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CHAPTER TWELVE - Lower than Low & Higher than High
"Atta girl, Alex, you kicked his ass!"

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She Came to Win - Book 1 Chapter 12: Lower than Low . . . and Higher than High
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Alex had hugged Steve in the Richmond Winner's Circle and the picture made all the papers. When she saw all the cameras and reporters, she wisely did not plant a big one on him, but the hug was genuine and the grin on his face made that all worth it.

Afterwards, Roy, his wife, she and Tom all converged in Steve's Motor home and they all got drunk. She caught Steve eying her quite a few times, and she recalled how good it had felt to crush herself into his body. She hoped that it didn't look bad, and she was on pins and needles until she saw the pictures on the Net the next morning. Surprise, surprise, the hug just looked like a fellow racer embracing her teammate. Thank goodness.

What she noticed when Steve looked at her now was that there was something else in that look, an appraisal, a cataloging, a hint of wistfulness. It gave her a flush, but a slight feeling of shame. You are trying to seduce him and he knows it, but he doesn't know what to do about it.

She resolved to back off. It had become a game and that was not fair . . . not fair to Steve, and most of all not fair to Tom. What am I doing? No answer came back, and that disturbed her more than anything else.

This week was Talladega, and she wondered if she would be gun-shy in the pack. For some reason, when they unloaded their high speed track cars that has been so good at Daytona, they had no speed here. They weren't snail-like they just were a mile per hour slower than their rivals. Even the backup cars went no faster.

"Looks like we've been sleeping and our competition was burning the midnight oil", said Roy.

It was too late to do anything about it, so they went out and concentrated on handing, because they knew that qualifying speeds had less to do with race speed.  When the dust settled, the best qualifier in the group was Roy at 15th with Steve in 18 and her in 19.

When she finished her qualifying run the car seemed a little off and she told Charlie. They checked the top of the motor, but all seemed well there. Charlie took her aside. "Look Alex, I can swap out the motor, but NASCAR will put you at the back, and as slow as our cars are, you might be lapped on the third circuit."

He grimaced, "Might be better to blow up  . . . I dunno. Let me talk to Roy."

After a few minutes, she, Charlie and Roy sat down and talked. Roy was upset, but he was trying to not show it. "Alex, this has to be your call. Whatever you decide, we will wholeheartedly support."

"Well, if I can stay around 20th, there usually is some sort of wreck either at the front or at the back. If it's at the front, I'll be going so slow I'll miss it. If it's at the back, I'll be in front of it. If I start at the back and there's a wreck, I'll likely be in it or be so far out from being lapped that I'll wish I was in it. I think I'll stand pat."

Roy laughed, "Just aim for the nearest car and brace yourself. Nah, seriously, I think you're doing it right. If the motor holds up, you'll run OK, not great but OK. If it doesn't, let's hope it packs in after the big one so you'll get something good out of it."

On race day, she never had to worry about running in the "eye of the storm" because her car just wasn't fast enough to duel with the big boys, but it was good enough to sit at about 15th, which given what they knew about their cars was good. Surprisingly, their cars had less tire trouble than the big dogs, (it might have been where they found their speed and by going to two tires on the first two spots, Roy even led a lap and she ran as high as 6th.

Steve's car started to come alive by half way just at the point where hers started to vibrate really badly. Alex came in to the pits and they changed tires. As she came out of the pits, there was a huge wreck in the backstretch and the caution came out. When all the dust settled, she had regained her lap and was sitting 12th. On the restart, the car seemed OK until turn 4, where the motor burped and she quickly got out of the groove. One lap later it was banging and vibrating so badly that she just pulled into the pits.

Charlie came down off the box and looked under the hood and gave her the "cut it" sign, and then spoke on the radio, "Number four dropped a valve, lucky you didn't oil the track. Take her to the garage."

When she pulled herself out of the car, Charlie arrived. "You're in 31st, but some of them wrecks are out there circulating. If they last, they'll pass you. I figure you'll be on the board at the end somewhere around 35th."

After a quick drink of water, a meeting with the media, and a change of clothes, she was back in the motor home in time to watch the finish. Roy finished 12th, but miracle worker, Steve, finished 3rd! She turned to Tom, "That guy is touched by the almighty."

Tom nodded and looked at her evenly. "He's sure impressive," he stared off, "and I know he impresses you."

