For disclaimers, see chapter 1.
Adventures in the Dust Trade, Part 9
Long heralded as the Beef Capital of Australia, where some of the best cattle in the country were bred and raised to provide meat for the local, national and international market, the city of Rockhampton also proudly wore the banner of being the capital of Central Queensland's Capricorn Region. To the east the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean lapped the Capricorn Coast which was grandly decorated with stretches of sandy beaches, the Great Barrier Reef and semi-tropical islands. And at a seven hour drive south lay the city of Brisbane, the last stage and finish line of the Australian cross-country rally.
Leaning back in her wooden chair, Kris wrapped her fingers around the cold mug of beer and took a healthy swallow, enjoying the great taste as the liquid slowly made its way down her parched throat. The road from Longreach to Rockhampton had been uneventful if not boring. Only the change of scenery, as they approached the city, made things interesting. The desert landscape soon gave way to a more populated area, with trees and large green expenses, which also brought a lot more traffic on the highway.
It had been a challenge to drive, keeping the highest of speeds all the way without risking the law to chase after them. But Kris had managed to do so and the team was still the leader of the rally but now with nearly fifteen minutes to spare between them and the team in the number two position; Shannon and Kyle. Looking down at her watch, the stuntwoman saw that it was nearly ten o'clock in the evening and as she looked around, she noticed that most of the rally participants had made it safely. Only the Finns were still on the road, having succeeded in getting their cars fixed.
They had stopped at the Great Western Hotel, a 116-year-old pub, which boasted to having the best steaks and beer around. The rooms were crowded with men and women; half of them dressed in western apparel. It was a rustic looking pub but also had a warm atmosphere. The real highlight though, was the huge undercover rodeo with ample seating for well over a thousand people. This venue drew champion riders from all over Australia and played host to national competitions.
With an amused grin, Kris watched her partner devour her steak as if she hadn't eaten in weeks. She chuckled as she finished the last of her beer and motioned for the waitress for another round. Sitting at the long table at her right was Nicole, Dean and Scott. Ludwig had taken position right across Kris and had as neighbors Kyle and Shannon. Some distance away sitting at another table was the two Italians and Frenchmen.
Kris caught the dirty looks the men were sending her way, but frankly, she didn't give a damn. The rally would soon be over and she smiled when she thought about the remaining days in Australia, relaxing with Nicole. A burst of laugher caused her to break out of her thoughts and she blinked in surprise when she saw her tablemates looking at her.
"What?" she scowled, glaring at the group and looked down at her partner when Nicole softly tugged at her shirt's sleeve. "What did I do?"
"Nothing," the small blonde laughed softly. "But you had an interesting smile on your face and the blush slowly crawling up your cheeks now is simply adorable. What were you thinking about?"
"You," Kris replied without hesitation. "And the time we'll spend together after this rally's done."
"Oh." Letting her mind wander along the same line as Kris' had, Nicole couldn't help a smile from forming on her own lips. Yeah, the ocean, the beach, the sight of my lover in a tiny bikini Feeling the heat on her face due to the images her mind was throwing at her, Nicole quickly grabbed her mug of beer and took a long swallow to cool off. Lifting her green eyes over the rim, she nearly choked when she saw everybody look at her, a huge grin on their faces. "What?"
"Who's blushing now?" Kris teased.
"Hmph," Nicole shook her head as she put the mug back on the table and finished her meal. "I wasn't blushing."
"Yeah, right," Shannon snorted. "Then you have a very nice tan."
"Boomer," the blonde warned, pointing her fork at the Australian stuntwoman. "Cut it out or Kris and I will wait until the rally's over to show you our little surprise."
"That was your plan anyway," Shannon smugly replied. "What difference waiting another twenty hours make?"
With a smile, Nicole looked at her partner and shrugged. "Looks like she's not that interested in knowing what it is. Guess you can put the surprise away then."
"No problem." Taking the few envelopes she'd hidden under her lap, Kris lifted the small bundle over the table, making a show of inspecting them before she slipped everything in her shirt pocket. "Since I already know what it is, I can wait a little longer before we show her."
Shannon's eyes grew wide as she realized what they were about to do. "Bu wait!" she exclaimed, looking at the two women. "I'll stop teasing you, I promise!"
Leaning back in her chair, Kris lifted her beer and drank slowly before she replied. "I know what your promises are worth, Boomer. Try something else."
"Come on, Kris. What do you want me to do, beg?" Shannon replied with a smirk.
"That's a start."
"Oh no," Nicole chuckled. "Don't get her started. She's been hounding me all week to find out what we've been planning." After wiping her mouth with a napkin, she put it on her plate and pushed it away from her. With a wink directed at her partner, Nicole jerked her head in Shannon's direction. "Okay, let's show her."
Kris crossed her arms over her chest and playfully pouted. "You're no fun."
"Oh really?" Nicole grinned and moved closer to whisper in her friend's ear. "That's not what you said last night."
"I'll tell you what," Nicole started as she slowly let her left hand brush against the tall woman's thigh. "You be nice and I'll make sure to remind you how much fun I can be."
It took but a fraction of a second for the envelopes to be out of Kris' pocket and onto the table in front of Shannon. "Is that nice enough?" blue eyes twinkled.
Smiling, Nicole gave her lover's thigh one last pat before she turned her attention to their friend sitting diagonally from them. "So you want to know what's in there, right?"
"Like duh!" Shannon blurted. "Of course I want to know!"
"Alright. Open the envelopes then." Nicole watched as the Australian stuntwoman did as she was told and frowned when she pulled a piece of paper out.
"That's a check for my mother," the woman said and gasped when she saw the amount. "B what's that for?"
"That's for the animal refuge," Nicole explained with a smile. "Kris and I were so impressed by what your family's doing, well we just wanted to help in our own way. We couldnt tell you in the beginning because we didn't know if the rally drivers would participate financially or not. They were very happy to."
"So were the stunt people," Kris added.
"Of course," Nicole winked at her partner, knowing that Kris had been more than generous with her donation. "Anyway, what we did was set up an adoption program. You can choose any animal at the shelter and help pay for the cost of feeding them and keeping them healthy."
"Once a year, our adoption fees come up and we continue supporting the shelter," Dean smiled. "Personally, I find the idea very interesting." the blond rally driver pointed a thumb at his partner. "Scott adopted two wombats."
"Yeah." Scratching his head, Ludwig looked at his sister then at Shannon. "I got conned into adopting Maggie, the young camel."
"I didn't con you!" Nicole protested, having a hard time to keep a smile from forming. "And besides, you can afford it. I adopted Sally, the one-eyed kangaroo. Kris did her part too and she's now the proud mother of two kangaroos," she announced and laughed when she heard her partner growl. The young blonde looked at Shannon who had a worried look on her face.
"She doesn't sound too thrilled about it," the Australian stuntwoman said softly.
Smiling, Nicole reached under the table and held lover's hand in hers. "Nah, it's just the 'mother' reference that's making her grumpy."
Kyle chuckled. "Well, I never thought that one day, I'd be a foster parent to a koala."
With a surprised expression, Shannon turned to look at her teammate. "You knew about this and didn't tell me?" She saw the man grin and nod. "You fink! Is there anything else you didn't tell me?"
"Yep, but it's his news, not mine." Kyle said as he pointed a finger at Scott. "I guess now's the best time to tell her."
Scott snorted. "Oh gee, thanks Kyle. That was subtle." He shook his head as he pulled a business card out of his pocket and handed it to Shannon. "I found somebody who wants to buy your Lancer. Give him a call once you get home. I might have somebody else too for the second car," the rally driver said and noticed her hesitate in taking card. "You did say that you wanted to sell them, right?"
"Yes, but " Shannon sat back in her chair, speechless. "Wow," was all she managed to say. She took a deep breath to calm herself as she looked at her tablemates. "This all too much. First the donations for the shelter and now this I don't know what to say."
"How about thank you?" Kyle quipped as he leaned his arm across Shannon's shoulders and winked. "You want to tell them the news or will I?"
"You're getting married?" Dean asked with a mischievous grin. "Or don't tell me, you're pregnant! Ouch!" he scowled when the stuntwoman kicked him under the table.
