Drive Me to Distraction
“If he doesn’t slap my bum, make female driver jokes or tell me to brace myself because he’s the hottest boy-racer I’ve ever seen …”
Mike’s eyes continued to glaze over. They’d paused when Alex said bum, but now they continued their journey into complete ambivalence.
“… then we’ll get along just fine.”
“You’ll never get anywhere until you lose that chip.” Mike brushed an imaginary chip from her shoulder. His gaze wandered down to her chest.
“You’ll never get a un-skanky girlfriend if don’t stop perving at women’s boobs.” She rolled her eyes and zipped her heavy racing overalls up to her neck, risking heat exhaustion on this rare hot English summer day.
“I wasn’t looking at your —”
“Yes, you were.” She narrowed her eyes at him.
“You haven’t got any to look at. Why would I bother?” Mike smiled innocently.
“That is not true.” She glanced down at the nearly flat front of her overalls. She wasn’t Dolly Parton, but still.
“Anyway. My girlfriends aren’t skanky,” he said, without much conviction.
“What about that Belinda one?” Alex grimaced at the memory.
“Mmm, yeah.” He grinned. “I miss her.”
“She gave you crabs.”
“Itchy.” He fidgeted at the memory. “But she was great in —”
“Can you at least try not to be disgusting?” Alex grabbed a clipboard from her desk and swatted his arm.
“Why?” Mike looked baffled by the idea, though laughter danced in his eyes.
She shook her head, amused and exasperated. Then she left the small administration office of Thruxton Motorsport Centre with enough force to make the windows rattle in their cheap aluminium frames. Outside, the smell of baked tarmac and hot oil hung heavily in the warm still air, soothing like aromatherapy – if you bought into that girly rubbish, which she didn’t.
She glanced at her clipboard and undid her overalls a couple of inches. Mr. Robert Dryden was the next driver eager to conquer the Thruxton racetrack and attain his racing driver’s licence. At least he’d had the imagination to pick the Lotus, most wanted the Porsche or the Lamborghini.
She strode up the pit lane to where he waited leaning on the car. He turned when heard her, and smiled a warm sexy grin, teeth gleaming. Tall and lean, brown hair flopping across his dark eyes and the pale skin of an office dweller, all came together to make him meltingly handsome, in a laddish way.
Surrounded by men, working in an industry that only saw women as decorative, Alex had learned to be aloof and matter-of-fact, especially with the distractingly handsome ones. But the hint of kiss-me-nowness about his grin unsettled her. She zipped her racing overalls back up to the neck.
“You’re a girl,” he said, as soon as she got within earshot.
“And you’re an idiot.”
She ignored him. “Hi, I’m Alex. I’ll be testing you for your racing licence today.”
“You surprised me. I didn’t expect a girl.”
She glared at him, but his smile didn’t falter, and he met her eye with a long, faintly insolent, look.
“Okay.” She consulted her clipboard, even though she already knew what it said. “Let’s get in the car, and we’ll see what you can do.”
She didn’t bother to hide her reservation. Rob Dryden’s type of driver was very familiar. He couldn’t drive a racing car to save his life. It was easy to tell after a lifetime around cars. If he’d been examining the Lotus and reeling off its vital statistics the moment there was someone close enough to listen, then chances were he’d be a decent driver. But those that ignored the car, and looked at the view were never any good.
She handed him the keys, hurried around to the passenger side and wrenched the door open. Best get it over with. She waited while he buckled himself into the five-way racing harness and slid on his shiny new helmet.
“Head up the pit lane then we’ll turn out onto the track.” She pointed the way.
He stamped his foot down on the accelerator. The car protested with a strangled whine and a jarring donkey-hop, then lurched into second gear with a clunk.
“Watch it.” She glared at him. This guy was incompetent, and the mechanics would kill her if she let yet another leadfoot client bugger up the gearbox.
He shot her an irritated look. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Sure you do.”
