Grip by Lacey Black

Prologue

Mack

Three years ago

My hand is shaking as I return the old landline telephone to the cradle on the desk. I can’t believe that just happened. The phone call of a lifetime, of my lifetime.

“Well?” Jim asks from across the desk.

Jim Stanley owns the small dirt track I race at every Saturday night. He took me under his wing barely eight years ago, when I was a cocky sixteen-year-old kid with a chip on my shoulder and the desire to race coursing through my veins. I had nothing but the clothes on my back and a drunken father passed out in the trailer we shared when I showed up one Saturday night, watching from the outer fence, as the stock cars bumped and raced around the oval for the checkered flag.

That was the night I fell in love with racing.

And Lena, Jim’s daughter.

She was this tall, skinny girl with long, dark hair and knobby knees. Lena was practically hanging out of the concession stand, watching the action on the track. I could see the way her face radiated joy, her smile outshining the excitement happening just a hundred yards away. That was the moment I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. She was a year older than me in school and recently moved to Brenton, Kansas. No one really knew much about her, but after that night, I knew I had to make her mine.

“Mack?” Jim asks, pulling me back to the now. To the phone call that has altered the course of my future.

“He’s offering me a ride.”

I still can’t believe it.

Jim stands up, a wide smile brimming across his aged face as he approaches my seat. “Mack,” he says, the emotion of this moment caught up in him as well. I stand up and am immediately engulfed in his arms. “I’m so proud of you.”

Five words I’ve never heard before in my life.

Words I’d longed to hear from my old man, but never did. Words that seem to mean even more coming from Jim Stanley, the man who stepped up when everyone else was ready to turn their backs. When my own father drank himself into a grave just a few short years ago.

“When do you go?” he asks.

“Tomorrow.”

Deep breath.

His smile slips for a split second, but I catch it. I’ve practically lived here at the track, first as a boy covered in dirt and cleaning the pits, and then as a man, racing every Saturday night. Through it all, Jim has been there, offering me more than just a job. His guidance, expertise, and even his love. Jim is the closest person I have to a real father, and the thought of leaving him, leaving this place, hurts.

Jim places his hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. “You better go get packed up.”

I nod, a ball of emotion suddenly lodged in my throat. “Thank you for what you’ve done.” The thought of leaving Jim and this track, the one place that has always felt like home, terrifies me, but not leaving, passing up this opportunity, might terrify me more.

He scoffs. “I didn’t do anything.”

I blow out a huge breath and laugh. “Didn’t do anything? You don’t think I know you made a call?”

The look on his face confirms my suspicions. Jim is unable to mask his guilt as he grins up at me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

But I do know. Jim Stanley is a former crew chief for open-wheel racing. He worked with racing legends like Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi. His wall is covered with photographs and his cabinet full of trophies. Jim Stanley is a legend in his own right, and even though he retired right before he bought this old, closed-down track eight years ago, I have no doubt he still has the connections needed to have me seen.

Instead of arguing with him, I throw my arms around his shoulders and hold him close. He smells of soap and motor oil, and I can’t help but grin at the familiarity. When I pull back, my eyes lock with his. “Thank you, Jim. For everything.”

His eyes soften as he says, “You did this, Mack. Now, go.” He gives me a gentle shove toward the door. “I believe my daughter is down in her workshop.”

My heart starts to hammer with excitement as I make my way out of the office. The mid-afternoon sun is high in the July sky, the thickness of the Kansas humidity steals my breath. I pull my ball cap down low on my head to shield my eyes and make my way toward the one building standing all by itself. I think the original track owner used it as a maintenance shed, but not the Stanleys. Jim transformed it into a workshop for his only daughter, Lena.

As I round the office and her building in the distance comes into view, I spy the screen door open, which tells me she’s not in the darkroom. Lena is a brilliant photographer, even at the young age of twenty-five. She sells her photographs to blogs, magazines, and companies all over the Midwest. She specializes in landscapes, but she’s amazing with people too. Ever since she was seventeen, she’s been the track photographer, taking pictures of the races, drivers and crew, and even the fans in the stands. Afterward, she posts them to the track’s website.

