, it would benefit the team immensely,” said Oliver, nodding back in Elizabeth's direction.
Demetri shook his head regretfully, his eyes never leaving Elizabeth. “When I look at her, I'm not thinking a PR opportunity.”
Oliver quirked a golden brow. “Even better.”
Demetri knew Oliver's bent for trouble, and he felt the need to intervene. Prudent. Sensible. Responsible. “No, Oliver.”
Demetri's teammate watched Elizabeth, a wicked gleam in his eyes, and he heaved an exaggerated sigh. “If you won't, then maybe I should,” he said, with just enough lust in his voice to make Demetri look twice.
“Stay away from that one,” warned Demetri.
Oliver only smiled.
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