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by Ariel Tachna
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: All his life, French racer Daniel Leroux has dreamed of one thing: winning the World Rally Championship. To do that, he needs a co-driver he can trust. If only he could find one?. At the end of a disastrous season, Daniel's manager replaces his incompetent co-driver with Frank Dufour, a young Canadian whose rally team let him go because he was gay. Daniel's in heaven, thinking he might find more than just a teammate, but his manager puts the brakes on, declaring Frank firmly off limits. Frank isn't any more ready to risk his second--and last--chance at making it in the WRC, no matter how attractive he finds Daniel. Sex and cars don't mix. Amidst a bitter rivalry with another driver, sabotage attempts, extreme weather conditions, and the stress of racing, Daniel and Frank forge a partnership that defies the odds, but just as things start to heat up between them, a family emergency calls Frank away. Will they find their way back together or will the separation and the spotlight be too much for their fledgling love to survive?
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011
17 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [282 KB]
Reading time: 186-260 min.
"Putain de merde, qu'est-ce vous faites? Vous ne pouvez pas lire les indications que vous avez ecrites vous-meme?"
Daniel Leroux glared at his co-driver in frustration as they finally came to a stop. He'd lost count of how many times the car flipped this time, but this was not the first time his co-driver's errors had led to them rolling and being eliminated from a race. He could just see his rank falling as once again a rally ended with no points in his score column.
The crowd rushed over to make sure they were unhurt. Daniel summoned a smile as he pulled himself from the car to the cheers of the fans. Finland was a hard course, and he wasn't the first driver to wipe out on this turn, nor would he be the last, he was sure, but his co-driver telling him the road curved left instead of right was more than a miscalculation. It was the kind of gross error that got people killed. He didn't plan on being one of them. When they got back to the hotel where they were staying for the week, Daniel intended to talk to the team manager. He was already out of contention for this season. Even if they won every remaining rally, they couldn't catch the leader, and they'd have to come in third or above in every remaining race to end up in the top five. With a co-driver he could trust, he might have done it. With the idiot climbing out of the car on the other side as co-driver, he'd be lucky to be alive still at the end of the season.
The spectators helped push the car back onto the road, allowing Daniel to continue down the course, but he didn't push the time. He could hear from the sounds coming from the engine that they wouldn't make it at high speeds. He'd get off the course so it was clear for the next driver and then withdraw from the rest of the race.
* * * *
"I'm sorry, Jean-Paul," Daniel said, tossing his helmet and gloves on the table as he turned to face the team manager. "I can't work with him anymore. I've tried and tried. Watch the onboard if you don't believe me. A little off with the timing is bad enough, but telling me it would be a left turn instead of a right turn is more than bad timing. We're lucky we weren't killed."
"You mean we're lucky you're a damn good driver," Jean-Paul corrected. "Even with Isabelle working her magic, it's going to take time to repair the car. So what are you thinking, Dany, besides that you want me to fire Xavier?"
"I'm thinking that we can't even pull off a respectable place this year," Daniel replied. "I think we should withdraw from the remaining races and spend the rest of the year and the off-season training up a new co-driver, someone I can really work with this time."
"Did you have somebody in mind?" Jean-Paul asked. "Or should I look at the draft and see who's available?"
"There was a kid who was co-driving in the J-WRC," Daniel said. "A Canadian. Frank something. His career seemed to be taking off and then his team let him go. I liked what I saw of him before that. And he was with a French-speaking team, so he's got to be at least conversational in French, which is good, since I doubt I could follow pace notes in English. Can you find out what happened and see if he's available?"
Jean-Paul's eyebrows lifted. "You've been thinking about this, haven't you?"
"Yeah," Daniel admitted. "I kept hoping we could make it through this season with a decent showing, but it isn't going to happen, so I'd rather make the break now and come back strong for next year."
"I'll see what I can find out about your 'kid' and anyone else who might be available," Jean-Paul said. "Tell Isabelle so she can let the crew know we're packing up and heading back to Auvergne. We can spend the fall and winter there getting ready for next year. There are back roads there not even you have driven."
