Courting Disaster

Race car driver Demetri Lucas's life is comprised of two things: betting and winning. He lives hard and fast – and likes women to match. But when Demetri gets an opportunity to help an old friend by purchasing some horses from Quest Stables, he runs up against the most stubborn woman he's ever met….Squeaky-clean country singer Elizabeth Innis is part of the prestigious Preston clan, so when an outsider makes a bid to buy the horses, Elizabeth is furious. Even worse, when she finally meets the interloping Demetri, she's ridiculously attracted to him – and it's mutual! The only problem? They mix like oil and water.But Demetri has a solution – a small wager. And his prize is Elizabeth….
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Courting Disaster

   

   Dear Reader,

   Y’all should know that I was born and raised in Texas, but have spent the last six years living in New York, writing books about New York City, with nary a “y’all” or “fixing to” in sight. When the editors in New York talked to me about this book, and it dawned on me that I could write a character who actually talks the way I do, I was happier than a pig in molasses.

   I adored writing the character of Elizabeth, and she’s a conglomeration of several of my best friends who I grew up with, all smashed together into one (although none of them sing country and western, bless their little hearts, and all have been known to drive fast on occasion). I didn’t want to stop writing Elizabeth, and I hope to high heaven that I get to write another Southern character someday.

   I love hearing from readers, so please write to me at Kathleen O’Reilly, P.O. Box 312, Nyack, NY 10960, or e-mail me at kathleenoreilly@earthlink.net.

   Best,

   Kathleen

Courting Disaster


Kathleen O’Reilly


   

KATHLEEN O’REILLY

   has done nothing extraordinary in comparison to other authors whose bios she has read. She is not a former CIA agent, nor has she ever been president of the United States (nor slept with him, either). She graduated from Texas A&M in 1987, which her parents do consider extraordinary, and she has been married for sixteen years, but not to Mick Jagger or Justin Timberlake. No, she merely lives with her husband and two kids in New York, and not even Manhattan, just your typical suburb. Due to the mundaneness in her life, she has chosen to write fiction, which seems best, all things considered.





   With great appreciation to Julie and Dee,

   who continually amaze me with their writing genius.

   Special thanks to Stacy for the spot-on editorial advice, and to Marsha for giving me the shot.

Contents

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Chapter Thirteen

   Chapter Fourteen

Chapter One

   The long driveway leading up to Quest Stables was nearly a mile and a 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 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, as difficult as it was for Demetri to believe, there were actually things on his mind that weighed heavier than drag coefficients, Formula Gold racing or even his upcoming race in Louisville. Things like Hugh’s 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 “boneheaded 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.

   Almost.

   Within seconds the main house tore into view, a sprawling redbrick 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 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 cautious drivers as a matter of principle. They tended toward cars that were heavy tanks, built to withstand a nuclear blast, and all those safety features added weight. Pounds were a liability to a race-car driver who valued things like acceleration and whip-quick handling.

   Demetri downshifted again, suspicious that this was the Fates’ 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 six more tries, inching, braking, inching, braking, but at long last the Volvo eased into the space. 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 of the lawn. Now that was how to park a car….

   He was still smiling smugly to himself when the back-up lights of the Volvo flashed. Surely the Volvo would notice the car behind it. Surely the Volvo would stop. Surely…

   Nope.

   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 midair 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 wasn’t about to pass out anymore. 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…hot on this woman. A cute, trim blonde with nice curves…standing in front of his crumpled car, because he 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 to. The denim jacket was old, as well, with some froufrou fringe around the chest that drew attention back to her…

   Not looking. “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 tending 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 of trouble, so maybe it was time for golden amber.…

   No.

   Bad actions. Bad 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-de-do that would crunch up if you hit it with a cotton ball.”

   “European wh—”

   “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 backward. “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 un-scathed. “Barely a scratch.” Then she looked at his vehicle. “I don’t know why carmakers 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 the impact of 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 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. It was 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.

   Nah.

   “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 with 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 twentyeight years old and in her first car accident ever. Not that the accident wasn’t traumatizing, but the hot flashes running in her blood weren’t anxiety. That was one hundred percent pure, allnatural 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, hotdogging for Elizabeth, no sir, which meant staying away from exotic-looking men in exotic-looking cars when just the thought 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 tucking 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.

   Shoot.

   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 mix of business books and racing books, the two 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 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, and kept him 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 shake of the grizzled 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 badly 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 prizewinning Formula Gold driver, with a slew of records behind you. Which leaves me scratching my head, wondering how it came to be in such poor shape?”

   Demetri turned and greeted the old man with a one-armed slap against the shoulder. At eighty-six, 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 Irish 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 “fact,” then 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 contented 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 your driving skills will improve before the race next week. Are you coming to the barbecue 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 blonde 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 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 Thornhills’, 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 start-up 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 the reminder off with a careless hand. “I liked you, Demetri.”

   “It was a boneheaded 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. “Put your wallet away. First Elizabeth, now you.”

   There was that name again, rolling in his head. 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 people suspect us of cheating to win, and we can no longer race our own horses? Is this another cockamamy way of throwing money in my direction?”

   Demetri had been stabling horses at Quest for nearly ten years. Last spring the Prestons’ own champion Leopold’s Legacy was on his way to winning the Triple Crown when a DNA test was required because of a discrepancy in the Jockey Association’s computer records. The results revealed that the stallion’s sire was not Apollo’s Ice, as listed, and a racing ban was imposed on all majority-owned Quest horses. The integrity of the stables had come into question and owners began to remove their horses. But Demetri could help add more horses to 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 cojones and gamesmanship.

   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 Motor Cars, 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 barbecue 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.

   Elizabeth.

   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.”