My legs seem to move quicker the closer I get to her shop. I can see her long brown hair piled high on her head as she gazes at her computer screen, the corner of her mouth slightly turned upward. I stop outside the door and just stare. Actually, I do that a lot. I could get lost in watching her for hours if it weren’t so damn creepy.

I pull open the old door, the squeak alerting her of my arrival. The moment she turns, her face lights up in the most gorgeous smile. “Hey, you,” she says, her arms shooting up as she stretches her back. Her maroon tank top drifts up, exposing a sliver of the delicious skin of her abdomen.

“Hi. Working hard?” I ask, as I fully step inside the old garage.

It looks nothing like it did years ago. When Lena found her passion for photography, Jim made sure this space was updated with insulated walls, heating and air-conditioning, and tile floors. He also built the dark room and installed a bathroom for her, so she didn’t have to leave her shop once she was there. Lena chose a light green shade for the walls, which reminds me of her eyes, and pored hours of time into selecting the portraits for the walls, and the end result is a place she can work and feel comfortable in.

“Just finishing up the pictures from last night’s race. Look at this,” she says, spinning around and bringing the pictures from victory lane. I’m standing there, small trophy held high above my sweaty head, and a big smile on my face.

“Lena?” I ask, unable to hide my excitement any longer.

“Yeah?” When she looks up, her eyes mirror the excitement I radiate.

“I just got a phone call. A big one. Do you know Colton Donavan?” I ask, my words rushing out.

Her smile falters as recognition sets in. “Of course I do.”

“Well, what if I told you he just called me. One of his drivers had a medical emergency and isn’t going to finish the season. He said he’s been watching me for some time, and…this is it, baby. He wants me to drive for him.” I’m practically vibrating in my boots as I wait for her response. For her elation. For her to throw her arms around my neck and kiss my lips.

“He what?” Her words are barely audible.

I start to pace her small space. “We fly out tomorrow morning, Lena. His company has a small apartment I’ll be able to stay in, and I meet with his team Tuesday morning. They have track time reserved for Thursday, so…this is it. I get to drive. They want me to finish the season. We’re going to LA!” My heart is practically pounding out of my chest as I stop and turn to face her.

My Lena.

What I’m not expecting is the look of pure sadness on her face or the tears in her eyes.

I move to her, squat down, and take her hands in my own. “Why are you crying? This is the best news ever!”

Lena sniffles. “I know, it is. You’re going to do amazing. I have no doubt about it.” Even though her words are happy, there’s an underlying tone of despair I don’t understand.

“Then why do you look like I just kicked your puppy?” I ask, a small smile playing on my lips.

She takes a deep breath, her eyes full of a sorrow I can’t even describe. She sits up tall, straightens her back, and says what I never expected to come from her lips. “I’m not going with you, Mack.”

Standing up, I reel backward, as if she struck me. “What?” Dread fills my entire body, my heart racing faster than the moment I see a checkered flag through my windshield.

She follows suit, her hands reaching out for my arm. “Please, listen to me, Mack. I mean really listen to me. You’re an amazing driver. I knew this day would come, and I’m so happy it finally has. No one works harder on or off the track than you do.” She takes a deep breath, her eyes cast downward. “But I don’t want that life. Not anymore. I traveled from the time I was four to seventeen. I hated it,” she whispers, the tears now falling freely from her eyes.

I know she hated it. After her mom passed away suddenly from a brain aneurism before she was even in kindergarten, her life had been on the road. She moved from place to place, track to track. She was homeschooled for much of her early education before she was finally enrolled in a middle school in Virginia. From there, she went with whatever team hired her father. It wasn’t until her junior year before Jim Stanley finally realized how miserable his daughter was and planted roots. He bought this old, closed-down track and brought it back to life. By doing so, his only child did the same, thriving in school and extracurriculars.

