I sucked in a deep breath before entering my boss’ office. I hadn’t been looking forward to this discussion, but couldn’t put it off any longer.
“What’s up, Dani?” Sam Donavan, NASCAR driver and part owner of Donavan-Tolliver Racing, waved me towards one of the leather chairs in front of his massive desk. “Are you here to tell me you’re ready to come back to work?” His dark eyes brightened under his shaggy blond hair, transforming his usual intense expression to that of a boy hopeful that he’d get the birthday present he’d asked for. It illustrated so well the difference between the way most people viewed him—moody and uncaring—and the way I knew him to be—a man with deep desires who covered up the little boy inside him too well.
I sat with my back straight. My hands slid into the pockets of my windbreaker. One hand rubbed a tissue between the thumb and several fingers, while the forefinger of the other hand tapped on a set of keys. All of the nice words I’d prepared to soften the blow of my announcement disappeared from my mind, so I just let the bad news tumble out.
“I’m not coming back, Sam. I’m giving my resignation.” I ignored his rounded eyes and slack jaw and forged ahead. I had to get it all out. “I appreciate the time off you’ve given me since Nick’s death, but I’ve been thinking a lot about what our lives will be like now.” I shook my head. “I don’t see how I can continue to travel the circuit with you since Nick won’t be there to watch the kids on the weekends.”
Sam leaned forward on his elbows and opened his mouth to speak. The intensity had returned to his rugged face and I knew he was ready to spout objections, but I didn’t let him get a word in.
“I need to put the boys first now that their dad’s gone. I love my work, and traveling the circuit has been a dream job.” I looked down into my lap to hide the gathering tears. “But I have to put the needs of my children before my preferences.”
The tissue in my pocket shredded in my fingers. I still had to drop the hardest news. I blinked away the tears, then looked at a spot beyond Sam’s shoulder, unable to look him in the eye. “I’m going to move back home where family can help me out. I’ve already talked to a realtor and the house will go on the market next week after we’ve had a chance to clean it up.”
Now that I’d gotten it all out, I felt like I could breathe again, but the words seemed to make my decision more real. I clutched the keys in my hand so hard that they bit into the skin.
“Dani, you’ve been under an enormous amount of stress lately. You should wait a while before making such a major decision.”
I shook my head. “I haven’t been able to think of anything else for the last two weeks. I’ve run every possible scenario through my head. It just won’t work, Sam.”
“What about your income? You need this job now more than ever. Maybe God had our paths cross just for this reason—so you’d have a way to help support your family.”
I pressed my lips together and fought against the surge of anger. How dare he throw God in my face? I knew God was in control. Since the moment I’d seen how bad Nick’s injuries were after the accident, I’d felt God's promise to provide for us wrapped around me like a comforting blanket. How dare Sam insinuate that I was going against God’s plans when I was only putting my children first.
“It’ll be tight,” I said, “but we’ll make it. Nick did an excellent job of providing for us. We’ve always lived below our means and have been able to save and invest well because of it.” The tears I’d been trying to hold back slid down my cheeks as I recalled the many hours Nick spent keeping up with the market and planning how best to take care of us in our retirement years…or in case anything happened to him. “We have an excellent financial planner and he’s helping me set things up so we can live off the insurance proceeds, our investments, and Social Security.”
“But that’s not going to give you what you need for retirement or the type of college education you and Nick were planning for the kids.”
I nodded. I’d already thought about that, although neither of those concerns were my number one priority at the moment. “Adam scored well enough on the ACT to get a scholarship at just about anyplace he wants to go. Between that and government grants, we should be able to swing it.”
The promise that God would provide, and the certainty that I was making the right decision helped dry my tears. “And once we move back home, I’ll find a part-time job-- something that will allow me to be available for my kids.”
Sam walked around to the front of the desk and leaned back against the edge. “I understand your concern for your kids, Dani. That was the issue when I first hired you a year and a half ago, remember?”
I nodded and swallowed hard. The memory of the day my friend Gayla—Sam’s PR rep—took me to the race at Charlotte rushed through my mind. When I met Sam, it was like we’d been friends for years. I still didn’t understand it; I just accepted it.
“You didn’t think being away from your family every weekend would work then either,” Sam continued. “But look how well it worked out. How many times have you told me how good it was for the boys to spend so much time with their father?”
I smiled at the memory, but it faded quickly. “But this is different. When I leave now, they’ll be on their own all weekend.”