Chapter Two

   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 telltale droop in Melanie’s smile. At that disturbing sight, Eliza-beth 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, or lusted after a man that 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. She hollered at one of the stable hands, 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 broodmare, soft brown with a coal-black mane. Courtin’Cristy 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 pulled up in 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 day after tomorrow, 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’s being stubborn. He 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 or the Berlin Wall, before they tore it down. The Prestons were her family, God bless ’em. Melanie’s momma and Elizabeth’s momma were sisters, but Elizabeth and Diane 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 outwrestle 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 had once again reminded Elizabeth of what she had missed growing up. The grass was always greener, especially in Kentucky. She blew 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, as if he just knew people were watching.

   Horses were the Prestons’ lifeblood, 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 as though she were 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 zoom 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 who know they’ve 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?”

   “Oh, no.”

   “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. Playtime 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.

   “Courtin’ Cristy, you’re a nice lady, aren’t you?” she crooned, the horse 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 which, 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 anymore, 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 of 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, flicking 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, Hugh’s Irish wolfhound, 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 who ran the house, had the staff take out the best china, guest rooms 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.

   Married?

   Royalty?

   Not only was he irresponsible, but he was also plain stupid. Thinking he wouldn’t get caught? Durn. The man might as well be blond.

   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 the way other men played the slots. He didn’t care, didn’t participate, only signed on the bottom line, made a bucketload 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 shortcut 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 mockup 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—”

   “Liz.”

   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 a new line coming out next year. Soft, sexy, womanly. Those were 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 the week after next. 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 can count. I bet you can tell me exactly how many frequent flier miles 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 doing 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 as if 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 humphed 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 drew in a deep, strength-injecting breath, happy to feel the steel return. “Now you listen—”

   Suddenly she stopped, a lightbulb 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 rise 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 after next. At least let’s give them the weekend off, then we can have two days’ worth of rehearsal.”

   “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 of the Preston homestead were impressive. A thousand 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 around, completely unimpressed. “So this is what a horse farm looks like?” he asked.

   “Normally Quest is a little busier,” Demetri answered, 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 to go, and Demetri was going to have to work this slowly. Oliver was from England, and his idea of horses ran toward polo ponies and fox hunts, not Kentucky Thoroughbreds.

   At first, Oliver hadn’t wanted to come to the barbecue, but Demetri had casually mentioned that there might be women there—single, attractive and lonely women—which immensely perked up Oliver, 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 him—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 a debt obligation, which he could hold 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.

   Elizabeth.

   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 barbecue 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 mused 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 looking at Elizabeth.

   There was a dark gleam in those appraising eyes, as though she were 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-year-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 was 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.

   Until now.

   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 as if 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.

   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 consistently tells them no. I think even Valencia was trying to get her to sell 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 about 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.

Chapter Three

   The late-afternoon sun provided a fitting setting for the couple, poking gilded holes through the clouds sending yellow sunbeams playing on the lawn, until it finally settled down low over the horizon. After that, the air turned a little cooler, and people filtered inside the house, where there was plenty of room. The wedding rehearsal was all through, nothing left to be done but have a good time.

   A lively band played in the corner, and bubbles frothed from a silver champagne fountain in the center of the room. However, Elizabeth was too nervy to dance or drink. She had thought she had managed to escape the spider’s web, but exactly when she felt most safe, she bumped into a long, hard thigh, and the temperature notched up three hundred degrees. She didn’t even have to turn around. She knew. She hadn’t planned on giving Mr. Demetri Lucas the satisfaction, but then he laughed at her, deep, with a huskiness that was best described as criminally sexy.

   Curious as a cat bent on suicide, she turned, not quite managing to stop the moonstruck sigh.

   Dang.

   “Imagine that,” he said. “Crashing into me again? It’s becoming a habit. Or fate?”

   Elizabeth cocked her head, staring up at him, locking her knees so she wouldn’t embarrass herself and swoon. This was silly. He was a man. A mere man. She frowned, at the moment not caring what her stylist said about premature wrinkles. If ever there was a time for forbidding frowns, this was it.

   When he grinned at her like that, a momentary flash of teeth, she felt something stop inside her, and she hoped it wasn’t her heart. That would be bad.

   For the devil, he sure had a nice mouth. A nice, firm mouth. A kissing mouth, she thought, and then quickly tamped the image back down. None of that, Elizabeth.

   If only he wouldn’t look at her, the dark eyes trapping her, hot waves of want spiraling inside her. She’d had men look at her with desire before, but this felt personal. Way too personal. She could feel that look in places that he had no business affecting.

   Elizabeth summoned up the forbidding frown once again. “If you’ll excuse me, I believe I see someone I need to talk to,” she muttered, completely lacking in manners. She didn’t think he’d mind.

   “But not me?” he asked, obviously minding.

   She stopped and gave in to temptation, looking her fill, as she’d been wanting to do all night. Not surprisingly, that only made things worse.

   Truth be told, this was the most dangerous-looking man she’d ever met in her entire life. The boldness in his dark gaze, the wicked twinkle that said, “what the hell,” better than words ever could. That same devilish twinkle fired her blood, and the phrase “what the hell” tumbled from her own mind, too.

   There was danger in him, and she knew it. He was fairly humming with it, like a live wire destined to burn the living daylights out of anyone that dared to touch. But oh, she wanted to touch. Her body ached with that want. Words that she’d never even known were suddenly haunting her lips. Pictures she’d never dreamed of before flashed behind her eyes, tempting her with sins that she’d never ached to commit. It would be easier if she couldn’t see those same pictures of those very same sins reflected in the warm russet depths of his eyes.

   Sweet mercy, those were fascinating eyes.

   It took her a second to breathe again. “No. Definitely not you,” she answered, trying to put as much certainty as possible in her voice, but it didn’t sound certain enough.

   “What a shame,” he said, still watching her with that bold gaze, and something inside her started to melt. Slowly, treacherously…and stupidly.

   “Isn’t it, just?” she answered, and without another word— which was a true testament to her fears—she ran.

