Authors: Brenda Novak,Jill Shalvis,Alison Kent
TEVENS DIDN’T LIKE
being manipulated. He normally didn’t allow it. Especially since he’d gotten out of racing. He no longer had to please anyone—not his corporate sponsors, his pit crew, or the rather inflexible officials of NASCAR.
But he was being manipulated now, and he knew it. Walt Ashton was dangling Ashton Automotive in front of him like a carrot while inviting him to this or that event, purposely putting him in contact with Ashton employees to see how he’d fit in and get along with them. It wasn’t any secret that Walt wanted to feel good about letting his precious company go, which was admirable—and tolerable because it was so admirable. But, considering the way Walt had shoved April into his arms, Gunner wondered if the manipulation ended there. Maybe Walt was hoping Gunner would take an interest in his plain daughter….
Gunner lowered his gaze to April’s face as they moved, rather jerkily on her part, to a Luther Vandross ballad. She had creamy, soft-looking skin
with a few freckles across the nose, brown, intelligent eyes and white, straight teeth. But her lips were too thin and certainly didn’t curve into an inviting smile. Her thick-framed glasses reminded him of a schoolteacher who’d once banished him from class. And he couldn’t remember ever dating a woman who wore her hair in such a no-nonsense bun. Loose and messy, maybe. Sexy. But not pulled back so tight it nearly slanted her eyes.
She took her hand off his shoulder long enough to adjust her glasses. “You’re staring,” she pointed out, meeting his gaze without flinching.
Gunner cocked an eyebrow at her as he considered the defiant glint in those dark eyes, and purposely let his attention move lower. Skinny. Too skinny. And mostly flat. Not a good combination with a plain face and a sharp tongue.
“Do you mind?” she said.
He grinned at the annoyance in her voice. Walt wasn’t playing matchmaker. Anyone could see that an intellectual like April Ashton wasn’t Gunner’s type. And from the stiff way she danced, and the significant distance she insisted on keeping between them, he doubted she had men standing in line.
“This is supposed to be a slow dance,” he murmured when she resisted his attempt to pull her closer.
“I’m aware of that, thank you.”
“So maybe you should relax.” Once again he tried to maneuver her into a more natural embrace, but her eyebrows gathered above her glasses, and her arms stiffened, holding him right where he was.
“I typically don’t dance.”
“That comes as quite a surprise.”
He knew she’d picked up on his sarcasm when she stumbled and barely missed landing on his foot. He thought she might pull away then, but, for some reason, he was glad she didn’t. He wasn’t quite ready to let her go. Maybe her cool indifference was a refreshing change.
Or maybe he simply didn’t want to face the idea of turning his back on the whole Ashton Automotive deal, because then he’d have nothing to do but head home to the opposite coast. These days his penthouse in New York seemed empty and faraway even when he was just down the street. And the parties and people he’d associated with over the past few years appealed to him even less. Ever since his mother had died eighteen months ago, he didn’t want to do anything anymore—not even visit his father, who still lived in upstate New York where Gunner had grown up. Quincy Senior had walked out on Gunner’s mother when Gunner was only two. They’d barely heard from him—until Gunner started seeing some real success with racing. Then Quincy Senior began to show significant interest,
and now all he could talk about was when Gunner won Rookie of the Year, the Busch Clash, the Coca Cola 600, his first Winston Cup, his last Winston Cup, his other Winston Cups, or his statistics for any given year.
Gunner didn’t like discussing the past with his father or anyone else. Recounting the achievements of his racing career made him feel as though the best part of his life was over. No one wanted to be a has-been at thirty-five.
“Your father mentioned you’re a physicist,” he said, preferring conversation to his thoughts.
“Which means you spend your days where?”
“Working in a laboratory for Lenox-Moltinger.”
“What kind of company is Lenox-Moltinger?”
She twisted slightly to study the crowd at the edge of the dance floor, and he saw a blush creep up her neck. Following her gaze, he noticed a fiftyish woman smiling into the face of a young man, both of them unnaturally tanned for Christmastime. They were standing by the silver and white tree, holding hands in a way that suggested to Gunner they weren’t mother and son. “Someone you know?” he asked.
