Dana glanced at the woman who'd spoken the words and wondered, not for the first time, if alien beings had invaded Alysa's body.
"I mean, can you imagine anything better than spending two days with that man?" Alysa asked, her blue eyes wide and full of wonder as she stared up at a picture of her idol perfectly illuminated by Las Vegas's hot afternoon sun.
"Actually," Dana said, having to practically yell the words in order to be heard over the hundreds of people—mostly women—gathered in front of the Braden James souvenir hauler at the speedway, "I'd rather spend time with my dog."
Her stomach curdled in an all too familiar way. She fought against the sensation, fought against remembering.
"Oh, Dana," Alysa said, obviously catching a glimpse of her face. "I'm sorry. What an idiot I am to talk about dating someone when just last week…when less than five days ago you were about to get—"
Dana almost said the word out loud, but she couldn't. If she said it, it'd be putting a name to one of the most heartbreaking and miserable experiences of her life.
"You want to go back to the hotel?"
"No, no," Dana said. Standing between a row of big rigs and feeling like a gum ball in a bowl was okay with her. It beat being at home, dealing with the phone calls, the people dropping by, a stack of wedding presents that needed to go back. Dealing with the ever-present worry that something must be wrong with her since she'd almost married a man like Stewart, something that she feared had to do with her past.
Yeah, like maybe watching her mom pick loser after loser.
Thank God Dana had done something about her situation before it was too late.
Nausea threatened again. "I'll be fine."
"You sure?" Alysa asked.
Dana would have to admit Alysa had been wonderful during the past few days. Initially, Dana hadn't wanted to go anywhere, but Alysa—a coworker at Steele & Steele and someone she'd become friendly with over the past a couple of years—had dangled an extra ticket and the promise of a good time and Dana had been too desperate to resist. Granted, she'd never seen a NASCAR race in her life, but it looked interesting on TV, and Alysa swore they were exciting. She just hoped she didn't regret dashing off to Vegas with someone she'd only ever spent a few evenings with at the movies.
"Positive," Dana said, determined to stick it out.
She glanced around. Even though the race wouldn't run until Sunday, fans swarmed the outside of the track like ants on a soda can, not surprising since the great Braden James was about to make an appearance. This, Dana had learned from Alysa, was tantamount to one of the Beatles arriving. But the situation today was compounded because in exactly ten minutes, Braden would select the winner of the Win A Date With Braden James contest. That person, probably a woman, would enjoy a trip to California's wine country where they'd get a chance to—ohmigosh—have dinner with Braden James.
Dana inhaled deeply, catching a whiff of new T-shirt smell from the souvenir hauler. She wouldn't be dating anyone anytime soon. She was avoiding men like the plague. They were all no good. Not to be trusted. Avoided at all costs.
But she had entered the contest.
Well, technically Alysa had entered for her, secretly filling out the form as a surprise.
But Dana had eventually put her signature on it, and let Alysa drop it in the box.
She'd done it to spite her ex-fiancé, she admitted, a man who had long discouraged her from doing anything "spontaneous." The man had planned out every moment of his day, right down to what Dana should wear when they went out. God forbid someone should disrupt his schedule. Or disagree with him. If they did, it was not… pleasant.
She squeezed her eyes closed. Tight. Heat burned behind her lids because she'd done it again… thought of him.
He'd hit her.
Damn it, Stewart had actually hit her again. Even after begging him not to, he'd done it a second time.
The last time.
She sucked in a breath. She was not going to cry. She was done with Stewart. The man could rot in hell.
"We can go eat after this," Alysa said, patting Dana on the back, something that was hard to do amid wall-to-wall people. "At that Mexican food restaurant across the street from our hotel. You look like you could use a margarita."
Or two. Or three.
"Sure," Dana said. Not that she was hungry. She hadn't been hungry since the day Stewart had knocked her to the floor. Plus, it was hot where they stood. Someone should bottle Las Vegas's heat and sell it as an appetite suppressant. How in the heck it could be eighty-something degrees the first week of March was beyond her. She was sweating, miserable and wondering why the heck she'd agreed to go to a NASCAR race when she knew nothing about the sport.
You wanted to leave town, remember?
More like run away, she admitted. She hadn't told anyone where she was going. Heck, she hadn't even told her mom that she was leaving town. She didn't want Stewart to know where she was because there'd been a look in his eyes after he'd hit her, a look that told her next time she might not be lucky enough to get away.
And she worked with the man. They were both employees at Steele & Steele. But come Monday things would change. She was quitting her job. Until then, by God, she would have a good time.
That, she realized, was why she'd entered the stupid contest. She was determined to have fun, and to forget about Stewart. Then, too, there was the prize money and the new laptop she might win.
She glanced around, trying to distract herself by looking into the eyes of the man that Alysa so ardently admired.
The image of Braden James stared down at her from the lofty heights of his souvenir hauler, plastered across a ten-by-twenty strip to the left of a portable store's open window. Braden's arms were crossed, his shoulders thrown back, a haughty look of disdain on his face as he stared down at lesser mortals, i.e. herself. He wore a red uniform, a color that would have looked silly on most men but, Dana had to admit, looked great on Mr. James. Gorgeous green eyes stood out like twin neon signs. High cheekbones set off a masculine chin, one that was really, truly square, and had a tiny cleft in the center. The lower half of his face was covered with a five-o'clock shadow, one that matched his jet-black hair.