   After that, Demetri had actually planned on leaving her alone. He sat through endless toasts, and didn’t even glance in her direction. It wasn’t easy because one heated look from her had shot straight to his groin, and made him ache ever since. However, trying to be on his best behavior, he had counted and recounted the hundred and one reasons he should stay away. First and foremost, Hugh was his friend. A man he owed a tremendous debt. A man he was here to help—not hurt by tangling with a lamb. He normally didn’t mix with “lambs”; they were too complicated, and Demetri didn’t have time for complicated. His life was too fast, the racing circuit too demanding a mistress.

   And then there was that dreamy light in those bright blue eyes that scared the hell out of him.

   Everything was going along well, until after dinner, and he saw her dancing with Oliver—the junior driver formerly known as his friend.

   Demetri couldn’t help himself.

   She’d changed from the virginal white dress she’d worn earlier, and this new one killed off brain cells left and right. It was green, a short jade green silk that was cut low in the front and back, flowing around her hips like water. It was a dress meant to be pulled off inch by luscious inch, and his fingers flexed, greedy and more than up to the task.

   As they danced around the floor, Demetri could see she was light on her feet, the green fabric catching the candlelight and reflecting its glow. He tried to tell himself that of course she could dance well, every move was probably professionally choreographed. Somehow it didn’t help. All he wanted to do was touch her, and see if she was real, or some vision that had stepped out of his boyhood fantasies. And that was the biggest part of the problem. She wasn’t some X-rated goddess that a man tumbled into bed with one night and then forgot the next.

   Elizabeth Innis was Hugh Preston’s niece.

   But even with all the alarms flashing inside him, he couldn’t help it. She was irresistible.

   Once more, damning the fates, Demetri tapped on Oliver’s shoulder. “You don’t mind if I cut in,” asked Demetri, more of an order than a request. Seniority had its privileges after all.

   His teammate released Elizabeth—reluctantly. Suck it up, Oliver. “Not at all,” Oliver answered.

   “Excuse me. Did anybody here think that I might mind?”

   Demetri took Elizabeth in his arms, and swept her up in the lilting strains of the “Tennessee Waltz.” “No,” he said, getting used to the way her eyes lit up when she was mad. “One dance for running into my car. It’s the least you can do.”

   “I absolve myself of all responsibility, because your sort of driving— Well, it’s a train wreck waiting to happen.”

   When she talked, it was like warm honey, and he could all too easily imagine what that voice would sound like, whispering in bed. His arms tightened around her, his fingers sliding over the smooth skin of her shoulder, just once, just to know.

   “I told myself I was going to stay away,” he admitted, willing himself to remember how to dance. “Hugh told me to stay away.”

   “Are you waiting for me to tell you to stay away, too?” she asked, never missing a step.

   “Would you?”

   She paused. One second. One momentary hesitation, before answering, “Of course.” However, she didn’t pull away, and they danced together, Demetri expertly leading her around the other dancers. One hand memorized the curve of her hip, the warm clasp of her fingers in his other hand fitting as if it were custom-made. Something was making him dizzy, the tempo of the music, the snap of her eyes, the full pout to her lips, he wasn’t sure what. In the blur of that moment, the hundred and one reasons to stay away from her—reasons that he had carefully recited to himself all evening—faded into nothing. There was no way in hell he was walking away. Not tonight.

   When the song came to a close, the crowds drifted one way, and Demetri lifted two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter. Then he guided her through the tall glass doors that led out to the sanctity of the veranda, his hand pressed firmly against the soft skin of her back, shamefully taking advantage of another chance to touch her.

   Outside, the moonlight flickered through the trees, bathing the veranda in a soft glow. Demetri handed her a glass, then clinked it once, toasting to absolutely nothing.

   “What are you afraid of?” he said, as if he didn’t know. The dreamy eyes narrowed to sapphire slits of death. He didn’t even mind.

   “You don’t have one single move that hasn’t been tried before. Don’t think I can’t take care of myself.”

   But he could do such a better job, Demetri thought to himself, studying the full upper lip, and the tiny depression there that was made to be savored. “You’re Hugh’s niece?”

   “Great-niece, but not by blood. My aunt Jenna married into the Preston family, but he doesn’t mind when I call him uncle, and I protect him just like he was my own,” she answered, eyeing him over the rim of the glass. There was suspicion and disdain, but there was a flicker of other things in those eyes, too. Things that gave a man hope.

   “I’ve been trying to help them,” he told her, hoping to erase some of the suspicion. “Just like you.”

   “But they turned you down. Smart of them,” she answered, suspicion still the emotion du jour.

   “Do you always make up your mind so fast?” he asked, as if he didn’t live and die by snap judgments as a race-car driver.

   “Not normally, no, but your track record isn’t so stellar, Mr. Lucas.”

   “You know?”

   “Maybe,” she said, shrugging carelessly.

   “Why didn’t Thomas and Hugh accept your offer?” he asked, needing to talk about her, not his past indiscretions. His past wasn’t interesting. She, on the other hand, was fascinating.

   “They don’t want my help,” she answered quietly, the perpetually smiling mouth pulled into a frown. Demetri wanted the smile back in place.

   “Ah…”

   “And you don’t need to be ahhing here, like you understand everything, because you don’t.”

   “Why don’t you tell me?” he invited, because he wanted to understand everything about her.

   She studied him for a minute, and he must have passed some test, because she shook her head, resigned. “Do you really want to know why I’m mad?”

   “I’m dying to know.”

