Downshift – Book 1 – Sneak Peek

Kindle

Downshift

When a lonely dirt bike champion is injured, it puts him on a crash course with a determined redhead nurse. But she is desperate to deny this daredevil into her heart. Can they help the other escape their lonely lives or are they destined to race from their hearts for all seasons?

J.T. is one of the top dirt bike champions in the US. With sponsors and races filling his calendar, he should be happy in his success. But until his ten year contract is up, he’s tied to the controlling and thieving management of his father.

Kelsey’s responsibilities are crashing around her. The only way to get ahead is to get a job that pays more and with impossibly specific benefits. If she can’t succeed, her dreams will fade like her grandmother’s memories.

An accident thrusts J.T. into Kelsey’s care. She accepts his proposal and challenges him for a price. But when their emotions and attractions get in the way of their mutual goals, they need to choose which is more important – their hearts or their dreams?

 

***

Chapter 1

JT

The clutch stuck. JT shifted on his seat to avoid squirreling to the side of the track or into another race. Another ride, probably Blake, clipped his right handlebar.

Come on. JT squeezed, released, and squeezed again, but his Honda refused to respond. He was fast losing his spot in first, hell, his chance to place at all.

The cacophony of roaring engines surrounded him, vibrating from under his jersey to his helmet.  Even muffled, the thrum filled his body. In the short second everything happened, JT remembered to breathe.

Pop the gears down into first, and then… he closed his eyes and released his clutch. The bike jerked forward and JT pulled hard on the throttle. He snapped his fingers tight and jerked his left foot up to fourth as fast as he could. That last side crunch on a jump had messed with his cable, or something, messed with the mechanical aspects of his bike.

A full bike-length behind fifth place when he entered the whoops, bumps on the trail that demand skill to cross over, JT took the corner at full speed. Idiot. Once again, he had to downshift or lose his balance in the curve.

Blake’s blue and gold helmet weaved in and out, popping up when he hit the triples and nailed all three slopes. He disappeared again past the tabletop.

JT’s breathing sped up. He had to catch Blake. If Mac won, fine, but Blake couldn’t beat JT. Not again.

This season had to be different. It had to be.

Someone on a Kawasaki cut in front of JT, roostered around him, and crested the first plateau. The mud and rocks peppered JT’s jersey and pinged on the plastic of his bike.

A tangled milieu of bikes and riders covered the course thirty yards in, just feet from the finish line.

Back far enough to observe the mess, JT throttled over a fallen bike’s rear tire. He grinned when he recognized the bike’s gold Fox emblem. Ah, Blake. Down this time.

As the checkered flag waved through the thunderous applause of the crowd and cameras flashed, JT downshifted and cruised toward the two bikers who’d finished before him – Mac and a rookie. There weren’t many things more annoying than to be considered old when other kids JT’s age were just finishing college.

Distant roars echoed off the stadium walls, mixing with the droning crowd. Unclipping his helmet, JT slid it from his head. “Mac, glad you made it!” he yelled as he thrust his chin upward at one of his best friends.

Mac leaned across his handlebars and shook JT’s outstretched hand. “Hey, man. Great race. Was that Blake down again? Where the hell are the rest of the riders?”

JT wiped his sleeve across his damp forehead. “Yeah, that was Blake, alright. Punk passed me after I thudded off the whoops. Messed up my clutch. Karma, right? Here they come now.” He pointed at the stragglers coming into the fielding area.

A rider decked in orange and a healthy layer of brown mud brushed at his jersey. Another in yellow pushed his bike down the incline, the handlebars hanging at an angle.

One hand steadying his bike and the other resting on his leg, JT pasted a fake smile on his face when Blake’s Yamaha came into view. Pushing the bike, Blake clenched his helmet over the side handle and glared at JT.

“What the hell was that? My rear tire’s bent now ‘cause of you, prick,” Blake groaned.

The fact that he’d reclaimed third place helped JT maintain his good mood. “Hey, good race, Blake. Maybe next time, yeah?”

JT ignored the urge to flip off his friend. Only during the season was it hard to remember they loved both riding and each other. Exhaust filled the air, the sweet smell of Maxima two-stroke oil wafting just under the high octane of the four-strokes, announcing Eva’s arrival.

Mac’s sister only rode two-strokes for practice, but raced four-strokes. She was the only girl that practiced with the pro circuit. Too many girls tried, but zero held their spots with the men.

She pulled up and parked next to Mac in time to witness him call JT and Blake to task.

Mac held up his hand. “Alright, boys, that’s enough. Blake, your manager’s over there. Go grab your replacement and get to the awards area. JT and I will go around for interviews and meet you there.”