April jerked her attention back to him and flushed even more brightly. “Lenox-Moltinger builds computer processors,” she said, reverting to his earlier
question. “You see, light travels extremely fast under normal circumstances, Mr. Stevens—”
“Gunner,” he broke in with a smile. He’d heard the respect and pride in Walt’s voice when he’d introduced April and knew it couldn’t hurt to win her over.
“Um…okay. Gunner, then,” she said, obviously flustered and still preoccupied with the couple she was surreptitiously watching. “Anyway, light is a very efficient way to move data.”
“Hence the use of fiber-optic cables.”
“Exactly. But I’m trying to do the opposite. I’m trying to slow the speed of light.”
Her eyes were now fixed on a point past his shoulder. Never had he received less of a woman’s attention. When he glanced back, he saw that it was the same couple who held her interest. “Slow it?” he said, bending his head to fall within her range of vision.
“As much as possible,” she murmured.
“Why? When it comes to computers, I thought speed was the name of the game.”
“It is when you want to
data.” She tilted her head to look around him and he finally turned so she couldn’t see anything.
She blinked and focused on him. “It’s much less desirable when you want to
“So that’s what you’re trying to do? Store data using light instead of the usual hard drive?”
“Simply put, yes. In a few years, the Bose-Einstein condensate will enable us to revolutionize the whole computer industry.”
Gunner noticed the older woman with the younger man leaving the tree. “Ashton Automotive employees seem pretty close,” he said, turning her and nodding toward the couple.
Her lips tightened, but she didn’t reveal the reason for her acute interest. “Is that why you want to purchase the company?” she asked. “Because of the camaraderie?”
“Partly.” Ashton Automotive had several elements that appealed to Gunner—it was the right size, sold the right product, had the right image. But he was mostly interested in owning a business he could continue to build. Since he’d retired a year ago, he’d been living the rich bachelor’s life, spending millions on houses and cars and boats, and hanging a new supermodel on his arm for every charity function he attended. He’d been trying so hard to prove he’d moved on after his mother’s death—when he quit racing—that it had taken him several months to realize it wasn’t working. The media and the rest of the world seemed fooled, but he’d never felt more out of touch with the self-respect that really mattered to him. So, he’d re
cently thrown himself into business. And now he did nothing but work.
“I’m sure one chain of auto-parts stores is as good as another to you,” she said. “Why don’t you start your own? Gunner Stevens Automotive has a nice ring to it. You’ve already got the name recognition to pull it off.”
“Are you drumming up competition for your father?”
“Trying to protect him from doing something he’s bound to regret.”
“Why would I want to start from scratch when your father’s put his company on the block?”
“I can’t see my father selling Ashton Automotive,” she said. “He’s just going through a difficult time. It won’t last long enough for him to complete the sale.”
Gunner opened his mouth to argue, to tell her that he and Walt had been discussing terms. But the music was ending and a slender hand with rings on almost every finger clasped April’s shoulder just as he let her go.
It was the older woman April had been watching so intently, minus her young lover. “There you are,” she said. “I’ve been looking all over for you. The dance floor was the last place I thought to check.” She glanced Gunner’s way, then her mouth dropped open. “But now I see why you’re here.
Isn’t this Gunner Stevens? The
April pushed her glasses closer to her face, giving Gunner the impression she tended to hide behind them. “Yes.”
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
The muscular young man approached with two glasses of champagne, and April winced visibly at the sight of him.
“Rod, dear, we’re about to be introduced to Gunner Stevens,” the woman said excitedly. “You know who he is, don’t you?”
“I do.” Rod looked impressed, but April looked as though she wanted to die.
“Mr. Stevens.” April’s tone grew formal again. “Please meet my mother, Claire Ashton—” she cleared her throat “—and her, um, date.”
Gunner’s jaw dropped.