"Don't push it, Blondie," Shannon warned with a pointing finger, making everybody laugh. "First, I'd like to thank you all in my parent's names for what you did for the shelter. The money will be very appreciated, trust me." She held the opened envelopes and looked at Nicole. "You have the addresses of those who aren't here with us today, right? I'd like to thank them."
"I do," Nicole nodded. "But I heard that most of them will be waiting for us at the rally's finish line."
"That's great, I'll do that then." The brunette said and looked at Scott. "As for the Lancers, I really appreciate you finding a buyer for me. Two cars were too expensive to take care of but I can handle just one. So "
"Boomer and I decided to make a team and participate in a few rallies," Kyle blurted, unable to keep the news secret any longer.
Shannon elbowed her team partner in the ribs. "I wanted to tell them," she complained.
"You were taking too much damn time!" he shot back. "We've been holding this news for two days now."
Hiding behind one hand, Nicole leaned closer against Kris. "And they're supposed to be working as a team? Ow." She felt her friend's body shake with silent laughter at the comment and smiled as she stood. "Need to go to the bathroom," the blonde whispered in Kris' ear and gave the broad shoulders a light massage. "I'll be right back."
"Okay," Kris nodded. Turning her attention back to the still bickering teammates, she spotted Tony, sitting a few tables away, observing Nicole as she walked across the crowded room. She could feel her jaw muscles tighten under her skin as her eyes became mere slits. "Just make one move towards her," she murmured her warning with her eyes locked on the Italian. Tony had been nothing but trouble since the beginning of the rally so why would things be different now?
"Where are you going?" Gilbert asked as his friend stood up. Wobbling slightly on his feet, Stephane grabbed his glass and drank the last of his beer in one swallow then slammed it back on the table with a burp. He drunkenly grinned at his tablemates as he pointed a finger in the same direction that the small blonde had taken. Without a word, he left the men behind and staggered after the woman.
With a snort, Tony turned his attention from Nicole back to the beer in his hand, unaware that a pair of icy blue eyes was watching him intently. "I'm sure they must be damn proud of themselves, especially after the Finns dropped back to the last position."
"Who are you talking about?" Roberto asked and lifted his eyes to look in the direction his friend was indicating. The first person he saw was the Austrian stuntwoman. He swallowed nervously when he spotted the look on her face. "She doesn't look like she's in a party mood, that's for sure. Why are you saying that?"
Tony stared at the younger man as if he had lost his mind. "Why? Are you serious when you ask me that? The trouble the Finns had is just too damn weird to be a coincidence. They've been leading almost since the beginning and now that the race is almost over, this happens? Come on. I bet they had something to do with this."
Roberto scratched his jaw as he looked back at the stuntwoman then at Tony. "Are you saying that Kris sabotaged the Finns' car?"
The Frenchman shrugged. "Why not? The mechanical problem did put her in first place after all convenient no? Now all she's got to worry about is you my friend," Gilbert said as he pointed a finger at Tony. "You're gaining fast on her and you're the only one capable of threatening that position. I'd be careful if I were you. Maybe something will happen to your car next."
"It's not just us going for the number one spot, Shannon's right behind Kris." Roberto said, having a hard time to believe that the stuntwoman could even think about sabotaging a car. She had wasted precious minutes when she had stopped to help them. Why would she have done that if she was so obsessed in winning?
"And you honestly think she'd do something to harm her friends?" Gilbert shook his head and lifted his glass to take a sip. "Besides, I don't think Shannon is capable of gaining up on Kris but you guys are." There was a moment of silence as the three men were lost in their thoughts then the Frenchman looked at Tony and grinned. "If Kris had anything to do with the sabotage, I'm willing to bet that the little blonde knows something about it."
Nodding slowly, Tony sat straight in his chair and turned slightly to look in the bathroom's direction. "That's an idea," he smiled as he pushed his chair away from the table and stood. "I'll just have a little chat with her. This won't take long."
In a corner where the public phones were, a man inserted a few coins in the slot then dialed a number. It rang a few times and as he waited, turned his back to hide from the general population. Very soon, everything would be finished and he would be a few grand richer if nothing went wrong. He let an impatient sigh escape and was about to hang up when the call was picked up at the other end of the line. "Where the hell were you?" he hissed.
"You're not the only one in the game, you know. I've got other projects to deal with," a gruff voice replied. "If you're calling to up the bet, you're too late."
"I'm not," the man said and lowered his voice when somebody walked behind him. "Just wanted to know how the odds look." He silently listened while the bookie repeated his usual lines and results.
Kris saw one of the Frenchmen stand up and head towards the bathrooms but he wasn't the one who worried her the most. She relaxed somewhat when Tony turned back in his seat, his eyes no longer following Nicole but she continued staring at the men sitting at the table a moment longer. After a few exchanged words, Roberto made eye contact when he looked her way and even from a distance, the tall woman saw him swallow with difficulty and look away. She silently chuckled. I guess 'The Look', like Nicole calls it, still works. She felt a hand on her arm and turned to see her brother looking at her. "What?"
Ludwig gave the muscled forearm a squeeze before letting go and sitting back in his seat. "You okay? You had a murderous look on your face a moment ago." He glanced in the direction Kris had been looking and saw the Italian drivers talking with one of the Frenchmen.
Kris shrugged as she finished her beer. "I'm just imagining things," she replied with a small smile and turned her head to see if Nicole was walking back to the table. She wasn't. "All I want right now is to get back to our room and get some sleep. We'll leave as soon as Nicole gets here."
"I think some rest will do you a world of good, little sister. You look tired."
"I'm bored, that's what I am," Kris replied with a dry tone of voice. "It was fun in the beginning, but now I don't know."
"Excuse me for eavesdropping," Dean said as he pulled a chair and sat between Kris and Ludwig. "But I think you'll be happy to know that tomorrow will be a lot more exciting."
"Why?" Both dark haired siblings spoke at the same time and smiled as they looked at each other.
The blond rally driver scratched his head and grinned. "Well, if I told you now, it wouldn't be a surprise tomorrow, now would it?" He saw that the stuntwoman was about to comment and he raised a hand for her to stop. "I know that you don't like surprises, Kris, but you'll like this one. Before we leave in the morning, every team will receive a new route to follow and instructions for the second half of the rally."
"Second half?" Kris repeated.
Dean nodded with an exuberant smile. "Yep, that's the surprise part. It'll be very special for you guys, trust me."
With a low growl, Kris glared at the blond. "If it's another scavenger hunt, I'll kill something. We got all your damn pictures so don't you dare adding more to the bunch."
"No more pictures," Dean quickly assured her. "Honest!"
"Good," was Kris' rumbled reply. She pushed her empty beer mug away from her and leaned back in her chair. Listening with half her attention to Ludwig as he quickly picked up the conversation with Dean, Kris looked in the direction of the bathrooms again then let her blue eyes slowly scan the room in search of the small blonde. Maybe she's simply talking with somebody, she thought, knowing that Nicole could easily strike up a conversation with a total stranger, having seen it happen on numerous occasions.
An uneasy feeling suddenly crawled up her neck and Kris moved forward in her seat. She couldn't explain why, but she felt like she needed to leave. Touching her brother's arm to get his attention, Kris stood up. "I'll go find Nicole and we'll head on to our room. See you tomorrow." She returned her brother's smile and gave the rest of the people sitting at the table a little goodbye wave. Her eyes searched the crowded room once more and ended on the table that Tony and his friends shared. The Italian driver wasn't there anymore.
Nicole walked towards the small sink and turned the faucet on to wash her hands. She could faintly hear the music playing outside and knew that as with must pubs, it would only grow louder with every passing hour. She could deal with the noise but knew that Kris was probably having a harder time handling it. Her partner didn't like social gatherings that much and the past few days spent in the company of the rally participants was taking a toll on her. She looked at her watch and smiled when she thought that in less that twenty-four hours, they'd both be together at some resort, enjoying peace and quiet for the remaining days in Australia. She was also looking forward to returning home in Innsbruck and back to a more normal routine.