"You keep telling yourself that," Daniel said cockily, picking up his gear. "I'm going to talk to Isabelle and then get a shower." He stopped when he reached the door, turning back to face the man who had been in charge of his career for the last five years. "Thanks for believing in me, Jean-Paul. I know that what happens out there on the road is ultimately my responsibility, and I appreciate you not blaming me for the rough season we've had."
Jean-Paul smiled. "We expected this to be a shakedown year, with Christophe retiring last season and you having to find a new co-driver. We didn't expect it to be quite as challenging as it's been, but you've proven yourself. Second in the world last year, and by only a few points, is nothing to throw away. We'll have more time to find a good match since we're starting early now. Don't worry. We'll get this team back on track."
Daniel summoned a smile in return, but it faded when the door closed behind him. Number two in the world last year, and not even ranked this year because he didn't finish the season. Talk about a bitter pill to swallow. Jean-Paul could say what he wanted. Daniel knew he'd let a lot of people down with his record this year. He'd be okay because he brought in more money in a year, even an off year, than he could reasonably spend, but he had no idea what would happen to the mechanics on the team once they were all back in Auvergne and the car was ready to go. Isabelle could handle the maintenance on the training runs since they wouldn't have the tight schedule of a rally. Unless he busted up completely like he'd done today, most of the mechanics would be sent home for the off-season. Usually, that was a matter of a month or two between the last rally in October or November and the first one in January or February, but it was only August now. Maybe he'd talk to Jean-Paul and see if something could be done for them. He wanted them to come back next year. Isabelle had talked several times about how well her team had worked together this year. If only he'd had as much luck with his team.
He looked up and saw his sister and head mechanic rushing toward him. "Salut, p'tite soeur," he said, catching her in a tight hug. "I'm fine. I promise, I'm fine."
She glared up at him. "Did you let the EMTs look you over?"
"Isabelle, I'm fine," Daniel insisted. "No pain in my neck, no limping, nothing."
The fingers that dug into the muscle of his bicep were strong from working with cars all day and brooked absolutely no refusal. She marched him down the hall and out to the car. "If you won't show sense, I'll have to show it for you."
Daniel tried to resist, but he'd never yet managed to break free of her claws once she had a grip on him.
Three hours later, X-rayed and poked at until he was ready to snap, Daniel walked back into the hospital waiting room. "I told you I was fine," he said with a grin for his sister. "I'm always fine."
"You keep saying that, you might actually get someone to believe you," Isabelle retorted, punching the same spot on his arm where she'd dug her fingers in earlier.
"Aie! Did you have to hit me right there?"
"Yes," Isabelle said with a grin. "Now come on. I want to know what you and Jean-Paul talked about for so long."
"Let's go back to the shop, and I'll tell you," Daniel promised. It would be easier to let his sister down there where she was surrounded by the cars she loved than it would be anywhere else. Damn, he hated this part.
Isabelle seemed to sense his mood because she dropped the sisterly hassling, driving to the shop in silence and parking outside the locked garage. She opened the side door and flipped on the lights, revealing what was left of the car he'd wrecked that afternoon as well as the spare car sitting beneath its tarp behind the first one. "I don't need to pull the tarp off and tune up the other car, do I?"
Daniel shook his head. "I'm sorry, p'tite soeur," he said. "We're going back to Auvergne as soon as we can get packed up here. Jean-Paul is going to fire Xavier if he hasn't already done it while I was at the hospital. We'll start looking for someone to replace him. Someone better this time. Someone who can actually help me win instead of making me lose."
* * * *
"What did you find out?" Daniel asked Jean-Paul when they met for lunch in Clermont-Ferrand, their home base, a week later. The bistro owner was a high school friend of Jean-Paul and always gave them a table in the back where they could talk in private.
"Francois Dufour, Frank to one and all, French Canadian, born in Montreal, bilingual, twenty-four years old. He drove with Ford's junior team for two seasons before leaving them at the end of last season. He didn't drive at all this season. Everyone was very closemouthed about why," Jean-Paul said, "which I found a bit odd. I did a little digging, and the official line was creative differences."
"That's bullshit," Daniel said. "They were winning. Not every race, but nobody wins every race. They were ranked second, and there had been talk of them moving up this year. I heard a rumor about a big new sponsor who would pay their WRC entry fees."