From what Walt had told him, Gunner had gotten a completely different idea of Claire Ashton. He’d certainly never expected to find her at the same party as Walt and Regina. It was his understanding that the divorce wasn’t going well. But now that he could see Claire’s face more clearly, he saw the resemblance between her and April. Although April’s hair was darker, nearly coffee-colored, she definitely favored her mother more than her father. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said.
“Likewise.” Claire beamed. “What brings someone like you to our little party?”
He couldn’t exactly say that Walt was trying to sell off the company, so he kept his answer vague. “Walt and I met through some business dealings. He invited me.”
“Dad’s thinking of selling Ashton Automotive to Gunner,” April said, instantly giving him away.
Gunner frowned. So much for winning her over.
Claire brought a hand to her chest as shock, hurt, then anger passed over her face. “Why? So he can spend more time with that…that incense-burning
I begged him for years to take life easier, to let us go away on our own sometimes, to come home for dinner at night, to simply
a little and be a husband and father. Would he do it? No! That business was too damned important to him. Now, after all the years I shared him with his beloved company, he’s going to sell, just like that?” She snapped her fingers.
Gunner sent April a dark look, thanking her for putting him in such an awkward position, and she smiled in a self-satisfied way. “I tried to tell Gunner he was probably wasting his time here. Dad doesn’t have the right to sell the business without your permission.”
“He doesn’t?” her mother said.
“Of course not,” April replied. “The business is
community property. You own half of it, remember?”
“That’s right.” Claire’s gaze remained fastened on her daughter’s for a moment, then she threw her shoulders back and turned to Gunner. “We won’t let him sell.”
won’t let him sell,” April amended.
Claire stood taller still. “
won’t let him sell.”
“Even if it means you’ll walk away from your divorce with several million dollars in your pocket?” Gunner replied coolly.
Claire seemed to waver. “Why does it always come down to money? We were married
years,” she said to no one in particular. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
April bolstered her by stepping closer. “Actually, we’re still hoping my father will come around and there won’t be a divorce,” she said.
Gunner glanced at Rod, who seemed completely unaffected by this statement. Walt was across the room, talking to Regina and a man Gunner had never met. In his view, April and her mother were hanging on to a relationship that was long gone. As painful as it was for them, he thought they’d be better off to face the truth and take what cash they could. But thirty-three years was a long time. Gunner could understand why they’d fight to save their family. He just hadn’t realized the situation was
quite so messy. He didn’t want to be dragged into something that could possibly become even more complicated and might not end well.
Taking a deep breath, he made a decision. “If you change your mind, you’ve got my number.” He handed his card to April, who was obviously calling the shots—on her mother’s part, anyway. Then he turned on his heel and walked out, into the brisk night air—Los Angeles’s mild version of winter—and hailed a cab. He was going back to New York whether there was anything waiting for him or not.
HAT THE HELL
did you and your mother
to him last night?”
April pulled the phone away from her ear so her father couldn’t blast out her eardrum while she tried to rouse herself from sleep. She’d known he wouldn’t be happy with her defection where Gunner Stevens was concerned, but she hadn’t expected Walt to call her at—she fumbled for her glasses and shoved them on so she could see the numerals on the alarm clock—six in the morning. On Sunday, six was early even for her. “Dad, I don’t think this is the time to sell Ashton Automotive,” she said.
“I didn’t ask you,” he thundered. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been running this company on my own for twenty-seven years and I’ve managed to do a damn good job.”
“This is different.”
“Like hell it is. This is
company. I built it. As long as I give your mother half of everything when the divorce is final, I’ve done my duty.”
Since her parents had split up, April had tried to
remain as neutral as possible. She’d known her father was hurting her mother, and hated that. But her father had a right to live his own life—no matter how hard it was to sit back and watch what was happening.
“Dad, Regina’s a nice woman, but surely you can see that—”
“What?” he broke in. “What can I see?”
“That she’s…” What could she say?
Regina is a little strange?