And that routine would do a world of good for Kris' spirit. She'd be back working at the stunt school, doing what she loved doing best; teaching her craft. The physical demands that her job asked would keep her from getting bored and thus falling back into a near state of depression. The rally had helped with getting Kris out of her funk, but Nicole felt that her partner was loosing interest with the unexciting driving they'd been doing for the past week.
She turned the faucet off, then dried her hands as she silently thought. Hang in there, love, it'll all be over soon. Looking at her reflection in the mirror, Nicole brushed her long blonde hair as best as she could with her fingers. "But for tonight, a hot bath and a relaxing massage is what's needed," she murmured, knowing that it would relax her tall friend. With a last look in the mirror, Nicole opened the door and walked outside.
The corridor was empty save for a man that was talking on the phone. He stood with his back turned to her but something caught her attention and she smiled when she recognized him. She hadn't seen him since they had arrived in Rockhampton and wanted to chat for a little while before she went to their room with Kris for the night. Nicole waited patiently for the man to finish his call before she spoke to him.
"I'm telling you, everything is under control," the man was saying, oblivious to the small woman standing behind him. "I took care of the Finns and now, Kristina is sure to win." He was silent for a while as he listened to the other speak, then replied. "If the team in the second position threaten her, I'll just deal with them, no matter who they are. I've got too much money bet on Kris, she's got to win this rally. If " as he spoke, the man turned around and came face to face with a small blonde.
Nicole blinked in shock as the words registered in her mind and quickly lost her smile. I took care of the Finns? I've got too much money bet on Kris? "What's going on Greg?" she asked the stuntman. Something was definitely wrong and the situation suddenly didn't look too good for her. She only wished that somebody would decide to use the bathrooms and interrupt this little reunion. Casting a quick glance around them, Nicole noticed the emergency door behind her, and relaxed a little knowing that she wasn't trapped like a rat and that the alarm would go off if the door were to open.
"I'll call you back," the redhead growled into the phone and hung up. He saw the small woman looking for an escape route but he was too close to his goal to let something like an overheard conversation ruin his plans. There's no way he'd let her go now. "What do you mean, what's going on?" he asked calmly.
"You're the one who damaged the Finns' car?" She took a step away from the man, getting more nervous with every passing second. "Why?"
With a smile devoid of any humor, Greg matched the small blonde's steps until she was backed against the wall. "I think you know why. You heard me on the phone, didn't you?" Before Nicole could answer, he grabbed her arm and jerked his head towards the main room. "Come with me outside and we'll have a little talk. Don't do anything stupid or I'll brake your arm," he warned as he gave it a hard squeeze. "Got it?"
Nicole silently nodded as she furiously tried to find a way out. As long as he had his hand on her, she couldn't do anything for fear he'd injure her. All she needed was a distraction and to her surprise, it came in the form of Tony. She let an exaggerated gasp escape her lips, and felt Greg's grip loosened on her arm. Feeling that it was enough to take a chance, she tried to pull it out of his grasp.
The man was temporarily surprised but quickly readjusted his hold on Nicole and violently slammed her against the wall. "I told you not to " he barked angrily and sucked a breath in surprise when a large hand slammed down on his shoulder. "What the "
"What's going on here?" Tony asked, taking in the scene before him. The small blonde had fear written all over her face and he could see the red pressure marks on her arm where the stuntman was grabbing her.
"You're hurting me!" Nicole yelled the first thing that crossed her mind, startling both men. It was all she needed and this time successfully jerked her arm out of Greg's grip. She quickly moved to the other end of the corridor and in front of the emergency exit. At least now she had a way out. Pointing a finger at Greg, she said. "He's the one who sabotaged the Finns' car, I heard him on the phone."
"He what?" Tony looked at Nicole who didn't appear like the frightened woman that he had seen a few seconds ago. Her expression now was more angry than upset. He turned his head back and stared at the stuntman. "Is that true?"
"Don't listen to her, Tony," Greg said. "She made a pass at me and when I turned her down, she got upset. She's saying that just to get back at me!" He blinked when he found himself pushed against the wall. "I swear!"
Feeling her temper rise, Nicole marched towards the two men and tried to grab Greg. "You son of a "
"Hold on," Tony said as he held Nicole at arm's length, stopping her with a hand on her shoulder. But the young woman wouldn't stand still and he grabbed a handful of her shirt to get a better hold on her. "I said wait!"
Kris made her way through the crowd and headed directly for the bathrooms. She was tired and all she wanted to do was find herself in bed with her lover, just relaxing. Nicole wasn't the type to waste a lot of time primping in front of the mirror, so her absence was starting to worry her. She carefully detoured a couple talking in the aisle and rested her hand on an empty chair to get it out of her way.
"Let go of me!" somebody shouted.
The voice was all too familiar to Kris and sounded a mix between fear and anger. She shoved the chair away from her, which collided against a table then fell to the ground and with a surge of adrenaline, the tall woman burst into a sprint.
Back at the table, Ludwig drank the rest of his beer and put the empty mug back on the surface. "I think my sister's right. I should head on to my room and get some sleep too. It's been a long day."
"Kris really looks tired," Shannon said as she looked at the departing woman's back. "I bet once the rally's over, both she and Nicole won't get out of the bed for days."
"I know what you mean," Kyle sighed. "I wouldn't if I was sleeping with either one of them," he chuckled then winced when a hand slapped him behind the head. "Ow! What was that for?" he scowled at Shannon.
"They're your friends, you dingbat!"
"Just because they are, doesn't mean I can't fantasize!" Kyle shot back.
Laughing at the exchange, Ludwig shook his head as he stood up. The conversation at the table was suddenly cut when they heard a shout and the sound of a chair crashing against wood. They all turned around in time to see the tall form of Kris start running in the direction of the bathrooms.
"What the hell " they all exclaimed.
Kris rounded the corner and growled when she saw the scene developing before her in the narrow corridor. Greg was plastered against the wall while Tony, standing with his back to her, had a good handhold in Nicole's shirt. The young woman was wrestling to get free and when Tony released her, she lost her balance and fell to the ground, hitting her head against the wall. Kris had seen the angry look on her partner's face and when she saw her being pushed she reacted without thinking. Rushing towards the Italian driver, the stuntwoman grabbed the man and slammed him against the other wall, jamming her forearm against his throat.
"That was the last time you touched her." Kris' voice rumbled, her furious blue eyes mere inches away from his face. "Now you're gonna deal with me."
Tony quickly rose both hands in a defensive gesture. "I wasn't doing anything! She looked like she was in trouble and I " he squeaked, his voice cracking with the lack of oxygen.
This is too good to be true! Greg thought as he looked at Kris pinning Tony against the wall. With Nicole out of it for the moment, he was completely free to go. No matter what Tony would say, nobody would believe him. Trying not to get any attention on him, Greg moved slowly down the corridor and as he was about to reach the main room, started running.
"I told you," Tony tried to explain through clenched teeth, getting angrier by the minute. "I wasn't the one who attacked her!"
"So I guess that it wasn't you who pushed Nicole, right?" she replied sarcastically. "She must have tripped over her feet, right?"
"Yes!" The Italian driver exclaimed loudly. "I mean no what I mean is, it was an accident. I just wanted to keep her from attacking Greg and "
One dark eyebrow disappeared behind the bangs. "Nicole, attacking Greg?" she asked in disbelief. "Your lies aren't getting better."
"I'm not lying!" was Tony's exasperated reply. "What can I do to convince you?"
Wanting to keep the trouble down to a minimum, Ludwig quickly chased after his sister. He had barely made it to the corridor when a running figure slammed into his body, the collision causing the Austrian to step back as he grabbed the man's shoulders to steady him. "Hey, sorry about that," he apologized. "I didn't mean "
"Let me go!" Greg barked as he cast a nervous look over his shoulder. Wanting to escape, he tried to push the man out of his way but he wouldn't move. Letting his eyes move up along the large muscular chest, the stuntman swallowed nervously when he locked gaze with a scowling Ludwig.
"What's going on, Greg?" Ludwig asked and saw his sister holding Tony in place while Nicole was some distance away, sitting in the middle of the corridor. "What happened here?"