“Pssh. Your captain is showing.” Blake growled, but managed a smile, He glanced at Eva as he smoothed his shoulder-length dark brown hair back from his face. His solid jaw and dark eyes sobered as he watched Mac and his sister.

Mac had been voted as their leader a long time ago. About the time they’d all crept into the woods to face the werewolves together. Mac had been the only one smart enough to bring a flashlight and not run screaming from the forest when an owl hooted. Eva had laughed the entire time they’d been shaking in the mud room, huddled around the fire.

JT smothered the grin he wanted to throw at Blake. He’d get interviewed while Blake had to clean up and watch. “Yeah, you need to do what the boss says.”

Blake’s glare could bubble the graphics on JT’s Honda. Chuckling, JT glanced around for his father who acted as his manager. Relief stole through him at the man’s welcome absence.

“Stop baiting him, JT.” Mac tossed his helmet into his dad’s open arms.

Mac’s father, Brian Hudson, acted as his son’s manager as well, but he didn’t tie Mac into a contract or take three times his cut of pay.

“Hey, Dad, do you have any more of the Pepsi caps? I’m heading up to interview.” Mac pulled a wristband from his pocket and wrapped it on his right wrist. The logo of one of his sponsors prominent on the wide leather strip.

“I have some.” Eva pulled off her backpack and withdrew a flat brimmed cap from the pocket. “Don’t tilt it to the side this time. You looked like an idiot.” She handed over the hat and glanced after Blake and the group of women following him for an autograph.

“Yeah, and don’t forget to drink this and hold it. The last shot wasn’t really clear and the sponsor wasn’t really pleased.” Brian held up his son’s can of pop and smiled at JT. “Good race, Josiah. It looked like your clutch was sticking. Did you smash your handlebar when you landed off that double?”

“Yes, sir. I must have hit the jump at the wrong angle.” JT cranked on the bar and shrugged. He didn’t want to admit that he’d most likely gotten cocky and relaxed into the jump instead of being ready.

“Have your dad take a look, if your pit crew won’t do anything.” Brian poked Mac. “Get goin’, son. First place waits for no man.”

He one-arm hugged Mac, smiling at him with genuine affection. Something JT didn’t remember ever getting from his own father.

Blond hair stuffed under a dark blue Pepsi baseball hat, Mac gripped the can and slid off his bike. “Thanks, Dad. Ready, JT?”

JT wiped at the mud splatters on his jersey. It wasn’t the first time he’d wished Mr. Hudson was his dad. His own father’s notorious tardiness was usually due to ogling the card holders and crowd teasers. JT waved to a pit member loitering by the gates and left his bike with him to be returned to the loading area.

Paraphernalia would be nice to display, but JT had set up his sponsors to pay for plastering his jersey and bike with logos and ads, rather than count on his dad to bring the stuff he needed for interviews. He did wear an LBZ bandana under his helmet to hold his long hair back from his face, but it fell back often and didn’t always stick where it was supposed to. He’d never let his hair get longer than nape of the neck. He couldn’t cut it short like he wanted to, or he’d miss a huge opportunity to piss off his dad.

The trophy area and media stage had been mashed together at the north end of the arena. Bulbs flashed and the attention hungry waited to descend like vultures. Mac glanced back at JT and raised his eyebrows to bolster them both. This was the worst part of the gig.

JT tilted his head toward Mac as if to say, “let’s get this over with.” On the other side of the stand, coming up the stairs, was Dick Thompson. JT’s dad.

Dang it.

JT had been so hopeful he wouldn’t have to deal with him. No such luck. The end of the day couldn’t come soon enough.

 

***

 

JT’s boots clunked and clanged with each downward step, the sounds echoing off the cement stairwells. Tight around his calves, the strapped boots took too long to undo and JT ignored the pinch as he moved. He needed new boots and as soon as he was free from the contract with his father, he wanted to sign with Fox to get some new gear. Their new line matched exactly what he was looking for.

He’d claimed third place, even with a stalled engine in the middle of the race, and he needed the interview. More face time on the screen meant more sponsors. JT needed more cash in the bank. How did he collect it without his dad finding out? Lousy as he was, his dad was still his manager and had to sign each contract which meant he knew about every dime that came in. JT hadn’t had a chance to figure out how to bring green in under the radar.

Only a few more weeks and he’d be free. Free from the stress of dealing with his jerk father, free from being saddled with a manager that pushed signing with whoever would take them, free to run his brand the way he wanted to.

Mid-flight, JT pushed the caution-floor-wet sign to the side. He picked up speed as the cheering grew louder. The scent of corndogs and nachos made his stomach growl. He reached into his pocket to check for his wallet.