They staggered around the warm-up lap. He ignored most of Alex’s instructions, accelerated too fast into the corners, and hurtled down the straightaway in the wrong gear.
“This is a tricky thread the needle. You can do it at about seventy, but you have to take it from the far left of the track.” Alex braced herself against the dash and sighed. If he didn’t listen, at their current speed, there’d be only one outcome.
Rob Dryden remained at ninety in the centre of track. The tires squealed like fingernails down a blackboard as he tried to take the hairpin corner and lost control of the car. As it spun in a graceful circle, he reached for her, pressed her back into her seat and tried to steer with one hand.
“What the hell are you doing?” howled Alex, when they came to a halt, staring down at the arm clamped across her chest in alarm.
He snatched his hand back, and placed it carefully on the steering wheel.
“Making sure you were okay.” He stopped talking abruptly. Then he sat staring silently at his knuckles which gleamed white against the black of the steering wheel. His shoulders hunched up, almost to the bottom of his helmet.
You are an idiot. We could’ve been killed. This is not a game, and you are risking my life to live out your half-baked fantasies.
The words teetered on the tip of her tongue. She swallowed them with effort and mentally counted to ten.
“Next time, keep both hands on the wheel. Concentrate on the car and not the passenger.”
“I can do this,” he said. “It’s been a while, but my father taught me —”
“Fine. Get back on the track, and when we get to Pit Lane, we’ll start the test.” She just wanted to get it over with and escape to the office before they ended in a yelling match. Candidates always got narky when she failed them.
He put the car in reverse, and they shot backwards. Alex grabbed the dash with a yelp.
He swore in frustration and stamped on the brakes.
An angry comment teetered on the tip of her tongue, but his keyed-up tension made her think twice about antagonizing him. Gathering the remnants of her patience she reached out and touched his forearm, hoping to calm him.
“Hey,” she said. His arm was rigid beneath her fingers, and he didn’t look at her. “Hey,” she said again.
“What?” He turned his head reluctantly.
“I’ve been teaching here for three years, and no one has ever tried to protect me when they’ve screwed up a turn.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
The derision in his voice made her instantly regret taking the gentle approach.
“It’s supposed to distract you from having a meltdown. Rebuild your dented ego.”
“My ego is not dented, and I do not meltdown.” He put the Lotus in gear and drove smoothly onto the track.
“Paragon of self control then?”
Robert Dryden took a sharp breath. “Are you mocking me?” His voice rose a note in disbelief.
He shot her a startled look, and changed easily up the gears. He hadn’t lied about previous training. He showed experience in his handling of the car. Very rusty, but there.
“You’re driving better now that you’ve stopped trying too hard?” she said.
“I do not try too hard,” he snapped.
“Is there anything you actually do, do?” Sarcasm edged her voice.
He shook his head. “You must be a terrible backseat driver.”
“I never sit in the back.”
“Of course not. Is there some rule which means you don’t talk during the test?”
For a moment she wanted to call off the test completely, unimpressed by his attitude.
“People pay good money for my advice,” she said sharply.
“I don’t need your advice about my dented ego, trying too hard, or anything else.”
“So you admit your ego was dented?” she asked.
He brought the car to a stop in Pit Lane and turned to her. Their gazes met.
“I spun out on a corner. It’s got nothing to do with my ego.”
“You’re a bloke, and we’re in a very fast car on a racetrack. It’s either got to do with your ego, or your penis size. Would you prefer if we talked about penises? I can discuss either.” She gave him an enquiring look.
“Penis size?” He stared at her, clearly lost for words and trying to figure out if she was joking or not.
“Shall we do the test now?” She nodded down the track, and decided to stop torturing him.
“The sooner the better,” he muttered. Alex wholeheartedly agreed.
Five minutes later they drew up outside the Thruxton Motorsport Centre office.
Rob Dryden dragged off his helmet. “How did I do?” He examined its scratchless surface and didn’t look at her.