   Then she started to pace around the space, high heels clicking on the stones, green skirts twirling, exposing a long length of leg. His attention was torn between watching the sway of her hips and the restless way she circled the champagne flute in the air. “I have tried every which way to get my family to take money, ever since I heard about the problems with Leopold’s Legacy, but nobody will listen. A few years back I had…some financial issues, and the Prestons wanted to help. I told them all no, that I didn’t need it. I could take care of myself. I wasn’t some poor cousin looking for charity handouts. And now, well, who knew that they’d listen to my own words so well. I have money, but oh, no, I’m not in the horsey business, I’m in the ‘music’ business. Elizabeth, she’s just a simple little thing.” She downed her glass in one gulp, and he handed her his.

   “They turned me down, too. That should make you feel better.” She polished off his glass, too. “And that’s the only reason I’m still dancing with you, Mr. Lucas.”

   “Technically, we’re not still dancing.”

   “Don’t get all particular on me. I get enough of that when I’m working, thank you very much.” She lifted herself up on the edge of one of the wooden railings, crossing one delectable leg over the other, exposing more thigh than he thought she realized. Wisely he didn’t say a word.

   “Sorry,” he answered, trying to keep his gaze firmly fixed on her face.

   “Apology accepted,” she said, her mind still firmly fixed on helping her family.

   “Do you know your way around Louisville?” he asked, his mind firmly fixed on other things.

   “Some.”

   “Enough to show me around?”

   She shook her head once. “I bet there’re a lot of women that would be interested in showing you around, Mr. Lucas. Fast women who aren’t a thing like me. I’m not your type.”

   He crossed his arms across his chest, sensing a depressing change in the infamous Lucas luck with women. “Why does everyone keep telling me I have a type?”

   “If the shoe fits….” she answered, one heel bobbing up and down.

   “I’m trying to reform,” he said. It was not quite the truth, but if he thought it’d earn him a dinner, drinks and long hours in her bed, he’d be willing to try.

   “Ha!” Her arms crossed her chest, plumping her breasts nicely.

   “Don’t be so skeptical,” he answered, his eyes glued to her face as if his life depended on it. Currently he thought it might.

   She watched him, noticed that his gaze kept dipping down. “Sorry. Skeptical is my nature.”

   Reluctantly, he looked up from her cleavage. “No, that’s not even close to your nature. You don’t have a skeptical bone in that luscious body—excuse me, that slipped out, but it’s true. The nonskeptical part. Actually, the luscious part is, too.” Demetri stopped. “Sorry.”

   She started to smile. “That’s all right. I liked you better, then.”

   Humility seemed to work with her. He would remember that. “Why can’t I take you to dinner?”

   “I don’t think that’d be wise.”

   “Why not?” he answered, although he knew there were one hundred and one reasons that it wouldn’t be wise. That wouldn’t stop him from trying.

   “Trust me,” she replied, and he knew people did. Contrary to trusting him, people would trust her with their life.

   “You crash into my life, and one dance is all I’m going to get?” he asked, not hiding the disappointment in his voice.

   She nodded.

   From the distance, he could hear the sounds of music once again, but he didn’t want to go back to the crowd. He could stay here forever. Alone with her, listening to the soft music of her voice, drowning in the teasing light of her eyes. Forever wasn’t normally a word in Demetri’s vocabulary. He drove fast cars for a reason. When the world went by in a blur, you never knew what you missed, and Demetri had a feeling that he missed a lot. Yet sitting here, doing nothing more than talking with this woman, made him want to slow down.

   “I don’t know if I’ll survive with only one dance,” he told her, the words harmless enough, but deep down, he wondered if it was the truth. He’d never felt this before. This obsessive need to do nothing more than sit in her presence and breathe.

   “You certainly turn a lady’s head.”

   “But not yours?”

   The teasing light in her eyes dimmed. “Not enough,” she said. There was some imaginary line in the room, some piece of rope between them, and she was determined not to cross it.

   “What if I made you a deal?” he asked softly.

   “I don’t make deals with the devil,” she said, obviously seeing temptation for what it was.

   “There you go again with the name-calling.”

   “If the shoe fits…”

   He glared, and she had the grace to look ashamed—a little. “Tell me what you’re proposing, and it had better be aboveboard.”

   He wanted her across the line, and there was an easy way to get what he wanted, and he wasn’t above using it. “You want to help your family?”

   She angled her head, watching him carefully. “Yes.”

   “So do I. We should team up.”

   “I already have some ideas of my own,” she said haughtily. “What sort of ideas?” he asked, because his mind was brimming with ideas. Glorious, detailed, mostly pornographic ideas.

   “Not those sorts of ideas,” she answered, her eyes knowing.

   Demetri willed his mind back to the issue at hand. “Pity. I want to hear more about your ideas. I’m staying in town for the race. You should come.”

   “I don’t do car races, Mr. Lucas,” she told him, as if they were the lowest form of entertainment on the planet.

   “Could you please call me Demetri?’

   “Since you begged so nicely,” she teased, and she had no idea how much he’d be willing to beg for her.

   “Demetri,” he added. “Demetri,” she complied, and he planned on hearing his name on her lips again. And again.

   He smiled to himself. “So you’ll come?”

   “I didn’t say that,” she answered, and his smile faded.

   “You could sing. At the start of the race. Oliver says your voice is lovely. I’d love to hear you sing.”

   “I’ll give you a CD. Truly, the quality is amazing. Can’t tell the difference.”

   He took a chance, taking one step toward her. “You’re going to make this difficult,” he said, noticing that she didn’t run. Progress.

   “No, Mr. Lucas. You’re making it difficult. I know what men like you are about, and I’m not going there, so you might as well give up.”

   “I don’t give up, Elizabeth. Sorry.”

   “You’re destined for bitter defeat.”

   “I’m a race-car driver. I live for defeat.”

   “Why don’t I believe that?”

   “Because you’re a lot smarter than you let people think.”

   “Maybe.”

   He took her palm in his, twining their fingers together. She had long, elegant fingers with perfectly polished nails. He could picture those fingers trailing down his chest, the polished nails digging into his back…. Demetri shook his head. “You’ll have dinner with me?” he said, his voice huskier than he intended.

