Sami Jo McLean was late as usual.
Parking her vintage Mustang on the circular driveway of her uncle’s oceanfront Myrtle Beach home, she killed the stereo blasting Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart,” and realized the irony of a professional race car driver not having a better handle on her time.
Fresh ink on the inside of her right wrist stung under a gauze pad.
It wasn’t her first tattoo, and it wouldn’t be her last. The sentiment behind the tribal symbol for strength was there to keep her focused. It was also the reason she was running late. She’d woken up and decided today was the day, and luckily, Zach from Zach’s Tats agreed to the early morning session. He’d done most of the intricate work on her upper arm and although this one was quick and easy, she’d ended up spending more time at his shop than she’d anticipated.
When Sami Jo opened her car door, a familiar voice pierced the salty ocean air.
“Samantha Josephine, what’s it gonna take for you to ever be on time?”
Melanie McLean-Burton tapped a flip-flop on the threshold of the open doorway as an Atlantic breeze whipped her straight brown hair into a frenzy.
Sami Jo glanced at a black Escalade parked by the garage as she took the stairs to the front door and sighed as she followed her cousin inside. The smell of chocolate chip cookies filled the air, which meant one thing—Melanie was trying to impress whoever owned that Escalade.
“Why does Royce always insist on scheduling a meeting the day after a race? He knows this is my only downtime,” Sami Jo said, thinking of the last time her uncle had sprung a meeting with a potential sponsor on her. She wasn’t in the mood today, regardless of this being her first time out in the NASCAR series. She just wanted to relax before the merry-go-round of practice, qualifying, and another race started all over again.
“Mel, what the hell is going on?”
“Mel, what the hell is going on?” Sami Jo’s eight-year-old nephew mimicked from the living room.
“James, go clean your room!” Melanie stomped her foot and retrieved a pitcher of lemonade from the refrigerator.
Sami Jo spotted the tray of cookies on the counter and reached for one.
“Stop right there. Those are for our guest. Make yourself useful and bring them outside,” Melanie said, then pushed through the door leading to the porch.
“Who’s here?” Sami Jo asked, but before she could get an answer, the door slammed.
She raised a brow and stuffed a cookie into her mouth.
The small voice that came from the living room made Sami Jo smile. She picked up the tray of cookies and carried it into the brightly-decorated room to find her six-year-old niece, Emma, sitting on the floor next to the leather sofa. Coloring books were splayed out on the coffee table.
“What’s up, Emma-roo?”
“Looking for pink.” Emma frowned as she probed a shoebox full of crayons that sat by her side.
Sami Jo craned her neck to see the picture Emma was working on. “A—pink cactus? Are you sure about that, Em?”
Emma pulled a carnation-pink crayon from the box and looked up at Sami Jo, wide-eyed and serious. “It’s a girl cactus.”
“Of course. Silly me.” Sami Jo selected a cookie and handed it to her niece. “Who’s the man outside?”
Emma shrugged and stuffed the cookie in her mouth. “I don’t know him,” she said as pieces of cookie fell from her lips.
“Hey, don’t get crumbs all over the place or your mom will kill us both.” She reached down and tousled the little girl’s light brown hair.
Straightening, Sami Jo headed back through the kitchen and out the door to the porch.
“There’s my girl!” Royce McLean called out from across the open-air, covered deck.
He leaned against the wood railing in his McLean Racing embroidered polo, the breeze ruffling his salt-and-pepper hair. His handsome face showed delight, but those smoky eyes of his pierced right through her. He was pissed she was late and calling Sami Jo his girl meant he was showing off to someone.
Royce’s guest stood by the stairs that led down to the beach. Sami Jo caught her breath, releasing the cookie tray as if it had burned her hand, and it clattered onto the low table.
“Morning, Sami Jo.”
The sound of Grayson Finch’s voice sent a shiver through her as infuriating memories bubbled to the surface. Her first love, her first heartbreak, all rolled into one gorgeous package.
“Sami Jo, this is Grayson Finch.” Royce crossed to a cushioned wicker chair and sat down. He had no idea who Gray was to her, but she certainly wasn’t about to get into it. “Weren’t you friends with Grayson’s cousin?”
“Gemma,” Sami Jo and Gray answered simultaneously and it caused her to stiffen. His answer sounded low and calm while hers felt borderline hysterical.
“Here, Mr. Finch, let me top off your drink.” Melanie hurried over with the pitcher of lemonade.
