A Fast Woman

Chapter 1

CJ

Adrenaline and love—both were God-given, naturally-occurring and highly-addictive drugs—the temptation, the euphoric rush, the path to destruction.

Love was too toxic, and its sudden loss was devastating.

But, adrenaline—ah, adrenaline was my drug of choice. It was exclusive to the junkie and, unlike love, it wasn’t expected to be shared or reciprocated.

And nothing—absolutely nothing—pumped adrenaline through my body more than flying at 190 mph around a 24-degree banked turn, strapped inside a metal cage on four wheels.

Gus’ voice broke through the headset in my helmet. “Alright, CJ, darlin’ how’s the old girl feel this morning?”

That’s me. CJ, short for Charlotte Jean—Charlotte Jean Lomax. The “Sweetheart of Stock Car” or “Token Woman Driver”, depending who was talking about me.

I was a woman race car driver, but no one considered me much of a sweetheart.

At only 5’4”, not many people considered me much of a threat either—until I was behind a wheel of a 3300-pound machine. On a racetrack, strapped into a stock car, it didn’t matter if I had a cock or not, I still ran them into the ground.

“First, G, after fifteen years of friendship, you know what happens to boys who call me

darlin’. Second, you’re not my crew chief yet and she is a bit testy today, so she doesn’t need you calling her old.” My enthusiastic, but teasing, tone laced through the deafening growl of the engine increasing the energy pumping through me.

The weight of the g-forces against my chest, the odor of rubber and oil that choked the air, and the vibrations tore across every nerve—it brought me down to Earth, but the familiarity kept me smiling.

This was as close to flying as I could get without leaving the ground. It was a detonation of power as life rushed at me like a 4D IMAX movie.

I rocked out to the deafening roar of the 800-horsepower stock car engine under my feet

at odds with the serene Carolina sky as I flew around Charlotte Motor Speedway during my practice runs.

With the custom-made seat and specialized HANS head restraint, movement was practically impossible. The fire-retardant suit and shoes were meant to withstand a burning vehicle—because that was an actual possibility.

It was part of the risk and why only a few people in the world were capable of doing this job.

I was one of them.

Tommy had been another. He’d been my adrenaline partner. My love addiction. Until he was no longer around to be either.

Focus.

I flew through another turn.

“Hell, yeah.” I forced the words out of my mouth as I smiled and pledged aloud, “G, adrenaline and a race car are all the love I need.”

“So, you keep telling me, darlin’,” Gus deadpanned.

“The boss man is in the box with some VIPs, probably sponsors.” Wild Bill’s gravelly voice permeated the noise of the engine. Bill was the chief of the car, but more importantly he’d been a mentor to me for years. “Hon, show them why you’re one of Energy Blasts’ top drivers. They should be begging us to put their logo on your car.”

I gripped the steering wheel tighter, as if someone was going to try to pry my hands from it. “Don’t jinx me, Bill. No one has tapped me to replace Trent, yet. All I was asked to do is take this car out for a practice run.”

Focus. Grit. Unapologetic determination. That was my mantra.

A shiver ran down my back, as a memory whispered, you’ve got this.

I shook off the intrusion and was grateful to latch on to Bill’s voice as he said, “Formalities. Just put on a good show.”

“I don’t have to put on a show…” I opened-up the engine, sling-shot out of the turn and, with a confidence I didn’t have outside the car, I purred, “I’m always good.”

 

Grady

“Who’s the driver?” I strode into the press box, nodded in the direction of the track, going for casual but clenching my jaw to prevent “Who the fuck’s driving my car?” from spilling out.

I passed Everett Merrick and his son, Everett “Junior” Merrick, as I headed for the wall of glass overlooking the mammoth racetrack. I didn’t need to turn around to know my buddy, and acting manager, Cooper Sullivan, followed me. His shaggy, auburn hair, and hazel eyes shifted, taking in our surroundings. His lumbering gait was in cadence with mine as he saddled up next to me.