She drew in a breath. “Mr. Dryden, you’ve got potential, and I can see you’ve had past experience. However, right now, you’re a danger to both yourself and others on the track. You need hours of practice. Hours.”
He stared at her for a moment then wrenched the door open and shot out of the car. She followed wearily, reluctant to witness the tantrum he’d throw in the office. Robert Dryden’s type hated to fail at anything, and invariably blamed her for their own shortcomings. A scenario which always ended with her being on the receiving end of a lecture about not upsetting the clients.
Part way through striding towards the office, though, he paused and came back towards her. “This was a mistake.”
“If you think I’ve made a mistake you can discuss it with Mike. He’s the chief instructor. You’ll find him in his office.” Alex plastered on a grimace which was the nearest she could come to a smile, and pointed the way. According to her anger management handbook, she should thank him for his feedback, but, as usual, she couldn’t do it.
Instead of storming off, Robert Dryden turned abruptly, dropped his helmet on the ground with a hollow thunk and hooked his hands behind his head. He stared up into the sky as if he desperately struggled to keep his emotions under control.
“You can try again. Get yourself on a couple of courses, book some track time. I’ve seen worse.”
For a moment he didn’t move, and she wondered if he was going to cry. It had happened before.
“I meant that it was a mistake for me to come here, that’s all.” He dropped his hands and looked at her. She was relieved to see no sign of tears.
They both glanced up at the tip tap of high heels across the tarmac. Tyffany, the racing school’s receptionist, hurried toward them as fast as her stiletto heels would allow. With a wobble and a scrape she caught a heel, but continued unperturbed, huge hoop earrings flapping wildly around her face.
“Oh Mr. Dryden. Your pilot rang. He said there’s trouble with the chopper, and you’re going to have to make your own way home.”
Rob Dryden took the news with a faint scowl. “I’ll catch a taxi.” He shrugged.
“Oh goodness no. I’ll give you a lift wherever you want. You were the CEO of Celeste Badeau Lingerie weren’t you? I’m wearing your Everyday Venus stuff right now. The purple lace push-up bra and matching G-string.”
Alex stalked back to the office, but not before she glimpsed Tyffany pulling at the neckline of her top to show him her underwear. A huge fan of tight outfits, fake tan and sticky lipstick, Tyffany was fifty if she was a day. Alex was amazed that the top had enough room in it to give Robert Dryden a decent view.
She shoved the office door open and dropped into her chair, which made a horrible twanging noise.
Mike appeared from his tiny office.
“How did it go?” He glanced out the window. “What on earth is Tyffany doing?”
“She is presently getting her purple G-string in a knot trying to persuade Mr. Dryden into her decrepit Ford Escort.”
“She’s not having much luck.”
“I don’t see why I’m not allowed to swear at the clients, if she’s allowed to show them her boobs.” Alex jabbed a finger at the half-full swear jar on her desk.
“That doesn’t even make sense.” He grinned at her and shook his head.
“Yes it does.”
“Mr. Dryden failed his test, did he?”
“Completely. He even spun out on MacCameron’s corner. And now the poor little rich boy has been abandoned by his helicopter. Lord alone knows how he’ll make it back to civilisation. He might have to,” she gasped in mock horror, “catch a taxi.”
Alex had her back to the door. She stopped talking as she saw Mike’s eyes flick away for a second. She didn’t want to turn around. Embarrassment crept hotly up from her chest.
“I backpacked my way around South America when I was in my late teens. I doubt the wilds of Thruxton hold many more challenges than the Peruvian backcountry,” said Robert Dryden evenly from the doorway.
“Got no ride mate?” said Mike. Alex shot him a small smile. She’d buy him a beer for his unusual burst of tact.
“I’ll call a taxi.”
“They won’t come out this far. But Alex was just volunteering to drive you to the Green Man. You’ll be able to get one from there. Weren’t you, Alex?”