Damn, he looks good, Sami Jo thought as he lifted his glass for Melanie to fill it.
Under his sport coat, he was still built like a tank. He’d grown out his crewcut and long layers of dark blonde hair framed his face. Then there was the short beard. She’d only ever seen him clean-shaven. How any of it could be such a vast improvement on someone who was already ridiculously good-looking was, well—ridiculous.
Sami Jo broke from her trance and adjusted the tray of cookies on the table.
“Come, Grayson, take a seat. Sami Jo?” Royce pointed at her and then gestured to the chair next to his own. “Sit.”
Her uncle always had a knack for making situations seem dire. Nonetheless, she obeyed as her heart did synchronized somersaults with her stomach.
“Melanie, would you be a doll and make sure the kids stay inside until we’re done? And, let me know when Matt gets here.” Royce gave his daughter a wink.
“Sure, Daddy.” Melanie put the pitcher on the table in front of them and headed inside.
“Melanie reminds me so much of her mother. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her after Trudy passed away last year. Having her and Matt living here with the kids has brought life back into this place. Matt has been negotiating for two new cars all morning, but I’m optimistic he’ll get us a good deal.” Royce stuck his thumb out and jerked it toward Sami Jo. “Meanwhile, this one is costing me an arm and a leg in tires every single time she races.”
It was Royce’s attempt at humor and yet Sami Jo had no sarcastic comeback to diffuse it—that was a first. Out of the corner of her eye, she swore Gray was smiling and nodding.
“But, she’s already had a helluva season,” Royce continued. “When she won Daytona right out of the gate, we knew she’d be a force to reckon with. Hell, her daddy didn’t even make the top twenty his first series race.”
Royce’s gaze shifted down to his hands folded in his lap. “We lost my brother, Chase, at a race in Charlotte almost twenty years ago. I’ll never forget watching his car come apart.”
Sami Jo stilled. Royce rarely talked about her father’s death. She barely recalled the details because she’d been eight at the time, only remembering the commotion on the track and in the viewing suite, where she and Melanie had been playing. Even the aftermath of being told her daddy had died was a blur.
“There’ve been lots of improvements with safety measures since then, so my concern for my niece’s well-being lies mostly off the track,” Royce said.
“Royce, what’s this all about?” Sami Jo asked.
She had dispensed with Uncle years ago—the business had seen to that. Royce was her boss. He had been her crew chief, calling the shots into her headset when she raced in the local circuits. Now he was her team manager so it just made sense for her to drop the formality and make their relationship less about the obvious nepotism.
Royce picked up a blue file folder from the table and passed it to her. When she tried to take it, he didn’t let go. “I want you to take this seriously. Especially after what happened last month.”
She had hoped they were past the incident in Vegas. God knew she was trying to forget about it.
Tugging the folder out of his hand, she opened it. Inside were color photocopies of her at races and other appearances. Each had lewd words and images drawn over them in red marker.
She shrugged, trying to think of a way to lessen her uncle’s concern. “I wish I had a dollar for every time some crazy fan sent me something like this.”
That much was true. She’d had plenty of deranged individuals try to contact her. She always blew it off, knowing it was part of being in the public eye. But now she had to wonder if this might be tied to the episode she’d endured last month.
“You’re not the only one getting these,” Royce said. “Turns out drivers in the other pro series are getting them too. Mainly, Naomi St. James and Angela Guthrie. And after everything that happened, it just doesn’t sit right with me. That’s why I asked Grayson here. His company provides VIP protection and he’s here to make sure nothing happens to you.”
Sami Jo blinked at her uncle for a few moments, his intention sinking in. She closed the folder, tossed it onto the table, and stared at Gray. She struggled to keep her cool at his rigid posture, his gaze giving her the feeling he was judging her.
“Well, this is all very unnecessary,” she said. “I don’t need a bodyguard.”
Gray’s face made it clear he disagreed.
“Sami Jo, did you hear me when I said other female race car drivers are being targeted?” Royce asked.
“There’s always some jerk who has an ax to grind about women in racing. This shit comes with the job,” she replied as she stood. “I’m sorry if we wasted your time, Gray.”
She slipped out of her sandals and took the stairs going down to the beach as Royce called after her. A cacophony of gulls drowned him out as she headed through the smooth sand leading toward the water.
Up and down the coast, young children were building sandcastles as adults sat under colorful umbrellas. Just another day in the life of her uncle’s Myrtle Beach neighbors.