Crap! I have really stepped in it. Of course Tom has noticed; we've married for years. I am such a fuck. She stared directly at her husband. "Tom, the only person who impresses me about what's important in life is you."

He smiled. "It's easy for respect to turn into something else. His face turned serious. "But respect comes in a bunch of packages, and I fear mine's a little tattered and worn."

The smile returned, but it had a rueful tinge. "Look, I always knew it was my job to be more than the supportive guy in the background in a sport where things happen so fast . . .  on the track and off. Just tell me if this is serious or just . . ."

She spoke quickly. "It's not serious Tom. It's me being a childish ass. It's me not having the maturity to discriminate between affection and admiration and love."

Alex grabbed his arm. "Give credit to Steve. He's been fending off my asinine hero worship like a knight in shining armor."

"He likes you a lot, Alex." There was softness in Tom's voice, almost like he had conceded the conclusion – and not a good one for him.

"Yes he does, but he is a lot more mature than me, and he knows I love you. He can handle the mutual respect and affection thing, and I have not. It's on me, Tom. It's on me." She was crying, almost sobbing. Tom, please tell me you forgive me for being an ass. Please tell me you still love me."

"Alex. I surely still love you, and of course I forgive you. But I also love you enough to let you go, if that's what you want."

"Oh my God, Tom, leaving you or doing anything with Steve has never been in the equation. I just . . . I just haven't been very good at getting it in the right place." Now she was crying and sobbing. "Tom. I love you so much."

Tom came over and pulled her close. "Alex, don't punish yourself for a mistake you didn't make. Don't do that. It's killing me to see you so devastated."

"Oh Tom." She hugged him and kissed him.

He picked her up and carried her into the bedroom.

* * * * * * *

Tom had made spaghetti and meatballs for after the race, and she tore into it. God, I feel so much better now that all that bull shit is off my chest, and off Tom's too. I just didn't realize how much that was playing on me.

She stopped munching long enough to caress his cheek. "Thanks, hon, for bringing me back to reality."

He smiled. "Sometimes we don't realize how much pressure we put on ourselves with just not talking things out. I think it was pressing on both of us."

"Yeah, but now the pressure is still on me . . . to make it right for Steve. I can't just ignore him."

"No, and something tells me, he's mature enough to deal with it . . . if you tell him . . . not in a rude way, just sit down and talk to him."

"Sister to brother," she interjected.

"Sister to brother; the brother you never had." There was sudden recognition in Tom's eyes.

"Yes. I want his friendship I want to be close . . . just not close . . .  that other way." Alex formed a sheepish smile.

"Then you need to talk to him, maybe not, in your face talking, but surely explaining." He stuffed half a meatball in his mouth, savored the flavor, and then smiled seriously. "I'm guessing he'll be as relieved as you are."

"I think you're right. Can I have another helping?"

"Meatballs or . . ."

"Both. Is it like swimming, where you are supposed to wait like a half hour before jumping in?"

Tom almost spit his food. "No hon, but barfing in the middle is not very sexy, so some settling is advised."

"Then instead of desert."

* * * * * * *

When they arrived at Darlington for the next race, she went looking for Steve. She found him leaning over the engine on his car, looking at something very intently.
"Found the secret to another hundred horses?"

He turned, brightened, but then steadied his look as he caught her serious face.

"Steve, I . . ."

His hand caught her wrist. "You don't have to say anything, Alex. Your face says it all. It's good, what you decided . . .  good for both of us, and I have to tell you I'm relieved. I care for you and Tom way too much to . . . ever get between you two."

Alex patted his hand. "It wasn't you getting between us; it was me getting between us." She looked off, and then stared at him with a grim look. "I admire you so fucking much, Steve."

"Me?" He seemed thunderstruck.

"Yes, you." She shook her head. "You don't realize it, but to me you are so smart, so poised, so together. There is a power in you that just resonates with me."

Her eyes filled with tears. "Had we met ten years ago, I would have wanted you and you alone." She turned away, but Steve gently turned her back.

"I was a different guy, ten years ago. I was arrogant and a bit selfish. I don't think you would have liked that Steve Varner."

"Well, I like this one just fine. I can't have this one, but I like him a whole hell of a lot."

"I'll be here for you, just not in that way."

"I know you will. But please tell me you'll still care for me . . . that you won't walk away. I don't think I could stand that."

His face softened. "Alex, I'll be your friend and even your big brother. I'll protect you, love you and make sure no one ever harms you. I promise."