My hands were in the pockets of my custom-made, steel gray pants and I relaxed my shoulders as I still strived to remain unphased. But that was the number 43 car—my car.

“CJ Lomax,” Merrick answered.

Cooper’s phone rang, distracting me. He pressed a button sending it to voicemail.

“Excuse me?” I turned my attention back to Merrick.

The thunder of the car’s engine reverberated through my chest even inside the confines of the press box, beckoning to me.

“The driver. It’s CJ Lomax.” Merrick’s eyes narrowed, examining me.

“Just one of our Energy Blast drivers.” Junior gave the track a dismissive wave as he maneuvered himself between me and the observation glass. Junior, with his custom-made suit and perfectly styled hair, tried to pull-off a Northern-bred vibe rather than show his Southern roots.

Merrick’s expression shifted to his son, falling between chastising an employee and holding the disappointment of a parent.

“She’s one of our champion Energy Blast drivers.” Merrick’s pride was evident as he referred to the lower circuit of racing.

The car was a white blur that held a green sheen as I grew jealous of whoever was driving while I was up here with these suits.

Until Merrick added, “And the one who will be splitting the season with you.”

Red flashed across my vision and my head whipped around.

Excuse me? What? It was one of the few times I was at a loss for words.

Merrick stared me straight in the eye. I glanced to Junior for an explanation, but he was studying the generic carpeting with extreme interest.

A unicorn could’ve flown out of Junior’s ass and it wouldn’t have surprised me more.

“Excuse me, what?” I parroted my thoughts aloud and stepped up to the two Merricks.

Cooper’s phone rang again. He fumbled with it before sending it to voicemail and stepped beside me. Cooper’s eyes dodged back and forth between Merrick and Junior. “That wasn’t what Junior told us. We didn’t come down here for Grady to share a season with anyone.”

Awkward silence descended the press box and accentuated the presence of the car—my car—roaring down the back stretch again. The two Merricks glanced at each other with raised eyebrows as if to say, “You want to explain this?”

I’d heard of her, CJ Lomax, The Sweetheart of Stock Car. I’d also heard that nickname was given in mockery. Never met her. Not sure I even recalled what she looked like outside of her having dark hair and being small. Just heard she wasn’t exactly a sweetheart, no matter how hard PR tried to make her out to be one.

The silence was heavy as I glared at the car again and then over to Merrick, my mood darkening by the second.

Was this a joke?

I was an Indy champion, for Christ’s sake.

I shouldn’t have to audition—especially against someone who hadn’t raced at this level before.

It was insulting.

My mind raced faster than the car on the track.

This was drama I didn’t need—I didn’t want to be caught up in some inner-team conflict. I wanted a fresh start in a new industry.

I gritted my teeth and tried to control my frustration.

Cooper stepped in. “This wasn’t what we talked about. I thought we were down here to discuss Grady replacing Trent?”

“We’re discussing it,” Merrick said, walking toward me, staring me down.

“Perhaps, we should discuss this in the boardroom I have set up,” Junior said, trying to usher us toward the door.

“No, let’s discuss it here,” Merrick ordered, walking up to the stadium seats usually filled by journalists and broadcasters. He motioned me to sit next to him.

Instead, I stepped down putting me eye-to-eye with the man.

Merrick leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands across his lap. “I’m going to level with you Grady, because that’s just the type of guy I am. We were ready to pull CJ up from Energy Blast and put her in Trent’s seat. Junior reminded me you were free and interested in crossing over.”

He held up a hand. “Now, I know you have your reasons for leaving your successful career with McBane. That’s your business. You may be an Indy Champion but you’re a NASCAR rookie. With the season already starting, I thought this would be the best solution. Both you and CJ would get experience and exposure.”

Intense anger boiled to the surface at the mere mention of my family name and I imagined the steam billowing out of my nose like a raging bull. I had to remind myself it wasn’t Merrick’s fault I was in this position and he wasn’t purposely waving a red cape.