In a panic, the red haired stuntman said the first thing that crossed his mind. "I was getting help. Tony attacked Nicole!" He looked at the exit and silently cursed when he saw that people had started to block his only escape route.
Seeing Nicole on the ground, Shannon pushed her way through the small crowd and went to her side. "Nicole! Are you okay?"
The young blonde, still sitting on the floor, reached a hand up to rub the back of her head. Everything had happened so fast that she wasn't exactly sure how she ended up on there. "Ow! That hurts," she complained softly.
Having heard Greg's comment, Kyle frowned as he approached his friend standing next to Ludwig. "But if she needed help, why didn't you stay with her?"
"I saw Kris and well, I figured I'd uh, Id come and get you guys." He tried to find a way out of this mess and silently chuckled when an idea crossed his mind. If he could manage to get Kris angry enough at Tony, she'd start a fight with him and everybody would concentrate on separating them. He could then get away. With his plan in mind, Greg pointed a finger at the Italian and spoke loudly so Kris could hear. "Nicole learned that Tony's the one who sabotaged the Finns' car. He got angry at being discovered and tried to shut her up."
"What?" Tony barked, feeling his temper rise with all the lies he was being accused of. "He's lying! I might be very competitive but I'd never stoop so low as to tamper with anybody's car." Unable to move because the stuntwoman was still pinning him against the wall, he shifted his eyes right and saw Dean and Scott approach them. "Tell her! You know me, would I do such a thing?"
"I don't know what to think anymore, Tony," Dean replied, not knowing how to handle the angry stuntwoman. He looked at Scott who simply shrugged. "What a big help you are," he mumbled.
"I really don't give a damn about your ethics," Kris growled as she clutched Tony's shirt and took two handfuls of material. "You went after Nicole and that's all that matters to me." She pulled the man forward only to slam him back against the wall. "Time to pay the price."
Confused and slightly dizzy from hitting her head against the wall, Nicole took a deep breath to steady her self and saw images flash in her mind. Hearing Greg talk on the phone, finding herself slammed against the wall, Tony showing up, her getting angry by Greg's lie, loosing her footing when Tony wanted to keep her away from Greg.
"Greg!" Nicole breathed as she remembered the past events. She looked up and saw her lover's face red with anger, her hand formed into a fist and ready to strike. "Kris, wait!" she yelled as she grabbed the closest thing to her, which was Shannon's arm and got up from the floor.
Kris hesitated when the young blonde called out to her and Tony saw that her attention wasn't entirely on him. It was all that he needed. He violently pushed the tall woman away from him, causing her to stumble backward across the narrow corridor and hit her back against the opposite wall. "If you won't listen to me, maybe you'll listen to her!" he yelled as he pointed towards Nicole. "I have nothing to do with this!"
"It's the truth, Kris," Nicole quickly said as she stood next to her upset partner. "Tony walked in on us when Greg accosted me." She brushed her hand against Kris' arm, trying to calm her but she was more than angry and Nicole doubted that anything could appease her tall friend at the moment. "Kris, Greg's the one who caused the trouble and damaged the Finns' car, not Tony."
Her body shaking with fury, Kris clenched her hands repeatedly, wanting to hit something, or someone. She had heard Nicole's explanation but somehow, it didn't want to register in her mind. There had been nothing but trouble since the beginning of the rally, she had heard the nasty comments all throughout the week and had seen the look Tony had sent Nicole's way just after she had risen from her chair to go to the bathroom. She especially remembered Tony pushing Nicole and her falling to the floor.
But why was Nicole agreeing with Tony's claims that he had nothing to do with what was going on? Blue eyes blinked in confusion as she looked from the angry looking Italian driver to her worried partner. Nicole wouldn't lie, her tired mind reasoned. Kris noticed for the first time Dean and Scott standing beside them, looking as confused as she felt. 'Kris, Greg's the one who caused the trouble.' The phrase kept repeating in her head.
Kris slowly turned to look at the American stuntman, her eyes becoming mere slits. "You're the one?" she growled, focusing her anger on him and remembered all the things that she had been accused of throughout the week.
Greg swallowed nervously when he felt the dark haired woman's icy glare on him. Oh shit!
He knew he was busted and had no way of getting out of this jam unnoticed. It was one thing to deal with the law, but to face the furious stuntwoman was quite another. From his side vision, Greg saw that he also had no way of escape since Roberto and Gilbert had joined Ludwig and Kyle thus blocking his only way out. Not exactly true. There's still a possibility.
Keeping her eyes on the red-haired man, Kris took a step forward, wanting to lay her hands on him and make him regret the trouble he'd caused. But she found her way blocked by two nervous looking rally drivers. "Get out of my way, Dean."
"Just calm down, Kris," the blond man said softly. "You'll only get yourself in trouble if you do something."
"He's not worth it." Scott added.
"Not worth it?" Kris barked in anger. "Somebody could've gotten seriously injured with the damage he caused! Who knows what else he did, he might even be the one responsible for both attacks on you and Shannon. Didn't you think of that?""
Damn! Time to get outta here! Seeing that everybody's attention was locked on the dark haired stuntwoman, Greg bolted around the small group, escaping Ludwig's grasp, and ran down the corridor toward the emergency exit. The stuntman was about to slam the door open when a wobbling figure walked out of the men's washroom and collided with him, sending both Stephane and Greg to crash to the floor in a heap of intertwined limbs. In a matter of seconds, rough hands grabbed the redhead and pulled him to his feet.
"You bastard!" Kyle's voice rumbled in anger as he shook the younger man senseless. "If it's true, I'll tear you to pieces!"
The drunk Frenchman slowly stood and glanced around him with a bewildered expression on his face, wondering why so many people were standing in the corridor. "Whatever happened, it's not my fault." He continued on his way and found his team partner standing next to Roberto. "Come on, Gilbert. Let's have another beer."
"I'm right with you," the man replied. "I don't want anything to do with this. If the man ran, he's guilty I'm sure."
"You son of a bitch!" Scott glared at Greg and took a step forward. A hand suddenly locked around his arm and he looked at his lover. "Let me go. I want to give him a taste of his own medicine."
"I thought you told Kris that he wasn't worth it." Dean pleaded, having a hard time in stopping Kris from approaching the American stuntman as well as Scott who wanted to get a piece of Greg.
Uncrossing his arms from over his chest, Tony moved past Kris and headed for Greg. "If nobody will take a swing at him, I will! I've been accused of all kinds of bullshit because of him!"
"Enough!" Ludwig yelled, making his way among the people facing Greg. "This isn't the place to deal with the problem. Let's go somewhere more private." He saw his sister make another move towards them and held a warning finger in her direction. "Cool it, Kris, I mean it! I will not have anybody here get in trouble because of this asshole, especially you."
"Lou's right," Nicole finally spoke, her voice shaking with tension and reached up to touch her friend's arm. "Come on, let's go outside and get some fresh "
"Don't touch me " Kris warned from between clenched teeth, her pale eyes never wavering from Greg. "...Please. Just don't." She knew that her temper was close to its breaking point and didn't want Nicole to suffer the consequences. But she also knew that she needed to do something about it and fast.
Shaken by the harsh command but understanding Kris' need, Nicole silently nodded and took a step back to give her friend some breathing room. She felt a hand brush her back and looked at Shannon who gave her a small reassuring pat. The situation was getting worse with every passing minute, nobody knowing how it would end. Greg had been pushed against the wooden wall with Kyle keeping an eye on him while Dean did his best to keep Scott from doing exactly what Kris wanted to do.
With a strong voice, Kris demanded. "Boomer, go get the first aid kit."
The Australian stuntwoman frowned at the request then her eyes grew wide as she imagined why the tall woman wanted it. "Kris, you can't "
"Get it!" she ordered, her blue eyes flashing with anger.
Not sure what to do, Shannon looked at Nicole, who silently nodded, then sighed. "You got it," she reluctantly agreed and left the group in search of a kit.