   “No,” she answered, obviously sensing the more explicit train of his thoughts.

   “You’ll let me help you help your family?”

   She looked down at their hands, staring for a moment. Eventually she looked back up at him. “Maybe.”

   “You’ll sing at the race next weekend?”

   “Don’t you think you need to check with somebody before you ask?”

   “I can pull some strings.”

   Regretfully she removed her hand from his, and for a second his fingers flexed, still feeling her warmth before it finally disappeared. “Yeah. And I bet she’s female and you just flutter those thick lashes of yours at her, and she doesn’t dare tell you no.”

   Demetri looked at her, surprised. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone notice my lashes before.”

   “It’s a weakness of mine. Don’t read too much into it.”

   Immediately Demetri’s imagination shifted to high gear. “Are there any other weaknesses I should know about it?”

   “None,” she answered promptly, hiding all sorts of delightful secrets.

   “I guess I’ll have to discover them on my own,” he murmured, already dwelling on the infinite possibilities.

   “Over my dead body.”

   “Body, yes. Dead, no.”

   “Is your mind always this immoral?” she asked, exposing a charming dimple in her left cheek.

   “Not normally this immoral. Usually some other thoughts manage to crowd in there, but since the first moment I saw you, no, that’s pretty much it.”

   Her lips curved up in an irrepressible smile. “You’re going to be honest about it?”

   Demetri shrugged without remorse. “If I lied, you’d see through it, so why try?”

   That kept her silent—for a minute. “Assuming my agent says okay, I’ll sing at the race,” she said at last.

   “Was it all those immoral thoughts?” he asked, teasing, but still dying to know.

   “No, it was the eyelashes,” she answered, dashing his more immoral expectations.

   “There’s the qualifying lap next Friday. You should come and watch.”

   “No, I don’t think I should.”

   “We can talk afterward. I’ve got some ideas of my own.”

   “I bet you do,” she answered.

   “About the Prestons,” he said, wounded that she would think so low of him. Yes, it was true, but he still was wounded that she thought it.

   “I bet.”

   “Does that mean you’ll let me kiss you?”

   “Not tonight,” she said primly, but he liked the sparkles in her bright eyes, sparkles that reflected the moonlight, the candlelight and the better part of a man’s dreams. No wonder the advertisers loved her. Driving a man wild with anticipation.

   “Hope is a marvelous thing, Elizabeth.”

   “Isn’t it, though?” she told him. “I think it’s time to return to the real world.”

   “I won’t see you at the wedding tomorrow.”

   “You don’t do weddings? Now there’s a surprise.”

   “I have practice. Racing stuff.”

   She gave him a long look, and he knew he didn’t measure up to her standards. He knew he never would, but Demetri had been chasing his tail for longer than most. She turned and left.

   “Good night, Elizabeth,” he whispered after her. When all was said and done, Hugh Preston was going to hate him. But Demetri had always walked into the fire, no matter the price.

   It was who he was. It was who he always would be.

Chapter Four

   Early Tuesday morning, Demetri escaped from his hotel in Louisville to Quest Stables to watch the training of Courting Disaster, Demetri’s one-year-old filly, who was the offspring of Courtin’Cristy. Last night, Team Sterling had a meeting with Jim Sterling, the team’s owner, who commended Demetri on his responsible behavior, chastised Oliver for playing too much and not taking practice seriously and updated everyone on the search for a new team sponsor, at which point, Demetri shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

   A visit to see his horses and do some riding seemed the second most perfect way to take the edge off before the racing trials started. Sex was his traditional first most perfect way to take the edge off, but Demetri knew at this point, sex was not in the cards. He only wanted one woman, and unfortunately, with Elizabeth, he knew sex was a long way off. Over the weekend, he’d bought the entire Elizabeth Innis collection, and read up on her between practice laps, scanning the pages of the music magazines like a fan-girl. Thank God he hadn’t been caught.

   It was hard to believe that no man had climbed that mountain before and fought for the right to take off that virtual chastity belt she wore with pride, but seeing the pictures of the men she’d dated in the past? Heh. Nothing but boys. No wonder she expected every man to take no with a smile on his face.

   Yet good things come to those who wait, even those who were impatient by nature. Like Demetri.

   In the interim, he had Disaster. She was a flashy bay with a mean temper, and a way of tossing her mane when she didn’t like what she was being told to do. From the moment he spotted her, Demetri knew that this horse had more in common with him than just a name. He leaned against the fence, watching as Marcus Vasquez, the head trainer at Quest, handled her like a champ, bringing her to heel until she turned and nipped in Marcus’s direction. Demetri had been watching Marcus with the filly, and knew there was talent there, but Marcus was quiet, and didn’t say much, and Demetri wasn’t going to press.

   “Looks like there’s still work to do,” Demetri commented.

   “She’ll come around,” Marcus said, obviously more patient than Demetri.

   For a few minutes he continued to watch them, Marcus talking quietly to the filly, leading her by the reins, using his magic to keep the head tossing to a minimum. Demetri’s cell phone rang, interrupting the quiet. Marcus glared.

   Demetri ignored him and answered, but he did walk away from the paddock, because it was his father, and some things were best handled in private.

   “Demetri.”

   “Hello, Dad.” If his father noted the sarcasm, he surprisingly ignored it. There usually wasn’t much thatAndre Lucas ignored.

   “I need to see you.”

   “I’m really busy,” answered Demetri. “You know how the racing circuit keeps me on the road most of the year.”

   “You’re driving too fast. You’re going to get yourself killed.”

   “Yeah, too bad. I bet you’re all broken up about it.” Demetri rubbed his eyes, not that it did any good. The glare of the morning sun was a little too bright, and a headache was already pounding at his temples. “What do you want?”