"The last two rallies they entered were disastrous, if you remember," Jean-Paul said. "I told you the official line was creative differences. I did a little more digging and found a rumor that he's gay. A rumor that surfaced right before the first bad race."
"You think they're related?" Daniel asked, his mind racing as he considered the implications, personal and professional, of having a gay co-driver.
Jean-Paul shrugged. "I don't know the driver of that team at all, except, as you said, that they were winning at the junior level. If he's homophobic enough to let it skew his performance on a course, that could be the source of the creative differences."
"In other words, their loss could well be our gain," Daniel declared. "It's not as if I care who Dufour sleeps with."
"No, you're just discreet enough to wait until we're away from a rally to hook up with men," Jean-Paul said.
"There are so many pretty, available girls throwing themselves at me when we're at a rally," Daniel replied with a cocky grin, "that I don't see any reason to turn them down. I like girls, too, you know." He sobered. It was one thing to make jokes about getting laid. It was another to gamble with his career. He knew his own opinion on the topic, but Jean-Paul had a lot more years in the sport than Daniel did. "Do you really think his being gay will be a problem? I mean, sure, there are the usual homophobic idiots, but thrashing them on the race course should take care of that. Our sponsors wouldn't want the blow of withdrawing their support because my co-driver is gay. The backlash from that could be significant. We aren't living in the Dark Ages anymore."
"No, I don't think it will be a problem," Jean-Paul said. "I wanted you to know what I'd found out, that's all." He paused and looked at Daniel with hard eyes. "I expect you not to make it a problem either."
"Me?" Daniel asked, trying to act innocent and failing miserably.
"Don't hit on him," Jean-Paul said bluntly. "He's off-limits for as long as he's your co-driver. Sex and cars don't mix. That's how people get killed."
"Fine," Daniel said, waving aside Jean-Paul's concerns. "I'll be good."
"Then we need to see if Dufour's interested in taking a trip to Auvergne."
* * * *
Jean-Paul picked Dufour up at the train station and drove him out to the garage where they kept the cars when they weren't racing. Daniel held back, watching as Isabelle wiped her hands on a greasy rag and went out to meet them. He always enjoyed watching people's first reactions to his sister. On the rare occasions she bothered to fix her hair and put on makeup instead of pulling it into a tight knot to keep it off her neck, she was a stunner, but most men had no idea how to react to the more typical side of her: grimy jeans, old T-shirt, work boots, and grease-covered hands.
"So this is the new guy?" Isabelle asked Jean-Paul, hands on her hips above widespread feet. Daniel thought she looked as ready to throw a punch as greet the man.
"Frank, meet Isabelle Leroux, head mechanic for the team," Jean-Paul said. Daniel thought he could see Jean-Paul studying Dufour's reaction as well. "Isa, this is Frank Dufour."
To Dufour's credit, he didn't hesitate, offering his hand to Isabelle without even glancing at the grease. "Nice to meet you," he said. "From what I've read and seen at the rallies I've been to, you're a genius in the service parks."
Daniel raised his eyebrows in surprise. He had watched a lot of people on the rally circuit meet and dismiss Isabelle immediately simply because she was a woman. Either Dufour was a real charmer or he had done his homework. Isabelle was a genius in the service parks, but she didn't usually get much credit for it in the male-dominated sport.
The compliment and the offered hand had the desired effect. Daniel couldn't see Isabelle's face clearly, but he could tell from her stance that she was smiling as she shook Dufour's hand. "Do you need something to drink or a bite to eat before we head out to the course?" she asked, a courtesy she had never extended Xavier even after he was part of the team. "I have some Evian that's cold, and we can always send Dany into town for sandwiches. It's getting close to lunchtime."
"Monsieur Monier stopped so I could get something on our way out here," Dufour said with a nod toward Jean-Paul. "I'm ready to go as soon as everyone else is."
Isabelle's smile widened as she turned toward where Daniel stood, still hidden by the shadows inside the garage. "I'll get the car."
Deciding now was as good a time as any to show himself, Daniel stepped out into the heavy August sunlight. "Daniel Leroux," he said, offering his hand to Dufour. "Nice job with my sister."
