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Running on Empty

Author(s): Sarah Gross

 Aspiring off-road racer, Tom Guthrie, is down on his luck when he meets well-heeled Elizabeth Claymore. She is in southern California to open a West Coast extension of her successful Manhattan art gallery. He’s trying to figure out what women want. She’s trying to prove to her father that she can succeed on her own…as soon as she learns to drive. Tom decides the only thing Libby can drive is a man crazy. However, what Libby teaches him is that a person can’t win unless he’s in the race.


Chapter One

Tom Guthrie liked the low-lying fog that blanketed the Southern California coast each spring. The locals called it June Gloom, a good description that fit his mood. He swung open the glass door of Bernie’s Best Driving School with a chip as big as a California redwood on his shoulder. Melody left him almost six months ago, and he still hadn’t figured out why.

"Got a live one for you."

Bernie interrupted Tom’s thoughts mid-way between regret and good riddance. The owner of the driving school sat behind a metal desk with an unlit cigarette hanging between his lips.

"Teenager?" Tom asked.

"Naw, older woman. New Yorker. Paid in advance." Bernie chuckled, cleared the gravel in his throat, and handed over the paper work. "The lady requested a stick shift."

Tom nodded. He knew the type. Never driven a car in her life and now that she’d found herself in SoCal, she was ready to cut loose in a sporty convertible. Miss New York would be better off in a nice American boat-sized automatic. Something she wouldn’t get too hurt in when she made that left turn in front of an unsuspecting fellow road warrior.

"Hey, Tom. Try not to screw this one up."

Bernie’s throaty laughter echoed in Tom’s ears as he left the office. There wouldn’t be another screw up, because he needed this job. Nothing would come between him and the new love of his life: a 1968 Mercury Cougar with gleaming chrome bumpers, duel carbs, and 427 cubic inches of pulsating V8 engine. She belonged to him and the San Diego North County credit union. He intended to keep her in the lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed. That would happen only if he could maintain a positive cash flow, and bouncing from job to job put a serious crimp in the checking account.

He slid behind the steering wheel of a Honda Civic with Bernie’s Best Driving Academy painted on the door. The sign assured Tom a wide berth in the street and on the freeway, evoking both fear and respect to all who saw it. This wasn’t the greatest job in the world, but it paid a decent wage while he waited for the powers that be in the racing circuit to decide if he was disqualified for the Baja 500. Although the wait was killing him, he’d learned not to beat himself up over things he couldn’t change.

"Otherwise, you can take this crummy job, and shove it," he said, to the demure compact he drove with such careless disregard that he was surprised she’d survived his three days as a driving instructor.

He turned the corner of 4th and Palm and searched the pink stucco buildings for a street address. When he came to the right number, he pulled over to the curb. Cramped, Tom stepped out of the ‘gray ghost’, and stretched his six-foot frame. The morning gloom had lifted, replaced by a bright sun that bathed the high-priced condos in white light. Tom took the work order out of his shirt pocket and checked the stats. The lady’s name was Elizabeth Claymore. He strolled over to the iron security gate and buzzed her number.

"Who is it?" a woman’s voice asked over the intercom.

"Bernie’s Driving School, Miss Claymore. Ms. Claymore," he corrected himself.

His lack of political correctness had messed up his last assignment. How was he supposed to know that she was a he?

"I’m not quite ready. I’ll be down in a minute," the voice answered.

No surprise there. One fact of life he’d learned early in his thirty-two years. Women kept you waiting.

"Women," he said out loud, enjoying the fact that they always lived up to his low expectations.

Palm trees shaded the quiet street, providing relief from the rising heat. Tom leaned against the car. He got paid by the hour, and could wait. The psychiatrist in group therapy had said Tom needed to express his emotions. What did the doc know about what Tom needed?

His ex had cleaned him out; lock, stock, and espresso machine. What crumbs she’d left, the attorneys had squabbled over like pigeons in the park. Tom had been bummed out since that day in Laughlin when he’d seen his ex arm-in-arm with Kevin Weyerhauser. So bummed he’d ignored the ‘idiot’ light on the Ford Ranger and burned up an engine. He’d stewed plenty when that happened, but he’d kept cool. No way was he going to let those two see how bad that felt.

He was about to even the score. He’d formulated a state-of-the-art fuel additive that would give an engine that extra endurance needed in down and dirty commuter traffic. With the Baja race, he’d have the opportunity to prove his invention. The money would roll in like waves at high tide.

What would he do with all that dough? He smiled. He hadn’t dreamed that far ahead, yet, but the possibilities would be a pleasure to contemplate. Old Kevin, with his toothy grin and family bankroll, would have to show Tom the respect he deserved. And Melody? He’d show her who was the better man.

Tom peered at the empty sidewalk on the other side of the gate. No Elizabeth Claymore. He checked his watch.

"What’s keeping you, Ms. Claymore?"

A woman close to his age emerged from one of the condos. His mood picked up when a look of recognition illuminated her face. She smiled and waved. He watched her close the gate behind her. Why didn’t a woman her age know how to drive a car? Driving was as natural as breathing. Women were the great unknown, and he’d given up trying to guess what they wanted.

The lady looked dressed for a board meeting in a black power suit with a long jacket and short skirt. Black strappy high heels adorned long, slender legs. They were the kind of shoes that would distract a guy about to close a multi-million dollar deal. Geez, how’s she going to slip the clutch in those? If that wasn’t enough, the lady wore a string of pearls that peeked through a shimmering black silk blouse. He liked pearls on a lady when the occasion called for them, but this was a driving lesson, for crying out loud.