Oh, yeah, he was handsome, all right…and he knew it. Just the type of man she always sought to avoid. Her mom had favored the handsome, athletic type, and look where that had gotten her—in and out of the hospital for the first eight years of Dana's life. Dear old Dad had been a real winner before their divorce, as proved by the fact that Dana hadn't seen hide nor hair of him since.
"There he is!"
Dana jumped. The crowd around her had come alive. Even Alysa honed in on the red-and-white golf cart that picked its way through a never-ending stream of people, Las Vegas's massive grandstands in the background. The word My-Lovematch.com was printed on the front of the vehicle. This, Dana had learned, was Braden's sponsor. A Web site geared toward helping people find their one true love.
As if such a thing even existed.
"Oh my gosh, he's even cuter in person," Alysa muttered.
How could Alysa see anything? All around them women were jumping up and down like hyperactive aerobics students. Braden appeared to have an equal number of male fans, too, because she noticed more than a few of them doing the same. And most of the fans were dressed in red and white, like their idol.
Just like Alysa, who appeared to be as fascinated by Braden as the rest of the crowd. Alysa, who was one of Los Angeles's most successful CPAs. Not that you'd know it from her colorful race attire that included a Braden James T-shirt (red and white), a red ball cap (Alysa's long blond hair streaming out from the back), and a fanny pack that carried all the necessary accoutrements of the truly dedicated Braden James fan. Sunscreen, lip balm, scanner frequencies (whatever that was), and a miniature handheld fan that could be used to cool one's face (red and white, of course). Dana could never, not ever, imagine being that fascinated by a man.
And to think Alysa had graduated magna cum laude.
"Please, God, let this be over fast," Dana muttered.
A few minutes later, the big man himself entered the hauler, a gaggle of people trailing in his wake, most of them wearing red polo shirts with the MyLovematch.com logo on the pocket. Braden ended up only a few feet away, although the lower half of his body was obscured by a glass display case filled with various racing paraphernalia. Dana spied her sweaty reflection in the glass surface. Her long brown hair appeared to be glowing thanks to the sun's rays. Maybe that's why her head felt as if it was on fire. At that moment she wished she had a red hat…any hat.
Someone handed Braden a headset with a mic, the earpieces brushing against his black hair, his five-o'clock shadow already in place even though it was barely two. He turned and faced the audience and gave them all a smile. And, all right, he was every bit as dazzlingly handsome in person. With a red polo shirt hugging his wide, muscular frame, Dana thought he looked more like a boxer than a race car driver. She could see veins popping out on his arms, as if he'd just worked out or something. And, all right, he looked good standing there. She was woman enough to appreciate that fact—and to feel her body tingle in response when their eyes connected, however briefly.
"Ladies and gentlemen," someone, a male assistant maybe because he couldn't have been much older than Braden's twenty-something years, said, "can I have your attention?" He held up his hand, his cordless mic emitted a high-pitched squeal until he lowered his arm.
"Sorry about that," he said, but the sound was an instant crowd silencer. "We'll be drawing the name of the Win A Date contest in just a minute."
The crowd cheered. Dana looked down and thought about asking Alysa if she could borrow her fan. When she looked up, she was almost certain Mr. James himself stared down at her. A trick of the light, obviously.
"After the winning name is drawn, we'll move right into autographs," the assistant said. "Unless the sweepstakes winner is actually present at which time we'll ask him—or her—to come up here for a presentation."
"Get on with it," someone yelled.
"Okay, okay," the assistant said with a laugh. "Braden, you ready?"
Unbelievably, Dana's heart actually quickened. It wasn't that she expected to win. She'd never won anything in her life. Not even at her company Christmas party. Five years of working as a CPA and she'd yet to bring home so much as a gift certificate. And, really, what would she do if she did win? Sure, the trip to Napa would be nice… but to actually have to go on a date with Braden James? A man who reminded her in so many ways of all the wrong men her mom had brought home over the years. Thank God Roger—an engineer at the office where her mom had worked, and now Dana's stepfather—had convinced her mom a few years ago that geeks made great lovers. He was the kind of man Dana needed to find. Someone down-to-earth and maybe just the tiniest bit uninteresting… not a superstar.
"Hello, everyone," said a man with a deep Southern accent. Dana looked up and realized it was Braden. "I just want to say how much I appreciate y'all coming out."
"We love you, Braden," a woman yelled.
Braden looked right at Dana. Worse, his face was filled with wry amusement, as if he thought she'd spoken the words.
She shook her head, looked away, feeling even hotter suddenly.
"He's looking right at you," Alysa hissed.
"No, he's not," Dana said. "He's looking at someone else."
"You're blind," Alysa said, and was it her imagination, or did Alysa sound the tiniest bit peeved?
Dana shot her a glance, but then Braden said, "Are we ready to draw a name?" and the crowd went crazy, including Alysa. Dana glanced around, amazed that one man could evoke such a strong reaction. She peeked up at him, wondering if there would be physical evidence that Braden James's head had just expanded by a few feet.
He stared right at her.