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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

Love It Like You Stole It

Copyright © 2018 by Ki Brightly

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

Edited by Elizabetta McKay

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com.

Printed in the USA

First Edition

July, 2018


eBook ISBN: 978-1-949340-10-5

Print ISBN: 978-1-949340-13-6


Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers, and scenes of graphic violence.

Love It Like You Stole It

A Gem City Grit Book

Ki Brightly

Table of Contents

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Dedication

This book is for Bobby Fantastic because somewhere, out there in the great beyond, you’re having a conversation with James Joyce I’d love to hear. Please know you’re missed. Our “might-have-beens” and “almost weres” are the bedrock of my “do it nows.” Thank you for opening your heart to me, for being raw and honest in a world full of pretenders.

Bobby Musolff

6/12/1980-8/18/2016

Prologue

Ben Jelen


“It’ll be a month, Bennet.”

I clutched the small silver bolt so hard it cut into my palm. The pain wasn’t enough to distract me. Rick’s bottom lip jutted out. It always did when he was on a roll. He crossed his heavy arms, eyes shadowed by his ball cap. With a sigh, I ignored my big brother, cutting my attention to the object of our current bitchfest. Vandi, his daughter, lounged nearby with tiny pots of fingernail polish out on the dusty, paperwork-covered desk.

“I’ll be good, Uncle Ben,” she chirped, her bow mouth turned up into a wide smile. She almost wasn’t a little girl anymore. It wasn’t long ago that I’d sit with her and do the painting. The sun cutting into the garage through the open bay door lit up her gold curls making them shine brightly. Her eyebrows furrowed in concentration as she dabbed a little brush covered in pink paint at her thumb. In her white summer dress, she couldn’t have looked more out of place.

I bent back over the motor of the beat-up, blue Ford Taurus and stared at it without seeing much of anything.

“It’s damned good money. They need mechanics for when the machinery goes down. If her mother hadn’t—”

“Rick,” I warned. Vandi’s head snapped up at the mention of her mom. I had no intention of mopping up tears today. He leaned a hip against the front quarter panel of the car and rested an elbow there, sending me a winning grin. It was the same bullshit one I used when trying to get my own way. “I’ve known you your whole life. That shit don’t fly.”

He chuckled, but his smile didn’t waver as he leaned in close, pushing his cap back with a thumb. I caught a whiff of the cologne I used and sighed. He’d raided my dresser again. Looking at him was like looking in a mirror—his brown eyes and long face with its blunted nose were just like mine, except mine was cocked a little to the left. He wiggled his eyebrows, and I blew out a hard breath.

“Those oil rigs are dangerous, and ask next time you steal my stuff.” I poked him on the shoulder with my ratchet as he shrugged, not at all bashful about his thievery.

“It’s a month on, three weeks off. And with the bonuses, I could be pulling in over a hundred grand next year. We can get the garage set up right, get more clients in…I won’t do it forever.”

I frowned and rubbed at my chest. He winced and scowled right back, like maybe he understood why I was upset. The idea of Rick being away for more than a few days made me nauseous. We’d always been a little too close, and it only got worse after Mom died. I sneaked a look at Vandi to see what she was thinking about all this, but she didn’t seem to be listening.

“I’m not sure it’s worth it,” I muttered. Shit. Money. We sure could use more of it.

A low humming started up from Vandi—a familiar song from the radio. “Check it out!” She flashed her pink fingernails at us. Rick turned and nodded at her.

“Real pretty, baby doll,” he said fast, not quite covering up the irritation in his tone. Her smile vanished.

I smacked his arm, but he was back to cajoling me with his half grin. I smacked him upside the head, sending his ball cap flying, but he ignored it and patted my cheek.

“I want this garage to get off the ground,” he said, “and so far, we’ve only been getting in about five or six people a week because we don’t have a lift. I had to send Mrs. Hopper to fucking Firestone because we didn’t have the right size tires.” He waved his hand toward the empty space stretching out behind us that practically begged to be filled with equipment. “We don’t have half the shit we need…”

“What if you’re out there in the middle of the ocean and there’s a hurricane or a blowout or—”

“Get back here you four-eyed fuck!” someone shrieked from outside. The low voice cracked on the swear word.

“What the hell…” I turned to look over my shoulder, and the bolt from the oil filter slipped from my fingers. With a ting, it disappeared into the abyss of hoses in the engine. “Shit.”

