Sami Gentile was late—as usual.
Parking her black Aston Martin in the driveway of her Uncle Royce’s oceanfront home, she killed the stereo blasting Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” and realized the irony of a professional race car driver not having a better handle on her time.
She smoothed the gauze pad covering the inside of her right wrist, under which a fresh tattoo ached. The tribal symbol for spirit she’d gotten that morning wasn’t the first, and it wouldn’t be the last. This one, however, was a gift to herself. With her new sponsors, car and attitude, she was going to clinch first place. The ink and sentiment behind the symbol was something to keep her focused.
It was also the reason she was running late.
When Sami opened the car door, a familiar voice pierced the salty sea air.
“Samantha Eileen, what is it gonna take for you to ever be on time?”
Melanie Gentile-Burton, Sami’s cousin, tapped a flip-flop on the threshold of the open doorway as an Atlantic breeze whipped her straight brown hair into a frenzy, snapping at her face.
Sami straightened her tank dress and turned her arm away as she took the stairs, so that Mel might not notice the telltale signs of the tat.
“It’s not like Royce is on some sort of time schedule. He’s practically retired.” She followed her cousin through the foyer into the kitchen. The smell of chocolate chips cookies filled the air, which meant Royce had company. “What the hell is going on?”
“What the hell is going on?” Sami’s eight-year-old nephew mimicked from the living room.
“James, go clean your room!” Melanie stomped her foot and retrieved a pitcher of lemonade from the refrigerator.
Sami spotted the tray of cookies on the counter and reached out to take one.
“Stop right there. Those are for our guest. Make yourself useful and bring them outside for me.” Melanie pushed through the door leading to the porch.
“Who’s here?” Sami asked. As the door slammed, she raised a brow and stuffed a cookie into her mouth.
“Some man.” The small voice that came from the living room made Sami smile. She picked up the tray of cookies and carried it into the brightly decorated room to find her six-year-old niece, Emma, sitting on the floor next to the leather sofa. A few coloring books Sami had recently bought her were splayed out on the coffee table.
“What’s up, Emma-roo?”
“Looking for pink.” Emma frowned as she probed a shoebox full of crayons.
Sami craned her neck to see the picture Emma was working on. “A—pink cactus? Are you sure about that, Em?”
Emma pulled a crayon from the box—carnation pink—and looked up at Sami, wide-eyed and serious. “It’s a girl cactus.”
“Of course. Silly me.” Sami selected a cookie and handed it to her niece. “So, who’s the man outside?”
Emma shrugged and stuffed the cookie in her mouth. “I don’t know him.” Pieces of cookie fell from her lips.
“Okay. Hey, don’t get crumbs all over the place, or your mom will kill us both.” Sami winked and headed toward the door to the porch, carrying the tray.
Royce had been cryptic about why he wanted her to come over when they spoke first thing that morning. While he technically still owned the team, it was Matt Burton, Mel’s husband, who ran the business. Royce filled his day by puttering around Gentile Racing’s fan-focused museum and gift shop, but he still liked to put his two cents in when it came to the Sami’s career.
Now there was a guest waiting to meet with her? Her uncle was going to kill her for being late.
“There’s my girl!” Royce Gentile called out from the far end of the open-air porch, where he leaned against the wood railing in his company logo-embroidered polo, the breeze ruffling his salt and pepper hair.
His handsome face showed delight but those smoky eyes of his bored right through her. He was pissed, and calling Sami his girl meant he was showing off to someone.
Royce’s guest stood by the stairs that led down to the beach. Sami caught her breath, releasing the cookie tray as if it burned her hand. It clattered onto the low table.
The sound of his voice sent a shiver through her, as decade-old memories bubbled to the surface.
Grayson Finch turned slightly, holding a glass in his hand.
Damn, he looks good.
Still built like a tank under his sport coat, Gray’s dark blonde hair—longer than the last time she’d seen him—tousled in the breeze.
“Here, Mr. Finch, let me top off your glass.” Melanie hurried over with the pitcher of lemonade.
Sami broke from her trance-like state and adjusted the tray of cookies on the table.
“Come, Grayson, take a seat.” Royce crossed to a cushioned wicker chair. “Sami?” He pointed at her, and then gestured to the seat next to his. “Sit.”
Royce always had a knack for making situations seem dire. It was akin to being sent to the principal’s office for a detention. Or worse, the sheriff’s office and they were doling out public service.
She’d done that once. Not a fan.
Nonetheless, Sami obeyed, as her heart did synchronized somersaults with her stomach.
“Melanie, can you be a doll and make sure the kids stay inside until we’re done? And, let me know when Matt gets here.” Royce gave his daughter a wink.
“Sure, Daddy.” Mel put the pitcher on the table in front of them and headed inside.
Royce looked across the table at Gray. “Melanie reminds me so much of her mother. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her after my Trudy passed on. Having her and Matt living here now with the kids has really brought life back into this place. You’ll meet Matt soon. He’s been negotiating for two new cars all morning, but I’m optimistic he’ll get us a good deal.” Royce stuck his thumb out and jerked it toward Sami. “Meanwhile, this one is costing me an arm and a leg in tires every single time she races.”
Sami had no sarcastic comeback—that was a first.