I grew up in the shadow of my family’s empire and after a series of dumb ass choices, it turned out family loyalty only extended so far. I was pushed out of the industry by my own brother—and that’s on him.

Junior circled us like a fly. “With Trent leaving, the sponsors were skittish about sticking around. Neither one of you have the same marketability Trent had. However, a side competition between two drivers on the same team has never been done before and would probably drum up more exposure. With your good looks and reputation, and CJ…well with CJ being CJ…it would draw a lot of attention which would lead to more publicity. Sponsors pay for publicity. Its why they want their name on our car.”

“There’s also that…” Merrick flicked his hand in acknowledgment of his son’s point. “We are both admirers of yours. Drivers have made the leap from Indy to stock car very successfully, but some have had difficulty with the change.”

Cooper’s phone rang again. He rolled his eyes and looked down at the display. His back straightened, eyebrows drew together, and his eyes cut to me. He was going to answer it, and that could only mean one thing. I knew who it was.

Damn it.

I didn’t need this now. I’d been avoiding her call and she didn’t like being ignored.

Still, I could wring Cooper’s neck for answering it.

“Hello, Mrs. McBane…Yes, ma’am, I apologize—yes, ma’am I know…he’s, um, we’re in a meeting—” Cooper walked out, likely in search of privacy so no one witnessed him having his balls handed to him over a cellphone.

I dragged my hand through my hair and rubbed both over my face. I tried to concentrate on the two Merricks, praying to God that, for once, Cooper could handle my mom.

Cooper walked back in the room within 15 seconds with the cell to his ear. He charged at me, the cell shifted to his outstretched hand like a bayonet.

Who was I kidding—no one handled Meredith McBane.

I gave it one more try and held up my hand in a silent no as Cooper invaded my space.

He put his hand over the phone, shook it at me, leaned in and whispered loud enough to convey his determination, “She’s your mother. You know as well as I do, she’ll just keep calling both of us until she reaches you or she’ll send someone down here who will physically shove the phone in your hand.”

He had a point.

I dropped my shoulders and caved, not very graciously, grabbing the phone from Cooper who tried to bluster through his guilt.

As if they were center court at Wimbledon, Merrick and Junior both stood quietly watching the exchange.

I gave them a tight smile, held up the phone and said, “Excuse me a moment, I need to take this.”

“Go. Don’t keep your Mama waiting.” Merrick motioned to the door.

I nodded and refused to meet the man’s eyes as I stepped outside the press box, into the concrete halls of the stadium where the sound reverberated and even a whisper carried.

“Yes?” I attempted to suppress all annoyance and put on the hat of the dutiful child.

“Grady Patrick McBane is that anyway to greet your mother?” said a voice that could peel off twenty years of my maturity. “Especially one that has been trying to reach you for days. I didn’t raise you to treat me this way.”

“Hello, Mom. I’ve been busy.” I closed my eyes, attempting to hold onto my dignity and straightened. “Is Dad ok?”

“He’s fine—”

“Mom, I’m in a very important meeting. Can I call you back?”

“Are you meeting with those Merrick people?”

“Mom, please can we not do this right now? I love you, but I need to get back to this meeting.”

She let out a big sigh of retreat.

I held the phone away from my ear and stared at it. Meredith McBane didn’t retreat. Ever.

I put the phone back at my ear.

“Fine.” Defeat laced my mom’s voice.

“Wait, what?” What was I missing? I surveyed the halls of the causeway as if she was going to jump out from behind a column.

“I respect what you are trying to do, but we aren’t done discussing this.” The weariness in my mother’s voice cut at my resolve. Her voice dropped to almost a whisper, “I could strangle your father for leaving things in such a mess.”

It was the closest my mother had come to admitting to the severity of my father’s condition. The weariness hinted at the toll my father’s failing health was taking on my formidable mother. I was an ass to be avoiding her.