   “I read you have a race in Vancouver near the end of the month. You’ll be close to Seattle.”

   “Yes.” Demetri could feel the walls looming around him. It didn’t matter that he was in the great outdoors, because there were always walls, and his father was the world’s biggest expert at making them compress.

   “The Japanese are closing on the deal next week. I’ll have the money I owe you from your loan.”

   Demetri sighed, not caring if his father heard or not. “I don’t want it,” he snapped. “I’ve told you that a thousand times.” He knew it had been hard for his father to ask him for the money. Two years ago, Andre Lucas had flown out to see Demetri, which was testament enough to what it cost him. As a rule, Andre didn’t fly anywhere to see Demetri. Sometimes two people weren’t meant to be in the same state at the same time.

   “Do you think your money can bring him back? Do you think your money will make me forget?”

   Demetri heard the pain in that voice. Always the heartaching pain over Seth. It always came down to his brother. “No, I don’t think anything can bring him back. He’s dead,” he answered, careful to keep the pain out of his own voice. “I still don’t want it. The money was a gift to you for your business. It had nothing to do with him.” At one time, Demetri had thought that money could fix things. That fame could fix things. But no, nothing could fix things. Sometimes things just were.

   “I won’t owe you,” his father answered, and then hung up without saying goodbye.

   Demetri could take a corner at Nordschleife doing two-hundred and forty, ski down Verbier with black ice caked on his face, dive off the Punch Bowl cliffs in California without blinking once. But a conversation with his father made him sweat with terror.

   Theirs had never been a good relationship. Andre Lucas was a disciplined man with an eye for order and stability, and a disdain for chaos, as compared to Demetri, who lived for chaos.

   As he walked back toward the normalcy of the exercise ring, he noticed Marcus looking at him curiously. Demetri wiped his brow, waiting a few seconds, and like clockwork, he felt the familiar rage rise up inside him, bitterness tasting like bile in his mouth. Quickly he tamped it down.

   The bay looked at Demetri, teeth bared, eyes filled with contempt.

   “You mind if I take her for a ride?” asked Demetri, not really caring if Marcus agreed or not.

   “She’s your horse.”

   “Good answer,” said Demetri. The spirited filly was exactly the rush he needed this morning. Efficiently he mounted the horse, and she reared up with a scream that would have scared a lesser man. For Demetri, it was perfect.

   His face grim with determination, Demetri dug his heels in, shouted, and Courting Disaster took off as if the devil was giving chase. Faster and faster they went, hooves thundering against the soft ground. Demetri had bought this horse for her spirit and her strength, knowing that someday he was going to need it. Sadly, he’d thought it would be for a race, not to exorcise old demons. The bay didn’t disappoint.

   The paddock fence was approaching, and the filly took it, not once shying away. The powerful hindquarters gathered up beneath Demetri, and he leaned forward until they were sailing through the air, flying without wings.

   Demetri’s blood pumped, the rush of adrenaline drowning out everything else inside him. In the distance, he could hear Marcus shout, but it would take more than a shout to stop Demetri at the moment, not when all things, including blessed absolution, seemed possible. The wind whipped against his face, nearly blinding him.

   One thing he’d say for the bay, not only was she pretty, but she was fast. Over the pasture they went, farther and farther away from the exercise yard, the filly’s legs pounding with powerful strength. Demetri’s heart stretched tight in his chest, a ticking bomb waiting to explode. The rush of adrenaline did its job, and for a moment, he could stay lost. Unfortunately, the moment was always gone too soon.

   Not surprisingly, the horse couldn’t keep up the pace, her speed slowing, the clip easing into a gentle canter. Nothing ever lasted. Demetri abandoned the useless quest, and wheeled the horse back toward the ring.

   “What the hell was that about?” Marcus asked as Demetri brought Courting Disaster back through the opened gate.

   “My property,” answered Demetri, slipping off the heaving flanks. The horse was winded and exhausted, but the contempt still flared in her eyes.

   The anger in Marcus’s face wasn’t much better. “Find another trainer.”

   Feeling the well-deserved condemnation in the trainer’s gaze, Demetri felt something else as well, which years ago he would have thought was a conscience. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on the horse.”

   “Don’t do it again, Demetri. She’s not a car.”

   Demetri patted the bay, a stupid, futile gesture, and handed her off to Marcus, who took a towel and rubbed the sweat from her flanks.

   Demetri watched, the headache back, worse than ever. “It won’t happen again.”

   Marcus looked up from the horse, seeming to understand. “Thank you for that.”

   “I was…” started Demetri, then shrugged. “You know, never mind. I’ve been watching you work with the horses. You’re good.”

   “I’ve been watching you race. You’re nuts.”

   Demetri laughed. “So they say. You should come to the race on Sunday. I can get you tickets.”

   “I’ll stick to the horses, but thank you.”

   “If you need anything…” offered Demetri, his hand outstretched.

   Marcus shook it. “Thanks.”

   Demetri started back toward the driveway, but then stopped. No. He had other things to do here, as well, things more important than his family issues. He looked back at Marcus. “Is Hugh around?”

   Marcus jerked his thumb toward the offices behind them. Demetri took off, leaving Marcus and Demetri’s own stupidity behind him. A three-story brick building sat between the stables and the main house, overlooking the exercise yard. Demetri found Hugh at the viewing window, watching two horses on the practice track. The old man never used a stopwatch for his horses; he had an innate knowledge for how fast they ran. Hugh was never wrong.

   “Is that the new colt?”

   Hugh nodded once, his eyes never leaving the glass. “Yeah. Something to Talk About. He’s fast. Faster than his daddy.”

   For a few minutes they watched in silence, and Hugh was right. The colt was fast, blazingly fast, leaving the bigger gelding several furlongs behind. When the jockey pulled him up, the colt wasn’t even winded. It was a crime that as a Quest horse, he couldn’t race because of the ban.

