“I’d sell my soul to win a date with Josh James.”
Callie glanced at the woman who’d spoken the words and wondered, not for the first time, if alien beings had invaded Alysa’s body.
That’s what happens when you travel to a NASCAR race with someone you barely know.
“I mean, can you imagine anything better than spending two days with that hot body?” Alysa asked, her brown 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,” Callie said, having to practically yell the words in order to be heard over the hundreds of people—mostly women—gathered in front of the Josh James souvenir rig at the motor speedway. “I’d rather spend time with my dog.”
Her stomach began to curdle in an all too familiar way. She fought against the sensation, fought against remembering.
“Oh, Callie,” Alysa said, obviously catching a glimpse of her face. “I’m sorry. What an idiot I am to talk about dating someone when you just…when you were about to get—”
Callie 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?” her friend from work asked.
“No, no,” Callie said. Standing between a row of big rigs and feeling like a gumball in a fish 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. But mostly, the ever present worry that something must be wrong with her to have almost married a man like Stewart. Thank god she’d done something about it before it was too late.
Nausea threatened to make her gag again. “I’ll be fine.”
“You sure?” Alysa asked.
Callie would have to admit, Alysa had been wonderful during the past few days. Initially, Callie hadn’t wanted to go anywhere, but Alysa—a co-worker at Steele & Steele—had dangled an extra ticket, and the promise of a good time and Callie had been too desperate to get out of Dodge to resist.
“Positive,” Callie 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 Josh James was about to make an appearance. This, Callie had learned, was tantamount to one of the Beatles arriving. But the situation today was compounded because in exactly ten minutes, Josh would draw the name of the winner of the Win A Date With Josh James contest winner. 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 their idol.
Callie inhaled deeply, catching a whiff of new T-shirt smell that wafted over from inside the souvenir rig. She wouldn’t be dating anyone anytime soon, although she had entered the contest. God knew why. She should be avoiding men like the plague. They were all no good. Not to be trusted. Avoided at all costs.
She squeezed her eyes closed. Tight. Heat burned behind her lids.
He’d hit her. God damn it, Stewart had actually hit her.
She sucked in a breath. She was not going to cry. She was done with Stewart. The man could rot in hell for all she cared.
“We can go eat after this,” Alysa said, patting her on the back, something that was hard to do when it was 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,” Callie said. Not that she was hungry. She hadn’t been hungry since 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 at all. Nothing.
You wanted to leave town, remember?
More like run away, she admitted, glancing around. She hadn’t told anyone where she was going. Heck, she hadn’t even told her mom she was leaving town. She didn’t want Stewart to know where she was because there’d been a look in his eyes just before he’d hit her, a look that told her next time she might not be so lucky.
And she had to work with him. That was the worst part of it all. They were co-workers. But not anymore. Come Monday things would change. She was quitting her job. But until then, by god, she was going to have a good time.
She glanced around, trying to distract herself by looking into the eyes of the man that Alysa so ardently admired.
The image of Josh James stared down at her from the lofty heights of his souvenir rig, plastered across a ten-by-twenty strip to the left of a portable store’s open window. Josh’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 Callie had to admit, looked great on Mr. James. Gorgeous blue 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 alright…and he knew it.
“THERE HE IS!”
Callie jumped, turned and glared at the woman who’d screamed. But no one noticed. 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, Callie had learned, was Josh’s sponsor. A website 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. Josh 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 them—and this was the really creepy part—were dressed in red and white, just like their idol.
Just like Alysa. Alysa, who was one of Los Angeles’s most successful CPAs. Not that you’d know it judging by her colorful race attire that included a Josh James T-shirt (red and white), a red ball cap (Alysa’s long blonde hair streaming out from the back), and a fanny pack that carried all the necessary accoutrements of the truly dedicated NASCAR fan. Sunscreen, lip balm, scanner frequencies (whatever that was), and a miniature hand-held fan that could be used to cool one’s face (red and white, of course).
And to think: Alysa had graduated magnum cum laude.
“Please, god, let this be over fast,” Callie muttered.
A few minutes later, the big man himself entered the rig, a gaggle of people trailing in his wake, most of them wearing red polo shirts with the word My-Lovematch on the pocket. Josh ended up being just a few feet away, although the lower half of his body was obscured by a glass display case filled with various racing paraphernalia, Callie spying her sweaty reflection in the surface. Her long brown hair appeared to be glowing thanks to the sun’s rays. Maybe that’s why her head felt like it was on fire. At that moment she wished she had a red hat…any hat.
Someone handed Josh a headset with a mic on it, the ear pieces 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, alright, he was every bit as dazzlingly handsome in person. A red polo shirt hugged his wide, muscular frame, Callie thinking he looked more like a boxer than a race car driver. She could see veins popping out on his arms, like he’d just worked out or something.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone, a male assistant maybe because he couldn’t have been much older than Josh’s twenty-something years, said, “can I have your attention?” He held up his hand, the cordless mic he held emitting 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 winner in just a minute.”
The crowd cheered. Callie 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 laughingly. “Josh, you ready?”
And unbelievably enough, Callie’s heart actually quickened. It wasn’t like she expected to win. She’d never won anything in her life. Not even at her company Christmas party where she and Alysa worked. Five years of working as a CPA and she’d yet to bring home so much as a Java Detour 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 someone? A someone that was a perfect stranger?
“Hello, everyone,” a man with a deeply southern accent said. Callie looked up and realized it was Josh. “I just want to say how much I appreciate y’all coming out.”
“We love you, Josh,” a woman yelled.
Josh looked right at her. Callie was certain of it this time. Worse, his face was filled with wry amusement, as if he thought she’d spoken the words aloud.
