Ricky Bobby walked with purpose, long strides carrying him briskly down pit lane toward the infield garage area. Clutching his parcel somewhat tightly beneath his left arm, he did his best to keep a steady gait: not lingering, but not hurrying. He couldn’t risk looking suspicious, and he could only pray to sweet baby Jesus and the Lord above that he didn’t look half as guilty as he felt--a thief in the night, stealing away from the scene of a crime. Only, it was broad daylight, and his contraband was out in plain view. Ricky couldn’t help but feel that this was something better done after dark, obscured by the cloak of night.
Man, oh man. If anybody caught me with this…
Subconsciously, Ricky clutched the inconspicuous paper package still tighter beneath his arm, guarding his secret as if it possessed the power to end the world. And in its own perverse little way, it could have.
One more turn around the corner and Ricky broke into a jog, covering the expanse of blacktop between himself and the garage area. Qualifying, followed by practice for that week’s race, had ended a little over three hours ago. Ricky was surprised to find the place now blessedly deserted. There was not a soul in sight. In the Dennit garage, only the cars belonging to himself, Cal and--Ricky noted a bit begrudgingly--Jean Girard, remained.
This was perfect.
Ricky ventured into the abandoned garage, feeling the slightest little leap of joy at the fact that maybe, just maybe, he was going to get away with this after all. With a smirk, Ricky thanked his lucky stars for his good fortune and, as an afterthought, headed for the drink cooler near the wall. His long walk had left him parched, and he hoped there was still some of that Mystic Mountain Blueberry PowerAde left in there. He flipped the lid up expectantly, peered in, and scowled.
The icebox was full of Perrier.
That damned Girard. Ricky swore under his breath and disdainfully plucked one of the shiny green bottles from the cooler, cracking it open. At this point, he’d take what he could get. He took an experimental swig and automatically grimaced. That’s just god-awful. Ricky shuddered. Presently, it dawned on Ricky that this was certainly not one of his greatest moments of crowning glory: standing in his own garage, drinking carbonated water from France, and smuggling questionable goods around with him in hopes of not being caught. He thanked sweet, little baby infant Jesus that there was nobody around, nobody to see him in his present state--
“Is that Perrier?” Apparently, the Lord worked in very mysterious ways. A familiar voice rang out from nearby and Ricky started, making a conscious effort not to hit the ceiling like a frightened cat. Instead, he leaped a mere foot and a half in the air and spun around so fast he almost fell over.
“Who? What? This ain’t what it looks like!” Ricky blurted out before he realized it was only Cal. Well, that could have been much worse. “Oh, hey, Cal.” Ricky forced a casual tone. “I was just, uh. For a second there, I was afraid you were--” Damn it, Ricky, just shut the hell up while you still can. “What’s goin’ on?” He posed that last question with as much nonchalance as he could muster. It wasn’t terribly convincing. Presently, Cal was staring at his childhood friend as if he’d suddenly sprouted another head.
“Nothing much,” he answered slowly, keeping a guarded eye on Ricky. “Just coming back for my truck. Lucius and everybody went out to grab something to eat, and we just got back…” He paused. “We looked everywhere for you, man. Where’d you get to after practice?”
Put on the spot, Ricky faltered, and in a big way.
“I was, uh…” He floundered. “I…” Think, damn it, think! “I had something I had to take care of. An errand.” It wasn’t a complete lie. Ricky twitched ever-so-slightly, though Cal seemed not to notice.
“That’s cool, man.” Cal chuckled. “I wasn’t sure if the reason you hightailed it outta here and didn’t come back was because Frenchie was hanging around the garage, prancing around in his pretty little tight pants.” The bottle of Perrier, all but forgotten by now, nearly slipped from Ricky’s fingers.
“Girard was here?” He played it off, taking another swig from the bottle. This stuff actually isn’t that bad.
“Yeah,” Cal continued. “He was flittin’ around here, using the whole garage as his personal dressing room.” He shrugged. “Said he was heading off to pose butt naked for the Rolling Stone.” Ricky, in the process of taking another sip of Perrier, promptly choked. “Ricky?” Cal jumped quickly to Ricky’s aid, whacking him enthusiastically on the back several times. “Breathe, Ricky! Breathe!”