Dufour shook Daniel's hand. "I'm not a fool. I may not have your experience with the sport, but I know the head mechanic is the most important person on a rally team. If the engine fails, the race is over."
Daniel chuckled. "And she'll never let you forget that. While she's pulling the car out, let me tell you what we have in mind, unless Jean-Paul filled you in on the way over?"
Dufour shook his head. "We talked about expectations in general, but not specifically about what you'd want me to do once we got here."
"There's a course out behind the garage. I know it well enough to drive it pretty fast even without pace notes, but with a competent co-driver and a good set of pace notes, I can cut a couple of minutes off my time when I'm alone," Daniel explained. "So Isabelle is going to take you through the course so you can make a set of pace notes. And then you and I are going to drive it together and see what the time looks like. Consider it a test rally. Only instead of racing against other drivers, we're racing against my best time."
"Do we have to beat it?" Dufour asked seriously.
Daniel snorted. "My best time was with a co-driver I'd worked with for four years who knew the course even better than I did. I don't know if we can beat it. Let's see what the results are, and we'll decide how it feels when we're done. It isn't just about the time. It's also about how it feels in the car when it's just the two of us. The kind of chemistry that wins races isn't something you can measure. You just know when it's right."
"Or when it's wrong," Dufour murmured, making Daniel think the other man had some experience with bad chemistry.
"Or when it's wrong," he agreed. "We just fired a co-driver because of bad chemistry and bad pace notes. There's Isabelle. Let's see what you can do."
Dufour nodded and walked over to the car, taking the helmet Isabelle held out to him and sliding into the car. Daniel walked around to the other side, leaning in the window before Isabelle put her own helmet on. "Don't try to scare him off. I like him."
Isabelle scowled back at him. "You just think he's cute." She pulled her helmet on and drove off before Daniel could reply.
Shaking his head, he moved to the fence behind the garage where he would be able to see a portion of the course. Isabelle wasn't wrong about Dufour, although cute wasn't the word Daniel would have chosen. Charismatic, maybe. Not quite handsome. His features were too irregular for that, but he definitely pushed Daniel's buttons in all the right ways with his sandy-brown hair, hazel eyes, and lopsided grin. Daniel couldn't tell exactly what kind of muscles were hidden beneath Dufour's clothing, but from what he could see, the Canadian had a tight, compact body, perfect for racing--and for fucking. He pushed that thought aside. Jean-Paul had been very clear. No messing around with his co-driver. It was too bad since Dufour was exactly the kind of man Daniel looked for in a bedmate. It remained to be seen if he was what Daniel was looking for as a co-driver.
* * * *
Daniel watched as much of the course as he could see from the fence line. Isabelle was driving relatively slowly, giving Dufour a chance to watch the special odometer installed on his side of the car and take notes about the distances and obstacles in the course. When it was Daniel's turn, they'd be driving three times that speed, perhaps even more on some sections. His stomach clenched in anticipation as the car entered the last leg of the course, making its way back toward him.
"Your turn," Isabelle said, levering herself out of the car and tossing Daniel the helmet.
"Can I have a couple of minutes to neaten up my notes?" Dufour asked. "I'd rather not make a mistake because I can't read my own handwriting."
"Take your time," Daniel offered. "There's a table in the garage if it'll be easier to do it there."
Dufour smiled and nodded, going into the garage in search of the table. "Well?" Daniel asked, turning to Isabelle. "What do you think so far?"
"He didn't blow me off," Isabelle began as Daniel had known she would. "He got right down to business instead of wasting time once he got here. He was on top of things in the car, asking questions about our standard of doing things, whether we used a one-to-six or a six-to-one scale on the bends, what speeds we considered safe for the different bends. We'll see how he does at two hundred kilometers an hour instead of seventy-five, but so far I like what I see."
"He wanted to make sure his notes were legible," Daniel added. "After all the problems we had with Xavier and misread notes, that's a real mark in his favor."
Isabelle nodded. "I know it's hard on this course, but don't anticipate. Try to base your decisions on what he says, not on what you know, so that it's closer to what it would be on an actual rally day."