As he leaned forward to access his pants better, the lip of his boot caught on the stair edge. He fell, twisting to protect his chest. His hip, side, and ankle took the brunt of the force as he tumbled down seven steps. Every angle and sharp point poked into his body. The side of his head struck the railing.

Pain blinded him. He groaned and landed on the cement floor.

And didn’t move.

 

***

 

“Where are we going?” An oxygen mask threw JT’s words back into his throat, the rubber band holding it to his head tight under his closed eyes. The vehicle bumped and swerved. JT fought nausea from the migraine exploding behind his temple.

He didn’t get an answer.

He didn’t hear anything.

No sound. Nothing. Maybe some fuzz like a static-filled TV channel. No pulse. No sensation of plugged ears. JT tried to turn his head, but lightning shot down his spine with the tiniest movement. He gasped and the oxygen made his head spin more.

Sudden jostling of the gurney and a flurry of touching down by his feet and someone, or multiple someones, jerked the bed around. JT clenched his teeth and held his breath.

Oh, stop. Please stop. His head, his ankle, and his hip, oh, his back… everything burned, ached.

After what seemed like forever and a day, the movement stopped and the inferno encasing JT’s body dulled to a dim ache. He welcomed the rush of cool gas from the tube. His eyelids fluttered, blurring the reddish-blonde hair waving over his face.

 

***

 

“Mr. Thompson? Can you hear me?”

Faint pressure against his wrist and throat brought him from his blackout. Warm fingers pulled down his lower lid on either eye. Something cold slid along his cheek, leaving a tingling path behind. A beep to his right pulsated with the pounding pressure in his head. The tinkle of metal on metal became a clatter and his headache increased.

The soft voice spoke again, soothing the shattered peace of his unconsciousness. “If you can hear me, wiggle your fingers or toes, Mr. Thompson.” The voice pushed the intense ache to the edges as everything else aggravated his pain.

He needed to hear the voice again. What had she said? Something about moving something. He could follow directions, if only to hear her voice again.

JT pushed past the pain and focused on his fingers. Everything in him struggled against moving the digit, but he fought the pain and the slightest flutter finally came. He nearly lost consciousness. Again.

“Good. Oh, that’s great, Josiah. Just relax and I’ll up your meds. You’ve been on a sedative, but I’m discontinuing it so you can come out of it. In a second, you’ll feel warm and a bit of light headedness. Just breathe through it. You should be able to open your eyes in a few minutes.”

Fingers caressed his elbow and readjusted something on his finger. Slight jostling of the bed suggested she leaned against it and JT was overcome with the need to see her. He had to tell her he hated being called Josiah. Hated that name so much.

But on her lips… Josiah wasn’t so bad.

JT would have gritted his teeth, if he had any real control over his muscles. Mixed in with the pain meds must have been a muscle relaxer. His jaw wouldn’t even clench. Damn. He’d missed the awards and the interviews. He needed more exposure, or he’d never get the sponsors.

His frustrations warred with his desire to find out what was happening with the soft-voiced angel. Hopefully, she didn’t know how he’d hurt himself.

The feathery-subtle scent of vanilla and strawberries wafted over him, overtaking the cold puff of oxygen in the tube in his nose.

Falling down the stairs, what an idiot. He’d survived the races and the first motos of the season, but he couldn’t handle simple cement steps? Loser. Blake probably had a laugh and a half over that one. If JT didn’t get up and get going, he’d lose to Blake over the next couple races and he didn’t have time for that.

The fuzzy weight holding his body down seemed to lift bit by bit. His chest rose and fell with less pressure and he was able to inhale without trouble, except for a sharp twinge beneath his arm just at his ribs.

JT blinked and squinted as he worked his eyes open.

Her full smile filled his gaze first as she leaned across him to tap a machine. A stethoscope hung from her neck and pink flowers spotted her light blue scrubs. She wore a pink long-sleeved tee under the short-sleeved top. Only a faint sheen on her lips suggested chapstick and nothing else. She leaned down to meet his lowered gaze.

“There you are. I don’t want you to try to talk, but if you can blink at me once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’, I can get you more comfortable.” She narrowed her eyes as if she’d be able to make him blink once.

JT couldn’t focus. Her strawberry-blonde hair was pulled back in a nape bun, escaping tendrils tucked behind her ears. Little ladybug earrings graced petite lobes above an elegantly curved neck.

She trained eyes as green as Kawasaki plastic on him. “Mr. Stone, did you hear what I said?”

Was it twice for no or yes? JT scrunched his eyes closed twice. Yes, I can hear you.

Laughter like falling glitter edged more pain out of JT’s head. She wagged her finger. “Twice for no. So, if you didn’t hear me, how’d you know to blink?” She applied one last strip of tape to his IV tube, and then gathered up the garbage and tossed it in the receptacle.