“Gonna…knock me over.” Ricky managed through a violent fit of coughing. “Whew!” He said, when he’d regained his ability to breathe. “I’m all right. I’m good.”
“Are you sure about that?” Cal was looking at Ricky in that skeptical way again. “You seem a little off today. Like you‘re not quite firing on all cylinders, if you catch my drift.”
“I’m fine,” lied Ricky. “I’m just a little under the weather. Didn’t get much sleep last night.” And he wouldn’t that night, either, thanks to Cal. The image of Jean Girard strutting around naked was far more than Ricky’s poor brain could readily handle.
“You look a little pale,” noted Cal, scrutinizing Ricky closely. “I sure hope it’s not contagious.” As an afterthought, he gestured to the green bottle in Ricky’s hand and added, “maybe it’s that French stuff you’re drinking there. Maybe it’s making you sick.”
“Maybe,” Ricky forced a grin. “If I start talking like I ate a jar full of peanut butter, we’ll both know why.” Cal laughed.
“Nice. Listen, I got to get going. Dennit’s got me signing autographs down at the Ford dealership up the road. I’ll call you later.”
“All right, man. See you around.” Ricky felt a swelling sense of relief as Cal collected his keys and coat and headed for the door. Man. I thought he’d never leave. Then, much to Ricky’s dismay, he stopped, halfway to the door, and turned back to face him. “I gotta ask,” he ventured, “because you’ve been holding onto that thing for dear life since the minute I walked in here.” He pointed to the paper bag Ricky held in his hand. “What have you got in there?”
“What, this?” Ricky hesitated. “This is…this is nothing.” He forced a smile and shoved the bag behind his back, as if hiding it from view would have made Cal forget it had even existed at all.
“It’s something,” Cal pointed out. “Else you wouldn’t be acting all funny about it. Come on, what is it? Is it a nudie mag? Because if it is, you know I won’t tell Carley so long as you share.”
“Really, it’s nothing,” Ricky insisted. “Just some--” he thought quick “--insurance papers. We just picked up some new homeowners’ insurance. Added a clause that covers damages if someone crashes a car into the side of the house.”
“Hey, that’s a pretty sweet deal,” said Cal thoughtfully. “I mean, how often does that happen? Once or twice a month, at least. Better safe than sorry, buddy.” He glanced at his watch. “Well, this bird’s gotta fly. Catch you later.”
“All right, man.” With that, Cal turned, walking out of the garage. Ricky followed at a distance and stood in the doorway, watching him go. His eyes followed Cal until he was sure he was gone. He did a quick scan of the area, just to make sure no one else was lurking about, before retreating back into the garage. There was a folding chair by the door and Ricky took it, heading to the furthest corner in the back of the building. The view could have been better--he was hiding behind Girard’s car--but he was well out of sight from the doorway. He wasn’t taking any chances. Not with this.
Ricky sank into the chair, fully composing himself. The parcel was on his lap now, his fingers toying with the edges of the thick brown paper. He was vaguely aware that his hands were shaking. Deep down, there was a part of Ricky that almost couldn’t believe it had come to this--almost, of course, being the key word.
Am I really about to do this?
Ricky had waited patiently for this moment, and now it was all his. Casting all pretenses gloriously aside, he opened up the bag and pulled out his prize. As he did, his heart thudded dully in his chest, and he had to remind himself to breathe.
From the glossy cover of GQ, Jean Girard glowered at Ricky, his intense, dark-eyed gaze walking a line between seductive and blatantly daring. Come and get me, it screamed, if you’re man enough. There was an unrestrained passion that blazed beneath the surface of those eyes, a certain je ne sais quoi that both fascinated and frightened Ricky at the same time. He couldn’t count the number of times those eyes had haunted him in dreams, especially as of late. Lately it seemed there was no getting away from Jean Girard. He was impossible to escape on the track, and even harder to run from when he was on Ricky’s mind.
For as long as Ricky had lived on God’s green earth, there had been questions he just couldn’t find the answers to. This thing, whatever it was or wasn’t, was one of them. When he really thought about it, Ricky was fairly certain that he detested Jean Girard. Never before had any one man had the uncanny ability to get under his skin and inside his head, to thoroughly piss him off in each and every way imaginable. With just a few words or a simple gesture, Girard held the power to wind him up and drag him down all at once.