Alex took a deep breath. "Good.  I just hope I haven't . . ."

"You haven't done anything except feel deep affection for me. Everyone wants that from someone that they care about. I'll be here for you." He gripped he shoulders. "I'll be strong for you. Don't worry."

"I have to go now." It was all she could say. If she didn't walk away right now, she was going to do one of two things – burst into tears or jump into his arms. Neither was appropriate, but both were what her heart was telling her to do.

She glanced back as she headed toward her motor home and the look on Steve's face broke her heart.

* * * * * * *

Her heart just wasn't in it. The first Darlington practice was a disaster, with both the car and Alex not in the track. Every time she thought of the encounter with Steve, a deep ache churned in her stomach.  She knew she needed to do something, but all she could do was avoid everyone, including Tom, and that, she knew, was very, very bad.

After her encounter with Steve, she had let Tom know she had spoken with him.

He had taken one look at her face and hugged her. "If anyone can understand, it will be Steve."

He understands, but the problem is that my heart doesn't.

In that first practice, she had to come in early because Steve passed her and she started crying. As a result, the best time she ran was in the last 10 cars at the track. If she kept it up, she'd be starting 43rd.

When she was walking back to the motor home a TV reporter cornered her. Usually she dealt with them easily, but today she wasn't in the mood. Worse, she couldn't even pump herself up to be terse. When he asked her if her Kansas win was a fluke in light of her Talladega finish and her current lap times, she just teared up and shouldered her way past. She knew the footage would be hurtful and she would be perceived as "a typical woman" by many who watched the clip, but she didn't care.

She was sitting in the living area sipping some hot herbal tea when there was a light tap on the door. She couldn't imagine who it was, but she suspected it was some media type ignoring the sanctity of the drivers' living quarters. Her temper suddenly flared and she whipped open the door to see Steve standing there.

The violence of the move startled him and he jumped back. "Uh, Alex, I'll come back later."

The anger went out of her like a balloon deflating. Worse, so did all her energy. She slumped against the door frame. "No, no," she said in a tired voice. "No, please come in."

"I don't want to  . . . is Tom here? Maybe I should  . . ."

"Come in Steve. You are solid. I'm the one who is a wreck."

She took a deep breath, and straightened, and led him inside. "I'm having some tea, do you want anything?"

"Just some water would be fine." He looked sheepish and uncomfortable.

"Steve, you're OK  . . . even with me." A tiny smile etched her lips. "It's me. Yesterday just pulled everything out of me . . . emotionally and somehow physically. I can't get it together."

His brow furrowed, and then his face became deeply serious. He took a deep breath. "It's about loss. I know, believe me, I know. I almost . . . well, I almost ended my life after Janice  . . . died. Seriously, I did. I know what you are going though and I came to try to help you, to make sure you don't give up . . . like I swear I did."

Alex saw his face contort for a second into hopeless grief, but then he wiped it away.

"I was where you are right now . . ."

"No," she interrupted, "you had a reason to get to that point. I fucking don't." She straightened. "I am, once again, an asshole. I have to stop feeling sorry for myself and appreciate what you've done for me, what Tom is trying to do for me, and what everyone else on my team is doing for me."

"I have to appreciate that I have two men, a boss and a ton of guys on my crew and in the shop that would do just about anything short of murder to see me succeed." She palmed the last of her tears from her face.

"I have to accept that though two men love me, I can only have one . . . and the funny thing is, I am so damn lucky, because both of you would die rather than see me unhappy and confused. I am blessed, and instead I have been moping around like a teenager." She leaned across and hugged him hard.

Steve didn't know what to do: smile, nod in agreement, or pat her on the back. He did all three.

"Good. Your head is in the right place. And who is this other guy who loves you besides Tom? I'll go kick his ass."

Alex burst out laughing. "Damn it Steve, that was just what I needed; both the insight into your life and the joke. if we didn't have a practice session this afternoon, I get roaring drunk with you."

Steve chucked, which for him was a huge laugh. "Now that's the old Alex. He stood. "Speaking of ass kicking – I expect you to do that to my lap times this afternoon." He touched her cheek affectionately. "I'll always be in your corner."

"I know. It helps sustain me. Don't forget that."

He nodded, then turned and left.

Lucky we do have a practice this afternoon because I would have . . . hell, I want to, get roaring drunk with that guy. Not a good idea, though. I've got it right in my head, but a few drinks and that would fly out the window.