I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead as the weight of more guilt settled on my shoulders.

Shit. Where the hell was my brother?

“Mom, as soon as things settle here, I’ll fly home, okay?”

“Alright, honey. That sounds good.” Her voice held a tone of hope. “Call me later. I still want to hear what the hell is going on with you.” She tried to go for firm, but it fell short. She rallied and ended with a heartfelt, “I love you.”

“I love you, too. I’ll call later.” I waited for her to hang up and gripped the phone, probably a bit too tightly before remembering it wasn’t mine to break.

“I apologize.” I strode back in the room, trying to save face and ignoring the fact that my mother still had the power to reduce Cooper and I to eight-year old boys. “She’s been trying to get ahold of me and with my father being sick…”

Merrick shook his head, now standing at the observation windows, he turned to face me. “No explanation needed. I heard about your Daddy’s Parkinson’s. I’m sorry to hear it.” He nodded. “I respect that your family means a lot to you—which is why I question why you left Chicago?”

I ignored the leading question and instead parried with my own, “So, where were we? You were saying how I had to compete with CJ Lomax to race your car?”

“Yes, I know Indy drivers have made successful jumps from Indy to NASCAR—”

“Yes. And I was counting on being one of them. What I wasn’t counting on was becoming a side show.” I stalked further into the room and handed Cooper his phone.

“I’m not sure I follow you.” Merrick tilted his head.

“Because my father won’t admit CJ isn’t the right driver for the team and needs to be convinced the industry won’t accept her as a full-time Cup driver.” Junior struggled to shake his Carolina accent, but it snuck in when he was agitated.

Merrick glared at his son. “There are a few reasons, for doing it this way, Grady. CJ is a talented driver who can bring home wins. Her best tracks are ones an Indy driver would find more challenging. Having you handle the road courses while she handles the more aggressive short and restrictor plates tracks, will let you get your feet wet and we can see how she handles this level of competition.”

It was my turn to shoot a glare at Junior. But I addressed both Merricks, disliking this situation more by the minute. “If she is so capable, why not just give it to her?”

Merrick walked the length of the windows. “Full disclosure. CJ is like family to me—”

“She’s not family.” Junior jumped in, a hint of juvenile anger and resentment lacing the statement.

Merrick’s lips pursed, and pity swept over his face.

Junior glanced away as though he was ashamed at his outburst.

Merrick straightened, tilted his head and changed positions. “As you can imagine, being a woman isn’t easy around here…but CJ has other hurdles, let’s say.” He glanced at his son. “That being said, being close to me hasn’t done her any favors. People think I’ve given her too many opportunities because of who she is.”

“Because she’s a girl.” Junior’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly as his tone dipped just enough to hint at bitterness.

“Because she’s like family.” Merrick’s voice was firm, indicating he caught the tone.

I threw my hands out. “So, I’m here to help you prove CJ is deserving? I’m not going to waste my season propping up another driver’s reputation. I have my own to worry about.”

“No! No, that’s not what this about.” Junior rushed to my side as if he was going to grab my hand.

“From what I’ve heard so far, the only reason you’re not giving CJ the number 43, is that she’s a woman—which is so absurd I’m not even going to acknowledge it—and she’s too close to some of your family. So why am I here?”

“Because this is a business, Grady,” Junior said, straightened and gave a nod of his head. “And when it comes down to it, I think you are a better business decision than CJ.”

“What about you Mr. Merrick?” I crossed my arms over my chest and turned to the older Merrick. “Are you willing to break ties with CJ, when I prove to be the better driver?”

He stood legs spread, battle ready and his arms on his hips, studying me. “The competition will benefit CJ, as well. Trust me son, she won’t be easy. But yes, you both will come into the competition with a blank slate. I want the competition. I think it would be good for you, good for CJ and good for the Merrick team. Honestly, you could both learn something from each other.”