He was incorrigible. He was infuriating. He was a challenge unlike any other. And he made Ricky feel more alive than had any human being he had ever known.
Lately it seemed it had gone deeper than that.
As far as Ricky’s emotions were concerned, he knew there was no logic in anything he might have come to feel for Jean. He loved and hated the man with everything he had. There was no rhyme, no common reason behind it. Perhaps, to be honest with himself, Ricky didn’t want to know all the answers. Some questions were just better left untouched.
For now, Ricky decided he would just play this whole thing off as an innocent schoolboy crush. Never mind that his heart beat like a bass drum whenever Jean was near, that he seemed to turn into an inarticulate moron when faced with the Frenchman’s suaveness and quick wit. Never mind as well the great lengths Ricky went to just to avoid the man, steering clear of the garage and doing everything in his power to not be cornered alone with him at any cost.
And never mind, Ricky thought dryly, that he’d stolen away in secrecy to the closest newsstand to pick up that month’s issue of GQ--the first day it was released, no less--for nothing more than the sheer thrill of seeing Jean Girard without his shirt.
This is bad, Ricky. Real bad.
Nobody could know about this. Not ever. Never, ever.
The cover story proclaimed, in bold text, “Jean Girard: The French Revolution.” As Ricky flipped through to the article, he soon discovered that he couldn’t have concentrated on the words if he’d tried. His eyes were glued on the full-page shot on the adjacent page of the article. It dawned on Ricky that he would never be able to look at a victory flag the same way again.
The pose was deceptively coy, with Jean gazing nonchalantly over one shoulder at the camera. The Frenchman’s tall, slender frame was draped strategically--and barely--in the customary black and white checkered flag. From what Ricky could tell, that flag was the only thing Girard was wearing.
I’m gonna have a damn wreck, trying to drive with that image in my head.
Suddenly, the air in the garage seemed terribly hot, heavy and stifling. Ricky tugged at the collar of his t-shirt.
Damn. Damn, damn, damn.
He turned the page and found himself shifting uncomfortably in his chair.
The next shot had Jean sans-shirt, recklessly straddling a chair. He was wearing the tightest red pleather pants Ricky had ever seen. Ricky swallowed hard, seriously contemplating if being jealous of a chair confirmed his fear that, yes, he was losing his damn mind.
Sacré bleu. Ricky mentally kicked himself. Damn it, now I’m thinking in French.
At that point, Ricky made a note to find Girard and kick his ass at the next available opportunity. Fortunately--or unfortunately, in Ricky’s case--he wouldn’t have to wait long for that chance.
“Enjoying the view, Monsieur Bobby?” That voice, directly in his left ear, that unmistakable, terrible, beautiful accent grating on all of his nerves at once.
“Meep!” Ricky let out a squeak and slammed the magazine shut, though it was too late. The damage had been done. Ricky could feel his face flaming, undoubtedly turning every shade of red known to man. “Somebody ought to hang a bell around your neck or something,” muttered Ricky, not looking up. “The hell are you doing here, anyway?”
“Well, now. That’s hardly a pleasant bonjour, Ricky.” There was a detectable hint of a smirk in Jean’s voice as he slipped around the back of Ricky’s chair. As he did, his fingers brushed lightly against Ricky’s shoulder; whether or not it was intentional, Ricky could only guess. He flinched in response and kept his gaze wrought on the cool cement floor, not daring to look up at Jean. “You know, Monsieur Bobby,” ventured Jean, coming to stand in front of Ricky. “I should ask you the same. Though I don’t suppose any inquiry would be necessary.”
“Cut the fancy talk, Girard,” snapped Ricky. “Just what are you trying to say?”
“Nothing. Aside from the obvious.” He reached down and plucked the Perrier bottle from Ricky’s hand.
“And what would that be, Mr. Smarty-pants?”
“That you’re in denial.” He took a long sip from the bottle and placed it back in Ricky’s lap.