Shifting her attention back to Greg who refused to meet her gaze any longer, Kris took a step forward and held a hand up to stop her brother from speaking. "I heard you the first time, Ludwig. You don't need to repeat yourself." She stopped inches away from Greg. "I want you to know something," she started, her voice dangerously calm. "You're one lucky bastard to have so many witnesses because nobody gets away with manhandling my friends, especially my lover." She grabbed his chin and jerked his head up, causing him to look at her. "I have no idea why you did what you did, but we're gonna find out with or without your cooperation."
Nicole watched in fascination as the scene developed before them. She had seen her friend go from enraged to incredibly calm in seconds but she knew that inside Kris' temper was still at a boiling point. The calm before the storm, she silently thought.
Kris let go of Greg's chin and took a step back, giving him a cold, emotionless smile. "Once we're done with you, we'll hand you over to the law but before we do, there's just one thing I want to do right now. And that is "
Everybody held their breaths as the intimidating woman stared at Greg, not moving one single muscle. Not a word was spoken and if it weren't for the music playing in the main pub area, it would have been deathly quiet. Patrons wanting to use the washrooms decided otherwise when they noticed the tense looking men and women in the corridor and changed direction.
Kris cocked her head sideways and glanced at the stuntman shaking with fear. How satisfying it would be to let her fist connect with his jaw, giving her body the chance to let the pent up anger release. Just one hit, that's all. It'll make you feel better a little voice inside her head taunted. "Ah hell, why not?" she murmured with a smile devoid of any humor.
With one solid jab, Kris slammed her fist into the wall a mere inch away from Greg's head, making the wood panels behind him rattle with the violent hit. She heard the man whimper as he kept his eyes closed and she snorted in disgust. "Get him out of my sight." She watched Ludwig grab Greg's arm and start making their way through the crowd, with Tony, Dean and Scott following close behind.
Nicole waited silently for her friend to calm down, giving her some time to herself. She had seen Kris in this state before although not as angry and knew that once her temper was down to moderately upset, they would be willing to talk. Green eyes followed the tall woman as she paced the narrow corridor, looking for the small sign that would tell her that Kris was calmer and could be approached.
Mumbling under her breath, Kris walked to the emergency door and stared at the darkness through the small glass window. She ran her hand through her hair and sighed. It had been years since she had let her temper go that way and she felt guilty, not because she had come damn close to knocking Greg senseless, but because she had lost control over it, especially with Nicole watching. At least what little control she had left had stopped Kris from doing something rash when Nicole had touched her, simply wanting to calm her.
She was aware of Nicole standing some distance away and tried her best to push her anger away. Nicole had nothing to do with what had happened and was the last person to deserve her wrath. She cracked her neck sideways and took a deep breath before turning around to face her lover.
"Kris?" Nicole called softly, having seen the small signal she was waiting for. She slowly rubbed her hand against the taller woman's back, feeling the still tensed body under her fingertips. "Hey "
"I'm okay." Kris looked into the worried green eyes watching her. "Honest, I "
"No, you're not." Nicole gently lifted the large hand up and held it in her smaller one. The flesh on the knuckles had been ripped to shreds and blood had started to roll down her fingers, causing it to drip to the floor. "Come on, let's get this taken care of." She guided Kris towards the washroom and silently waved to Shannon who had made her way back to them.
"It belongs to the pub," she informed Nicole.
Smiling her thanks as she took the first aid kit from the Australian stuntwoman, Nicole followed her friend inside the washroom.
Shannon watched the door close behind the blonde then turned to face her silent friend. Kyle was leaning his back against the wall with both eyes closed. "Why did Kris ask for a first aid kit?" she asked him then looked at Roberto when the bald stunt technician didn't answer. "What did she do?"
"Never saw anybody so angry that I was sure she'd break his neck," the Italian driver said. "But she hit the wall damn close to his head and injured her hand. Guess she knew what she was about to do."
"What a mess," Shannon muttered with a sigh. "I would've never suspected Greg. He's been so nice and fun to be with."
"When he was with us and that wasn't often," Roberto added. "I think I'd better join the guys and keep Tony from doing something stupid. He wasn't too thrilled with Greg either."
"Good thinking," Shannon agreed. "Maybe now that we know who our trouble maker is, he'll leave Kris and Nicole alone. They've dealt with enough bullshit from him."
Roberto snorted. "That won't make any difference. Tony still thinks that Kris doesn't deserve to win the rally and that she's in first place only because of the other teams' troubles. He wants to show her he's better than she is." He looked at the American then back at Shannon. "Are you coming to see what's going on with Greg? I wanna know why he did it."
"We'll be with you shortly," the stuntwoman nodded. "You go ahead." She watched the rally driver leave then softly touched Kyle's arm. "Hey, you okay?"
Taking a deep breath then releasing it slowly, Kyle opened his eyes and shook his head. "He's my friend was my friend. I don't know how to handle this." He lightly banged his head against the wall. "Damn, he could've killed somebody with what he did to Teppo and Heikki's car not to mention his attack on you and Scott."
"We don't know that," Shannon said softly. "Maybe it's just a coincidence, maybe he "
"If somebody accused you of something, would you run if you weren't guilty?" he asked. "What pisses me off is that I didn't see it coming. Guess Ludwig feels the same since they've been driving together all week."
"He caught everybody by surprise, Kyle. Come on," Shannon took his large hand in hers and tugged it gently. "Let's see what's going on. I suspect Lou brought Greg to their room."
"No," Kyle shook his head. "I don't want to see him right now. I need time to think." He felt the stuntwoman start pulling her hand away from his but he gave it a small squeeze, stopping her from doing so. "Maybe we could sit and have a beer or something."
"Or something," Shannon smiled. "You think Kris will be okay?"
"With Nicole taking care of her? I'm not worried." Still hand in hand, both exited the corridor in search of some peace and quiet.
Kris leaned against the wall as she moved her hand under the faucet, letting the lukewarm water clean her hand, silently watching as the blood swirled around in the sink to finally disappear down the drain. Standing across from her and working on the counter was Nicole, searching through the small first aid kit for some bandages and was as silent as the tall woman was. Lifting her eyes from her hand, Kris tilted her head slightly to look at her friend, and relaxed when she didn't see a disappointed expression on her face. Nicole didn't look angry even though she had all the right reasons to be.
That was a stupid thing to do, Kris' conscience told her. She clenched her hand and winced at the burning sensation. At least I didn't put the bastard in the hospital. "I'm sorry," she said softly when Nicole turned to face her with a piece of paper towel in her hands. "I told you some time ago that I'd never do what I just did. Some promise, huh?"
Green eyes looked up to lock with a blue pair and she smiled. "If I recall, the promise was that you'd never hit me. You didn't. Though I have no idea what the wall did to you to warrant such a hit." Taking Kris' hand in hers, she proceeded to gently clean the injured knuckles.
The unexpected comment made Kris chuckle softly. "Better that then Greg's head," she murmured with a sigh. "When I saw Tony's hand gripping your shirt and you wrestling to get free, I hmm, I lost it. And learning what Greg did only made things worse."
"Yeah," Nicole smiled sadly. "Actually, Tony was trying to keep me away from Greg. All I wanted to do was scratch his eyes out," she explained as she kept her eyes on the cleaning she was doing. She then informed Kris of what exactly had happened earlier.
"Looks like I owe Tony an apology," Kris reasoned. "I really thought he was after you. He Ow!"
"Sorry!" Nicole bit her lip as she touched the finger with the most trauma, doing her best to dry Kris' hand. "Somehow, I don't think an apology from you will keep Tony off our backs, he's been at it since the beginning of the race. I really don't know which bug crawled up his butt."
Kris snorted with laughter. "Nice image," she drawled.
Gently wrapping her friend's hand with bandages, Nicole shrugged. "Yeah, well, he gives me the creeps, even if he did help me tonight. Can't help thinking that he was looking for me when he showed up."
Maybe he was, Kris silently thought but kept it to herself, not wanting to worry her partner unnecessarily. She silently watched as Nicole put one last piece of tape, fixing the gauze in place.
Nicole smiled as she lifted the hand up and put a light kiss on it. "There you go, all cleaned and wrapped up."