JT wanted to see her eyes again, but he couldn’t move.

Panic arced through him. Was he paralyzed? Humiliation replaced worry. He’d be retired early and not because of a bike accident – the honorable way to go – but instead due to a markedly irrational act of clumsiness. He’d never have kids and possibly never be able to feed himself. Who knew if he could even use the john by himself? Great, he’d be tubing it the rest —

“Okay, Mr. Thompson, let’s go over a few things before I give you more meds.” The strawberry blonde pulled up a chair and rested a clipboard in her lap. She brushed a stray chunk of hair behind her ear and crossed her legs.

JT could’ve watched her for hours.

“Do you remember your accident?” Those eyes of hers watched him carefully. They were wide and doe-like. Little creases at the corner were surrounded by pale-translucent skin with a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her top lip was a touch bigger than her bottom and she wielded her half-smile like a subconscious weapon.

After the longest moment, JT remembered to answer her and he blinked.

“Oh, good. And do you remember what you had for breakfast?” She circled something on her paper and turned her gaze back on him.

One blink. What was there to remember? He never ate on race day. The contents of his stomach rose too fast at the starting line. A fact Blake loved rubbing in his face. JT focused on the sheet of paper she wrote on, rather than her distracting face. He didn’t even know her name.

She finished writing and then raised her eyes. “Blink the number your pain is at, one being none at all and ten being unbearable, screaming and writhing like you’re burning to death.” She winked, not flirting, but her friendly teasing made her question easier to consider.

JT tried to focus his attention inward to answer her question. He hurt, but he couldn’t pinpoint where and it came and went in waves. At the peak, maybe a seven. He blinked seven times.

“Seven?” She wrote the number down at his answering single blink. “Okay, that’s actually pretty good for a sprained wrist, bruised ribs, twisted ankle, and a concussion. Do you have reactions to any medications other than the penicillin allergy we have on your records?”

Two blinks. Did she say he had something wrong with his arm? The rest of it was a blur.

That wasn’t going to work for him. He had another race in a week.

JT swallowed against the weight of his tongue and the sandy texture of his mouth. Moisture, he needed something to drink. If he blinked five times, would that get him water? He cleared his throat, but only managed a small push of air which whistled around the oxygen tube in his nose.

He parted his lips. Dang it. She would walk out of the room and who knew when she’d be back, if ever.

“I…” And now he sounded like a frog. Great. His voice had to be there. She hadn’t said anything about his neck or throat.

Somehow, he found enough saliva to moisten his mouth and he croaked out, “What’s your name?”

He did it. If he hadn’t been strapped to the bed by his own fatigue, he would’ve jumped up and attempted to dance on the ceiling. Maybe even grabbed her hand and spun her around. Yeah, right, who was he kidding? He didn’t have the guts for a move like that.

“Oh, I’m sorry, let me get you some ice.” She held out her name tag with a smiling picture above the text. “I’m Kelsey. I’m your nurse for a little bit longer today and maybe tomorrow. Since you’re talking, I can let the doctor know and we can get some food for you. Isn’t that exciting?” She addressed him with a tolerance he hadn’t received since kindergarten, like he was simple-minded.

She didn’t see him as a man, that fact was plainer than the sterility of the hospital room. His appreciation for her femininity growled under the injustice that she didn’t see him the same way. Frustration at his situation burned hotter than the pain from his injuries, but he tamped down his temper.

It wouldn’t do to be rude to the woman he was going to marry.

Chapter 2

Kelsey

The man in C2 haunted Kelsey’s night and she had zero luck getting any sleep. She punched in her employee ID number, another shift looming before her. She’d much rather study the effects of enemas on llamas than poke people’s arms and check to make sure they were using the bathroom, but money made the world go ‘round. At least, it made the wheels in her ’77 VW go round and the medical care of her grandmother continue.

What else did a girl need?

She frowned as the lanyard holding her name tag hooked on her ponytail and skewed it to the side, trying to strangle her. “What the? What did I do to you?” She grunted as it got tighter and she slipped to the right of the hallway.

Arms full, Kelsey leaned against the wall outside a patient’s room and grappled with her backpack, lunch bag, and shoes to yank the band from her head. Hair fell around her shoulders and across her face. Somehow, she dropped her bag, but not her shoes. Oh, wait… Thud. There went one.

She tried not to scream at the day she was having. Instead, she heaved a deep sigh and gathered all of her things again. Standing, she shook her head to get her hair out of her mouth. She glanced up, her gaze clashing with blue eyes bordered with bruises and bandages.