   “How’re you doing? Glad to have the wedding behind you?” Demetri added a note of buoyant high spirits to his voice. It wasn’t perfect, but he wasn’t feeling particularly chipper, anyway.

   Hugh pushed back from the polished brass railing and looked at Demetri with a note of buoyant high spirits in his eyes. It looked fake, too. “The wedding was beautiful. Got another one in a month,” he answered. “Shane and Audrey. This one won’t be nearly as big. Must be something in the water.”

   “As long as they keep it away from me.”

   “I saw you dancing with Elizabeth at the party.”

   “I didn’t go near her at the wedding.”

   “Because you weren’t there…” Hugh said neatly.

   “You asked me to stay away. I did.”

   “Thank you,” replied Hugh, and Demetri wisely avoided telling him that Elizabeth would be singing at the race. Hugh would figure that one out soon enough.

   “What’s the latest on the investigation?” asked Demetri, quickly changing the subject.

   Hugh locked his hands behind him. “Brent’s working with the Jockey Association to track down a missing computer analyst from there. Hopefully he can tell us why Leopold’s Legacy’s sire was listed as ‘unknown’ in the backup data. But we don’t even know if he’s in the country or not.”

   “The analyst lives in Lexington?”

   Outside, the jockey was leading the two horses off the track, and when they had disappeared from view, Hugh abandoned his horses again. He ambled over to the conference table and chairs that were situated in the middle of the room, and tiredly settled into one of them. Demetri joined him there, not knowing what else to do.

   “He was supposed to be living in Lexington. Brent’s been looking into his finances because his apartment has been cleared out. This fellow recently acquired himself a pretty house in Savannah. Eight thousand square feet with a five-car garage.”

   Demetri arched a brow in surprise. “On a computer tech’s salary?”

   Hugh frowned. “I’m not thinking he’s from a wealthy family, Demetri. The whole thing smells.”

   “Does Brent have any more leads?” Surely there was something to follow up on.

   “Not yet,” answered Hugh, the eternal optimist. But there was a time for blind optimism, and there was a time to face reality.

   Demetri was tired of sitting still. He jerked out of his chair, needing to move. Something. Anything. “The stables are running out of time.”

   “Do you think I don’t know it? Thomas looked beat this morning. I want to help, but there’s nothing.”

   “But you bet for the funds for the wedding?”

   Old gray brows settled into a solid line over the man’s eyes. “How’d you hear that?”

   “I have my sources. Why don’t you bet on my race?”

   “Come on, Demetri. I bet on you, and it’s even odds. That’s not interesting.”

   “I’m not the favorite this time. Giovanni Marcusi is racing for McLaren. He’s put in a new Mercedes engine, 770 bhp. It’ll burn the paint off anything close. That alone should bring him in first on the pole. And he’ll probably take the podium, too. I want a private bet. You and me.”

   Hugh looked at him, a wily glint back in the blue eyes. “For what?”

   Demetri braced his hands on the table, feeling the momentary thrill course through him. He knew what drove Hugh. A lot of the same things that drove Demetri.

   More. Everything was about more.

   “If I win, you’ll take my winnings. Give them to Thomas to put in the stables. An interest-free loan. Payable when the Quest horses are racing again.”

   “What if you lose?” asked Hugh.

   “Bite your tongue. But if that happens, you sell me Leopold’s Legacy.” Demetri backed away from the conference table and watched the old man, waiting. Demetri knew his limits. He knew his capabilities. On Sunday’s race, Giovanni was going to lose. No matter what it took.

   “I think we’re getting the better part of this deal. The horse can’t race.”

   “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Hugh.”

   Hugh smiled. “You’ve been practicing that line, Demetri, haven’t you?”

   “It’s a bet?” asked Demetri, holding his breath.

   Hugh nodded once. “You’re on.”

   On Wednesday afternoon, Elizabeth moved her things from the Prestons’ into the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville and began rehearsing with her band at a little bar near the college. The place had not only great acoustics, but the ability to keep a secret, as well. There were times that Elizabeth went gunning for the fame—mainly when she needed something—but most of the time she yearned for a regular life without all the flash-bulbs blinding her, without all the reporters shoving a microphone in her face and without all the gossip columns making up wild-hair stories about her.

   Ten years ago, when she was just starting to get noticed, she hadn’t thought much about walking the straight and narrow path, and keeping her nose clean; she didn’t have time for breathing, much less having fun. But then something happened. In a world where absolute fame corrupted absolutely, Elizabeth became the exception, and Tobey, being the smart man he was, had told her that she could milk her virginity all the way to the top, and so she had. As a cautious and prudent person, it hadn’t been hard up to now. As a rule, Elizabeth didn’t take chances. Not with her career, and not with men. She frowned—which she’d been doing a lot recently—because Demetri was making her think hard and long about her principles.

   Yeah, her principles were a good bit of Pollyanna idealism,and a lot of wanting to believe that there was only one man for her, but there was also the sexy allure of putting a roof over her head, and food on the table. For Elizabeth, home and security meant everything.

   Someday, when the restlessness inside her stilled, she was going to buy a little place in Woodford County, Kentucky, and spend her days watching the sunsets, drinking lemonade and learning to quilt. But for now, every morning she jumped out of bed ready to tackle something new, like next week’s concert, the continuing debate on the album cover with the art department at Five Star and the one thing that she tried to avoid thinking about. Singing at the race on Sunday.

   The main reason she wanted to avoid thinking about it was that from Mr. Demetri Lucas, car driver extraordinaire, she had heard exactly zero words. Not that she was expecting to. Not that she was sitting by her hotel room phone waiting for his call, or even a bill for the car damages. No sir, Elizabeth wasn’t going to wait for any man, no matter how much he stirred her blood, or no matter how much he affected her songwriting skills.