Sliding her fingers through the blonde hair, Kris brought Nicole's head closer to her and gently kissed her forehead. "Thank you," she said softly and asked. "How's your head? You seemed a bit dizzy for a while. I wanted to check on you but "
"I'm okay," Nicole nodded, lifting her fingers to touch her friend's lips. "And I understand, you had your hands full. Besides, I didn't hit it that hard. I should be the one thanking you for coming to my aid."
Wrapping her arms around the small woman, Kris gave her a heartfelt hug, feeling Nicole do the same. "I'll always be there to protect you. Always."
"I know," Nicole replied softly. "I love you."
"I love you too," Kris smiled and regretfully stepped back. "Why don't we go check on the guys and find out what's going on, hmm? We'll head back to our room after."
"Good idea," Nicole agreed. She turned the faucet off and grabbed the small first aid kit before she opened the door. "We'll have to drop this at the bar before we go."
"I'm right behind ya," Kris said as she gently squeezed her friend's shoulder.
Standing in the doorway, Ludwig watched the muscular security guard as he escorted Greg out of the room and kept his eyes on the men until he couldn't see them anymore. He rubbed his face and sighed. "Hopefully your friend won't have any problem with Greg," he said to Dean who was standing next to him. "Desperate men do weird things sometimes."
"I'm not worried about Michael," the blond rally driver replied. "He's in the military, he can handle him." Dean walked back into the room and leaned against the wall. "You think Kris will join us?"
"I'm sure she wants to know what happened here." Ludwig moved past the scowling Tony and sat heavily on the sofa. "The news will shock the hell out of her."
"Talk about the devil," Tony mumbled as his eyes rested on the dark haired woman walking down the corridor with Nicole right beside her. He spoke again but this time louder and to the people gathered in the motel room. "The reason why we have trouble is here."
With an elbow to his ribs, Scott hissed. "Shut up, Tony. She doesn't even know about it. Leave her alone."
"Know about what?" Kris asked as she walked into the room. All eyes turned in her direction and everybody stopped talking at once. Leaning against the wall to her left was Tony, Scott and Dean. To her immediate right was Heikki who had just arrived along with his teammate Teppo, and sitting on the sofa was Ludwig and Roberto. "What's going on?"
"Why don't you sit down, Kris?" Ludwig asked and sighed when his sister crossed her arms over her chest and remained standing in the entrance. "Okay, this is gonna be fun," he mumbled as he scratched his head. "We talked with Greg and found out why he acted this way, though it doesn't excuse him for what he did." He looked up as Nicole stepped closer to Kris, both women watching him intently. "Apparently, Greg owes a lot of money in gambling debts and he figured he'd have a sure deal with winning the bet he made on the cross-country rally."
Nicole's pale eyebrow rose in surprise. "I didn't know people could bet on this."
Shannon chuckled as she made her way into the room. "You'd be amazed to see exactly what you can gamble on." She then looked at Ludwig. "What did he do, bet that your team would win?"
Ludwig shook his head no. "Not us, her," he said as he pointed to a silent Kris.
"Me?!" Kris exclaimed. "Why on earth would he choose me instead of himself?"
Tony snorted. "Guess he thinks you're a better driver than they are, which I doubt a lot."
Kris gave the Italian driver a dirty look before turning her attention back to her brother. "It doesn't make sense, Lou. He could've bet on any of the professional drivers."
"Maybe," Dean agreed. "But remember that Greg's very competitive and because the race is a challenge between the stunt and rally team, there's no way he would've bet against his team. So he gambled on the person he believed that had the best chance to win. You."
"And did everything he could to get rid of anybody in front of her," Tony continued sarcastically.
"I still say that we should just cancel the rally," Roberto said. "It's "
"NO!" Tony barked angrily. "We have one last section to do and we're gonna do it. I want to show her who's the better driver."
"Can it, Tony!" Scott exclaimed, getting annoyed with the man. "This was supposed to be a fun rally. When did it become a race for the world championship?"
Tony pushed himself off the doorframe and pointed a finger at Kris. "It stopped being fun when they resorted to cheating to win," he shot back then looked at the rally drivers. "I knew it was a bad idea to have them be part of the race. Stuntmen " he snorted in disgust. "They're nothing but "
"Enough!" Dean barked. "Don't you dare accuse them. They're as much professionals as we are and none of us would think of sabotaging equipment to win. Greg acted on his own, his plan didn't involve the stunt team. So just stop it, okay?" He took a calming breath before he continued. "What makes this worse is that Greg is was, a friend of mine. I feel twice as betrayed as you do, Tony."
"Same thing with Kyle," Shannon added softly. "What Greg did isn't easy to deal with."
Scott nodded. "That's right. His actions touched most of us. Nobody's the sole victim. He beat the crap out of me, he went for Boomer, he damaged a car Hell, with most of us accusing them, even Tony and Kris are victims."
With a sigh, Ludwig got up from the sofa and walked to stand next to Kris and Nicole. "So, what do you want to do about Greg?"
"Why are you asking me?" Kris asked her brother. "He can rot in jail for all I care, but the decision belongs to the ones who got attacked and their car damaged."
"Don't you think jail is a bit excessive?" Scott asked the tall woman. "I know he assaulted me but," he shrugged. "Maybe if he pays somehow "
Dean shook his head. "He's got enough debts to drown in them. How can he pay if "
"But he does," Roberto said. "If Greg wins the bet, he'll have enough money to pay for what he did."
Tony glared at Kris. "Only if the superstar here wins the rally and I will NOT let that woman win the race just because of that."
Feeling her lover's body tense under her hand, Nicole gave Kris' back a light rub and spoke softly. "Nobody's asking you to do that, Tony. But just for argument's sake, what will we do with the money if the bet is won?"
As she shoved both hands in her jeans' pockets, Shannon whispered in Nicole's ear. "One thing's for sure. Greg can't have it."
Roberto shrugged. "Some of it can go to Scott and Shannon for the injuries they suffered."
Hearing her name being spoken, the Australian woman looked at Roberto and shook her head. "Scott for sure but not me. What Greg did to me was nothing compared to what Scott went through. Why not use some of it to help pay for the damages on Teppo and Heikki's car?"
"There'd still be a lot of money left if we do," Teppo said.
"Why not give it to a charity?" Nicole cut in. She looked up at her silent partner who simply shrugged.
"Now just wait for one damn minute!" Tired of hearing about the money talk, Tony left his spot by the door and pushed people aside to make his way to the center of the room. "That money you're so fond of talking about hasn't been won yet. Let's concentrate on finishing the rally first, then we'll see." Turning around, he faced the tall woman and jabbed a finger in her shoulder. "From now on, the race is between you argh," he winced when his wrist was caught in an iron grip, " and me."
Locking her icy blue eyes on the Italian, Kris increasingly tightened her fingers around his wrist with every word spoken. "I'm getting very tired of your obsession with proving you're a better driver. I never said I was and I don't really care who wins this race. You got me?" She waited until the driver nodded and watched with satisfaction as his eyes began to water by the pain she was causing him. "From now on, you leave us alone and do your own damn thing. But I'm warning you. You push me again and you'll end up with more than a sore wrist."
Tony sighed in relief when the stuntwoman let him go and quickly rubbed his bruised skin. He moved away from the angry looking woman, grumbling under his breath as he walked back to stand next to his team partner.
"It's getting late and we're all tired," Nicole said, taking her partner's hand in hers and giving it a light squeeze. "This discussion is getting us nowhere so why don't we all get some sleep and we'll see what we'll do with Greg once we reach Brisbane tomorrow, okay?" She received a few nods and approving grunts from the rally participants and watched them leave Ludwig's room before she turned to look at Kris. "As for you, the first thing I want to do is check your hand to make sure that it's not bleeding anymore."
Kris tiredly rubbed her eyes with her free hand. "I just want to go to bed before I do some serious damage on somebody's neck."
"That's the second thing we'll do," the blonde smiled. "Minus the serious damage of course. Come on, let's go." She waved at Ludwig and exited the room, her hand still firmly locked with Kris'.