Josiah Thompson, the patient from the day before, watched her with curiosity and a surety that unnerved her. As if he liked the crazy mess she was in that moment and he could see past her stress to who she really was, minus the chaos. She hadn’t been looked at like that in a long while. Not by a man with muscles that bulged past the shoulder slits in his hospital gown.

Unsure where to look, Kelsey offered a half-smile and ducked away from his door. She wasn’t quite ready to turn on the charm she used with her other patients. She needed a minute to zone into the work mentality, and doing so the second she fell apart wasn’t the best time.

The one time a cute guy came to her floor, into one of her rooms, she fell apart in front of his room. Wow, Kels, way to go.

She tossed her bag and shoes into the dayshift drawer and placed her lunch in the mini-fridge by the blanket warmer. A couple flicks of her wrist and she twisted her hair up into another ponytail.

The night shift nurse yawned and waved as Kelsey spoke. “Hey, Sylvia. How goes it?”

Sylvia smiled and handed over a clipboard. Her kind smile and soft curls that framed her face made her a favorite on the floor with the patients and the staff. “Kelsey, everything’s quiet. We have a live one in C2. Watch the girls around him. They’ve been coming up from phlebotomy, peds, ortho, and even janitorial.”

The only one she knew in C2 was Josiah.

“For what?” Kelsey checked off the vitals and meds. Did they have a celebrity in house? Sylvia must have gotten the room number wrong.

Sylvia jerked her thumb to the side, toward C2. “For him. The dirtbiker. Mr. Blue Eyes. Chad from neuro came down —”

“Chad? Dr. Larkin?” Kelsey crossed her arms and leaned against the counter. Dr. Larkin refused to come to their floor because he had an “office upstairs and his patients could walk”. He wasn’t their favorite specialist.

Nodding with eyes wide, Sylvia poked her finger onto the paper pad in front of her. “Yeah, he came down and got the biker’s autograph for his sons and had to wait in line, if you can believe it. Anyway, he discussed Mr. Thompson in there and his racing record. Apparently, we have one of the top three AMA racers on the floor.”

“AMA? The top three are Mac Johnson, Blake Stone, and JT Thomps… No…” Dang it, of course he would be into dirt biking. She hadn’t put two and two together because his name wasn’t published often as Josiah. And the only way she even knew the names of the top racers was because everyone knew who they were. The Golden Boys of the biking industry.

Kelsey slowed her breathing. She couldn’t go back in there. She was humiliated. She’d flirted with him professionally, if there was such a thing. JT Thompson. Great. He and his best friends were close seconds to Jeremy McGrath, the greatest dirt biker who ever popped a wheelie.

Sylvia continued as if Kelsey hadn’t just been stunned silent. “Yeah. There are lots of people here who are fans, from the looks of it. Did you see all the flowers? And chocolates? Some strumpet dropped off a box and I opened it for him to put on the lap table. You’ll never guess what she’d put in there.” Sylvia’s wide eyes regarded Kelsey with a mixture of horror and excitement in that moment. She leaned forward and whispered, “Panties. And not just any kind of panties – thongs, pink ones.”

A hand to her chest, Sylvia leaned back. Her short silver-laced hair poked in all directions. “I drew the line and enforced visiting hours. Nobody else has been allowed in since eleven.”

“Great. How many have tried to see him since then?” Kelsey craned her neck to gain a peek into the room just down the hall. The open door offered a glimpse of bright balloons and a garden variety of flowers she’d missed when caught fixing her hair and falling to pieces.

“I don’t know. I let security handle it. Oh, because I turned it over to them and there’s been such a demand, they get to ask him for an autograph first when visiting hours open.” Sylvia picked up her paper coffee cup and tossed it into the garbage. “You have tomorrow off, right? Going to visit your grandmother?”

“Yes and yes.” Kelsey’s erratic school schedule kept her workdays spread apart. She only had a couple more weeks and then she’d be finished. At least until she got into the nurse practitioner’s program – fingers crossed!

“Okay, have a good one. I’ll see you at seven.” Sylvia gathered her bags and lunch plastic ware and disappeared down the hall the opposite way from C2.

Kelsey waved half-heartedly.

The rest of the staff would arrive within the hour to replace the graveyard shift. Kelsey flipped through his chart to be prepared. The last thing she needed was to be caught unawares. Mr. Thompson’s stats were stable throughout the night, but he hadn’t taken any pain meds.

His breakfast was due to arrive any minute and she hadn’t done rounds to check on the patients. She debated starting with C2, having only two other beds that day. She cleared her throat and tidied her hair.

Dirt biker, Kelsey, jerk on wheels. Remember that. The reminder didn’t help keep the excitement down in her stomach at the possibility of seeing him again without being able to escape.

A soft-knuckle rap on the door frame announced her arrival. Kelsey smiled and avoided meeting his gaze, but managed to take in his appearance and the status of his bandages.