“Sami, weren’t you friends with Grayson’s cousin?” Royce tipped his glass of lemonade to his lips, pausing. “What was her name? Julie? Jenna?”
“Gemma,” Sami and Gray answered simultaneously, causing her to stiffen. His answer sounded low and calm while hers felt like it was bordering hysterical.
“Royce, what’s this all about?” Sami had dispensed with Uncle years ago; the business had seen to that.
Royce picked up a blue file folder from the accent table next to him. “We got a problem, kiddo. Now, these are just copies but—” When Sami grasped it, he didn’t let go. “I want you to take this seriously.”
Sami tugged the folder out of his hand and opened it. Inside, she found several pages of hand-scrawled messages and a few photos of herself with lewd gestures drawn on them in Sharpie. She frowned and looked to Royce, trying to think of a way to lessen her uncle’s concern. “I get this crap all the time. So what?”
It was true. She’d had plenty of deranged individuals trying to contact her. She always blew it off as part of the profession.
“They’ve been coming to the office pretty regularly,” Royce replied. “They recently started demanding money. Each time they upped their asking price.”
“How much?” Sami skimmed one of the letters, stunned to realize it was more than a simple threat.
“At first it was a million bucks. Then two.” Royce shrugged. “Even if I had easy access to that kind of dough, it’s not going to happen. But, that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned. That’s why I asked Grayson here, to provide security for you and look into all this.”
Sami blinked at her uncle for a few moments. “I don’t need a bodyguard.” She closed the folder, tossed it onto the table and stared at Gray, struggling to keep her cool as he sat with his hands folded in his lap like he was judging her. “I thought you were in the Marines.”
“I was. I have my own firm now. We provide security, personal and corporate, and provide investigative services to gather info and evidence.”
“Yeah, well, if I had a dollar for every time some psycho stalked me, I’d—well, I’d probably have the money to pay this one off.”
Gray grunted at her remark and Sami glared at him. Seeing him now, looking like that, made her want to reach over and slap the gorgeous right off his face.
Instead, she stood.
“I’m sorry if Royce wasted your time, Gray.” Sami slipped out of her sandals and pushed them under the table with her toes. “But, I’ll be fine. This happens all the time. Take care of yourself.”
She quickly crossed to the stairs going down to the beach as Royce called after her to stop.
A cacophony of gulls drowned him out as she headed through the smooth sand leading toward the water.
She let out a deep breath as her pace slowed.
Up and down the coast, young children were building sandcastles as adults sat under colorful umbrellas. Just another day in the life of Royce’s neighbors, but Sami barely noticed.
Why the hell was Grayson Finch sitting on her uncle’s porch? The last time they’d even spoken—more like screamed at each other—he was breaking up with her.
The ugliness he’d spewed at her, at the end of that summer, came flooding back as waves licked at Sami’s feet. She remembered like it was yesterday.
“You’re living in a dream world if you think I’d pop your cherry, and stay here to work for your uncle.”
He had not, in fact, popped her cherry. And, it wasn’t for lack of trying on Sami’s part. She’d spent that entire summer alienating her friends, including Gemma; doing everything under the sun to lose her virginity to the hottest man she’d ever met. Not that they hadn’t come close. The intense make-out sessions in the apartment Gray had rented for the three months he was in Myrtle Beach, always ended with cold showers.
Sami had practically begged him to have sex that last night they were together, only to be denied. Gray had tossed her aside as if she’d meant nothing to him and left her with a broken heart and broken friendships.
And, now—he was here. Potentially working for her uncle.
Damn, could’ve thrown that in his face.
Then he’d know it still bothered her. She wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.
When Sami glanced back at the house, Gray was approaching her.
“What do you want, Gray?” she called over her shoulder.
“Sami, come back to the house so we can discuss this.”
“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I can take care of myself.” Sami picked up a shell and cast it into the waves. A seagull overhead dive-bombed toward it in search of food.
“Not this time. Trust me, people like this can be dangerous.” Gray held up the blue folder. “Considering you’re a rather high-profile celebrity who makes public appearances, your uncle insists—”
Sami spun to face him. His rugged features under the bright sun caught her off guard. In ten years, his face had weathered a bit, yet he was still arrestingly handsome. Maybe even more so now.
“Give me a break. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was just a stunt intended to get me extra media coverage.”
“I think you do fine with that on your own.” Gray stepped toward her, risking the waves hitting his leather shoes. “This is not something you can take lightly.”
She studied him for a moment, staring at the uncharacteristic scruff covering the dimples she knew existed in both cheeks. The way the sun and waves reflected in his intense stare sent every fiber of her being on fire.
“You’re wasting your time.” Sami dug her toes in the sand as the waves covered her feet.
“Let me be the judge of that.” Gray closed the gap between them. “Look, if anyone is going to protect the family gem, I’m your best option. It’s what I do now.”
Sami straightened, not wanting to show him how much his physical presence agitated her, but he was so close, she could smell his woodsy cologne. She zeroed in on the short whiskers surrounding his mouth. Remembering how his lips had felt—
She crossed her arms over her chest. “This is nothing. I don’t need you.”
Gray opened the folder, producing an item she had obviously missed.