It was true, but her father wouldn’t accept it, and starting an argument wouldn’t make things any easier. Catching herself, April tried a different tack. “Are you sure the direction your life is taking will make you happy? You spent thirty-three years with Mom. How can you throw that away?”
“Your mother and I fell out of love years ago,” he said.
April winced, knowing that tears would fill Claire’s eyes if she ever heard Walt make a statement that absolute. Claire had been a good wife, had stuck loyally by her man even when they were poor. Now that Walt was abandoning her, she was hurt and humiliated. Her self-esteem had plummeted and, as a result, she was doing some stupid things. But April knew Claire didn’t want the divorce, although there were times she said she could never go back to him after such a betrayal.
“Mom’s a wonderful person,” April said.
“She’s acting like an idiot.”
April didn’t challenge that statement for fear of the accusations that might come out of her own mouth. “What about counseling?” she asked for the millionth time. Her mother was willing, but Walt had so far resisted. If there was something wrong with him, he obviously didn’t want to hear about it.
“Most counselors don’t know any more than I do.”
April sighed. “So, are you going to contact Gunner Stevens and try to repair the deal?”
“I haven’t decided,” he said, some of the anger and irritation draining out of his voice. “Maybe I’ll wait until after the company trip. It’s coming up fast and I still have a lot to do. Which reminds me. Keith said he couldn’t find you at the party last night.”
“Oh, really?” She laced her words with surprise, playing the innocent even though she’d dodged their plant manager at every turn. Her father had indicated that Keith might have a present for her, and she definitely hadn’t wanted to be put in the unpleasant position of refusing a gift. “I wonder how we managed to miss each other.”
“So do I.”
Judging by his tone, she wasn’t fooling anyone.
“You know, you’re not getting any younger,
April,” he said. “If you want a family, you need to do something about it.”
Oh, boy. Here it was. Advice from her overbearing, workaholic father who struggled with anger management, had strained relationships with almost everyone he knew, and was currently divorcing the one person who wanted him for more than his money. “Dad, I’m afraid we’ll have to talk later.”
“I’m telling you that you don’t want to spend the rest of your life alone.”
“Because I have so much reason to believe in the institution of marriage?”
“Divorce can happen to anyone. But I wouldn’t have missed having you for anything.”
That took her aback. Just when she started blaming her father, he’d say something sweet, something that reminded her how much she loved him. But where did that leave her poor mother?
“I know, Daddy,” she said. “I want a family. It’s just that…” How did she explain to her father, who thought his little girl was the catch of the century, that she wasn’t very good at attracting male attention? By jumping several grades in school, graduating from high school at fifteen and moving right on to college, she’d never fit in with her peers. And because she’d never fit in, she had difficulty relating in social situations. It was much easier to
immerse herself in work twenty-four hours a day than fight her natural reluctance to meet people.
“It’s just that
” he prompted.
“I’ll start getting out more,” she promised, knowing she should.
“Keith’s a good guy, April.”
“I’m not interested in Keith, Dad.”
“If you’d spend some time with him, I think you might change your mind. You’ll see. You’ll have the chance to get to know him better on the company trip.”
“Dad, about Cabo…” April took a deep breath, scrambling to come up with an acceptable excuse to miss going to Mexico in the second week of January. “I’ve got to work” was no longer good enough. Her father knew she received three weeks of paid vacation a year and used barely one of them. “I don’t know if I can get away,” she said, falling back on the same old line because there simply wasn’t anything in her life to stop her from going.
“I gave you plenty of notice about this, April. I e-mailed you the itinerary three months ago.”
“Are you bringing Regina?”
“Our situation has changed, Dad. You know that. Now I have Mom living with me, and I can’t leave
her alone. She might decide to redecorate my house.” April was sure he’d assume she was joking, but she was at least half-serious. She’d moved all her furniture back and didn’t want to come home to another surprise like the last one.
Her father’s tone and subsequent silence caught her attention more quickly than if he’d shouted.
“I’ve been having some pains in my chest.”