“Mr. Thompson, I hear you’ve had a steady stream of visitors all night. Did you get any rest?” Kelsey wiped Sylvia’s name from the white board and scrawled her own in the nurse’s section.

His hoarse voice sent tickles dancing down her spine. “Not enough, apparently. Do you think you could keep them from coming in today?” Fatigue dragged at his tone.

“Sure, are you tired?” She approached him, checking his stats and moving her stethoscope into place on his chest.

“Not really. I’m just not in the mood to talk to anyone. Most people want autographs, you know?” His lips parted enough to speak, but his bruised face gave away little emotion. “Everybody wants something.”

Kelsey couldn’t tell if he was serious or trying to joke. What did it matter? He was the patient. Nothing was going to happen with a dirt biker. She couldn’t believe she was even considering it, anyway.

“The price for being famous, I’m told.” She smiled in a general way and sighed inwardly at the injustices that the most beautiful blue eyes she’d ever seen were on a man whose sole existence centered on his sport.

She leaned across him to assist him into a sitting position, so she could listen to his breath sounds. The position put his face within a few inches of hers.

He glanced at her lips and then met her gaze, forcing her to hold steady on his. Quietly, he asked, “Do you want my autograph?”

Arching her eyebrow, Kelsey chuckled. “Um, no. I’m not into dirt biking.” She shook her head, breaking his hypnotizing gaze before she broke into full laughter at the absurdity of the thought.

“Why?” He lifted his uninjured hand toward her as if he sensed her desire to flee.

A wave of awkward discomfort rushed over her. She shifted her feet, unwilling to answer his question. “Your breakfast should be here within the next thirty minutes. I’ll have a CNA bring it in. She might ask you for your autograph.”

Kelsey couldn’t hide her coy smile. She might not be into dirt biking, but that didn’t mean everyone else wasn’t. They were in northern California, after all. It seemed like everyone wanted wheels that could climb up trees, or the side of mountains, or whatever else they need them for.

Plus, Kelsey wasn’t too proud to admit that her attraction to him was in spite of the fact that he had a pair of wheels that he spent most of his time with. She was, however, proud enough, too, not to get mixed up with him because of those wheels. She’d already gone that route and she didn’t need to ride that pain trail again. She learned her lesson already.

Something about him tugged at places inside her she’d locked away since Brad… well, never mind.  She didn’t need men and she certainly didn’t need a dirt biker man-person with a banged up face sucking at her sympathy. Kelsey had to pull it together.

“You didn’t answer my question. Why don’t you like dirt biking?” His voice tore her stubborn efforts to be apathetic to shreds. He wasn’t rude or even pushy with his tone. No, just his words rebuked her.

Glancing at him, Kelsey pressed her lips together. He was pushing edges of her emotions that she hadn’t fully dealt with. Her closure there would be slow going since Brad had disappeared. Things were hard to resolve when the person at fault wasn’t around to confront. She stared into his dark eyes, her pulse speeding up to war with her breathing.

After a drawn out moment, she swallowed. “Okay, then. I’ll be back.” She retreated as if she’d been under attack, her face red.

He wasn’t intriguing, how could he be? He had bandages over most of his face and head. The skin exposed to sight was black and blue under a deep tan. She sped out of his room and onto the more mundane tasks of her day, the things that didn’t ask her personal questions or make her question her sanity.

Staying away from men and their hobbies would keep her safer. It would go a long way to protect her emotional safety, but most importantly… her heart.

 

***

 

Visiting hours started with a bang. Kelsey laid the smack down on thirty-two people in an hour. Thirty-two! Most of them were hospital staff. Kelsey couldn’t even rely on security to help her out since three of the four on shift had come within minutes of each other.

Arms splayed across the doorway to C2, Kelsey blocked three new visitors – a young man not dressed in a hospital uniform and two teenage girls dressed far beyond their years with more makeup on than the entire nursing staff combined.

“Mr. Thompson needs his rest and all visitors are being asked to wait until he is released. Only family is allowed to visit.” She waved her hands toward the exit and the Britney Spears wannabes pouted. Kelsey rolled her eyes. “Thank you, goodbye.”

The man didn’t budge. He craned his head, a touch shorter than a solid six feet, to see past her into the room. Kelsey adjusted her footing, bracing her arms with a hand on each hip. “You, too, sir. You can leave a message for Mr. Thompson, but only family is allowed.” She found it ridiculous, the way people acted. Was it because he was famous?

“I’m family. Well, I’m the only family that’s going to visit him. His dad won’t step foot in hospitals. Mac should be a long after his team meeting.” He caught the eye of JT and jerked his chin up. “Hey, man, you wanna call off the hot guard chick? She’s blocking me from chilling.”