“Thanks.” She attempted to dissolve Mike with a glare. He raised an eyebrow, unabashed and winked at her.
“I’ll give you a lift. Shall we go for a quick spin round the track first,” she said brightly to Rob. “I can show you how it’s supposed to be done.”
“Sure.” Reservation glittered his dark eyes.
“Meet you outside in ten.” She had a saccharine smile that was all teeth and no good will. Angel eyes, like aquamarines, glowered at him. She even managed to look beautiful when she was annoyed, which, he guessed, was most of the time.
A wicked sense of humour, though, lay beneath her irritability. He wondered if anger was a defence she used, to keep the driving school clients at a distance. With her looks, in a testosterone-fuelled environment like a racetrack, she probably needed a heavy-duty attitude. Or a cattle prod.
He half smiled at her, and waited for the reaction.
She rolled her eyes and pushed past him, out of the stuffy office.
“Did she yell at you?” Mike frowned. “I’m really sorry.”
“No.” Rob held up a hand to stop him apologising for her. “She didn’t. Not really.”
“Seriously?” Mike looked surprised. “She must like you. She yells at most people. Even me.”
“I really don’t think she likes me very much.” Rob wondered if he was angel eyes’s boyfriend.
Mike shook his head. “She comes across that way, to people who don’t know her. But her bark is worse than her bite. She’s an amazing driver.”
“How long have you been together?” asked Rob, getting more curious about Alex.
The warmth dropped from Mike’s expression, replaced with a hint of regret. “I just admire from afar. Workmates.”
“She seems quite young, to be testing people for the racing drivers licence,” said Rob, reluctant to dig up a tale of a thwarted workplace romance.
“I can assure you she is fully qualified.” A hint of defensiveness tinged Mike’s voice, as if he heard this comment frequently.
“I just thought it was unusual, that’s all. Two minutes of conversation and you can see how qualified she is.”
“She’s twenty-two. Youngest woman ever, that’s for certain.” Mike grinned, pride in his voice. “She spent most of her childhood at the Alchemie track, her Dad was a mechanic there, says she first drove one of their F1 cars on her eleventh birthday.”
Mike glanced at his watch.
“Sorry to keep you.”
“That’s okay. I’ve got to head off. See you at the pub maybe? Have a drink with the boys. They’d like to meet you. Hear about your Dad, and your plans for Prometheus.”
Rob nodded noncommittally. “Yeah. Thanks.” He slipped out of the office. The last thing he wanted was to talk to the boys about his father or the Formula One racing team he’d inherited.
He never should’ve come here.
The whole thing had been a mistake, born out of some grief-stricken idea that he could begin to fulfil his father’s dearest wish. All Arthur Dryden had ever wanted was that his son follow in his footsteps; first to become a Formula One driver and second to take over the family toy company.
Rob, however, had other ideas.
And now, six weeks after Arthur Dryden had been found dead of a heart attack on his office floor, Rob was facing up to the reality that his father would never know he hadn’t meant to let him down.
He waited outside the small office in the twilight. Mike hurried past, muttered, “Goodbye,” and drove quickly away, waving cheerfully as he went.
The racetrack, an old airstrip not used since World War II, was peaceful. Swallows swooped and dived over the sun scorched grass performing aerobatics that would’ve made the Red Baron proud. The Indian summer came at the end of September as if to apologise for all the rain, already had the council muttering about water restrictions.
Damn chopper. It was practically an antique anyway. Only worked half the time, which for a chopper was an unsettling statistic. He’d only used it in the first place because the pilot had insisted it needed a run. It’d have to go, along with almost everything else.
It was nearly six o’clock. The mechanics, who maintained the race school’s cars, had gone home and the garage was empty. The cars sat lined up neatly. The two Ferraris and the Aston Martin reminded him of his father’s car collection. But the one that caught his attention was the Formula One car. Low and sleek, the wheels looked as if they were held on with threads. With two cockpits, the one at the front for the driver and the other for a passenger, the whole thing looked like a carbon fibre two-humped camel. A Bactrian. If it had no legs.