   Pitifully, instead of robbing her of things to sing about, now she had tons of things to sing about. Songs with a brand-new tone. Something sultry, wicked and knee-wobblingly sexy. Of course that had absolutely nothing to do with Demetri, nothing at all.

   If she kept telling herself that often enough, eventually she’d start to believe it.

   The band, of course, noticed. Her “band” wasn’t really a band in the proper sense of the word. There was Rebecca Townsend, who sang backup. Tobey had found her singing in an old bar in Nashville when she was only seventeen. Calder Jones was the bass guitarist, a big strapping man who was pushing sixty, although he told everyone he was just a more mature-looking twenty-nine. Peter Sanderson was the keyboard magician who had the fastest fingers that Elizabeth had ever seen. The four of them had been playing together for almost five years, and although it was a mostly professional relationship, that didn’t mean that Elizabeth didn’t want to hear about Rebecca’s man troubles, Calder’s grandkids and Peter’s latest man troubles, too.

   After rehearsal on Thursday, Rebecca trapped Elizabeth in the tiny ladies’ room, her eyes sly with suspicion. “What’s up with the new song?”

   Elizabeth pretended ignorance, because she knew what Rebecca would say if she spilled any of the truth. “Frank gave it to me.”

   Rebecca’s mouth curved into a knowing smile. “Tobey said you wrote it.”

   Elizabeth swallowed, but bravely climbed deeper into that hole she had now dug. “Are you calling me a liar?” she asked, hands on hips.

   “Yes,” answered Rebecca, not even a little ashamed to be casting such aspersions on Elizabeth’s character.

   So Elizabeth promptly changed the subject. “Tell me about this new fellow you’ve been seeing.”

   Now, Rebecca was born and bred in Virginia, so there wasn’t much that sailed past her. “Only if you’ll tell me about the inspiration for the new song,” she answered, not budging an inch.

   Elizabeth didn’t want to talk about the inspiration for the new song. She didn’t want to think about the inspiration for the new song. She didn’t even like being inspired, which was saying a lot since she made most of her money as a songwriter.

   There’d been almost a week of sleepless—or nearly sleepless—nights when she imagined she was still dancing with Demetri around the Prestons’ dance floor. She had memorized that blood-thumping gleam in those warm eyes, and every time her brain fired up the memory—which was often—she felt those deviously persistent tendrils of desire that were curling all through her insides, whipping around and, for all intents and purposes, making mush of her brain.

   It was a low moment for a woman who secretly prided herself on her good sense, and quietly laughed at all those people who thought she was a dim bulb who fell off the turnip truck at regular intervals. Not about to confess her deepest shortcomings, Elizabeth prudently kept silent.

   Rebecca humphed. “Fine. You don’t have to tell me. Me, the person you work with day in, day out. Me, who has toured the last twelve months with you, sharing after-concert French fries, when Calder and Peter refused because it was bad for their hearts. Me, your friend. You don’t have to say a word, you keep those secrets all to yourself, but I’ll be watching….”

   “There’s nothing to tell,” answered Elizabeth, wishing the words from her new song weren’t whirling in her head. So easy to fall into the dark pull of desire, to sell my soul for what I see in your eyes…

   “‘…innocence lost can never be found,’” sang Rebecca, in a breathy imitation of a woman on the verge. “That’s a woman ready to leap off the bridge, Bethy.”

   “I’m not jumping off any bridge,” she said, sounding just like a woman on the verge.

   “It’s a metaphorical bridge, Elizabeth.”

   “I’m not jumping, metaphorical or otherwise,” snapped Elizabeth.

   “I think it’s high time you did,” said Rebecca, “We’ve been playing together for five years, and I’ve watched you go from one useless boyfriend to another, without a backward glance. Three dates and they’re out, just like in baseball. But you never wrote a song about a single one of them. Ever. Now you think you’re going to escape a full-blown interrogation? Oh, no. Honey, when you do, you have to tell me all about it. I want to hear every single, sordid detail.”

   Sordid details ran through Elizabeth’s mind like late-night cable television—scintillating, titillating, late-night cable. Desperate to escape, Elizabeth checked her watch. “Peter is going to shoot you for keeping us late tonight, Rebecca. He’s got plans for this evening.”

   Rebecca snickered. “He won’t be mad after I tell him what we were talking about.”

   “You can’t!” hollered Elizabeth, a lot louder than she intended.

   Rebecca wiggled her brows. “See, I knew there was something to tell. You’re getting a break today, but just remember…I’ll be watching.”

Chapter Five

   She hadn’t planned on watching the racing trials on Friday. Elizabeth had hair to wash, fingernails to polish, but there she was, sitting in the tippy-top row of the stands, camouflaged in a blue cotton skirt, with a scarf on her head and Hollywood sunglasses over her eyes—so hopefully he wouldn’t notice. And she didn’t think that he did, because the stands were full and the track down below was busier than any beehive she’d ever had the pleasure to study up close.

   It was a hair-raising experience watching the low-slung cars and the whole crew of mechanics that did everything but wipe the windshield and buff the tires. She kept telling herself that driving a racing car was not hazardous to anyone’s health, but her eyes were trained on the red car with the hot-looking driver, and every time he went around the track, her nerves followed in those same fast-wheeling curves, dragging her stomach along behind. It wasn’t pretty, and Elizabeth thought it wasn’t healthy—not only for the low-slung cars, but for her, as well.

   The whole circuit format was new to her. These weren’t circles, but sharp, winding turns that didn’t seem to scare anybody but Elizabeth. The engine buzzing was loud in her ears. Even from the top of the stands, it was louder than the speakers at one of her concerts, ringing in her head. The first time around, all twenty-one cars raced, but then a few minutes passed and officials came and eliminated some from the track. Both of Sterling’s red cars stayed in. A few minutes later, the officials returned, kicked off more cars, and this time there were only ten cars left, including the two red ones.

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