Sami Jo let out a deep breath and her pace slowed.
Of all people, her uncle could’ve reached out to, why Gray? The last time they had even spoken—more like screamed at each other—he was breaking up with her.
Of course, Royce was clueless about all that. For all he and her Aunt Trudy knew, she’d been hanging out with her friends, enjoying one last summer together before most of her crowd shipped off to college.
How far from the truth that was.
From the minute she met Grayson Finch, she’d done everything in her power to spend time with him. She’d alienated her friends, including Gray’s cousin Gemma, who had been her best friend. All because Sami Jo had been determined to lose her virginity that summer to the hottest man she’d ever met.
Gray, however, had kept making excuses. Telling her that she was too young—she was eighteen and he was twenty-four. That he wasn’t going to screw his cousin’s bestie and then leave Gemma to clean up the mess after he’d left for good.
She had practically begged for it that last night they were together, only to have Gray break her heart when he told her to “go find someone who cares about you enough to want to pop your cherry.”
That ugliness he’d spewed at her came flooding back as waves licked at Sami Jo’s feet.
It felt like it was just yesterday, not seven years ago.
When she glanced back at the house, Gray was approaching her with the blue folder in his hand.
“Sami Jo, come back so we can discuss this.”
“Why are you here, Gray?”
“Your uncle hired me,” he said without missing a beat.
“No,” she said. “Why are you here?”
“I’m an expert when comes to things like this,” he said, not lowering his gaze from hers.
She picked up a shell, casting it into the waves. A seagull overhead dive-bombed toward it in search of food. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, Gray. I can take care of myself.”
“Considering you’re a rather high-profile celebrity who makes public appearances, your uncle insists—”
Sami Jo spun to face him. His rugged features under the bright sun caught her off guard. The years had weathered him a bit, yet he was still arrestingly handsome.
“Give me a break. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was just some stunt the media created to get extra coverage.”
“I think you do fine getting it on your own.” Gray stepped toward her, risking the waves hitting his leather shoes. “Why don’t you tell me about what happened in Vegas last month.”
A shudder ran through her but she did her best to conceal it.
“Well, obviously you know about it if you’re asking.”
“Yes, but I want to hear it from you,” he said.
She studied him for a moment. Uncharacteristic scruff covered the dimples she knew existed in both his cheeks and the sun off the waves reflected in his intense stare, making her insides flutter a bit.
“It was a month ago after I won a race. There was an after-party at the Monte Carlo where we were staying.” Sami Jo poked at the sand with her foot. She’d repeated the story often enough it sounded exactly like the statement she’d given the police and admittedly, it was the only way she could get through it. “Since it wasn’t a private party, we mingled with the crowd at the nightclub. Sometime after two in the morning, a large group of us left together. Several people got off the elevator on the same floor. By the time I realized one of the guys from the crowd had followed me and that we were alone in the elevator, it was too late.”
Sami Jo’s mouth went desert-dry at the memory. She decided to leave out the shame of how drunk she’d been and how she feared she’d coaxed the guy by flirting with him earlier in the night. Although the police insisted none of that mattered, she wasn’t about to admit her guilt to Gray. She also omitted the part where he’d forced himself into her room and how she could still smell the beer on his breath when he’d shoved her up against the wall. Gray could read that in the police report if he wanted the gory details.
It made her angry to hear the pity in his voice.
“I never saw his face clearly but I was able to fend him off. I clocked him with a bottle of champagne and ran out of the room. When the police got there, he was gone. They couldn’t obtain a blood sample off the bottle so nothing became of it.”
“I’m sorry that happened, Sami Jo.” Gray closed the gap between them.
“Yeah, well, I still think Royce is over-reacting.”
“He’s concerned for your safety. I don’t blame him, but you’re not the only one. The person is targeting a specific group of women.”
Sami Jo didn’t want to show him how much his physical presence agitated her but he was so close, she could smell his woodsy cologne. She zeroed in on the short whiskers surrounding his mouth, remembering how his lips had felt—
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’ll be more careful. This whole thing is unnecessary.”
Gray opened the blue folder, producing an item she had missed.
It was a color photocopy of her hiking alone in the Blue Ridge mountains last week. She’d driven up the day after the race at Talladega to get away and clear her head.
The photo was covered in red ink, simulating blood splatter, with the words, “Your death would’ve been so easy.”
The alarming thing was she hadn’t told anyone she was there. Not even her family.