Their bedroom was only two doors away and soon they were inside, getting ready to go to sleep. With a fresh bandage to cover her raw knuckles, Kris quietly undressed and slipped under the covers for the night. She had hoped, with knowing whom the saboteur was, that Tony would leave her alone, but obviously it wouldn't make any difference. The man was obsessed with winning the damn rally and seemed intent on pushing everybody out of his way to do it. I wonder if he'd still hassle me if he were in the number one position, she silently asked herself then snorted. He'd probably get on my case again for my chosen lifestyle. Maybe if I just
The bed moved slightly and she turned her head to look at her lover who had just crawled under the blankets. "You're not taking a shower like you wanted?"
Nicole shook her head. "Nope, too tired." She cuddled against the tall woman's warm body and sighed in satisfaction when she felt a strong arm wrap around her waist. "All I want to do is lay in bed with you. We can take our shower together in the morning." She trailed her fingers on the naked stomach and smiled when she felt the muscles quiver under her touch. After a long moment spent in silence, Nicole moved to lean on one elbow and look in her friend's eyes. "Kris?"
"Were you thinking about abandoning the rally earlier?"
Kris blinked in surprise at the unexpected question; that was exactly what she intended to do. "I think it would avoid us a lot of headache," she answered softly.
"Maybe, but it could also give us another kind." Nicole replied as she lazily played with Kris' dark bangs. "I think Tony would have a field day calling us quitters and I know damn well that you're not." She bent down to gently kiss her lover on the lips. "I know you're fed up of hearing him, but the rally's almost over so why don't we give it everything we've got and show him what we're made of?"
A smile slowly spread across Kris' lips as she shifted the smaller woman so she leaned fully on top of her. Wrapping her arms around Nicole's waist, Kris kissed the soft lips that were so close to hers. "So you want to go all the way, huh?"
"Always," Nicole smiled seductively. "Oh! You mean with the rally?"
Kris burst out laughing. "I told you once and I'll say it again. Don't you ever change, I love you just the way you are."
"Never," the blonde murmured as she leaned down for another kiss.
Nicole split her attention between the map strapped to her thigh and on the road ahead. What a difference twenty hours make, she thought as she looked at the forest they were racing through. Only a day ago were they driving across sand dunes and deserted roads. She glanced down at the map again, her finger keeping track of where they were. "There should be a hard left soon," she instructed the driver who silently nodded.
The rally car sped over a bump in the road, the uneven surface causing the car to lift off the ground then bounce twice on the gravel road before it stabilized again. The unexpected jolt caused Kris to curse in German as she wrestled with the control. "Are you sure this is the right road?"
"Yes, I whoa!" Nicole exclaimed when the Mitsubishi bounced again and she quickly grabbed the roof handle as Kris spun the steering wheel left, sending the car into a controlled side spin. "See? I told you there'd be a hard left. I'm sure it's the right track." She looked at her map again to check for the next thing to look out for. "Another right turn coming soon then a bridge."
"How big?" Kris asked as she pushed her foot on the clutch and shifted gears to slow down. The red and white Lancer drove down the hill and was soon at a sharp right angle. "Shit!"
"How " Nicole's eyes widen when she saw that they were racing towards huge boulders. Fully expecting to crash into them and not wanting to see the accident happen, she instinctively closed her eyes tight as the rally car came dangerously close to the rocks and turned right. When nothing happened, green eyes cautiously opened. "Wh damn! That was close." She looked at her partner who had a huge grin on her face. "You really like this, don't you?"
"You bet," the stuntwoman replied. "How 'bout the bridge?" she asked again.
"How the heck should I know how big it is?" Nicole chuckled. "It doesn't really say on the map, you know."
Kris shifted gears again as she gave the engine more power to climb a hill. "Does it cross a big river?"
"Oh! Hmm," she scratched her head while studying the map. "No, it doesn't look that way. It's just a thin blue line."
"Then it's a small bridge. Hang on." Cresting the small hill, Kris momentarily lifted her foot off the accelerator until she could see the road ahead and slightly below them. "Yep, there it is."
Straight in front of them, some distance away, was a small wooden construction that crossed a dried up river. The gap itself was negligible but what worried the young woman the most was the poor quality of the structure. "That's not a bridge," Nicole spoke softly. "Maybe we're not on the right road after all. We can't cross that, there's not enough space."
"Of course there is," Kris grinned. She slammed her foot on the gas pedal, enjoying the power as the Lancer shot forward and aimed the car directly for the narrow passageway. Thankfully, they hadn't seen any traffic for the past hour or so. "Just watch."
"Kris!" the blonde warned as she tightened her grips on the roof handle and seat. "There's not enough "
"Ye of little faith," the stuntwoman murmured with a smile. Keeping the car centered in the middle of the road, Kris shifted the gears once more and raced across the bridge at nearly three times the maximum speed allowed. The wooden planks under the wheels vibrated violently as the car gunned by, sending a cloud of dust and debris to scatter in the air. "See? I told you there'd be enough space," she teased the younger woman.
Releasing the breath she was holding, Nicole slapped her partner's arm as she let a nervous laugh escape. "Are you nuts? Jeez, I thought we'd slam into those beams or something." She raked trembling fingers through her long hair but couldn't help a smile from forming. "I think you're more daredevil than you say you are."
The dark haired woman briefly looked at her friend and winked. "Are you calling me a circus performer?"
"If the hat fits " she let the comment trail. "Don't tell me, you've done this type of stunt many times before, right?"
Kris shrugged. "Okay, I won't tell you."
Laughing, Nicole shook her head and went back to studying her map. It was such a pleasure to see her lover this playful. The last time she had seen Kris this way was when she had first met the gorgeous woman back in Montreal so many years ago. The surprise outings and spur of the moment activities Kris would always plan seemed to bring out this particular facet of her personality or in moments like these when speed and a certain level of danger was involved.
"What the " Kris exclaimed in wonder as she suddenly braked and stopped the Mitsubishi. Right before them was a large clearing, which was mainly occupied by trucks and campers. Commercial banners were hooked everywhere, announcing all kinds of products from food and drinks to racing gear. "This place looks like a zoo! What the hell's going on?" she asked herself and slowly released the brake and drove down the well-worn path, following bright yellow signs with 'Rally/Stunt Outback Challenge' inscribed on them.
"Guess we're at the right place after all." Nicole shook her head, surprised at seeing so much activity in the middle of nowhere. Men, women and children walked the area, some carrying picnic baskets, others lawn chairs. "Look over there," she pointed a finger towards a yellow RSOC sign and indicated the man standing next to it wearing brown hiking boots, tan colored shorts, a safari style shirt and an Akubra hat. "Isn't that Steven Marshall, the liaison officer for the rally?"
"You're right," Kris agreed and steered the car in his direction. "Steven," she called the Australian.
"Hey!" the official smiled as he moved closer to the car. "Glad to see you made it. May I have your time sheet, please?"
Nicole handed him the worn card and took another look around. "What's going on?"
"It's the surprise Dean talked to you about. For the last kilometers of the cross country rally, you'll race on a closed circuit." The Official stamped the paper and handed it back to the blonde woman. "We just finished with the charity rally scheduled for this morning, that's why there's a lot of people remaining. But most have heard about the challenge and decided to stay to watch." Seeing another car make its way towards them, Steven indicated a cordoned off section. "That's the group's reserved area. Park the car and relax until everybody's arrived, okay?"
Kris silently nodded and drove the Lancer towards an available parking space. "This will be interesting," she mumbled when she saw the Italians' car already parked. Both men were leaning against their car as they looked back at her, hands shoved in their pockets and a big smile on their faces. "Here we go again."
"I didn't even see them pass us." Nicole said. "Weren't they leaving third from Rockhampton?"
"Yes they were. They must've driven by when we stopped to take the last picture for the scavenger hunt." The stuntwoman backed the Lancer all the way to the trees then turned the engine off. "If they think I'll stand here and listen to their bragging..."
Nicole reached for her friend's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "How about if we go check the stalls instead? This place looks like a carnival, I'm sure we'll find interesting things to see."
The dark haired woman smiled as she opened the door. "We have plenty of time before the last participant arrive. I don't see why we can't do that."