I slammed my ratchet down on the motor casing, and the air compressor at the rear of the work area chose that moment to kick on, filling the old cement-block garage with its chugging clatter. I strained my ears, but the voices outside were drowned out. “Turn that off, Rick.”

Nodding, he headed back to flip the switch. Vandi craned her neck forward to look out the wide door.

“He thinks he’s too good to talk to us. Mickey Mouse won’t open his mouth.” The bully’s voice dipped deeper on that last word, and an instinct for trouble sent me striding out the door into the gravel parking lot, past the few sad vehicles waiting for their turn in the repair shop.

Across the small side street, three teen boys surrounded another one on the sidewalk. He was hunched in on himself with his arms crossed protectively over his gut, his stance practically screaming, “Hammer me.” One of the boys—short, with a mean twist to his lips and a cheap buzz cut on his carrottop—smacked the glasses off his prey. Sparkling in the late afternoon sun, the lenses sailed in an arc and landed in the street.

“Should we do something?” Rick’s long shadow loomed near mine, arms crossed.

“Come on, hit ’em back,” I muttered, clenching my fists. “Protect yourself.”

Instead, the kid just rubbed at the bridge of his nose with one hand. He was coltish and stretched thin, like he’d grown too fast. But he was tall, and if he would throw a punch, he’d have reach. He didn’t move to defend himself or say a word, though, simply stared at his feet. I glanced at Rick, but when I looked back, the tall boy was shaking his head. Sunlight caught and glimmered on blue highlights in his black hair. The short asshole shoved him hard while the other guys circled, grunting out guttural encouragement that puffed up Mr. Attitude.

Outrage propelled me toward them at a fast clip.

“Ooooh, fuck,” Rick said on a chuckle.

I hadn’t planned on anything more than bitching out the bullies—until the short kid threw a hard jab. The tall one gasped and staggered back a step at the blow, but one of the kids in the circle shoved him upright so he could take more abuse. Wincing, the tall kid shook his head so hard he seemed to make himself dizzy. He staggered to the side but righted himself at the last second.

“You’re no better’n me—us.” The short kid hopped up and down imitating a wet chicken, darting his gaze around the circle. “You’re no better than us!” He screamed out a war whoop as he lunged forward to land the next punch. The tall kid took it on his left cheek and—pow!—crumpled to his knees.

“You little shits! Knock it off!” I ran toward them, hands pinwheeling, but had to slow down as a car shot by, going way too fast on the narrow street, separating me from the teenagers. Crunch. I winced and sighed as I jogged past the flattened glasses. No coming back from that.

The kids stilled as I approached—became panicked, malicious little statues. But when I stepped onto the sidewalk, fists balled up at my sides, my shadow fell across them, and the obnoxious brats scattered, helter-skelter—like I might actually chase them down and dish out a taste of their own medicine.

“You better run, you little pricks. Stay off my block!” I yelled after them. “I’m badder than you’ll ever be!”

The teen on the ground made a shuddery sound that wasn’t quite a sob, and my chest went tight with sympathy. “You okay?”

As I shifted to the left, my shadow fell beside him instead of on him. He looked up, and the sun dazzled in his hair and eyes. Heat washed through me in a pleasant way that I shut down quick. He was all of maybe fifteen, but the baby blues on this up-and-coming heartbreaker could have taken out everyone within a city block.

I cleared my throat.

As he climbed slowly to his feet, a red so bold it could teach Candy Apple a thing or two traveled up his neck into his cheeks. He brushed the hair out of his eyes with an unsteady hand. I decided right then and there that when I finished restoring my 1968 Road Runner, that was the paint I’d be slapping on the outsides. Embarrassment Red.

“Uh…are you too hurt to talk? Jaw’s not broke is it?”

He shrugged and shook his head as he rubbed at the left side of his face. I waited patiently for him to say something. About a minute ticked by. Had those jerks rattled his brain around?

I held up a finger and stepped toward the street. “I’ll…uh…grab your glasses.”

He nodded but didn’t move otherwise as I darted out to pick up the destroyed frames from a diamond spray of glass on the asphalt. A brisk wind bit into me, and I wished for something more than a T-shirt. He hadn’t moved at all. Maybe he was still too fucked up to even notice the cold.

As I walked back, he took a short step away from me. Now that the adrenaline had settled, something about him looked familiar. I extended my hand slowly toward him, and he accepted the glass-free rims. He tilted his head, and his hair fell in front of his eyes again. Something about the shy way he moved jogged a memory loose.

