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Paige gripped the arms of the brown leather chair, torn between regret and disbelief. She’d given the last six years of her life to the track. Traveled too many miles to count, slept in weird and wonderful places along the road, sweltered in the heat of track garages, and felt the bite of the wind and the sun many a time in the alleyways of pit lane. And now it was all over. Done. Dusted. A checkered flag on another chapter in the life of Paige Drew.
“I’m sorry.” Team owner, Danny Rubio, leaned back against the desk in the team haul truck, the monitor behind him replaying yesterday’s race. “There’s a fishing cabin in Jacksonville with my name on it, and Iannello Racing made me an offer I can’t refuse. He’s keeping a few key people on staff, but, unfortunately, he’s retiring the team until next season when he can replace the main driver. We’re done until next year.”
Disappointment hit hard and heavy in her belly. This was about more than losing a job and an income. The team had been her family ever since she and Trinity Calhoun had joined Rubio Racing. But Danny hadn’t been able to find a suitable driver to take Trinity’s place after she’d retired to spend time with her father at home in Montana. Not this late in the season when everyone was already contracted to other teams.
Paige still couldn’t believe that Marty Calhoun had Parkinson’s disease. He’d always been such a strong man, the anchor and center of his family, raising five children as a single dad. Six, if she counted Mitch. The familiar pain and surge of guilt that came with remembering Mitch’s death coursed through her.
She’d grown up with the Calhoun siblings, had been a part of their family since she and Trinity had become friends in kindergarten. Marty had been more present in her life as a father than her own.
The team changes brought with it the opportunity for Paige to go home and spend some time with him too. But going home would mean having to face Mason again. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be ready for that. Not when, the last time she’d seen him, he’d been torn apart with grief and guilt over the accident that had killed his younger brother. An accident that had been her fault.
“Paige,” Danny said, drawing her attention back to the present. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make, I can promise you that. I’ve been at this game a long time. But now it’s time for me to move on and for the team to make a fresh start.”
His words brought little comfort even though she understood. The race circuit was competitive, exhausting, and draining, as much as it was rewarding.
“When will we know who Iannello’s keeping on the crew?” Paige would miss the track if she wasn’t chosen. The passion and drive. The thrill of the next race. The excitement over new engineering. The joy of a win, a number one spot on the board.
“His legal team will be writing up contracts and an action plan as soon as the sale is finalized. He’s promised me that team members will be notified before the end of summer about who will be offered positions on the crew. In case he lets you go, I’ve got a list of teams you can apply to who might be looking for crew next season. I’ll be happy to give you a good reference.” Danny ripped a page from his pad and held it out to her.
Paige took it, folded it neatly into a small square and tucked it into the top pocket of her overalls. “Thank you.”
“You’ve been an asset to this team, Paige. As soon as the deal settles, there’ll be a nice bonus hitting your bank account. It should tide you over well into next season, or at least until you find you something new. I wanted to make sure everyone on the team was taken care of.”
“Thank you, Danny. I appreciate it.”
“I’m gonna miss you, kid.” Danny held out his arms.
Paige stood and went into them, welcoming the warmth of his bear hug. She’d miss the gentle giant of a man who’d taken her and Trinity under his wing and treated them like the daughters he’d never had. Tears burned her eyes. Sadness choked her throat. The end of an era, an adventure, while the future stretched uncertainly before her. What would she do if Iannello didn’t give her a job on the team? Would she accept it if he did? What would she do until he’d decided? The questions rolled around in her head, finding only more questions and no real answers.
There were so many reasons she should go home to Montana to face the past, see her parents, try to make peace with them over the events that had led to Mitch’s death. To stop being the outcast banned from the family home. Surely the years between them had been time enough for them to think, to forgive.
“You’re welcome to come up to the cabin and throw a line in any time. There’ll always be a spare fishing pole for you.” Danny kissed her forehead and held her away. “This isn’t the end for you, Paige. It’s the beginning of something new. Go out there and find your dream. If the circuit isn’t it, go looking for what it is you do want. Promise me you’ll do that.”
Paige nodded. “I promise.”
“Good girl.” He squeezed her arms. “I wish there was a way to make this easier.”
“You’ve got to do what makes you happy too. It’s been a good run.”
“It has. I’m damn lucky to have had this team, but these old bones are tired now, and I want to enjoy some fly-fishing before God puts my name on a wooden box. Life is short, Paige, you know that. We need to embrace it, not spend time wondering what could have been or wishing we’d done things differently. We need to get up off our asses and live.” He sighed. “But first, I’ve got to do what I have to do. Send in Alvarez on your way out, and I’ll see you at the wrap-up dinner tonight, okay?”
Paige wiped away the remnants of tears on the sleeve of her team shirt and exited the truck. The team huddled around outside, their conversations hushed, their mood somber. “You’re up next, Alvarez.” She touched the team spotter on his shoulder.
They all knew what they were here for. Rumors flew faster around the track than the cars did. There’d been rumors about Danny retiring for years, but the track was his life, his breath, so no one had taken them seriously. Until now.
Turning away, she walked past pit lane, up the stairs into the spectator stand and found a spot on the roof overlooking the empty track. Below, a few teams lingered, packing up, cleaning out, moving equipment about. The close of the season and the end of the road for Team Rubio. It didn’t feel real.
