It was a dark and stormy night in Charlotte.
White lightning raced across the sky, illuminating the night with bright flashes of silver light. The thunder rolled and shook the earth, warning of the fury of the storm that now raged almost directly overhead. The rain fell in bucket and hammered against the roof and windowpanes of the stately mansion that Jean Girard--for the moment--called his home.
It was just past the midnight hour, and Jean found himself hopelessly wide awake. Oddly enough, it had not been the storm that had dragged him from his blissfully deep sleep. Rather, it had been the sound of a quiet yet determined tapping against the glass doors leading to the balcony that adjoined the bedroom. It was a sound that was rather out of the ordinary, one Jean found he couldn’t readily place--undoubtedly why it had roused him in the first place. He sat up in bed, listening intently. For a long moment, all was quiet. Then the sound came again--Tap. Tap. More persistent now.
What on earth?
Curiosity got the best of him. Jean slipped from beneath the covers, taking care to not disturb Gregory as he got out of bed. He grabbed a pair of silk pajama pants from the foot of the bed and pulled them on, padded barefoot across the carpet, slid the door open and stepped quietly outside. As he did, a small projectile whizzed directly over his left shoulder, hit the glass and ricocheted back toward him, landing at his feet. Upon examination, he recognized it as one of the small pebbles from the gravel driveway in front of the house.
Quickly, Jean came to the realization that someone was out there. Hands squarely on his hips, he marched to the railing and peered over.
It was difficult to see all the way down to the lawn, obscured as it was by the rain and darkness. There came a flash of lightning, and in that split second, Jean was fairly certain he could make out a tall male figure standing on the ground below, hands shoved into the pockets of a dark leather jacket. Jean felt his pulse accelerate. Was that…? No. It couldn’t be.
“I know you’re down there, whoever you are,” Jean made an effort to sound as threatening as possible. “State your name, s’il vous plait, before I call the police.”
“Frenchie? That you up there?” Dear God, it was. Jean leaned forward too quickly, nearly toppling over the railing in his surprise.
“Ricky Bobby?” He didn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me.”
“What is this about?”
“I need to talk to you. It’s--it’s real important.”
“This cannot wait, I presume.”
“’Fraid not,” answered Ricky, with a momentary hesitation. “Can you come down?” he asked. “I won’t take much of your time, I promise.” Jean was shaking his head, completely incredulous. This was absurd. Bordering on insane, even. Still, he found himself acquiescing, a bit quicker than he probably should have.
“All right,” he surrendered. “Stay there. I’ll come down to you.” With that he turned, slipping stealthily from the balcony, back through the bedroom and down the staircase to the back door.
Ricky Bobby was standing in the pouring rain, waiting for him.
Something about the very sight of Ricky standing there brought Jean to a dead stop in his tracks. There was something different about him; Jean noticed this at once. This was not the same Ricky Bobby, the same dauntless adversary, that he had faced just days ago that fateful day at Talladega. He knew that man--he was cocky and confident to a fault, utterly sure of himself. The man who stood before him now was, in some off-kilter way, not at all that man. Perhaps it was all an illusion, intermingled with the dark, wind and rain, but there was something terribly off with Ricky that Jean couldn’t quite pinpoint. There was an air of uncertainty, of almost fear that was exceedingly uncharacteristic of him. He was open, exposed and vulnerable--and Jean hadn’t the slightest idea why.
When Ricky saw Jean, he turned and curtsied awkwardly in acknowledgement.
“Evenin,’ Mr. Girard.”
“Bonsoir, Monsieur Bobby.” answered Jean with a polite nod.
“Listen, I know it’s late, and I do apologize for disturbin’ you at this hour. And I know I’m probably the last person in the world you’d want to see now or ever again, but I just--I--” He stopped abruptly, the look in his eyes one of a man that was deeply conflicted. His gaze was so intense with emotion unspoken that Jean found himself looking away. “I’ll say my piece,” Ricky finished, “and go.”
“I’m listening,” Jean nodded.
“Somebody down at the garage let it slip,” said Ricky. “I hear you’re heading back to France the end of this week.” Ricky was wringing his hands together, shoving them back into his pockets.