Sam opened his mouth, but I knew what he was going to say, so I answered his objection without letting him voice it.
“I know. They’re all teenagers. Many people wouldn’t have any trouble leaving them by themselves for a weekend. But I’d have to leave them every weekend for almost ten months out of the year.” I shook my head. “I’ve seen what can happen when parents leave their teenagers home while they go away for the weekend or take a vacation without the kids. It’s too much temptation, and I won’t do that to my children.” The thought of the trouble a thirteen, fourteen and sixteen year old could get into without parental supervision so much of the time made me shudder.
“Don’t think this is an easy decision for me, Sam. I’d love to be able to keep working with you, but I just can’t leave my children. I’ve got to make them my number one priority.” I dabbed at my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt.
Sam leaned forward, almost bending down to my eye-level. “Then bring them with you.”
I shook my head. I’d already thought of that possibility. “Three kids left for twelve hours a day in a motel room all weekend would be worse than leaving them at home. Either way, they’d be unsupervised.”
Sam stared off into space. He jaws clenched and unclenched. After what seemed like an eternity, his dark eyes brightened once more. “They can hang out at my motor home. The Motor Racing Outreach has programs all weekend for the drivers' kids in the drivers’ compound. They can get involved with that and make new friends.” A satisfied smile turned the edges of his mouth up as if daring me to counter his offer.
“I…I don’t know, Sam.” I licked my lips. I hadn’t anticipated such an offer, and it was very tempting. I let the idea roll around in my head for a few minutes. But Sam didn’t realize how much three teenage boys could disrupt a person’s normal routine. I found myself shaking my head before I’d completely made up my mind. I wanted to accept the offer—to argue with myself that it would work—but I couldn’t do that to Sam.
“You don’t know how much your offer means to me. But you just don’t understand what you would be setting yourself up for by inviting three teens into your home-away-from-home. I know how much you need your time to yourself—time to get into the right mindset for practice, qualifying, and the race. I can’t take that away from you.” I shook my head again, and let out a deep sigh. “Besides, the MRO is there to minister to the drivers’ kids, not the children of any support staff who want to bring their kids with them.”
Sam’s face darkened, and a hint of anger glistened in his eyes. “But you’d take away the calming influence you have on me when things get hectic at autograph signings, meet-and-greets, and interviews—“
“You can always replace—“
“No, I can’t!”His eyes flared, and his features hardened. It was an expression I’d often seen when things heated up, but I’d always been able to calm him down—to make him see the other person’s point of view or make the other person understand why Sam was angry. It felt different now that it was directed at me.
“I’ve had plenty of PR people and minders of all types to escort me to publicity gigs,” Sam continued. “None of them has understood me the way you do. None of them instinctively knows what I need like you do. You know what I mean when my words don’t come out right and rub on people like sandpaper. You smooth the edges for me by explaining what I mean in a way they can understand.” He jabbed a finger towards me each time he said “you.” “You’re the buffer between me and everyone else. No one else has ever been able to do that. You have no idea what a difference it’s made in my career.”
I couldn’t stop the stream of tears. I didn’t want to give up my job, and I hated the thought of leaving such a good friend behind. But I had to put my children first. Why couldn’t Sam understand that? “Don’t you realize how hard this is for me too?”
Sam’s rugged features softened. “I’m just trying to find a way to make it work, Dani. You’re more than just an employee, and you know it.” His gaze felt like a laser piercing straight to the tangle of emotions I’d been trying to stifle since I’d made my decision.
He bent down to my level again. “I don’t think you realize how much I need you—”
“Did I just hear what I think I heard?” Randy, Sam’s partner and the second driver-owner of Donavan-Tolliver, said from the doorway. His slight frame—so short that at five six, I nearly looked him in the eye—leaned against the doorframe. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s polite to knock before you enter?” Sam’s voice sounded stern, but I knew he was teasing his partner.
“I did knock, but no one answered.” Randy closed the door behind him, then took a seat next to me. A broad grin covered his face. “You haven’t answered my question. Did I hear you tell Dani you need her?”
Exasperated, Sam said, “Yeah. Why? You know how much she’s helped me.”
“I do.” Randy’s grin broadened.
“So help me convince her to accept the new terms of service I’ve offered her.” He briefly summarized our discussion.
I piped up to reinforce my position as Sam told the story. When he finished, he let out a long, deep sigh and addressed me. “What’s it going to take to get you to keep your job?”
“Propose to her,” Randy said.
