[chapter four]

Two hours later, Fiona was still going through all the contacts and files Jade had given her. She knew right away that not only was Dale a handful, but all his publicity, personal appearances, and scheduling would be a nightmare. Jade had given her helpful hints, and several staff members to call on if she got stuck. On her schedule for this week was getting Junior to the Loudon on time, having him meet with Budweiser executives while at the track, and doing a radio show before qualifications began. She had wanted to go to the tracks - she was definitely on her way.

Fiona was engrossed in reading the publicity packet Jade currently distributed, and was making mental notes and notes in the margin when a knock sounded on her door. She didn't even hear it, or the door opening to admit a sheepish looking Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

"Um, hi?" He said quietly.

Fiona dropped the file and looked up quickly. "Junior, hi. Come on in - I was just reading through all the piles of paper Jade left for me. Have a seat, if you like." Fiona gestured to the chair across from her.

"Thanks. Sorry I disturbed you." He said, his Carolinian accent sounding a bit stronger than usual.

"Not at all. I was just brainstorming some new ideas for you - maybe after a few changes, everyone will stop asking you to race in go kart rallies or asking you if you wear boxers or briefs." She grinned, hoping it was an ice-breaking statement, not an offensive one.

Junior laughed easily. "Yeah, I think the entire world knows I'm a boxers guy now." Fiona joined his laughter, and he watched the way her eyes even seemed to laugh. "Listen, uh…I was going to grab some lunch, and I was wondering if you wanted to join me. Maybe get to know each other a bit more."

"Sounds great." Fiona responded, closing her files and grabbing her wallet. "Lead the way."

***

"So, Fiona Collins, tell me about yourself in 2 minutes or less." Junior said with a smile, taking a sip from his drink.

"Anything in particular you want to know, or should I just rattle it off?" She grinned at him, wondering what question he would ask if he could.

"Rattle it off. Impress me." He replied, settling into his seat.

Fiona took a deep breath, then began. "Fiona Elizabeth Collins was born February 3, 1974 to Harry and Lynn Collins of Peabody, Massachusetts. She was a precocious child, who was continually harassed by her three older brothers - Alex, Mike and Jon. Fiona went to school at UNC and got a degree in business marketing and management. After graduation, she had a fulltime job for a publicity agency in Charlotte before getting her job at DEI for Jade Gurss. She's an Aquarius who loves Italian food, driving fast, reading, and hanging out with friends." Fiona paused and smiled at him. "How was that?"

Junior laughed. "Perfect."

"Anything else you want to know?" She teased.

"Is there a Mr. Collins?" Junior said boldly, but with a slight blush colouring his cheeks.

"Mm-hm." Fiona said gravely, and Junior's face fell slightly. "My father - he still works in Boston."

"I meant…" Junior stammered slightly.

"Are you flirting with me?" Fiona asked in all seriousness.

"I just wondered if you have a boyfriend, that's all. I don't want you jumping my bones all the time or anything." Junior teased, trying to backtrack.

Fiona laughed. "I do have a boyfriend. His name is Shannon and he owns his own business. We've been together a couple of years, and he relocated here with me when I got the job."

"Ah." Junior said, taking a long drink from his glass.

"Junior, listen. I like you - I think we're going to get along great and make a good team. But I want to set some ground rules, okay? Bear with me, I've never run the publicity for a famous person before." Fiona smiled.

"Shoot." Junior said, settling into his chair. "Am I in trouble already?" He asked.

"Of course not, but let's get a few things straight. First off, I work for Jade directly, not you. He cuts my paycheck, so what he says will override what you say in almost every instance. I'm not your personal secretary, I'm not your maid, and I'm not your mother. Your reputation as a ladies man far proceeds you, so I'd rather we keep a professional relationship. No flirting, no butt grabbing, no slap and tickle to relax you before the race. What I say goes in the marketing department, and what you say goes at the track. How's that?" Fiona asked.

Junior sighed. "Wow. Okay. Jade always let me grab his butt, but…" Junior grinned. "Agreed. Sounds fair. But for the record, I'm not a ladies man."

Fiona snorted. "Riiiight." She intoned as her cell phone rang. "Excuse me a sec." She picked up her cell phone and flipped it open. "Fiona Collins." She answered professionally.

Junior watched her carry on a conversation - presumably with the friend he saw her with at the bar a few days ago. Fiona was making sympathetic comments and trying to soothe her friend, who was apparently having a bad day. "Mags, come over to the house tonight. Shannon is grilling salmon steaks and making some of his famous bread. You'll feel better with some food and drink. Come be with friends who love you, and forget about the assholes you work with. Okay. Okay. About 7? Okay. Bye."

Junior couldn't help but wish that he knew how to make bread or comfort friends. He couldn't help but wish he had friends who could take care of him that way. He couldn't help but wish he could spend the evening with the sassy, cute girl in front of him. He straightened as Fiona finished her call and put away her phone.

"Sorry for the interruption. Where were we?" Fiona asked.

"I was telling you I'm not a ladies man." Junior defended himself.

"And I was about to tell you that was your own business. Just so long as I don't have to break up with your girlfriends for you, or go buy panties for them on my lunch hour, we'll be fine." Fiona said.

"My god, did you have a boss like that?" Junior asked, disbelieving.

"To some degree." Fiona said. "And I'm not down with it. So we're cool?"

"Yeah, we're cool." Junior smiled. "Now, about these ideas you had…"


Junior flopped down on his bed and inhaled deeply. He'd thrown all the windows in his house open, and a light breeze blew through the rooms. He'd been at the shop long after sundown, and was grateful to come home and relax. Almost as soon as he lay down, his thoughts drifted to Fiona.

He liked her, no doubt about it. She was smart, funny and wouldn't stand for any of his crap - that much was obvious from their leisurely lunch. He had told her a bit about his family, his childhood and his days at the track; she had told him about going away to college and how she and Maggie were the best of friends. Junior had told her about how he had always secretly wanted to go away to school, instead of just going to Mitchell in Mooresville, and Fiona confessed that she had always wanted to work in racing - either as a driver or a "top dog". Knowing that the other had done something that was so close to their hearts seemed to bring them together.

Junior flinched at the memory of Fiona calling him a "ladies man", or whatever she had said. Public image was everything, and Junior knew that was his. No one who really knew him believed it - they knew he was still shy, still insecure about his looks and his personality, and knew that he didn't sleep with every girl who came along.

Hell, the opposite was closer to the truth than that. A couple of serious girlfriends were as close as Junior had come to commitment and love, and that hadn't come along in quite a while.

But as Jade said, as long as he was perceived as a partier, a ladies man, and a riot, he would remain in the publicity spotlight. And so he kept up the image, though it was exhausting.

But these days, no one would believe he would rather spend a couple of hours alone reading a book or learning HTML than drinking a few Buds with his closest two thousand friends. Vicious circle, this publicity ride, Junior thought, raking a hand through his hair.

But now that Fiona was on the case, now that he was a few years older, now that he was the "man" of the family, his image could change. He didn't like the idea that Fiona had such preconceived notions about what he was like - because if she did, everyone else did.

And he didn't like that.

But, he and Fiona would be spending the next few days in constant company before heading to the track, so they would get to know each other better. He was looking forward to it - he just hoped that Fiona was as well.

chapter five