She shoved herself into a sitting position. “As in
trouble?” Was that why her father wanted to sell Ashton Automotive? Was the pressure of running such a large business more than he could handle these days?
“Don’t make a big deal out of it and for God’s sake don’t tell your mother, but I’ve got a few clogged arteries. Doctor wants to do a triple bypass as soon as I get back. So—” she heard him sigh “—it would mean a lot to me if you’d come to Cabo, honey.”
A triple bypass?
But Walt had always been so strong, so healthy. April wished he’d told her about the chest pains
she’d chased Gunner Stevens away. “Dad, are you sure you should even
“Of course. The doctor’s given me some nitro pills. I’ll be fine. I’d just like you there with me.”
April thought of her mother. They’d always attended the company trip as a family. Claire was going to feel completely abandoned and would, no doubt, interpret April’s actions as choosing sides, a betrayal that would be almost as painful to her as Walt’s initial affair. Especially if he wouldn’t let April tell Claire about the triple bypass. “Why keep it from Mom?” April asked.
“Because it’s none of her business. I don’t want her rubbing her hands in anticipation, hoping I’ll keel over any minute.”
“Mom would never do that.”
“Just keep it to yourself, okay? I’ll tell her when I’m ready.”
Hating how this enmity between her parents threatened to tear her in two, April removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes.
“So, what do you say?” he pressed.
Bottom line, she couldn’t refuse her father. He could have a heart attack at any time. What if she lost him? “Okay, I’ll go,” she told him. But she was cringing inside even as he thanked her. She wasn’t sure how to deal with Keith and his unrequited feelings for her, knew it was going to be miserable with her father constantly forcing them together.
And she had no idea how she’d break the news about this trip to her mother….
HO WAS ON THE PHONE
?” Claire asked five minutes later, standing at April’s bedroom door with the antiaging, gel-filled mask she wore to bed these days resting on top of her head.
April swallowed a groan and opened her eyes. “Dad.”
“He’s unhappy about the fact that we ran Gunner Stevens off last night.” And so was April—
“Of course he is. He’s used to me playing by the rules, doing nothing against his wishes, while he does as he damn well pleases.”
“I’d say last night hardly reflects your more passive side,” April said, throwing an arm and a leg over her extra pillow.
“Isn’t Rod handsome?” Her mother grinned in appreciation.
He wasn’t to April. Gunner Stevens was her kind of handsome—naturally golden and rugged-looking. He had a cowlick that pushed his hair off his forehead and laugh lines around his eyes and mouth that made his face interesting on a deeper level than young and perfect. Most of America agreed with her.
But looks didn’t make the man, she quickly reminded herself.
“Tell me Rod was a hired escort,” she said to Claire.
Her mother bristled. “Why would he have to be a hired escort?”
April arched her eyebrows. “My guess is he’s younger than
“Phooey. Oh, all right, he’s a friend of my hair-dresser’s. He needed a few bucks, and I wanted to show Walt that I’m no doormat.”
“You showed him,” April said. “Along with everyone else. Ashton Automotive will be talking about that Christmas party for a very long time.”
“Walt deserved every minute of last night.”
April couldn’t argue with her there.
your father wanted?” Claire asked.
“Pretty much.” April retrieved her glasses and pretended to adjust her alarm clock. From the corner of her eye, she saw her mother tighten the belt of her silk robe.
“I thought I heard something about the Cabo trip.”
April bit back a curse. She wasn’t prepared to deal with Claire’s emotional reaction right now. “He just wanted to know if I was coming this year.”
“What did you tell him?”
She hoped her mother had only picked up on the gist of the conversation and not the specifics. “That I’m not sure.”
“I think you
go,” Claire said.
April tucked her hair behind her ears. “You do?”
“Of course. And I think you should take me with you. We could share a room.”
“Why should I miss out on all the fun just because of Walt?”
The fact that they were getting
wasn’t reason enough?
“Like you said last night,” her mother went on, “I own half the company. I have every right to be there, don’t I?”
“Um…I guess you do, Mom.” God, her father was going to kill her….