“Denial of what, exactly--” Ricky looked up and instantly regretted it. Jean stood before him, one hand nonchalantly on a hip, the smug and smirking epitome of sex squeezed impossibly into a pair of black leather pants that looked all but painted on. Ricky’s jaw hit the floor. He gaped at Jean a long moment before finally managing to find his voice again. “Whoa, there, Frenchie.” He blinked a few times in quick succession. “Those--those are--” Wow. “You can’t go just prancing around here wearing those.”
“This is not the fashion here in Virginia?” Jean tilted his head slightly, smirking playfully.
“Maybe in San Francisco,” countered Ricky. “Man, how’d you even get into those? Those pants are so tight you’d blow your boots off if you farted. You know, if the French did that sort of thing.” Jean laughed.
“Such a way with words you have, Ricky,” the Frenchman smirked, sauntering closer to Ricky’s chair. He folded his arms over his chest, his eyes coming to rest squarely on Ricky. Their gazes caught and held. “Perhaps, Monsieur Bobby, you might use that eloquence to explain to me just what you’ve got going on here. Because, to be perfectly honest, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were--”
“All right, listen.” Ricky cut him off. “For your information, Pepé , the only reason I bought this here fancy-schmancy frilly magazine is research purposes.” Jean raised both dark eyebrows in amusement at Ricky.
“Research purposes,” he repeated.
“Continuez, s’il vous plait. Do go on.”
“Well,” drawled Ricky, “My strategy is to know my enemy, to learn any and everything I can. See, Frenchie, if I’m gonna beat you--and I am gonna beat you--I need to know everything there is to know about you. How you act, think and function. What makes you tick. It gives me an edge. Helps me anticipate your next move.”
“Ah, yes. I see.” Jean replied thoughtfully. “So, knowing what my crotch looks like in tight pleather pants is going to help you win races? I’m curious as to how that works.”
“Damn it, I wasn’t paying any attention to that.”
“No. But it’s plain to see that you are now.” Ricky felt his face flush involuntarily.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Girard,” he growled. “And neither do I, for that matter.”
“Oh, no. Of course not. I should not assume,” said Jean dismissively. “I just have one question for you, Monsieur Bobby.”
“And what would that be, Monsieur Le Pew?” mocked Ricky, doing a fair job of butchering the French pronunciation. Jean, not missing a beat, merely continued.
“Which picture was your favorite?”
“The one with the chair.” Ricky answered before his brain had half a chance to stop him. “Damn!” Jean was smirking again, regarding Ricky with a mild air of amusement that was oddly infuriating. “Don’t even say it, Frenchie. Not a word.”
“Shut it, Girard!”
“It isn’t just a river in Egypt, you know.” Had Ricky the capability to form words, he would have offered some sort of snappy comeback in his own defense. There was nothing left in the arsenal. Defeated, he sat back and looked at Jean, only hoping his gaze conveyed some sort of distaste with the other man.
“You’re real funny,” he offered weakly. He watched as Jean took the Perrier bottle from his hand again, taking another dainty sip. “You know, I didn’t say I wanted to share.” He wrinkled his nose. “For all I know, your condition could be contagious.” Jean rolled his eyes.
“What, afraid you might catch gayness?”
“No. I’m afraid I might catch French-ness.” Jean took a playful swat at Ricky’s arm. “Ouch.”
“Please. I barely touched you.”
An awkward moment’s silence passed between the two, and Ricky felt oddly compelled to break it. He let his glance flit toward Jean, who was now leaning nonchalantly back against the hood of his car.
“So, I heard you went and posed in your skivvies for some magazine today, too, huh? You’re making a regular career out of that. Maybe you ought to go pro with it.” Jean laughed.
“Oui. I got a considerable offer to do the cover of Rolling Stone. Sans clothing, as it were.”
“What does Gregory think about all this?” Ricky surprised himself with the question. “I mean, how does he feel about you showing your stuff for everybody in America to see?”
“He is not pleased by it, by any means,” admitted Jean. “To be honest, my becoming an overnight sex symbol in your country isn’t something he’s terribly fond of. He doesn’t much prefer the idea of other men being able to ogle me without my shirt.”