Tom’s attention was diverted by barking. A woman his mom’s age rounded the corner walking a lap dog. Both she and the dog wore Capri pants and a tee that showed their bare midriffs. The pooch jumped up on his client’s expensive duds.

"Bruno, get down," the woman said, pulling on his leash.

"That’s all right. I love dogs." Ms. Claymore reached down and scratched the mutt behind his ears. "Aren’t you the sweetest little guy?"

The dog grinned from ear to ear.

"Ms. Claymore?" Tom asked.

She turned to look at him. Her eyes were the closest shade to chrome he’d ever seen. The dark red of her lipstick was his favorite, a come hither red that needed a man’s attention. She gave the woman a quick nod and continued up the sidewalk. Something about her walk exuded the poise of a Victoria Secret model in a kick ass power suit. He had the distinct feeling he was about to earn his pay.

When Ms. Claymore reached him, she stuck out her hand. Tom did the same and she shook his vigorously. Her hand was small and soft, and contrasted nicely with her bold as brass style.

"Call me Libby."

He continued his appraisal. Her head of shiny blond hair swung when she moved her head and then fell neatly into place. Her white skin had never seen a ray of sunshine, but looked classy in that outfit. Definitely east coast, and a woman of means. Not that he objected. He appreciated a fine pair of shapely legs as well as anyone, including man’s best friend. Tom shifted his gaze.

"I’m Tom Guthrie."

"Glad to meet you, Tom Guthrie." This time the smile came with dimples. "I’m new in town," she said, stating the obvious.

"Are you here for business or pleasure?" Tom couldn’t help but smile back.

"I’m out here to open a new art gallery." She handed him a business card, the kind that came from a commercial printer on heavy-duty stock with raised lettering.

"Claymore Galleries, New York City," he read out loud.

"I’m the chief, cook, and bottle washer," she said, with a light-hearted laugh.

Tom decided she hadn’t worked for a day’s wages in her life. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Stuck behind his pictures of the Cougar were his business cards. He fished one out and handed it to her. He’d done them himself on his computer, and they’d turned out great.

"Team Guthrie, SCORE?" She raised perfectly tweezed eyebrows.

"Off-road racing circuit," he replied, with a measure of pride.

He closed one eye against the glare of the sun and watched for her reaction. Babes liked men who drove fast cars. She turned the card over.

"Well, Team Guthrie, off-road racing is a little more than I had in mind." The comment made him grin. The lady had a sense of humor. He liked that in a woman. "What does SCORE stand for?"

"Southern California Off-Road Enthusiast. In racing, to be exact," he added.

"Doesn’t that spell SCORER?" There was a hint of mischief in her eyes. Tom knew how to spell, but he couldn’t afford to annoy a paying customer. "How long have you been teaching people to drive?"

"Long enough," he answered, his speech more clipped than he intended.

Ms. Claymore asked a reasonable question, but hell, he’d given her a reasonable answer. She slipped the card into a small leather purse. Her silky hair fell forward, inviting his touch.

"You know, this is my very first time," she said, her voice as silky as her hair.

"I promise I’ll be gentle," Tom answered.

Was it his imagination or did he detect a blush on that flawless complexion? Naw, this lady was too cool a customer to be thrown by his back-handed comment. She blinked thick dark lashes.

"Okay, Team Guthrie. Let’s get started."

"Jump in on the other side," Tom said, indicating the driver’s seat.

"Au contraire. You need to show me how to drive first."

"All students start in the driver’s seat," he explained.

"You don’t understand. I’ve never actually been behind the wheel of a car."

She spoke with a trace of apprehension. Tom was surprised. She looked so together, so ready to take on any task in front of her.

"Then today’s your lucky day."

She shot him a cryptic look. Tom didn’t have a clue what that meant, and wouldn’t venture into what went on inside a woman’s brain. He believed in hands-on experience, and he didn’t make an exception for anybody. Ms. Claymore studied his face and then made up her mind.

"Okay. If you think I should start in the driver’s seat, then I’m game."

She swung past him, and he caught a whiff of a light, citrus scent, throwing his imagination off guard. He watched her smooth backside round the corner of the car. The woman had a nice chassis, no doubt about that. She opened the door, descended into the seat, and grabbed the steering wheel in both hands with such determination that Tom wondered if she would be all right. Tom tapped on the passenger side window with a chipped fingernail. She found the right button and unlocked the door.

"Don’t be nervous," he said, as he slid into the seat next to her. The interior of the car already held her scent. "There’s nothing to be afraid of." Again the light laugh. Tom pulled his seat belt across his lap. He knew a bluff when he heard one. Her feet were inches away from the pedals. "First thing you need to do is adjust your seat."

"So how do you do that?"

"Pull up on the lever under your seat and scoot forward." She followed his directions and moved the seat closer by half a foot. She flashed him a look of satisfaction. "Seat belt," he commanded.

She pulled the belt across her lap and fastened it without an argument. After explaining the clutch, the brake, and how to shift, he told her to practice. She listened intently, didn’t interrupt. She followed his instruction to the letter.

"Not so difficult, is it?" he said.

"No. Easier than it looks." She put her hand on the door handle.

"Where are you going?"

"I’ve learned the basics. Now you can show me how to put them all together."

"Not a chance," Tom replied. "Start the engine."

"What?" Ms. Claymore licked her lips with a quick flicker of her tongue.

Tom checked himself. His mind had begun to wander where he’d promised himself he wouldn’t go. At least not anytime in the near future. He couldn’t afford a distraction, not after last year’s fiasco.

"Now comes the fun part," he said, trying to sound encouraging. "You’re going to drive a car."


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ISBN (Print):
ISBN (Electronic): 1-55404-222-4
Genre: Fiction
Date Published: 02/01/2005
Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing

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