It was good advice that Daniel was sure he'd never manage to follow. He'd been driving this course for six years. He'd try, though, because Isabelle was right when she said that on rally day, he wouldn't have the benefit of hundreds of times through a course. Even if it was a recycled stage from a previous year's rally, his memory wasn't that good.
Dufour came back out of the garage, pulling his helmet on as he walked, so Daniel did the same, taking Isabelle's seat in the car. "You ready for this?" he asked.
Dufour grinned. "It's been eight months since I've ridden in a rally car with a real driver, your sister notwithstanding. That's about seven months too long. I'm ready when you are."
Daniel checked the odometer and all the gauges out of long habit, despite knowing Isabelle had just been in the car. He trusted her implicitly, but he was driving now, which made it his responsibility. Pulling up to the starting line, he revved the engine a couple of times and waited for the signal from Jean-Paul. Through the microphone in his helmet, he heard Dufour's voice giving him the information on the first feature. "From Main Control 1, two hundred meters straight to square right."
Daniel knew it, of course, but he let the words run through his brain, creating his plan of attack as he waited for Jean-Paul to start the time. The moment his hand fell, Daniel's foot hit the accelerator, using the first two hundred meters to build up speed. The tires skidded as he took the first turn, Dufour's voice already talking him through the next one as he steadied the vehicle and prepared the next approach.
For the next ten minutes, he shut out everything but the sound of Dufour's voice in his ear and the car beneath his hands and feet. He didn't think about past drives or future rallies. He didn't think about the mountain on one side and the ravine on the other as they went through the more mountainous section of the course. He didn't think about Christophe or Xavier or Jean-Paul or Isabelle. He wasn't aware of the passage of time or the sweat rolling down his back in the August heat.
When they rounded the last turn and he floored it to cross the finish line, he let out a whoop of delight. Whatever the time, the drive had exhilarated him, leaving him feeling balanced again for the first time since the rollover in Finland. Spinning the car to a stop next to the garage, he pulled his helmet off, grinning at the man sitting next to him. "Putain, that felt good!"
Dufour grinned right back at him. "Hell yeah."
A moment later, Isabelle's excited face appeared in the passenger window. "Dany, that was incredible! You're only eight seconds off your fastest time ever."
Daniel's grin widened as he looked past her to Jean-Paul's smiling face for confirmation. "Ten twenty-four point one," Jean-Paul affirmed. "His record on the course is ten fifteen point seven."
"Then I think we need to talk business," Daniel said, getting out of the car and offering Dufour his hand.
* * * *
It took a month to get all the paperwork processed so Frank could work in France and officially join the Citroen team. Daniel spent most of that time chomping at the bit. He finally had a co-driver he liked, and he wanted to start developing that chemistry. He understood that Frank was uprooting his life to come to France for most of the year and that the man needed to go home to get more than a couple of changes of clothes for his tryout, but Daniel wanted to get started. He had the simulator loaded with courses from all over the world, some from actual races, some randomly generated. Isabelle had both cars running at peak condition again. All that was missing was Frank.
He had spent the intervening weeks reacquainting himself with the area and with old friends and old pastimes. Jean-Paul scowled at him, and Isabelle glared, but Daniel ignored them both as he rediscovered the joys of rappelling and climbing in the gorges around Clermont-Ferrand. He hadn't found anyone to go hang gliding with yet, but he got a lead on a place that had ultralight planes. He had always wanted to learn to fly one, but he'd never had the chance. When Isabelle finally demanded to know what he was doing, he shrugged. "If I can't drive, I've got to do something to get that thrill. I could try bungee jumping. Or maybe sky diving."
"You could try not getting yourself killed before Frank gets back and you can start training," Isabelle snapped, but Daniel just winked at her and went on his way.
Finally the morning of Frank's arrival dawned, the air crisp with the first hints of autumn. It would be another couple of weeks before the leaves started changing and falling, adding another challenge to their standard course. If they were dry, they weren't much of an issue, but if it rained, the wet leaves could make the curves treacherous. Daniel glared at the morning traffic on the road out to the airport outside of Paris, glad he didn't have to fight with that kind of congestion every day. As much as he loved coming to the capital for a weekend of anonymity, he never drove there for this very reason. Frank would have too much luggage to make him take the train, though.