Upon closer inspection, Kelsey recognized Blake Stone, one of the Chaotic Threesome she’d read so much about in the magazines that had littered Brad’s coffee tables and counters. Blake was better looking in person than any camera had ever captured.

She glanced over her shoulder to check with JT. The knowledge that they were friends included the fact that the two of them were horribly competitive and their relationship was more off and on then a light in a public bathroom.

JT nodded slowly at her, his smile centered on her. She caught her breath and nodded tightly. He had a look on his face like he knew what she was thinking and he approved. He didn’t know she’d been thinking of him more than just keeping his room off-limits…

Did he?

Chapter 3

JT

Kelsey left the room and JT caught Blake’s wide eyed gaze. He shrugged with his good shoulder. Blake would never understand unless JT made his attraction to Kelsey purely physical, but he couldn’t objectify Kelsey like that. “I told you she was hot. She’s smart, too. You should see the book she studies.”

“How do you see what she studies? You’re stuck in bed.” Blake moved into the room and shut the door, snapping his fingers and swinging his arms.

He walked around with a jittery energy JT never understood. As though Blake was trying to figure out where he fit in, when he fit in everywhere. He was the type of guy you loved because you couldn’t help it, even when you sometimes loved to hate him. He was JT’s oldest friend alongside Mac, which didn’t make him any less infuriating.

“Take a seat, there’s not much else going on. This is it. If anybody finds out you’re here with me, you’re going to get attacked for autographs.” JT rolled his eyes, grabbing his cup and sipping at the ice water. “I’m telling you, man, if the sponsors could see me now. They would line up out that door to have me pose with bedpans.”

Much as he was joking, he was kind of serious. Coming to the end of his career, he recognized what the reality was regarding his value to marketing. Freestyle wasn’t the highest paying, but it would be something that would replace his income now.

What would replace the thrill? Freestyle was just going to be doing the same old tricks, unless he stepped it up and made harder tricks to nail. The possibility of the challenge drew him, excited him.

That was all he needed to pursue it.

Blake pulled out a number of coins and jangled them in his hand – up, down, up, down – as he toured the hospital room. “Yeesh, you’ve made this place a florist’s shop.” As he wandered by, he pushed at a bunch of balloons set along the perimeter on a table.

“I haven’t done anything.” How was JT supposed to ask Blake to leave without hurting his friend’s feelings? He was tired and his limited interactions with Kelsey frustrated him further. It wouldn’t be long before sponsors would start bugging him to see when he’d be able to perform. They paid the bills and he had to do what the contracts said.

The door cracked open and Mac stuck his head in, careful to keep himself outside the room. “There is a fiery redhead out here saying I can’t come in. Can you tell her I’m good?” Opening the door wider, Mac jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward Kelsey who stood with her hands on her hips, staring at JT.

JT winked at Kelsey, spurning a becoming pink flush to rise in her cheeks. “Mac’s okay. I’ll let you know when he gets out of hand.” He angled his head just in time to see Kelsey’s rear end as she turned to walk away, shaking her head.

Mac closed the door, his smile broad. “Yeah, I can see why you’re ‘so hurt’.” He leaned against the counter next to the chair Blake had claimed during the exchange. Mac folded his arms across his chest and tucked his chin while he took the measure of JT’s mood. “Have you heard from your dad?”

Leave it to Mac to bring up the elephant in the room, strap a 450 engine on it, and set it loose.

JT shifted on the bed, wincing at the sharp pain in his lower leg and through the ankle. “Nah, Mike’s gone. I checked our joint bank account a little bit ago. It got below zero this afternoon.  Exactly what I was hoping for. He’s gone and he thinks he got all the cash. I just wanted him gone.” He didn’t care what happened to his father, as long as he was out of the way until JT’s birthday. “Hopefully he’s gone until after my birthday. If I can make it that long, there’s nothing he can do. I have proof he stole from me.”

“He left? With all your cash? What are you going to do? How are you going to live?” Blake put his feet up, his boots resting on the edge of JT’s bed. His hand slowed in its sporadic jostling, but he still moved, having too much pent-up energy to hold completely still.

“You know my setup. He didn’t get everything.” JT scratched at the IV site on his arm.

What if he was allergic to the adhesive? Should he call Kelsey to check on it, just to be sure? No. He decided he didn’t need Blake around her. The guy had more hormones than all of the JV football team at the local high school. He’d move on Kelsey before JT even had a chance to find out what her favorite color was.

JT cleared his throat. “He didn’t even get close to a quarter of it.”