Now, I’m asking her to do the same. To uproot her life and move with me.

Only, she’s telling me no.

“I can’t go, Mack. My life is here.”

“But…” I start to argue, but my mind is reeling. I have no idea what to say. “We don’t have to stay there permanently. We can come back here in the offseason and between races.”

Her smile is so fucking sad. “You need to stay where your team is, Mack. You and I both know you’ll be working with them nonstop. At least for a while, until you get the hang of open wheels.”

It’s suddenly hard to breathe. I run my hands through my hair and just stare at the only girl I’ve ever loved. The one ready to walk away.

“I won’t go,” I find myself saying, and I know it’s true. I won’t go without her.

She’s already adamantly shaking her head. “No, Mack. You have to go! This is your chance!”

“But,” I swallow over the massive lump in my throat, “I don’t want to go without you.” My words are small and dripping with grief.

“I know,” she says, coming over and wrapping her arms around my chest. She places her cheek against the place where my heart pounds, her tears quickly soaking into my shirt. “But you have to go. I love you too much to let you stay.”

“I love you too much to leave you behind,” I tell her.

She gives me a sad smile. “Maybe this is how our story was always supposed to end. You’re destined for bigger and better things, Mack. Something greater than the dirt tracks of Brenton Speedway. Please don’t stay here for me. Go. Chase your dream. This is your moment.”

I close my eyes and feel my heart shatter in my chest. The pain is almost unbearable, crippling even. All I can do is hold on to her. My Lena. The sassy young girl who stole my heart. The beautiful woman who has owned it ever since.

The unforgettable soul who’s destroying it.

I kiss her hard. My hands cup her cheeks, both tenderly and possessively, as my tongue tastes her one last time. I feel the wetness against my cheeks and revel in it, memorizing the way our pain feels against my skin. My own tears mix with hers.

Pain lodges in my chest as I pull back. I need to step back, but I’m terrified for this moment to end. For us to end.

I bring her hands to my mouth and kiss her knuckles, every single one. I hold her hands against my chest and just feel the hurt seeping from her pores and into mine. I know if I don’t go now, I’ll never leave. Though, it’s a solid idea, I know she’s right. This is what I’ve always worked for, why I bust my ass at the track to be the best fucking driver I can be.

This is my time.

Even though ours is over.

I pull away, letting go of her hand and severing our last connection. She’s crying harder now, and it takes every ounce of strength I have not to go to her, not to fix the damage I’ve done. But I can’t. It’s not fair to me.

Or her.

I move to the door, turning my back on the love of my life. Before I push through it completely, she calls my name. I stop, but I don’t turn around. I can’t bear to see the pain on her face anymore. It hurts too fucking much.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watch as she moves to the wall, to her Wall of Fame, as she calls it. She takes the photograph from its prominent spot in the center and walks toward me. “Take this, and always remember the boy with big dreams and determination.” I gaze down at the photograph in my hand. The one of me standing at the fence line, watching my first dirt race at sixteen years old. I still don’t know when she took the picture, considering every time I watched her, she was in the concession stand. But she did. She snapped this image, this moment in time where I realized what my destiny was.

To be a race car driver.

“Also, don’t forget where you came from, Mack Cruz. Don’t forget the dirt and the grit, the hard work, and the Saturday night races.  They may be in your rearview mirror, but they’re part of who you are.” She taps the glass. “He’s part of who you’ve become.”

I clench the frame in my hand and push open the door, needing to run away from the pain and the hurt, from the tears on her face, but before I can go, she needs to know one thing. “I love you, Lena. I’ll always love you.”

Before she can answer, I’m through the doorway and headed for my bike. The ol’ Harley is beside the main shop, ready to take me home. To the trailer I’ve somehow managed to not lose after my old man died.

No, not home.

To my next stop.

I have no home. I may be headed to Los Angeles, but home will always be at Brenton Speedway.

Where I left Lena.