I laughed, and he took another startled step back. “You hang out at the Sunday car shows downtown. You were there when I bought my Road Runner off Guff Jensen.”

When he lifted his head and curled his lips in a wisp of a smile, it made me want to track down those fuckers who’d been dogging him and level every single one of them. He twirled the frames on one finger, staring at them sadly for a second before squinting around us.

“You all right?”

My worry must have leaked out because he snapped his eyes to me.

He nodded carefully, like maybe it hurt to do it, and then cleared his throat. “Thanks.” Soft, husky.

Goddammit.

He smiled up at me for a second and then cast an unhappy look over his shoulder, as if he was expecting those assholes to come back. Fuck that. The chill that had settled into me since Rick brought up the idiotic idea of leaving was replaced with a flash of anger I didn’t want to think too much about.

“Do you want to hang out here for a while—make sure they’re gone? I’m finishing up an oil change.”

His eyes brightened, and the small smile he gave me crinkled his straight, rounded nose a little.

Fuck. Cute. I shook my head at myself. Danger. Danger. Iceberg, Captain!

“I-I would, but G-grandad is w-w-waiting for me to c-come home.” He ducked his head and smacked what was left of his glasses against his thigh, glaring at the ground.

Suddenly, the bullies made a lot more sense, but I was twice as pissed now. I’d seen this kid at the car shows, and he was always helping an old man in a wheelchair. Must have been the grandad.

“Want me to walk you to your grandpa’s house?” I sent a quick look for Rick toward the garage, but he was nowhere in sight, and I didn’t see Vandi anywhere either.

He shrugged but frowned at his glasses, reluctantly nodding.

When I finally realized I wasn’t going to get anything else out of him, I asked, “What way are we going?”

He pointed down the street, leveling a shy glance at me that left me lightheaded. With a sweet smile and nod, he turned and walked away carefully, eyes glued to the ground. As we strolled, he relaxed by increments, straightening up. After about three blocks, we turned right onto another residential street.

Glasses twirling on his finger, he said, “It’s my house too. I live with Grandad.”

He said that like the old man was all he had in the world, and that cut at me. Rick and Vandi. They were all I had. His pace picked up, and I strode along beside him, keeping up.

“I’ll get you home safe.”

His eyebrows shot for the sky, and a real grin spread across his face. My pulse kicked up. This was ridiculous. He was just a kid. I tried to not think about it.

“Can I come back tomorrow and see the Road Runner?”

He didn’t stumble over his words; his voice slid over me, low-pitched silk. Do not think about it. Nope. No.

I pushed out a breath, and a laugh escaped with it. “It’s still a heap of junk. Haven’t started at all.”

He shrugged. “I don’t mind. Sometimes long projects turn out the best. They’re worth the wait.” He blinked over at me, eyes a little too wide and unfocused as his words chased another laugh out of me.

“What the hell—why not?”

He turned onto a cracked footpath that led up to the front of a small, dilapidated house, not even as big as my garage. The wind was blowing hard, and yellow confetti curls of paint twirled from the siding. Thunder cracked and rumbled in the distance. I glanced skyward, shivering at the clouds rolling in. He was halfway to the front door, and like a moron, I stood there watching him go. Then, he stopped and turned to look at me, squinting as he rubbed his jaw. He winced at first, but it flowed into a smile.

“Tomorrow?”

What the blazing hell was I doing? I rolled my shoulders and stared up at the gathering storm for a long moment. If Rick was going to be gone, it might be fun to teach someone how to work on cars. It might be just what I needed to distract myself.

“Sure. I’ll be waiting. You know where to find me.” A gust of air raised the hair on my arms with goose pimples.

He smiled, a dazzling grin. Thunder cracked overhead, and he ducked to look up at it. With a little wave, he jogged to the front door and wrestled it open. The wind pushed it closed behind him with a gunshot clatter.

I turned on my heel and headed for home, grimy hands hidden in my pockets.

“What am I doing?” I shook my head and sped up as the first drops landed on my head, the chill sinking deep into my bones. “Yep. I’m a fuckin’ idiot.” I shrugged. “No problem. Except you’re talking to yourself because you know you’re doing something fuckin’ stupid. Since when is a garage a good place to house the strays of the world?”