“You’re gonna have to move back in with us. You’ve never been good with numbers. You’re probably broke.” Blake shook his head, folding his arms. He muttered under his breath toward Mac. “I’m not giving back my parking space. Just sayin’.” He leaned back in the chair and nearly toppled backwards. He would have, too, if not for Mac’s quick interference with a hand to the back board.

“I’m sitting right here, you jackass. Don’t worry. I refuse to move back in with you fools.” JT scoffed.

He wouldn’t move back in with those two, if it killed him. They were slobs. Plus, why would he need to? He owned the house. Not Mike. JT had his own home, regardless of his father’s attempts to keep him from buying one. JT had made the purchase and it had been the only one he’d ever made that Mike hadn’t had any input on.

JT’s name on the title hadn’t aided JT in keeping Mike out of the home. His father had claimed the mother-in-law suite on the lower level, preventing JT from finding respite from the demands of being around his irresponsible and manipulative parent. The only parent who had stuck around probably didn’t deserve complete disdain, though that’s what he was getting. He’d earned as much over the years.

Twenty-seven years old and JT had nothing else in his own name. Even the Dodge truck in his garage was co-owned by Mike. At least, JT was almost twenty-seven. He only had a few weeks left, just under four, to be exact.

Freedom had a distinct taste and as soon as he could, JT was going to revel in it.

“Are you still worried that canceling your contract makes you a bad son?” Mac always got right to the heart of the problem. He didn’t wait for anyone to tell him what was going on. He sensed something was off and he jumped right in to find out what was wrong. The man was all heart.

JT jerked his head up and down, guilt rearing its ugly head in a rare display around the topic of his father. “Yeah. With mom gone, I’m all he has.” Even though Mike didn’t care and JT knew it. JT’s mom hadn’t been able to stay with Mike and Mike hadn’t let her take JT with him. She’d left before Mike could control her to death, but she’d abandoned JT in the process.

“Screw that. He doesn’t give a damn about you. You need to stick it to him. As hard as you can. It’s okay to get what you deserve and it’s okay that he gets what he deserves, too,” Blake said.

Blake’s bluntness was one of the things JT appreciated about his friend. Usually he kept his mouth shut, but not that time and it was exactly what JT needed to hear.

“You only have a few weeks, right? Oh, man, that’s going to feel so good to be free of him.” Blake leaned his head back with his eyes closed. “I can see it now, JT stops acting like an old man because his old man is out of the picture.” He looked forward and made a goofy face at JT. “Just kidding, man. Although you do act old.”

JT didn’t want anyone, even his friends, to know that finding out his dad had left with all his money, or what Mike thought included all of JT’s money, hurt more than he could express. He was never good enough for his father, no matter how hard he tried. Mike always had a blonde, brunette, another gamble, or another bet to place. Everything came before JT. Everything. JT’s best interests didn’t even score.

As soon as JT’s dad discovered his son had racing talent, he jumped to exploit the hell out of JT and hadn’t stopped since. When JT was seventeen, Mike forced him to sign a ten-year contract and monopolized JT’s entire racing career.

Blake huffed, picking at his shirt. “As soon as you turn twenty-seven, you’re free. Then you can start your new career.” He glanced over his shoulder at Mac as if to ask for agreement on the subject.

Mac laughed and straightened, clapping his hand onto Blake’s shoulder. He pushed his scruffy blond hair to the side. “Nah, JT’s not going to leave us. We need him to qualify for Des Nations and we’re going this year, boys. We just need to hit qualifying races.”

Motocross des Nations, also known as the Olympics of Motocross, was no laughing matter. In previous years, each of them had missed a couple of the core races they needed to qualify. That year, the first big one would be Salt Lake. In just a handful of weeks.

As if he just realized the significance of the next month or so, Mac narrowed his gaze at JT. He leaned forward. “You’re going to be ready for Salt Lake, right? Did they give you a racing date? I’m not going with anyone else to Nations, JT. I’m serious. And this will most likely be our last year.” He glanced between Blake and JT. “You guys, I’m not joking. We have to go out at the top. We deserve it. And it’s at Glen Helen this season.”

Glen Helen wasn’t too far from their hometown. Missing the opportunity to represent the country at Des Nations wasn’t an option. JT clenched his jaw. He had to make it. What would he do, if the doctors didn’t approve him? Did he care? Would it keep him from qualifying?

“I’ll do it, no matter what,” JT said. His determination might get him killed, but he could handle road rash more than he could handle disappointing his friends.

Mac shook his head. “That won’t do. If you hurt yourself worse, then you’re worthless for Nations. No point in showing up, if we can’t even compete well.” His words rang true and they stung.

JT needed a plan. He grinned at Mac in agreement, hiding the grimace in his heart. Could he do it? Could he even make it to the championships? Let alone Des Nations…

Kindle

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