“That is correct, Ricky.”
“It’s for good?”
“Yes, Ricky. For good.” He took in a deep breath, sighed heavily. “First thing tomorrow morning, I’m handing in my resignation to NASCAR and telling Mr. Dennit of my plans to leave the country.”
“Well--why do you wanna do that?” Ricky looked oddly disappointed; it caught Jean quite off guard. “Jean, you’ve got so much goin’ for you right now. Hell, you’ve won more races than anybody this year. What about that points championship Larry was touting around? You’re so far ahead in points, you could skip the next six races and still be ahead of everybody else--”
“It doesn’t matter now.” Jean cut Ricky off quickly. He didn’t want to hear any more, not while the prospect seemed altogether too tempting. “I’ve gotten what I came here for. There is nothing left for me here. Not in NASCAR, not in America.” He leveled a dark-eyed gaze at Ricky, regarding him questioningly. “Why are you here, Ricky Bobby? You’ve already flaunted your victory in my face on more than one occasion. What more could you possibly want from me?” The latter question came out a bit harshly, and Jean regretted it instantly. Ricky‘s gaze dropped to his shoes.
“I’m real sorry,” The way he said it made Jean feel as if he should be the one apologizing. There was a momentary silence before Ricky sighed, raised his head and looked Jean square in the eye. “Look, Jean. I came here to ask you not to go.”
Jean raised both eyebrows, genuinely surprised.
“I thought this was what you wanted, Ricky,” he said, confusion leaking into his words. “You beat me, I return to Paris, never to be seen again. That was the deal.” He shrugged offhandedly. “I’m merely following the rules of war.”
“The rules of war are more like suggestions, really.” Ricky objected. “Besides, I said I wasn’t going to kiss you. Not never, ever. And, well, look what the hell I did.” He let out a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. “Hell, I didn’t think you‘d even keep up your end of the bargain, stubborn as you are.”
“I‘m a man of my word,” Jean pointed out. “You should know that by now.”
“Come on, Frenchie. You know you don’t really want to do this.”
“It doesn’t matter if I don’t, Ricky Bobby. The fact remains. This is something I have to do.”
“No, you don’t.” Ricky’s tone was almost pleading.
“My mind is made up.”
“Well, what’s so great about smelly old French-land anyway?” demanded Ricky. “What do they got that we don’t got here?” Jean merely sighed and shook his head.
“Ricky, be honest with me. I don’t think this whole bit has anything to do with what I want to do, or what I don’t. And--” He paused, his gaze leveling with Ricky’s. “I don’t think this is even about me leaving NASCAR. No, Ricky Bobby, I think this has something to do with you, and something you want.” He stepped involuntarily closer, putting a little less than a foot of space between the two of them. “So why don’t you tell me, Ricky. What is it that you want? And what, exactly, does it have to do with me?”
The question hung unanswered in the air between them. For a long moment, there was nothing but the sound of thunder, and of the rain pouring down on the earth, soaking them both to the skin.
“I want you to stay,” Ricky answered at last, and in earnest. Something in his tone made Jean’s heart leap into his throat, made his stomach do an unsteady flip-flop.
In truth, there was nothing Jean would have wanted more at that moment than to accept. Still, he knew he couldn’t stay any longer--not when he knew the reason he wanted to stay was the same reason he so desperately wanted to get the hell out of Charlotte. There were reasons Jean had for leaving that Ricky--nor Gregory, for that matter--could ever know. It was better to just pack up and leave while he still could, keeping the damage minimal. Things were already complicated enough as it were. To stay, Jean feared, could be downright disastrous.
“Give me one good reason why I should.”
Momentarily confounded, Ricky faltered, didn’t say anything. Jean took advantage, seizing the opportunity to make a hasty exit while he still had the nerve.
“That’s what I thought. Goodbye, Ricky Bobby.” He turned to leave, and was able to take two steps before something stopped him. Suddenly, there was a strong hand around his wrist, pulling him back.
“Wait, Jean.” Suddenly Jean was inexplicably face-to-face with Ricky, gazing into blue eyes that seemed to search his own for more than just the answers to his unspoken questions. When Ricky spoke again, his voice was so soft Jean could scarcely hear him over the rain. “How’s this for a reason?”