I began to pace up and down the row of windows, with the race car taunting me from the track. “I just don’t want to be the outsider who is branded the bad guy when I outperform her,” I interjected. “I plan on making NASCAR my home, and I don’t want to start off of the wrong foot.”

Merrick’s eyes shot up to his hair line. “Well, son, your arrogance precedes you. This will be your first season, and we are putting you straight into a Cup car, so you’re a risk, too. You’re talented, by any standard, but it was your name and the publicity from the break-up with your family that got you straight into that seat.”

Ouch.

It was to the point and probably the last thing my pride needed to hear. My family was what got me into this position and now I was going to be a dog and pony show.

Fan-fucking-tastic.

Merrick pointed at the track. “Your name and CJ’s name separately aren’t enticing enough on their own to keep sponsors around.” He turned and waved a hand at me and at the track. “But together…well, that may be the formula we need. So, it’s a battle of the sexes—a modern day War of the Roses. You both get a world stage to show the industry what you’re made of.”

I stared into the older man’s eyes. Logically, what Merrick said made sense. When it came down to it, racing was a tight-knit industry and I didn’t have many options. I had to make NASCAR work or join a European open-wheel circuit. Turning down this opportunity, alienating or insulting Merrick was probably akin to burning another bridge.

“What do you say, Grady?” Merrick stood with his hands clasped behind his back waiting with confidence.

I joined Merrick at the wall of glass, as the car thundered by again. The sound teased through to my very soul.

My next target.

“Mr. Merrick, just so we get something straight. It won’t matter if she’s a man or a woman. If CJ is all that is between me and that car,” I pointed at the blur circling the track, “I will show no mercy. There can only be one winner—and I don’t intend to lose.” I couldn’t afford to lose.

Merrick’s eyes connected with mine as he held out his hand. “Understood.” One side of his mouth quirked as he added, “Don’t expect her to show you any mercy either.”

“Fine.” I nodded, offering my hand. “I’m in.”

“Good.” Merrick stepped away, walking toward the door. His hands clapping together was the throwing down of a gauntlet. “Junior will set up a time for you to meet the team at the office tomorrow and work out the details. Good to have you aboard, Grady,” he said, as he left.

Cooper stepped over and stood beside me. “It’s just a minor bump. It won’t be a problem. At least we are out of Chicago, right?”

“I need a drink,” I muttered, more to myself then to Cooper, watching the car continue to taunt me as it raced around the track.

Junior flanked my other side. “Grady, with your looks and charm, sponsorship won’t be a problem. I’m sure you will win over the fan base. You won’t be the bad guy.” His tone hinted to a secret that hadn’t been revealed.

“Why do you say that?” I said.

“Once you meet CJ, you’ll understand…”

 

Chapter 2

CJ

 

“Just wait until it’s my birthday.” I glared at my best friend, Harper Merrick, while I simultaneously tried to conjure more material out of the slip of a cocktail dress she’d shoved on me. I swear it shrank since I started walking down the street, and I worried I was flashing the couple behind us.

“Why would you want to spend tonight with a bunch of suits, instead of going out to celebrate your birthday? Hell, I’d be willing to do a wine bar or something—why are you doing this to me?” I tugged on the hem and double checked none of my assets popped out of the top.

Harper strode down Charlotte’s city streets in take-charge stilettos, typing something on her phone, dodging pedestrian traffic, and ignoring my fidgeting. “We have a quick meet and greet. I know an agent who is in town with an executive with Prince Automotive and they want to meet for a drink. I’ll do the talking.”

“Fine.” I was resigned to my fate and focused on keeping pace with her lengthy strides. “It’s your birthday.”

“Stop squirming.” Well, I guessed she wasn’t ignoring me completely.

Harper and I had been best friends since our mothers put us on a blanket together as toddlers and I ran over her baby-doll with her brother’s Tonka truck.

“Paybacks, Harper…I have a few months to stew on this.”