He circled the airport a couple of times until his cell phone rang.
"Bonne matinee," Frank's voice said in his ear. Daniel rolled his eyes at the Canadian expression, but he didn't say anything about it. He'd wait until he knew Frank a little better before trying to break of him of his backwards expressions.
"Hello, Frank. How was your flight?"
"Long," Frank replied. "I'm outside terminal E."
"I'll be around as quickly as I can," Daniel replied. "It shouldn't be more than a couple of minutes."
Now that he knew Frank was waiting, Daniel drove with more determination, weaving in and out of traffic until he got around to Terminal E. He pulled over to the curb, hopping out to offer Frank his hand in greeting. Frank returned the handshake. "It's a lot warmer here than it is in Quebec."
Daniel grinned, thinking Frank looked good even when exhausted. The dark circles under his eyes weren't exactly attractive, but Daniel appreciated the tousled hair, like Frank had run his fingers through it repeatedly, and the scruff on his cheeks, the same sandy-brown color as his hair, sent images of beard burn through his mind. He coughed a little to hide his reaction. "Welcome to civilization rather than that wilderness you call home." He hefted one of Frank's huge suitcases into the trunk while Frank loaded the other one and his backpack and small suitcase. "Did you bring enough luggage?"
Frank rolled his eyes. "Do you know how expensive it is to ship stuff overseas? I carried everything I could because shipping the rest already cost me a month's salary."
"Send the bill to Jean-Paul," Daniel said as they climbed back in the car and Daniel followed the signs for the A1. "Your contract should cover relocation expenses."
"I didn't even think about that," Frank said with a shake of his head. "It wasn't an issue with my last job. It was close enough to home that I drove to the track during the week and stayed at the garage and then went home on weekends."
Daniel shook his head. "We'll do better than that here. My guest room isn't ideal, but it'll do until you can find a place of your own. Jean-Paul has a list of furnished apartments for rent as a start. You don't have to pick any of them, of course, but he thought that would speed up the process of getting you settled."
"You all are making this really easy," Frank said as they headed south. "I'm not used to it yet."
Daniel shrugged. "Here's the deal, Frank. I went from being in the top five with a co-driver who retired to being nowhere near that with a co-driver I couldn't trust. Our performance on the practice course was unbelievable. Jean-Paul is astute enough to know what that means for next season. If we can keep that and build on what we did when you were here before, we'll be on the podium more often than not, and that means money. Prize money, sponsorship money, merchandise money. Not to put it too bluntly, but you're the key to the cash cow here. We all want to be successful, and part of that is making you comfortable."
Frank smiled. "I didn't say I didn't appreciate it. It's a nice change, that's all."
Daniel laughed. "You're playing with the big boys now."
They spent the next hour discussing a schedule for training. They had the rest of September, all of October, November, and December, and most of January before the first rally. The next year's schedule hadn't been announced yet, but Daniel expected it to be Sweden or Finland, somewhere with plenty of ice and snow to add to the challenge of the course. The mountains of Auvergne would provide plenty of practice with that over the winter.
"Isabelle is a genius at mixing up the course we drove when you were here before," Daniel said. "She'll change it up on us periodically so we're actually driving instead of using the simulator all the time. Jean-Paul has been calling around as well to arrange some drives elsewhere in France, to get a good mix of tarmac and gravel, mountainous and flat. It'll give you a chance to see a little of the country while we're at it."
"I'm here to work, not sightsee," Frank insisted.
"We'll work," Daniel promised, "but we don't drive at night. We can enjoy some nightlife if nothing else. I know all the good spots."
"That's good," Frank said, but his voice lacked enthusiasm. Daniel almost assured the other man that he knew as many gay bars as straight ones, but Frank hadn't said anything, and Daniel didn't want to put him on the spot. There would be time for confessions later, when they knew each other a little better.
After about an hour, Frank started to yawn, the overnight flight catching up with him. "Take a nap," Daniel suggested. "We've got several more hours still and there's nothing all that interesting to see along the way. Not until we get off the highway onto the country roads. Then it gets fun."