“Does it bother you any?” Ricky asked earnestly, again surprising himself. The questions he found himself asking kept getting deeper and deeper--almost too personal, though Jean didn’t seem to mind. He merely shrugged, ran a hand through his dark hair as an afterthought.
“No,” he answered after a moment’s thought. “I’m not at all put off by impersonal attentions from other men. Gregory, on the other hand--he thinks any man who so much as looks at me is out to steal me away from him.”
“Imagine that,” offered Ricky weakly. I don’t blame him, Ricky wanted to say. Jean was laughing again, in that way that was so nonchalantly, breezily amused--so him.
“You would find it humorous, I’m sure,” continued Jean, “that Gregory feels threatened by you. He fancies you are attracted to me, can you even imagine?”
Ricky had to force himself to laugh.
“Yeah, that’s a real riot,” he managed. “Better watch out, Frenchie. I might just ride up on a white horse and whisk you away into the sunset.” He had intended his statement to sound lighthearted, joking. It didn’t.
“That sounds like a promise, Ricky.” Jean’s voice was quieter than it should have been. “I’ll hold you to that one, even.” Suddenly it was as if he had recovered; that playfully mocking tone returning to his voice. There was a slight smirk gracing his handsome features. “Tomorrow. You can meet me in victory lane. After I beat you in the race, that is.”
“With all due respect, Mr. Girard, that idea’s got as much of a chance of flying as an ostrich in an ice storm. That just ain’t gonna happen.”
“We’ll see,” Jean replied smoothly. “We’ll see.” His smile was as dangerous as his implied threat. Ricky regarded him for a long moment, baffled, a multitude of emotions coursing through him all at once. He couldn’t discern exactly what he was feeling--but he knew it was powerful, powerful enough to take hold of him completely. He looked up at Jean, an unreadable expression on his face.
“How do you do that, Frenchie?” Ricky asked, point-blank.
“How do you manage to piss me off and turn me on at the same time?”
“I am a man of many talents, Monsieur Bobby.” replied Jean with a devilish smile. “Take that as you will.” He paused a moment, glancing at the designer watch on his slender wrist. “My, how time flies when you’re having fun. I’m afraid I must take my leave. It has been…quite pleasurable speaking with you.” He rose from his place on the car, stretching.
“Likewise,” offered Ricky, making a conscious effort not to watch.
“Until tomorrow, then, Ricky Bobby.”
“Right. See you on the track, Girard.”
“Yes. I will see you. In my rearview mirror, that is.”
“Why you--” Jean was already heading for the door, giggling to himself. Ricky found himself staring, inexplicably mesmerized by the slight sway of Jean’s hips. Hate to see you go. Love to watch you leave.
Presently, Jean stopped halfway to the door, turning back to face Ricky. “Oh, and in case you’re interested, the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone is on newsstands on the twenty-third. From what I understand, the article is expected to be quite revealing.” Ricky groaned at Jean’s bad pun. “Au revoir, Monsieur Bobby. Don’t forget your horse.”
He winked, and then he was gone, disappearing out the door and into the blinding light of the now-setting sun. It wasn’t until Ricky had been alone for a good few minutes that he finally caught what Jean had said. He made a mental note to hit Jean with a snappy comeback the next chance he got--though he knew he wouldn’t. Jean would undoubtedly get the best of him again, as he always did. As he always would.
Ricky lowered his eyes, staring down at his hands, folded in his lap. Unsurprisingly, he found himself thinking of Jean. What was, however, surprising to Ricky, was that he found himself wondering what sorts of things Jean might be thinking of him. That notion wasn’t something that had ever crossed Ricky’s mind before. This was getting complicated, more and more so by the second. You’re in way over your head, boy.
Come Sunday, Ricky knew, Jean would be his rival again. On the racetrack, the charming and even pleasant Jean Girard would become that dauntless, infuriating man that Ricky despised--or, at least, he thought he did. He was pretty sure he did. Whatever the case, Ricky knew Jean would show him no mercy. Once he saw that green Perrier Monte Carlo pull into view in his rearview mirror, all bets would be off. He wouldn’t have a prayer.
Not that he was certain he had one now. Hell, at this point, Ricky didn’t know what he was and wasn’t sure of.
Tomorrow, he thought, would be another day.