Before Jean could grasp what was happening, Ricky had pulled him into his arms, locking him tightly in his embrace--and suddenly, Ricky was kissing him. Jean couldn’t help but to feel a certain sense of déjà vu as he found himself wrapping his own arms around Ricky’s waist, melting against him as he pressed his lips to his in return. Still, this kiss was nothing at all like the one they’d shared just days before at Talladega--the one Jean had spent the better part of a week trying to forget. This time, Ricky’s hands were gentle upon the small of Jean’s back, his lips tender and beseeching as they lingered against Jean’s. This time, Jean was certain he could feel the currents of electricity running through their bodies where they touched. And this time, it was Ricky who trembled, who sighed shakily when they at last parted.
They stayed close, so close their noses touched and Jean could feel Ricky’s heart pounding against his own chest. Ricky was clinging to Jean for dear life, holding to him as if he feared terribly what might happen if he were to let the Frenchman go. His hands found the slight curve of Jean’s back, caressing with a softness that Jean honestly didn’t know the man possessed.
“Ricky,” Jean whispered, a thousand questions mingling in that one spoken word. He was outright trembling in Ricky’s arms, and he was fairly certain it wasn’t from the chill in the electrically-charged air, nor the cold spring rain running in rivulets over his bare skin. The storm that raged around the two of them had long since been forgotten; presently Jean found himself more concerned with the lightning passion that flickered in Ricky’s blue eyes. “Why--”
“Before you say anything,” Ricky said, “I gotta tell you. I want you to know that I am genuinely sorry for any distress I might have caused you. The truth is, I don’t want you to go. Hell, a few months ago, I never would have dreamed I’d ever miss you. But the more I think about you leaving--” He sighed. “I don’t want this to end here, is all, and I just, I--” He bit his lip, averting his eyes from Jean’s. “I love you, Jean Girard.”
“Quoi?” Jean questioned sharply and suddenly. Ricky promptly released Jean and practically leaped back, apologizing profusely.
“I’m sorry,” he fumbled quickly. “I shouldn’t have said that. I done gone and made you speak French at me.” He flashed a momentary, pained glance up at Jean. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here.” This time, it was Ricky who attempted to walk away, and Jean who stopped him.
“Wait.” He clutched the sleeve of Ricky’s coat. “You can’t just walk away from this.”
“Walk away, like you were going to?” Ricky countered. “You weren‘t even going to tell me yourself that you were leaving. I had to hear it from Jeff Gordon, of all people.”
“You know, this hasn‘t been easy for me, either.” Jean sighed heavily. “I don’t know what you’re expecting me to do.”
“Don‘t go,” pleaded Ricky. “Or, at least think about staying.”
“Fine. I‘ll think about it.”
Presently, the yard where they stood was flooded with light. The bedroom light was on--meaning Gregory was awake, and undoubtedly wondering where Jean was. “Shit,” muttered Jean. “I’ve got to go.”
“Right,” Ricky offered a weak smile. “I probably should, too. Before Gregory lets the dogs out on me or something.” He took Jean’s hands gently in his own, kissing them both. “Au revoir, or whatever it is that y’all say.”
“Bonne nuit, Ricky. You‘ve put quite a lot on my plate, you know.”
“I know.” Ricky smiled apologetically. “Goodnight, Jean. See you at Watkins Glen.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Hopefully.”
He turned to leave, and Jean watched him go, a dark silhouette retreating into the stormy night. Then he turned himself and headed back toward the house, Ricky’s words still echoing in his mind.
I love you, Jean Girard.
It was amazing, thought Jean, how a simple few words had the power to completely unravel a man’s life as he knew it. Before that night, Jean had known where he stood, knew exactly where he was going and what he had to do. Now he didn’t have a clue. It was amazing, really, how quickly things could get so convoluted--and how an already complicated situation could go from bad to worse to damned impossible.
He had some serious thinking to do before the morning was over. But in the back of his mind, Jean couldn’t help already knowing what it was that he was going to do--the knowledge of which scared the hell out of him.
He could only hope he wasn’t about to make the biggest mistake of his life.
To Be Continued…