“All I did was curl your hair, throw on some make-up and…” she slowed her stride to take an appraising gaze over me—pride in her latest project. “I’m sorry but seeing you in that dress and shoes will be worth any retribution.”

She refocused on the street ahead of us. “You act like I’m asking you to walk through Dante’s nine rings of hell.”

I concentrated on the pavement in front of me and making sure I didn’t get a closer view of it by tripping in my four-inch platform Louboutin heels—they were also her idea and should come with a health insurance option. “I’m only at the seventh level. Eight and nine would occur if my crew caught me in this get-up.”

“Your crew wouldn’t recognize you,” she said.

I didn’t have time to react before the flash of her phone went off and she was able to capture the moment for posterity—or blackmail.

Harper put her hand on my shoulder, stepped up into my space, leaned down to even out our five-inch height discrepancy and spoke with the patience of a parent. “Come here.”

With a soft smile, she nudged me to the nearest storefront window and gestured to our reflection. Our doppelgangers stared back at us.

Harper was a tall blonde with memorable long legs, the curves men appreciated and a drop-dead smile she easily employed. She was also the closest thing I had to a sister and was the most beautiful woman I knew. But what made Harper unique was while she knew how to capitalize on her looks, she didn’t define herself by them.

In the reflected image next to her, was a petite, fidgety brunette with an athletic frame who could use more confidence in a dress.

Harper pulled me in front of her, giving me center stage. It was like trying to eclipse the sun—any shine I had was from the light she threw.

Harper and I each had our own individual strengths. This—men, make-up, marketing—this was her arena. Anything to do with machines, metal and motor oil—that was mine.

Putting me in a short skirt, four-inch heels and telling me to be charming, was like putting Harper in a fire-retardant suit, putting her in a car going 190 mph with 42 other drivers and telling her not to wreck.

“You get so caught up in being a woman in a man’s world, that I think you forget that you are a woman.” She leaned over my shoulder and wrapped her arms around me from behind to soften the blow of the truth she was laying on me. “If I believed you wanted to be an obscure driver, I’d leave you alone. But, I don’t. I think since Tommy died, you’ve hidden behind the wheel of a race car because it was simple, and, for you, it was safe. But it’s time to come out and show the world you have boobs and curves, and embrace the fact that you are, in fact, a woman.”

She stepped back and let me go.

Harper opened her purse to put her phone away. “Besides, if you are serious about wanting to be a Cup driver, a full-time Cup driver, you have to get serious about your image.”

I closed my eyes and groaned, “Please, don’t start with that again.” Harper had on her game face and her public-relations-professional-marketing-guru hat.

“You have to use your assets. You are beautiful. I’m sorry, I know you hate hearing this, but it’s true. Part of this industry is sponsorship and marketing. Sponsors are the businesses that pay your salary. They are the bread and butter of racing. They pay for the parts, the tires, the best mechanics, everything this industry needs to survive. If you don’t have sponsors, you don’t race.” She straightened and began walking, signaling for me to follow.

“You’re starting to sound more like your father,” I grumbled. Her father was my boss, the man holding my future in his hand, Everett Merrick. It was complicated at times, but we made it work.

She ignored me. We rounded the corner and reached our destination, a swanky upscale bar and restaurant. “Do you honestly think if Gus was a driver, I wouldn’t be putting him in board shorts and lathering him with oil on a beach or in an expensive three-piece suit with a leggy blonde draped over him to sell watches. I would in a heartbeat, and he’d have sponsors throwing money at the team.”

Gus’ nickname was GQ, because even hungover he looked like he walked off the cover of the magazine. “Hell, I still may do that.” She stared off, her eyes gleamed with a thought that didn’t bode well for Gus’ modesty.

I straightened to protest. “Harper—”

“Alright, fine. One project at a time.” Indicating I was the project, she reached for the door and gestured me inside. “Be good.”

 

###

 

I played nice.