Trying her best to ignore the men who were standing on her side of the car, Nicole stepped out and closed the door. She heard Tony chuckle but didn't give him the satisfaction of looking at him. Instead, she turned her head and glanced in the direction they had just come from, seeing Kyle and Shannon driving slowly towards them. She stood in front of the Mitsubishi and took a deep breath, enjoying the pleasant smell of meat cooking. "It looks like they've got barbecues over there. Maybe Kyle and Boomer would like to join us."
Blue eyes twinkled with amusement when the blonde grabbed her shirtsleeve and pulled her away from the Italian drivers. "Either you want to stop me from strangling Tony or you're really hungry."
"Both," Nicole confirmed with a grin. "But if we have to play hide and seek to avoid trouble, then that's what we'll do and visiting the kiosks is a good way to do it." She slipped her hand into the larger one and gave it a small tug as she pointed to a particular stall. "That's the first one I'd like to check, the ribs look delicious." Feeling a slight pressure around her fingers, Nicole looked down and realized that they were holding hands in public. She regretfully started to let go. "Sorry."
"Don't," Kris smiled as she intertwined her fingers with Nicole's. "Unless you don't feel comfortable with this, I'd like to stay this way." The look on her young lover's face immediately told her that she didn't mind either. "Come on, let's go see what they have to offer."
The rally official walked under the open-air tent and stopped a moment to look at the participants. Only six teams remained; three on each side and most people looked excited at the prospect of racing on a closed circuit. But one man sat quietly by the tall Austrian stuntwoman, seemingly lost in thought. He remembered that it was Ludwig who had to finish the rally by himself, his team partner now under close surveillance.
Steven moved to stand in front of a long table and faced the noisy group. "Alright, if everybody can quiet down for a moment, we'll get the show on the road as soon as possible." He waited until the men and women settled before continuing. "As you all know, the last leg of the rally will happen on a closed circuit track. The order in which you'll start the race was determined by the time that it took you to drive from Rockhampton to here. Each car will leave exactly two minutes apart so what you'll be doing is race against the clock, not each other. The order is the following; Tony and Roberto go first. Kris and Nicole will follow next, then Shannon and Kyle. Unfortunately, Ludwig will be alone for this part of the rally but he'll be leaving fourth with Dean and Scott behind him. Teppo and Heikki will bring up the rear. The last news we received is that Stephane and Gilbert dropped out of the race due to mechanical problems."
Kris leaned over to whisper in her brother's ear. "Are you sure you're gonna be okay with no navigator?"
"Yeah," Ludwig answered softly. "I'll be fine. I'll just go slower so I won't be surprised by the obstacles and turns along the way." He glanced at the young blonde sitting next to Kris and smiled. "Nicole looks thrilled to be part of the race."
The stuntwoman turned to look at her partner and nodded. "Hmm. She's very excited," she confirmed. "I have a partner that's becoming as much the speed demon as I am." Nicole was so intent on listening to what Steven was saying that she completely missed Kris' comment. Only the light squeeze on her hand made the green eyes look up at her. "You okay?"
With a small smile, Nicole nodded. "Just a tad nervous. You'll be counting on me to give you directions. The last thing I want to do is get us lost."
"Relax," Kris smiled and brought their linked fingers up to her lips and kissed them. "You won't get us lost. You've done a great job so far and the fact that we're racing on a closed circuit won't change anything. You keep doing what you have done before and tell me in advance the obstacles ahead. You're the best navigator I ever had."
"I'm the first you ever had," she replied softly with a wink. "But thanks for the compliment, it means a lot to me." She rubbed her thumb on top of Kris' and turned her attention back to the rally official.
"This is the itinerary," Steven continued as he took a pile of paper from the tabletop and lifted it so everybody could see. "You have one hour to familiarize yourselves with it before you leave so I suggest that you start on it as soon as this meeting is over. The terrain's very tricky in some places." He then smiled at the group sitting before him. "We have a little surprise for you," he announced, waving people to come inside the open-air tent. Three women walked in, each with a large box in their hands, followed by two men who carried between them a rack with colorful racing suits hanging on it. "Since the rally drivers have their own gear, we thought that it would be nice for the rest of you to dress in a similar fashion." He took one suit off the rack then reached inside a box and pulled an open face helmet out. "The local racing school was kind enough to lend us the needed equipment. We've made sure that everybody have their proper size."
Kris shook her head and groaned. How she hated wearing the one piece suits. They were always incredibly tight and generally too warm. If only she had known that they would have to wear the racing gear, she would've brought her own made to fit her tall frame. She only hoped that this outfit would fit her better than the one she had worn earlier in Williams Creek. The stuntwoman glanced at the red suit again and noticed the numerous badges from sponsors that had been sown on the garment. "Damn thing looks like a billboard," she snorted.
"Wow! That'll be fun," Nicole smiled but quickly frowned when she heard most of the stunt team curse at the news. Since Kris was engaged in a conversation with her brother, she looked at Shannon sitting at her right and whispered. "Why is everybody complaining? I think it's a great idea."
"You obviously never wore one of those," the stuntwoman grumbled. "I don't think I'll ever get used to them. They're made of nomex interwoven with carbon fiber and kevlar threads. What makes them hot to wear is because they have knit panels under arms and around, they're box quilted, have serged seams, shoulder bellows, and have a double-knit rolled collar. Trust me, with a day as warm as today, you'll be looking for a pool to jump into once the rally's over."
"Oh," Nicole frowned as she looked at the racing suit again. "But they look so nice and comfortable."
"'Look comfortable' are the key words here but they're far from it," Shannon replied and turned her attention back to the rally official.
"So I guess this is it," Steven concluded with his instructions. "The departure times have been posted at the starting grid. Make sure that your cars are rigged for the race with the five-point safety belts and that your communication device works without any problems. Have fun during the rally and we'll see you at the finish line."
With the meeting over, the rally drivers rose from their seats and walked out of the open-air tent to get ready while the stunt team joined the officials to pick up their gear. "Kris," Nicole gently tugged on her friend's shirtsleeve. "We don't have five-point safety belts in the car. What are we gonna do?"
"Sure we do," Kris said as she headed for the table. "You remember seeing the straps tied to the back of the seats? That's the racing harness. All we have to do is insert them through the five openings in the seats and we're all set."
"Okay, what about the communication device then?"
"This is the pack that'll be hooked at our waist," Kris informed the younger woman as she held a small box in one hand. "The cord leading from it is attached to the microphone fixed to the helmet. During the race, we'll be able to talk to one another without having to yell."
Scowling at the tall woman, Nicole rested both fists on her hips. "You mean to tell me we could've used that device throughout the rally and save our voice?"
Kris chuckled. "Maybe in the desert, but don't you think we would've looked kinda strange wearing helmets while driving through the cities?"
"Hmph, I guess," Nicole reluctantly agreed. "But it would have been very helpful in saving our vocal cords from getting irritated sometimes. I can't believe how loud the car's engine can be sometimes when we're driving at full speed."
"That's racing," Shannon grinned and rose her bottle of water in a toast. "It's loud, it's fast and it gives the thrill of a lifetime. Let the good times begin."
"You like this too much, Boomer," Nicole smiled. "I just hope I'll be as thrilled as I was all week. I hear closed circuit racing can reach amazing speeds sometimes."
"No worries, mate," Kris smiled. "You'll do great."
Nicole chuckled. "Not too bad for a non Aussie. You're getting pretty good with that slang. It's sounds very charming."
"You know what?" Kris said with a grin as she cupped Nicole's face with her hands. "You're not too bad for a sheila."
The large sip of water Shannon had just taken came exploding out of her mouth and nearly missed Kris and Nicole. The Australian stuntwoman started laughing as she wiped her mouth. "That was precious!"
"What's so funny?" Kris frowned.
"You are," Shannon giggled. "Hearing strine with your slight German accent is kinda cute."
"Don't you have somewhere to go, like getting dressed or something?" Kris asked slightly annoyed at the brunette's teasing.
"Nope. I'd rather stay here and bug ya!" she grinned.
"Argh!" Kris growled and took her amused partner's hand in hers and tugged on it. "Well, if Dundee here won't get dressed, we'd better."
Ends with chapter 10.
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