The skies let loose, and stinging rain pelted my face as a brutal, unforgiving wind shoved me along the street. With a curse, I ripped my hands out of my pockets and ran for home.

Chapter One

Michael Levine

Five Years Later


“You gutless fuckheads screwed the fuel system on my Vanquish,” Rocky bellowed. “That car is my flesh. My bones. Love the fucking thing more’n my kids, and now it’s totaled. Gone!” His voice echoed ominously through the large space of the warehouse. Veins bulged on the side of his thick neck.

I cringed. A strange clicking sound slipped out of his mouth after he stopped yelling, like maybe he was ticking down a mental clock to our deaths. His ears stuck out from his shaved head, quivering, larger than life. I took a step back. Mistake. He swung his gun wildly between the three of us. A burnished gold custom weapon with his name scrawled on the barrel—it scared the ever-loving shit out of me when it was in its holster, but in his hand?

When the gun stalled on me, I could only hold my breath until Rocky shifted it to my sort-of friend, Teagan. Teagan’s compact body was shivering hard, and his hair gleamed in the fluorescent lighting. But his face—It was a smooth mask of nothingness. My heart hiccupped until Rocky moved the gun on to Zed, who had the misfortune to be standing closest to him when he started flipping his shit.

“Say something.” Rocky’s voice dropped so low all three of us leaned toward him to catch the words.

I fidgeted and worked my tongue in my mouth. Would it fight me? Should I keep quiet? If anyone should talk, it should be me.

I choked on a deep breath but eventually got air into my lungs. The familiar ozone smell of grease and old oil on the air was usually comforting, but the clawing panic in me wouldn’t be calmed. Rocky wouldn’t shoot us wearing such a nice blazer and khakis, would he? Where would he take them to get dry-cleaned?

I bit the inside of my cheek at the strange thought.

“Fucking look at it.” He gestured behind him with his gun at the trashed silver car on the flatbed. Windshield spidered, rear end crumpled, front end smashed. A giant had picked it up and squeezed. I whimpered, earning myself the business end of the gun again. I checked frantically for the tow driver, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was probably on the take anyway, so no help for us there.

“B-but…uh…but…H-how…” I took another deep breath as he aimed the gun at me, his chin jutted out and lips curled in a grimace. The sheen on the gold transfixed me for a second.

He walked toward me with a swaggering gait, wide shoulders moving jerkily up and down, and didn’t stop till the cool metal was pressed to my forehead. Pissing myself was a near miss. The dark musk of his cologne overpowered the normal working smells of the chop shop. His pitiless blue eyes squinted while his finger trembled on the trigger.

“Spit it. The fuck. Out.”

Dead words. Was I about to be dead too?

Sweat beaded on my upper lip and trickled salty into the crease of my mouth. I licked my lips. Rocky’s nostrils flared. I wished I were at Ben’s garage right now. Why had I left early? Never again—even if I had to work the overtime till I dropped.

“H-how—” I closed my eyes when Rocky grunted out an irritated noise but made myself open them again. “How did it get wrecked?” There wasn’t a quiver or a quake in the question. Rocky laughed, mean and low.

“Seized on the highway,” he said fast, barely moving his lips. “Got plowed into by a moving van, and it smashed me into a fuckin’ Hummer.” He ground the barrel of the gun against my skin like he was trying to drill a hole. It hurt, but I didn’t move, didn’t want to give him a reason to do anything to me.

“I’m sorry.”

“You miserable shits are responsible.”

“Yes,” I answered quickly. I started to nod but went abruptly still. A gun to my head made me agreeable. Some of the hellfire seeped out of the tight set of his mouth. He nodded slightly, the glint in his eyes becoming a little more reasonable as they assessed me. He could still decide to shoot us all.

“That’s a three-hundred-thousand-dollar car,” Teagan piped up unhelpfully. I darted my attention in his direction. He quirked a fast smile at me. He was so pale his normally bright lips looked painted on.

It hurt when the gun moved from my forehead after the pressure of having it shoved there—a dull pulse of pain through my flesh, down around my eyes. Rocky pointed it at Teagan, which wasn’t much better. He might be a bad friend, but I didn’t have enough of them that I’d want to lose any.

Teagan swiped his arm across his forehead leaving a smear of grease. His fiery hair was a mess from where he’d tugged off his wool cap earlier. Conflicted emotions pinged off each other inside me and exploded, nearly enough to buckle my knees. It’d never been simple between us.