My mouth dropped open in sync with Sam’s and we both stared at Randy. His smile had faded, replaced by complete seriousness.
“Sam, you’ve always told people you’ll get married when you meet the woman you can’t live without,” Randy explained. “And didn’t I just hear you tell Dani you need her?”
Sam blinked, then his stare moved from Randy to me.
I felt like a specimen under a microscope—being compared to every other woman Sam had ever dated. The excruciating scrutiny made me want to jump up and flee. He couldn’t possibly be giving Randy’s words any weight. There’s no way I could stack up against the thin, young women Sam found attractive.
I sucked in a deep breath, barely aware that I’d been holding it, and squashed the urge to run. I needed to finish this. As painful as it was, I needed to close out this chapter of my life, then put it in the past, treasure the memories, and move on. “Go ahead and say it, Sam. You won’t hurt my feelings. I know you’re not rejecting me or our friendship.”
What a liar! I could barely stand the thought of rejection, even though I understood why. I simply couldn't handle it now. Not when it still felt like God was rejecting me somehow by taking Nick away.
Sam folded his arms across his chest and looked down his nose at me. “So, you’re assuming I won’t take Randy’s suggestion?” He lifted an eyebrow.
Anyone who didn’t know him would assume he was simply being an arrogant prima donna, but I knew he was teasing. I forced a laugh. “Of course. You know I’m not your type.”
“And just what is my type?”
I leaned back and imitated his posture. “Pretty young things about ten years younger than me, at least thirty pounds lighter, and well-endowed.” I raised my eyebrows, daring him to deny it.
Randy chuckled as we slipped into the typical banter Sam and I so often exchanged.
“And not one of them,” Sam said, “understood me as well after a month as you did the moment we met. I’ve never connected with anyone so quickly…especially a woman.” He opened his mouth to say more, then stopped and blinked. His gaze darted to Randy, then back to me.
I felt like I was back under a microscope. A tingle ran up my back, as though some type of creepy-crawly ran up my spine.
The silence stretched beyond the point of comfort, until I couldn’t stand it any more. “Come on, Sam.” I rolled my eyes. “Don’t tell me you’re actually considering Randy’s proposal.”
Sam grinned at my choice of words. Randy let out a hoot of laughter, and said, “I think she’s got the right idea.”
The fire rose up my face. How could I be so stupid?
As Randy’s laughter died, Sam leaned forward and looked me in the eyes. “As much as I hate to admit it…” He gave a backhanded slap to Randy’s knee. “…maybe the Pigmy is right.” He straightened, then let out a long sigh. “Dani, the only thing I’ve been able to think about since you said you were resigning is that I can’t stand the thought of you not being with me at the races.” The expression on his face reminded me of a lost puppy dog not sure which way to turn.
He paused for a long moment, then took a deep breath. “And the idea of you being with me all the time isn’t exactly awful.” He gave me an evil grin, but the intensity had returned to his eyes. I’d seen that look many times when he climbed into his racecar. For some reason, he’d latched onto this idea and wouldn’t let go of it until someone proved it wouldn’t work.
“Maybe we should test Randy’s hypothesis,” Sam added. “Would you consider sticking around for a while to see if our friendship could turn into something more?”
I wasn’t sure whether I should laugh or cry. I squeezed my eyes closed, then looked up at the ceiling and tried to blink away the renewed tears. It had only been two months since we’d buried Nick. I hadn’t even had time to think about whether I wanted to date again, much less remarry. Did I really want someone to step into Nick’s place so soon? And if so, did I want it to be Sam?
The tangle of emotions began to churn again, making my chest hurt. Or was it just the now-familiar ache of missing Nick?
I wiped away the tears with the edge of my sleeve, then shook my head. “I don’t know, Sam—“
He took both of my hands in his. A softness I had never seen in him filled his eyes. “Bring your kids with you on the circuit for a month, like I suggested earlier. If we find out nothing’s there, then I’ll accept your resignation.”
In spite of the pain, the suggestion had appeal. We were already good friends and understood each other well. Maybe love was only a step or two away. Could this be the way God planned to provide for me and the boys?
After several long moments, I finally nodded. I had little to lose and much to gain if this was God’s will. “I’m willing to give it a try.”
Randy headed towards the door. “I’ll just leave you two lovebirds alone.” He made several smooching sounds before disappearing through the door.
Sam glared at the door as it closed behind his partner. I got the distinct impression that he would have liked to throw something after him, but when his gaze returned to me, he leaned forward and planted a gentle kiss on my cheek.