I smiled, and nodded, and did everything Harper asked of me for sixty-two excruciating minutes.

I dealt with stroking their egos and the name dropping.

I met Chase Dermott, an executive from Prince Automotive, and Jordan Darcy, Harper’s friend who introduced us. Both were what I expected business executives at a swanky bar to  look like. Prettier and better groomed than I would be—ever. Dermott’s hair was jet black and perfectly combed back with enough product to keep it in place but not look slick. Jordon was slightly taller, with indistinguishable brown, but perfectly tousled, hair and a handsome-enough face. I didn’t know much about suits, but they were well-fitted, and they wore them confidently.

Occasionally, Harper glanced at me through the corner of her eye, as she did an excellent job directing the conversation, feminine yet with an air of authority. She knew I was plotting her death. If there was one thing I did not tolerate, it was sitting still and being quiet.

Chase Dermott crowded my space, draping a hand over my chair and behind my back.

“CJ, may I call you Charlotte? CJ is such a masculine name for such a beautiful woman.”

I opened my mouth to answer, but he didn’t bother waiting for my permission. “Charlotte, I have a real good feeling about you. Of course, I need time to consider things.” His other hand moved to just above my knee under the table and he leaned in closer. “But I’d like to continue to talk about the possibility of Prince Automotive being involved in your ascent into the Cup series.”

His hand burned like toxic slime up my bare leg.

And I was done.

Sixty-three minutes. I deserved a medal.

“If you don’t want to call me CJ, Ms. Lomax would be sufficient.” I lasered my eyes at Harper as I firmly grabbed his wrist and lifted his hand high enough, so she could see I was removing it from my leg. “Mr. Dermott, if you need more time to consider sponsoring me, that’s fine. I can promise backing me would be a sound investment.” I made eye contact with him as I stood. “But I promise, you won’t find anything to sway your decision on my legs or between them.”

Dermott’s brows furrowed, and his mouth grimaced as his expression flashed from bemused to annoyed.

Harper took my cue and began to stand, but Jordan continued their conversation.

Dermott stood as if to approach and pursue, his gaze still on me.

“Excuse me, it was nice meeting you gentleman. Harper I’m going to the restroom. I’ll meet you outside.”

I wanted to pull a Cinderella and escape out the back door, except I didn’t want this “Prince” executive to follow.

I darted through low-slung leather chairs, intimately surrounding small tables, that peppered the lounge area and lengthened my strides after I spotted my refuge—the ladies’ room. I was cruising to my destination, when my traitorous feet decided they were done with the four-inch stilts I’d forced them into and chose that moment to rebel.

I was about to kiss the floor with my knees and flash the rest of the bar with my assets, when an arm slung around my waist, saving me.

“I got you.” A set of arms cocooned me, pulling me back against a firm chest. Long sleeves were rolled up firm, tanned forearms as I grasped onto them like a lap bar on a rollercoaster.

It was definitely not toxic slime touching me. While trying to get my feet back under me, I peered over my shoulder.

Damn. Four-inch heels weren’t easy to stabilize when your world has been rocked.

Disheveled sandy blond hair in need of a trim, framed gray-blue eyes locked on mine. His five o’clock shadow was accentuated by the lighting in the most delicious way, tempting me to rub my hands over it.

He shifted me, his hands remaining on my waist, and I gripped dangerous biceps, lingering longer than necessary while I tried to lock in my traitorous knees.

“Where’s the fire?” His half smile gave a teasing quality to the cliché, as his eyes roamed over my face and settled on my lips. “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” I ran my hands down my dress, discreetly checking for any wardrobe malfunction that would stretch embarrassment into humiliation. “Sorry…thank you.”

I stepped away and straightened.

He slipped his hands in his pockets, shoulders relaxed. The quirk of his smile gave him an air of congeniality. But the focus of his eyes, the slight tilt of his head, reminded me not to turn my back on a wolf.