“Have to have more than a racing licence to drive that.” Alex emerged from the office, and turned to lock the door. The mockery in her voice was inescapable.
She’d changed into jeans and a white tank top, showing off tanned, toned arms, and delicate collarbones pressing against her skin. He looked her over, as he did all women, with a professional eye. Ten years in lingerie and he couldn’t help it.
She’d make a perfect lingerie model if she wanted. He hadn’t noticed before when she wore the loose coveralls. Long legs. Athletic. A hint of curves. Skin like velvet. Size eight, he estimated. He was never wrong.
Her scowl made him rethink his assessment a little. Could’ve been a lingerie model if she smiled once in a while.
“Hit that button for me?” She pointed to the corner of the garage close to where he stood.
“Sure.” He did as she asked, and with an electric whine, then an ear-splitting screech, the garage doors dropped slowly from the roof.
“Ready then?” Her angel eyes glittered a challenge that he didn’t really understand.
“Sure. Thanks for the lift.”
She led the way to a Mini parked in the gloom behind the garage. Navy blue, it had racing stripes on the hood and the white with a red-cross English flag painted on the roof.
“Aren’t these cars made by BMW, a German company?” He nodded at the roof, just to irritate her.
She shot him an impatient look. “And your point is?”
“It’s ironic that —”
“Just get in.” The impatient look morphed quickly back into the scowl. But he saw a hint of amusement lurking underneath.
The Mini had been fitted with five-way racing harnesses instead of ordinary seat belts, and he buckled himself in with a sense of foreboding. A feeling which grew uncomfortably when the engine started with a deep roar. This was no ordinary Mini.
Alex leant forward, pried her phone out of her back pocket, and slipped it into a clip on the dash. The beautiful sound of Barber’s Adagio for Strings filled the air, but then a strident, insistent beat began to grow under the music. It got louder and louder until he could feel it vibrating through his chest.
“Hang on,” she yelled. He barely heard her. Her lips curved in a manic smile, transforming her angelic face, into something so stunning that when she glanced at him, desire twisted and curled, sudden and irresistible. Her eyes slid past, but then as if she’d somehow noticed his reaction, her gaze came back to him, and lingered briefly on his face.
She reversed the Mini from its space, pointed it towards the racetrack and put her foot down. He heard the roar of the engine over the music.
For a moment, he thought it was going to be an ordeal. But he looked at Alex. She drove with utter fearlessness. A small frown of concentration creased her forehead. It was as if she didn’t even hear the music.
The headlights lit up the darkening track, and he tensed when he saw they were approaching the hairpin bend where he’d come to grief earlier. Unsure if he really wanted to know how fast they went, he checked the speedometer. One hundred miles per hour. He felt the lightening sensation of deceleration, followed by the thrust of acceleration. The corner was behind them, and they were flying over the rest of the track.
Time and space seemed suspended. As if they were cocooned together, hurtling forward into a void. He watched her as she drove. The curve of her bottom lip, and her straight nose were lit by the glow of the dash. She looked utterly beautiful. Resisting the desire to reach out to touch her, he clenched his hands into tight fists.
In less than a minute, she slowed and turned off the track, then onto a country lane. They were well above the speed limit, but it felt like a snail’s pace.
She looked at him, one eyebrow raised.
Scared yet? She didn’t speak, but he could see the question in her expression.
He shook his head, with a half-smile. You’ll have to try harder than that.
She grinned and pressed her foot to the floor. The car shot forward, and he sucked in a breath. It was nearly full dark, the headlights illuminated high hedgerows and a narrow curved lane. If a car came towards them, they’d be history.
When they came to a cross roads she slowed sharply and stopped the music.
They sat for a moment in silence as she revved the engine once, twice. Then in a cloud of blue tire smoke, they shot forward. The lane widened, she spun the wheel as they came to a corner; the car slid sideways, drifting effortlessly. She brought them out of the skid, only to take them in another drift around the next bend.
