[chapter eight]

(Late morning, Sunday)

"Step aside, please. Let him through." Fiona instructed in her professional tone. She had one arm clasped to Junior's forearm, the other she used to steer the fans and journalists out of Junior's way. He had about 10 minutes to get to his car, and if he wasn't there, Tony Sr would have her butt. "Keep moving, please. Junior's got somewhere to be. Step aside, please."

Junior smiled at Fiona gratefully, his left hand cramping slightly as he signed autograph after autograph. His shook his Sharpie to get more ink to the bottom, and Fiona handed him a new pen instinctively. "Thanks." He said softly.

"Folks, I'm going to have to ask you to step aside. No one else on pit road. Step aside, please. Thanks very much." Fiona said, pulling Junior slightly away from the crowd and towards his waiting car. "Whew! It's fun being so bossy!" She grinned and Junior laughed.

"You're a natural! At that, not at being bossy." Junior backpedaled at Fiona's dirty look. "Wow, and I have minutes to spare. This is a miracle!"

Fiona laughed. "Get in that car, Earnhardt, and go win a race." Fiona commanded, gesturing to the red car behind Junior. "You're the best out there. Just remember that."

"You going to stay around?" Junior asked.

"Of course. I have a bunch of things to do during the race as well - notes, recordings, stuff like that. It's not like I go kick it in the hospitality tent." Fiona said efficiently, but with a smile.

"You won't watch the race at all?" Junior asked, a little hurt.

"Of course I'll watch the race. I'm just not sure from where." Fiona asked. "I just don't want to get in the way…"

"Ask Tony Jr for a headset, then just find a seat somewhere. I need all the cheering section I can get." Junior said sincerely.

"Judging from the literally thousands of women surrounding you today, I don't think you need to worry about a cheering section." Fiona grinned. "But I'd love to watch, if it's okay with the gang. Now, get in that car and race your heart out. I want a victory dinner tonight!"

Junior gave Fiona the thumbs up, squeezed her hand quickly, then donned his large black helmet. Climbing into the car, he immediately began cinching himself into the safety devices inside. Fiona drifted away from the car and into the #8 pit area.

"Hi Fi. Junior has ordered me to take care of getting you a radio and a seat on the war wagon. I understand you haven't been to many races - hope you're ready for this one." Tony Jr walked up and flung an arm across her shoulders.

Fiona smiled gratefully. "I'm more than ready, and I would love it if you would take care of me, Tony. Lead the way."

(Four and a half hours later)

"There was nothing you could do, J. A cut tire is a cut tire." Fiona repeated, taking another bite from her pizza slice. She and Junior were sacked out in her hotel room, eating a late night pizza and drinking some beer Junior had smuggled into the hotel. Both had been too tired after the race to make the ride home - Junior from all the interviews and autographs, and Fiona from all the meeting and greeting during and after the race. They were catching an early morning flight with several of the other crew members the next day. In the meantime, they were reviewing every lap, every story, and every mistake from the race. As usual, Junior was being hypercritical of his performance.

"I could have slowed down and saved it." Junior admonished himself.

"Right. As Superman, you can slow down a 3400 pound car from 150 miles an hour when a tire cuts from under you. J, just getting to the bottom of the track without collecting anyone was a feat of racin' talent. So shut up and pass the beer." Fiona said sternly, to which Junior laughed for the first time.

"Alright, enough dwelling. For now." Junior resigned himself. "Did you have a good time, at least?"

"You know I did." Fiona grinned. "I can't wait for next weekend! I'm sure I'll be tired eventually, but man, just being there was such a rush. I'm totally hooked - if Jade wants his job back now, he's out of luck."

Junior laughed. "Good. I'm glad. It was weird knowing you were listening on the radio - I kept thinking maybe I shouldn't cuss so much."

Fiona giggled. "Hi. Three brothers. Nothing I haven't heard before." She grinned. "I loved getting to listen in though - except for hearing you so upset with yourself."

"I always feel so guilty when I fuck up…um, screw up…a car. Everybody works so hard, and in a second I break the damn thing. And hurt the team morale, the team motivation, and our points standings." Junior lamented.