She shook her head, looked away, feeling even hotter suddenly.
“He’s looking right at you,” Alysa hissed.
“No, he’s not,” Callie said. “He’s looking at someone else.”
“Then you’re blind,” Alysa said, and was it her imagination, or did Alysa sound peeved?
Callie shot her a glance, but then Josh said, “Are we ready to draw a name?” and the crowd went instantly crazy, including Alysa. Callie 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 Josh James’s head had just expanded by a few feet.
He stared right at her.
“He is looking at you,” Alysa insisted, blue eyes full of…what was it? Dismay? Jealousy?
“Maybe he’s sensing my man hater aura.”
“You do not hate men,” Alysa grumbled.
“Alright, here we go,” Josh said.
“Or do you?” Alysa asked, eyes bright with curiosity.
Callie just shook her head.
Someone, she would bet a corporate representative of My-Lovematch judging by his suit and tie, held open a giant white sack. Inside there must have been thousands of entry cards. She watched as Josh stirred them up a bit.
And, alright, she didn’t really hate men. She just…she just….
Didn’t trust them.
Or one man in particular. She just hoped he wouldn’t make good on his threats, and that he would just leave her alone. Let her start a new life because that’s what she was facing. New job. Maybe even a new city. She hated the sensation of always having to look over her shoulder. Of having to watch her back. The constant worry that maybe next time he wouldn’t just knock her to the floor.
“Here we go,” Alysa said, patting Callie on the arm.
From inside the souvenir rig Josh said, “I think I’ve got one.” The crowd had grown absolutely quiet. Alysa tipped forward a bit.
“Wouldn’t it be wild if you won?” Callie mused.
“Yeah. Wouldn’t that be great,” Alysa said, dreamlike. “I’ve been waiting my whole life to meet a man like Josh James.”
Callie shot her a glance. Alysa had sounded a bit too serious to suit Callie’s ear. Almost downright stalker-like. But Alysa was smart. Too smart to be fixated upon a celebrity.
“And the winner is…” Josh paused for a moment, held up a card. Both women turned. “Todd Peters!”
Someone booed. Alysa groaned, and ironically, Callie felt let down.
“Todd Peters,” she heard Alysa say. “He’s got to be kidding.”
“Just pulling your leg,” Josh said as if hearing Alysa’s remark. “Wanted to see if y’all were paying attention.”
Alysa laughed, and the relief Callie could hear in that laugh was unmistakable.
“Who’s Todd Peters?” Callie asked, wanting to get a peek into Alysa’s eyes.
“Todd Peters is another driver,” Alysa said quickly, but she never looked at Callie. Another card was being pulled from the bag and that had all of Alysa’s attention.
“And actually,” he said. “We’ll be calling out the names the third and second place winners first. And so the third place winner of a brand new laptop, compliments of My-Lovematch dot com, is…”
Now that she wouldn’t mind winning, Callie thought.
“Alright, let’s see if I can read the writing,” Josh said. “It looks like Frank Williams,” he said with a wide smile, his gaze scanning the crowd.
There were groans all around. Callie looked left and right, hoping to spot the winner, but she didn’t. When she looked up again, Josh was staring at her once more. “Frank Williams?” he asked. “That you?”
She glanced behind her.
“He’s playing with you,” Alysa said.
She shook her head again.
“Okay then,” Josh said. “Let’s do second place.”
“He is talking to you,” Alysa said, sounding more and more peeved.
“Alysa, please, he’s joking around with everyone.”
But she knew it was a lie, and maybe a couple months ago she’d have been flattered. But these days she didn’t want anything to do with any man, sexy race car driver or no.
“Okay, the second place and the winner of a trip for two to the NASCAR race in Bristol, Tennessee is…Sandra Mullins,” Josh said, looking right at her again.
But Callie didn’t hold his gaze. Alysa, however…well, Alysa nudged her, actually, it was more like a shove. She was trying to step into Josh’s line of sight, Callie realized. Unbelievable. Alysa was obsessed. Jeesh. She could have him.
“And the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” Josh said, smiling at the crowd again. Callie made sure their gazes didn’t connect. Instead she studied the colorful T-shirts hanging behind him, most of them featuring his car number, more than a few of them with Josh’s image on the front. No wonder he had such a confident smile. Although to be honest, it was a nice smile.
“And the winner of a five day, four night trip to the Sonoma wine country,” Josh said. “And a two thousand dollar cash prize….”
Now that she wouldn’t mind winning, either.
“And pit passes for not just the Sonoma race, but for this race as well, right here. Right now.” He pointed toward the grandstands in the distance. “And most importantly,” Josh added with another smile. “Dinner with me at Vino, one of Napa’s most premier restaurants.”
Alysa clapped excitedly. And, alright, Callie’s breath caught. But odds were, neither of them would win. Add into the mix the infamous Callie Johnson bad luck, and they’d be better off just walking away right now.
“Okay, so here we go…”
Yet still her breath log jammed in her throat. She dared to meet Josh’s gaze. He was looking right at her again.
That was probably why she imagined hearing her name. Why she stood there like an idiot, even when he repeated the familiar syllables.
It wasn’t until Alysa grabbed her arm, jumped in front of her, a mixture of awe and anger on her face. “You won!” she screamed. “Oh my gosh, Callie,” Alysa said, shaking her. “You actually won. You undeserving, lucky little shit.”
Britton creates another fast-moving, heartrending romance where love triumphs, even in adverse conditions. With fleshed-out characters, even the good guys -- and the ones that aren't so good -- are easy to cheer for. Appropriately, the bad guy gets his due. 4.5 Stars, Susan Mobley, Romantic Times Book Club