* * * * * * *

Her heart seemed less heavy when qualification for Darlington began. Charlie walked over as she watched some early qualifiers running. So far most had killed her best time – even the back markers.

"Alex, I want to try something. I can't do a lot before you go out, but I can fiddle with the track bar. I'm gonna try what Roy used last year."

"Whatever, Charlie. If it's as bad as it was yesterday, maybe you'll fix it so I wreck and don't embarrass myself."

Charlie patted her shoulder and gave an instruction to the crew member. Alex didn't want to look or to know what he did, as it might make her even more nervous, so she continued to watch competitors.

When she got into the car, her only thought was to not embarrass the team or herself. She rolled up to speed, set a good line for turn one and prayed. The car sailed up toward the wall coming out of one, but she was able to cut a near-perfect line into two, and low and behold came out of two but never lost it as many do there. She came off two with a full head of steam.

Cut three like you know it has to be done. Cut it girl cut it!

The car took a set on the suspension and pulled through three into four feeling under her for the first time all week and she sailed out of four and into the home stretch with the engine singing almost right up to the rev limiter.

She was afraid to try it again without wrecking the car, and as she slowed for turn one she heard over the radio "P One young lady. P One and . . .  a new track record!"

A huge gasp left her, not so much for the accomplishment, but for all the energy and concentration it had taken to "survive" that lap.

When she pulled herself out of the car, Charlie, Roy, and Steve were all there, grinning like kids with a bag of purloined candy.

"Whatever you did Charlie; that was awesome"

Charlie was deadpan. "At the last second, I chickened out and didn't change a damn thing. I ain't kidding, I changed nothing." He spread his hands. "And I was too scared to tell you."

Alex had a shocked look on her face, but an instant later she started laughing so hard she started to cry. The next two qualifying rounds were a breeze and she hung on to P1 easily.

When the TV crew approached her, the relief brought the tears again. When they asked, she said, "I have the best damn crew chief in NASCAR."

* * * * * * *

The trio sat in Roy's motor home that evening after qualifying. Alex was nursing her one beer she allowed herself and she didn't even want to know what Steve and Roy were drinking.

Roy raised his glass. "Here's to the lady who shattered the Darlington qualifying record." He burped politely. "Where the heck did you find that speed?"

"Am I allowed to be impolite?" Her face was lit up with innocence.

"Surely", Steve said, obviously trying to look sober, and not pulling it off.

"Out of my ass." Her face cracked into a wide open grin. "I have absolutely no freakin' idea where it came from." She touched Steve's arm affectionately. "Your Florida lessons helped some, but I was so scared I'd wreck that I was totally zoned in. I swear, if I tried it again, I'd have turned that car into junk."

Roy looked at her, suddenly appearing sober. "Drive it that way on Sunday, hon. But, please, dear God, don't get hurt; Tom would kill me if he got to me before my suicide."

* * * * * * *

Alex led the first two laps and then backed off and let the hot shoes dice it out. Sitting about 8th, she bided her time and experimented with the car's capabilities. It was good, but not the best car out there, yet Charlie seemed to know where they needed to go with the settings given what the track was giving them.

Their pit stops were good and the car was not erratic, so she continued in the top ten the whole race. With 30 to go, her radio crackled. It was Charlie. "Time to fly little girl."

Alex suddenly found herself in a zone: set the line, come off clean, set up the car in front; high or low, cut in cut out – don't overdrive the damn tires, girl.

With ten to go she was third, and running in on number two. Her mind would not let her discern who it was; it could have been Roy, David Pearson, The King, Earnhardt, Sr.; it did not matter. Is he slipping up, trying to protect the bottom?

 Yes, I see it, here I go!

"Four laps, closing on the leader." Her spotter's voice crackled in her ears. Can I take him? I think he's too high in one; no, maybe it's three. Shit, I have to do it NOW.

The two cars came out of four side by side, but Alex's line was better and she got that snitch more of traction she needed. She nosed him out by 2 feet at the finish.

"Atta girl, Alex, you kicked his ass! You are P one at the finish. Take your victory lap."

Victory lap? It's over? I won? She was so exhausted, so drained that all she did was cruise around the final lap and stop near the flag stand.

Sitting there, it hit her. Alex, you won race number two fair and square. You, my friggin' young lady, have arrived.