Fiona looked at him for a moment. "So, how 'bout those Cubs?" Junior blushed and took a big swig from his beer. "Stop it. Now. Let's talk about what's going on this week. We have a roadtrip."

"Right, which PA is this?" Junior asked, trying to be serious.

Fiona took a long drink and grabbed her calendar. "We are flying to St. Louis on Wednesday for an appearance at Anheuser. It's an all-day event - you'll give a quick speech, answer questions, and sign autographs. You'll also get to drive one of the Bud delivery trucks to one of the local liquor stores for another meet and greet. It will be fun, but a long day. We'll fly back the same night, and then get ready for Pocono. Sound okay?" Fiona asked.

"You're the boss." Junior said affably.

"Okay. Then it's a go. I'll swing by and pick you up on Wednesday morning. Early." Fiona smiled. "If I have to drag you in your pajamas, I will."

"I'll be ready." Junior promised. "And who says I wear pajamas?"

"Junior…" Fiona said warningly.

"Sorry, sorry."

(The following day)

"I just thought you were coming home last night, that's all." Shannon fumed. "I was here all night waiting for you."

"I'm sorry, hon. I tried calling and calling, but the phone was off the hook. I'm sorry it was a hardship to stay home, but I did try to get through."

"I don't know if you can do this, Fi. I don't like the idea of you being gone this much for…how many weeks a year?"

"37." Fiona said quietly. "Shannon, please…"

"Fine." Shannon said, taking his dishes to the kitchen.

"Shannon, what is happening here? We've barely had a civil conversation in weeks - even before I took this job. The only time you were nice to me was when…" Fiona paused. "When we were in bed."

"I haven't noticed." Shannon said woodenly.

"Have I done something to displease you? Tell me, and I'll undo it. What is it?" Fiona begged, standing up and walking over to hug Shannon, who sidestepped her slightly.

"Nothing, hon. I'm just…tired. I'm tired and in a rut at work. Everything is fine. I promise." Shannon replied.

"You're sure?" Fiona asked again.

"Absolutely." Shannon said. "By the way, Maggie called about 80 times. She said she'll be up most of the night and to give her a call."

"Would you mind terribly if I ran over to see her for a while? I need to fill my car with gas and pick up some coffee for us anyway." Fiona asked gently.

"Tell her I said hello." Shannon said.

(An hour later)

"I just don't understand, Mags." Fiona moaned, sipping her tea. "One minute he's Mr. Nasty, the next he's all apologetic. Has he said anything to you? Is the job really this upsetting to him?"

Maggie sighed and sipped her own tea. "Well, he hasn't said anything to me, but I've seen the same things you have. He wasn't even a little excited when you came home with the news. What's up with that? You deserve someone jumping up and down about it."

"Like you were." Fiona smiled affectionately at her friend. "I just don't know how to fix it. He's been so distant, except for sex."

"Typical male." Maggie spat. "I don't know what the answer is, but if I were you, I would let him settle himself. Concentrate on work, be there as much as you can for Shannon, but don't let him ruin the one dream job you've always wanted. Okay?"

"I know, but it's so hard. I mean, Shannon and I have been together for so long, and we've been through so much. It seems silly to be fighting about nothing. You'd think we'd be more mature." Fiona said.

"He loves you. He's just having a moment, is my guess." Maggie said definitively. "You still love him?"

Fiona paused. "Of course I do…"

"Uh-oh." Maggie said.

"Uh-oh, what?" Fiona asked.

"Why the pause? That butt in the firesuit getting inside your head?" Maggie questioned.

"Junior, while cute as a button and very nice, is not the problem here. Shannon being an ass is the problem." Fiona defended herself.

"Did Junior make a pass at you?" Maggie grilled Fiona with girlish delight.

"That's not…"

"Oh my god! He did!" Maggie squealed.

"Maggie, he flirts with anyone. I don't think he's singling me out as an important prospect. He flirts with me, I patronize him, it's a beautiful relationship." Fiona said evenly.

"You like him?" Maggie asked, seriously this time.

"Of course I do. But I'm with Shannon. Period." Fiona said, then sighed. "Can we talk about something else now. I need something not related to boys or cars to talk about for a while."

"You are not going to believe who I ran into in Charlotte the other day…"

chapter nine