Frank chuckled sleepily, the sound low and husky and very attractive. "Trust a rally driver to look forward to the part of the drive everyone else dreads."
Daniel grinned back. "There have to be some perks to the job."
Frank yawned again. "And all the beautiful women on your arm aren't enough?"
Daniel laughed. "They're definitely a side benefit. Get some sleep. Once we get home, Isabelle will want to start showing you the car and Jean-Paul will want you to sign papers and you won't have another chance to rest before tonight."
Frank stuffed his jacket under his head and closed his eyes, leaving Daniel alone with his thoughts as he drove. The chemistry was still there, fortunately. A part of him had worried that the drive they had done together was a fluke rather than a true indication of what their partnership would be like. Frank wasn't reading pace notes now, or even reading directions since Daniel knew where he was going, but the conversation had been easy, comfortable. The same kind of rapport he'd had with Christophe almost from the beginning and that he'd never developed with Xavier. They would build on that over the next five months as they refined their communication on the track and off, so that when Frank wrote the pace notes, he could accurately tell Daniel what to expect as he approached each section of a rally.
The attraction was still there, too, despite Daniel's better judgment. He knew next to nothing about Frank, certainly nothing about the man's private life. Hell, for all he knew, Frank could have a husband at home. He doubted it or it probably would have made the gossip rags at some point, but that didn't mean the other man didn't have a boyfriend.
Even if he didn't, it didn't mean Frank would return Daniel's interest. Or that he'd want to get involved with someone on the rally circuit, particularly his own partner. After all, Jean-Paul was right. Sex and cars didn't mix. There couldn't be anything but the race. It was one of the reasons Daniel's past lovers, male and female, hadn't stuck around. No one wanted to compete with his love affair with his car because they knew they'd never win. It was that single-mindedness that had gotten him to the top levels of the sport. He wasn't about to give that up for a passing fancy. He couldn't be distracted by a lover's spat while he was racing, or he and his co-driver could both end up in the hospital. Or dead.
Frank slept all the way past Orleans as Daniel turned southeast on the A71. By the time they neared Bourges, almost three hours into their trip, Daniel needed a break. Pulling into the rest area, he nudged Frank awake, the confusion in the other man's face endearing as he blinked owlishly, trying to wake up.
"Quoi?" Frank stuttered as his eyes opened, his Quebecois accent far stronger than Daniel had ever heard it.
"Quoi?" Daniel mimicked. "It's time for a break. Do you want anything? Coffee? Lunch? There's an Autogrill here or we can go into town, although that will slow us down more."
"I always sound like my grandfather when I first wake up," Frank said defensively.
"It's charming," Daniel insisted. "It just surprised me because I'd never heard that strong an accent from you before."
"There are as many different variations of French in Canada as there are towns and regions where the language is spoken, even before you start mixing in English words with the bilingual population," Frank explained. "When I'm awake and aware of who I'm talking to, I use what would probably be considered the standard version, although I remember my sister teasing me about being a snob because I always spoke pointu."
"Pointed?" Daniel repeated. "How do you speak pointed?"
"With a crisp accent," Frank elaborated. "More like a Parisian and less like a Quebecois. My grandfather had the really strong Quebecois accent, the one that sounds almost like a duck quacking. I spent a lot of time with him when I was a child, and that accent still slips out sometimes when I'm not paying attention."
"So," Daniel said, changing the subject, "lunch? Coffee?"
"Lunch would be good."
They went inside the Autogrill, separating to make their own selections from the sizable buffet. When Daniel finished selecting and paying for his meal, he looked around for Frank, only to find the other man at the windows of the restaurant, looking out at the highway that passed beneath the restaurant. He crossed the room to Frank's side.
"This is really amazing," Frank said. "You don't see rest areas like this in Canada."
"The rest areas in France are second to none," Daniel agreed. "Come on. You need to eat so we can get back on the road."
Frank turned away and followed Daniel to a table. "How much longer?" he asked as he started to eat.
"About an hour and a half," Daniel said, digging into his own meal, "depending on traffic. It hasn't been bad since we left Paris, and we'll be in Clermont-Ferrand before rush hour, so we shouldn't have any problem."
"Will we make it out to the track today?"