Rocky advanced and aimed the gun into Teagan’s face. The barrel blended in with the coppery stubble on his rounded chin. Rocky was my height, so he dwarfed Teagan by a mile, especially with his juice-junky shoulders.

I wished I’d never agreed to help Zed and Teagan with this insanity. Too late now.

“Three fifteen, but I had it a year.” Rocky’s smile wasn’t nice as he leaned in close to Teagan. “I’m generous. So, that’s only one hundred from each of you.”

“One hundred thousand dollars?” I was stupid with the weight of it. Rocky turned his dead eyes on me and nodded once, mouth a grim slash in his face. I echoed his nod, and he seemed satisfied with that. I might as well have thrown myself at him so he could shoot me now. Where would I get that kind of green?

Zed, the idiot, laughed, the overhead lights glinting on his nose ring and shiny, smoothed-down brown hair. I waved my hands at him, frantic, but he opened his mouth anyway. “I don’t have that. Rocky, we’re street runners. What the fuck are you thinkin’?” He snorted and covered his eyes with a hand, the bold, tattooed black widow on his forearm stark. My shoulder twitched where my own tattoo sat.

We were gonna crash and burn, just like St. James. The great Dean. And it was going to be our own fucking fault.

Rocky pivoted his entire body toward Zed, dropped his gun arm, and aimed.

“No!” I tensed to do…I didn’t know what. A blast cracked through the warehouse. I clapped my arms over my head and crashed to my knees, my entire body seizing and aching with it. I stared blankly at the dirty cement floor.

“Z? Z—oh shit!” Teagan yelled, drawing my attention as he dived toward Zed, but I couldn’t convince myself to move. No. He’ll shoot you too. I didn’t speak. Couldn’t. How bad was it? A sob cut through the air, soft after the gunshot. I wanted to be at Zed’s side. Teagan’s back was between me and whatever mess there was, but Zed had flopped onto his back on the floor, eyes bugged wide with his mouth open in a silent scream.

Rocky pointed his gun toward the ceiling. His thin lips were actually twisted in a frown like he was unhappy with what he’d done. When his gaze locked with mine, I glanced around frantically, looking for a way out, but there wasn’t one. “Anyone else think they can’t get the money together?”

I forced my arms down, away from my head.

Teagan glanced over his shoulder at me, blue eyes shrewd. “We’re good,” he belted out for both of us.

One nod. I couldn’t force any more than that. Rocky snorted a laugh and rolled his eyes when Zed burst out in snotty sobs, writhing on the floor. Blood seeped along a crack in the concrete near Teagan’s knees. I sucked in air, and there was so much relief inside me that I wasn’t the one shot. And then I felt like an asshole, my attention pulled back to Teagan. Rocky flipped back one side of his blue blazer, slipped the gun into a black leather shoulder holster, and then rearranged it so the gun was an unobtrusive lump, out of sight.

I touched my tongue to the roof of my mouth—once, twice, three times—trying to work out whatever kinks were in there so I could speak.

Rocky smiled and shrugged. He met my eyes and stalked evenly toward me. I struggled to my feet, knees shaky, and wiped sweaty palms on my dirty jeans.

“I’m not heartless. You can hand over…hmm… What’s reasonable per month?” he asked me, his smile never slipping. He completely ignored Teagan who’d shrugged off his jacket to tie it around Zed’s leg. I tried to keep my focus on Rocky, so I wouldn’t do or say something stupid.

I thought hard, not sure what he wanted to hear. “Wh-what do you suggest?” I couldn’t imagine what he’d think was a good number. Lowballing him might make him whip his gun back out.

Rocky laughed, and one of his meaty paws landed hard on my shoulder in a congenial squeeze. “You’re a hoot, Michael. Four thou’ a month till it’s paid off, with interest, so if you can swing more, best do so.”

My insides had liquefied, weighing my limbs down. I slid my hands into my pockets. Rocky’s eyes scudded down me distastefully, and I slouched a little. My sweatshirt, jeans, and shoes were covered with dirt from working all day and half the night, but at least they weren’t spattered with blood. His eyes narrowed on me, and I fought back a frown.

“Th-thank you for giving us the opportunity to set this right,” I murmured carefully, shoving as much polite as Grandad’d ever taught me into the words. Rocky’s jaw relaxed. With an almost affectionate squeeze, he took a step back from me.