It felt like they were floating. He braced himself as they took another bend in the opposite direction. The force of it threw him sideways in his seat.
She accelerated harder, and he pressed himself back into his seat when he saw they were speeding towards a narrow humped bridge. His stomach dipped as the Mini launched itself into the air over the bridge. They were suspended for a split second, and hit the ground with a bone-shattering crunch.
The lights of the pub, the Green Man, loomed ahead and Alex slowed significantly. Taking the turn into the parking lot almost sedately, she parked with a flourish and killed the engine.
She turned to him. The angel eyes threw him a challenging look, a mixture of defiance and scorn, and she jutted her chin at him in a get-out-of-my-car-now gesture.
Rob unclipped his seatbelt, reached out and snaked a hand behind her head. Her short hair brushed silkily against his fingers. For a second he met the angel eyes, opened wide in shock as she realised what he was going to do. Then he roughly pulled her forward pressing the full cupid-bow lips to his. He felt her surprised intake of breath against his mouth. For a split second her lips softened, and she kissed him back. Then she struggled away, tearing herself out of his grasp and shoving him off.
“Don’t,” she snarled.
“Okay. I won’t.” He got out and closed the door gently behind him.
Alex climbed out and slammed her door glaring at him across the roof, blipped the car lock and stormed off towards the pub.
“Go away.” She threw the words over her shoulder, without pausing in her stride.
He leaned against the warm ticking hood of the Mini and pulled out his phone, but didn’t make a call.
The pub crouched next to a small snaking river. It must’ve once been a mill, as a waterwheel sat stationary, hugging the side of the building. The place was busy, and the parking lot nearly full. Groups sat outside at rough-hewn tables lit with candles that flickered and danced, fairy lights twinkled in the trees.
It was peaceful and charming, and entirely at odds with the adrenaline that still poured through him.
Two girls sauntered past, both clutching lit cigarettes and smirking at him. Tarted up to the nines in cheap mini-skirts and low cuts tops, seventeen if they were a day.
“You look like you could use one of these —” One of them fished a packet of cigarettes from her bag.
“Shaz!” Her friend giggled.
“You have no idea how right you are.” Rob cupped the lighter as she held it out for him. “Thanks.”
“Byee!” She batted her makeup laden eyes at him in a coquettish expression that, with a bit of practice, would one day have men on their knees.
He stared up at the round fat September moon and drew smoke deep into his lungs.
Finalist in the Australian Romance Readers Association (ARRA) awards for romantic suspense
Sometimes life or death decisions are easy. Alex Radford has a choice – borrow the money to treat her mother’s rare and aggressive cancer from sleazy moneylender Hamish MacCameron. Or do nothing and watch her die.
MacCameron has an agenda. He wants Alex in his bed, and he wants her to help him exact revenge on his sworn enemy, Robert Dryden. He is only too happy to lend her what she needs, but the strings attached form a tangled web from which Alex has little hope of escape.
It’s not all bad. Since she was a girl Alex has had one dream: to become a Formula 1 driver and show the boys how to drive a race car. MacCameron’s money gives her a shot at fame, and in a move that scandalizes the F1 racing fraternity she becomes the new driver for Rob Dryden’s struggling F1 team, Prometheus.
Alex tries to keep her distance from Rob, knowing that one day she will need to betray one of the few people who ever had faith in her. But things begin to unravel when Hamish MacCameron is murdered and she and Rob are the top suspects on the list
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Caitlyn Nicholas began writing in 2005. Exhausted, pregnant and coping with a demanding toddler, she decided the time was right to embark on a writing career. To her family’s eternal startlement, she is now the author of five novels and a short story. Her debut novel and the first manuscript she had ever written Running Scared, was published in January 2007. This was followed by Secret Intentions in 2009, and The Danger Game in 2012. Her most recent novel, Drive …