"No one is expecting us," Daniel said. "Between the jet lag and the drive and wanting to let you settle in, Jean-Paul figured it would be tomorrow, if not the day after, before we'd be ready to start at the track. He might come by with papers for you to sign, but that should be it."
"Forget that," Frank said. "I can settle in later. I want to get started!"
Daniel grinned. "There's nothing to stop us from going by the track. If nothing else, we can drive the course in this car to talk it through together. It's not like you're going to unpack more than a few changes of clothes at my place anyway. Tomorrow morning we can look at apartments for you and tomorrow afternoon we can get the race car out and get started for real."
"I can't wait!"
"If you finish your lunch, we can get on the road again," Daniel teased.
They finished eating and headed back out, discussing strategy and analyzing the highway the way they would a course. It didn't present the challenges a rally would, but it let them look at bends and banking. When they neared Clermont-Ferrand, Daniel said, "We could take the back roads the rest of the way in. It will be slower, but a whole lot more interesting in terms of our discussion."
"As long as you aren't going to get us lost."
"No chance of that," Daniel assured him. "I grew up around here, but if I do get stuck, I've got GPS."
"What are we waiting for, then?"
Switching lanes to catch the next exit, Daniel let out an exuberant whoop as they left the highway for the two-lane country roads that wended their way through the Massif Central.
"Severity one or two?" Frank asked as they rounded the first bend.
"One," Daniel said. "Maximum speed, one hundred twenty if there are no obstacles or steep drops on either side. Note it if I can't use the shoulder as a buffer or if there's another bend on the other side so I'll slow down a little more."
"Hold on two seconds," Frank said, digging in his backpack and pulling out a notebook and pen. "If we're going to get into that level of detail, I'd rather write it down so I can go over it again later."
Impressed, Daniel paused his commentary while Frank got settled again. With Christophe, who had far more experience, Daniel had taken his cues from his co-driver. Xavier had never cared to go beyond the basics, never trying to push the limits. Frank seemed interested in really getting it right as a partnership, in establishing their own language that would let them communicate in shorthand with a precision that would let Daniel hit maximum speeds consistently.
They spent the rest of the drive into Clermont-Ferrand discussing the roads, even turning around and backtracking a few times to ensure they agreed on a particular point.
"You use some different parameters than my last driver," Frank said as they reached the outskirts of the city.
"Is that a problem?" Daniel asked.
"Not at all," Frank assured him, "but it may take a few weeks to get used to the differences on a gut level."
"We've got a few months."
"It won't take me that long."
The confidence in Frank's voice was catching. "Do you still want to go by the garage tonight? We've gotten more done this afternoon out on the roads than we probably could have done even if we'd gone straight to the garage."
Frank shook his head. "A shower and a beer sound really good right about now."
"Shower at my place," Daniel said, "and then I'll take you to my cafe. They'll be thrilled to meet you."
"Your cafe?" Frank repeated.
"The one I always go to," Daniel explained. "You'll find yours too. Every Frenchman has his cafe. Where everyone knows everyone. The regulars, anyway. The place where I celebrate when I win and where everyone assures me it was someone else's fault when I lose."
"We're done losing," Frank insisted. "We may not win them all, but we're going for the championship next year. I can feel it already."
"Michaels will be the one to beat," Daniel said. "He's driving like a demon this year. He won in Finland, which almost always goes to a Nordic driver, and he's on course to win in Mexico now. I don't know what lit a fire under him, but something did. If he can keep it up, he could take the title this year."
"He drives better on gravel than he does on tarmac," Frank said. "I've been watching him too. If we can beat him consistently on the tarmac and sometimes on gravel, we'll have a chance at him."
"Then I guess it's a good thing I like tarmac better," Daniel said.
"We'll need to work on gravel, then," Frank insisted. "We have to be better than anyone on tarmac to stay in contention for the title."
Daniel nodded as he pulled up in front of his apartment. It was such a relief to be able to discuss strategy with his co-driver again. Isabelle was wonderful at it, but she wasn't in the car with him during a race.
"Let's get cleaned up. I'll buy you a beer for your first night in France and in town." He led Frank inside and pointed out the guest room and bathroom. "Welcome to the big leagues."