Paige fished her phone from her pocket and traced the unlock passkey pattern. She scrolled through her contacts until she stopped at her mom’s number the way she had many times in the past, a conflict of emotions tangling in her belly. Sadness, regret, guilt, longing for the way things used to be. They’d never been close, but the accident had only driven them further apart.
Hesitation had her finger hovering the way it always did. What did you say to someone after so many years of cold silence? Hey, Mom, I’m coming home for a while. Can we bury all the old hurt, the blame? Forgive and start over?
There would be no forgiveness for the major moving traffic violation that had linked the name of the sheriff’s daughter to the man up on charges of reckless driving and negligent homicide. Not even when the reckless driving charge had been downgraded to driving without due care and attention. Nor would there be forgiveness that the Department of Education had reviewed her mother’s position as principal of her high school in Kalispell as parents had questioned her suitability as the educator responsible for their children’s futures.
What message does it send to my students, Paige? If my own child is making reckless decisions that might lead to a criminal record, it undermines my authority as principal to my pupils. Can you think about us instead of yourself for once?
She had thought about them, about the impact of her actions on their important roles in the community. She’d thought even more about Marty Calhoun and how she’d stolen someone precious from him when his family had already lost so much. Her heart had shattered to see Mason broken and the Calhouns torn apart by grief.
Yet, through it all, Marty had been the one to hold her when she cried, to comfort her when the reality of what had happened came crashing down, just as he’d held his own children through those awful months.
And then they’d scattered in the wake of the aftermath, under the weight of gossip, blame, and shame. Mason had disappeared into the mountains after serving a six-month sentence under house arrest for the negligent homicide charge, losing his license for a year, and paying his ten-thousand-dollar fine. The sentence he’d given himself had been far more punishing than any court could deliver.
His sister, Grace, had left, unable to come to terms with what had happened. Paige and Trinity had found solace at the track, a decision that caused even more gossip and criticism, and had made Paige’s parents distance themselves even further.
Choices. Consequences. Paige scrolled past “M” to Trinity’s number. She pressed the green button to dial her friend and waited.
“Trinity’s phone.” The voice that answered came down the line, out of breath, angry, sexy, throaty.
A voice Paige knew too well, the sound embedded in memories from a time when life had been less complicated. One she hadn’t heard in six long years. “Mason.” His name came out strangled from her lips.
Silence. No friendly, “Hello, how are you?” or flirting or teasing the way he might have before. Only silence, deep breathing dying on the other end of the line. An ache started in her belly and rose to her throat, her own words freezing on her tongue. Damn it, why did Mason have to answer Trinity’s phone? The sound of his voice tilted her precariously balanced universe on its axis, in a different way to how it used to, the warmth missing from his tone.
“Paige. Hold on.”
Paige listened to the rustle of the phone being passed along, the low murmur of words she couldn’t catch, then Trinity’s voice soft and gentle in her ear.
“Hey, stranger, where have you been? It’s been ages.”
Paige shifted on her feet, shaking off thoughts of Mason, reaching for humor and less shaky ground. “It was a week ago, and I think you were too deliriously drunk on love to remember.” She loved how happy Trinity sounded, totally besotted with her rescue angel, Reece Balmain and his godson, Tyler. “How come Mason answered your phone?”
“My hands were covered in grease. So, what’s cooking at your end of the world?”
“Danny’s sold the team to Iannello Racing. He’s retiring.” The impact of Danny’s decision began to sink in, moving from surreal to reality. If she didn’t get picked, there’d be no team, no track, no more seasons in pit lane.
Seconds ticked by before Trinity responded, surprise putting hesitation in her words. “That’s a huge decision. Nobody ever really believed Danny would retire.”
“Iannello made him a good offer. He’s bought that fishing cabin he’s always wanted. There’s a decent bonus for the team, but he’s letting us go.”
“Iannello isn’t taking the crew?”
Paige leaned on the wall overlooking the track, her soul empty. The reality of Danny making the end of Rubio Racing official opened a gaping maw in her future. Where to go from here? “A few key people up front. The rest of us won’t know for certain until the deal goes through. And, even then, only some of us will make the selection for pit crew.”
“Well, that sucks. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe take a vacation? I’d like to come home for a few days. I think it’s time to settle unfinished business, but I’m not so sure it’s the right move.” Paige ran her finger over a chip in the edge of the wall, doubt gnawing at her thoughts. “How can I come back to Bigfork when I’ve alienated my parents, and Mason still hates me?”
“First up, your parents alienated you, not the other way around. Second, Mason’s never hated you for what happened that day, Paige. He’s been too busy blaming himself.” Trinity hesitated, concern adding an edge to her words. “There’s something else you need to know…”
“What is it?” Tension clawed its way up her spine onto her shoulders.
“Your father laid another charge of careless driving against Mason yesterday. He’s accused Mason of leaving a burnout in the driveway of your parents’ house. It looks like he’s doing everything he can to make it stick.”
Paige’s stomach plummeted. Her father had always had it in for Mason, whose penchant for fast cars and steel horses had often given him good reason in the days when they’d been young and fearless. But that was in a time before seemingly harmless fun had turned into a never-ending nightmare that had changed their lives.
End of Excerpt