“How much interest?” Teagan bit out the words, hate snapping in his eyes as he shifted around toward us. Zed buried his face against Teagan’s thigh. Teagan wordlessly carded his hands into his hair, holding him there, tight. As I fisted mine, a sizzle of something unhappy shot up my spine—unexpected lightning.

“Shut up,” I hissed.

Rocky laughed and sauntered past stacks of boxes—parts packed for delivery—toward the loading dock doors where we brought in the cars before we ripped them apart. He reached the large door and smacked the yellow button that started its slow ascent. “As much as I say.” With a vague wave in my direction, he added, “You’re my point man,” before he ducked under the still-rising door. “I’ll be in touch.” And he disappeared into the night.

“Like fucking usual,” Teagan sniped.

Zed’s entire body snapped out and back, as if he were a giant rubber band someone had plucked. “Fuck,” he snarled, rolling onto his back again, and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. His nose ring glinted between his hands.

“Why is that, Mouse? Why does Rocky trust you?”

I shrank at the nickname, not used much anymore, and a sizzle of old fear came with it. I wanted to puke and scream, but most of all, I wanted to punch Teagan because he was the one who’d worked on the Vanquish and had assured me he knew what the fuck he was doing. My face heated till there should have been steam coming from my forehead. I plucked my glasses off to rub at the bridge of my nose where they’d dug in.

“What are we going to do, point man?” Teagan ground out. He was ready to kick my head in.

Uneasy, I slipped my glasses on, and his pissy expression and cocked eyebrow came into sharp clarity. There was heat in his eyes, the kind of considering look I’d been seeing more and more lately, like he wanted to drag me outside and shoot me, or fuck me, and he hadn’t decided yet which it was. My shoulders, already aching, tensed tighter. I’d told him no before, but the way he was looking at me let me know he didn’t care. He licked his lips, his jaw hard.

I rabbited a step back from him.

“Little help?” Zed breathed out between gritted teeth, interrupting our awkward staring contest. Teagan patted his shoulder but didn’t take his eyes off me.

I turned away to stare out over the chaos of the warehouse. Half packed, unmarked boxes. What a fucking mess. “We should call an ambulance.”

“Fuck that,” Zed hissed. “I’m not dead yet.”

I rubbed the back of my neck. We had cars pulled in every which way, at least twenty, in various states of tear down. We weren’t neat about it because we didn’t have to be, and shit was brutally fucked, tools everywhere. Ben would have a stroke if he saw this mess. The fact was, no matter how much I thought I’d learned, I was nowhere near as good at keeping a garage in order as I should have been for someone who worked in one that ran tighter than most military formations. The blue metal shipping crates parked down the center of the warehouse in a straight line were the only uniformity in the mess.

Closing my eyes, I could almost see Ben’s shop. It was the place I loved to be more than anywhere on earth, where I wished I was now. A longing kicked up in me—homesickness for a place that had never really been mine.

What the fuck would Ben think of this bullshit? Meeko, you can fix what you didn’t break, but don’t break what you can’t fix. I used to just think that was a load of bullshit he’d spew to try to seem optimistic when we couldn’t figure out what the hell was wrong with a car, but now I finally got it.

I worked to keep my voice steady. “If we hadn’t been lifting cars and ripping them down, we wouldn’t be backed into this corner in the first place.” Teagan let loose an irritated growl, and Zed groaned and thumped his head so hard against the floor I heard it crack.

Zed had fucking been shot.

I spun around and hustled over to Zed and then dropped beside Teagan, bumping shoulders with him. My knees hit a red puddle on the floor. Blood was oozing through Teagan’s jacket where it was knotted tight around Zed’s leg. I thought there’d be more.

“You wanted the money too, man. It’s not all me.”

I lost my cool and shoved at Teagan. Eyes narrowed, he cocked back his arm and drilled me hard in the side. The pain stole my breath. When I put out my hand to stop from falling over it landed in the warm slick of blood. I wiped my fingers on my thigh. “No, but it was me who said we could fix the fucking Vanquish. I should have done it. I should have taken it to Ben’s.”

A rapid-fire right hook caught me on the arm—a hard hit that shot a sharp bite of pain into the back of my brain. I closed my eyes while Teagan hummed under his breath. “And told him what?”

I shrugged.

Teagan smacked me on the shoulder till I looked at him, and then hooked an arm under Zed’s upper back to sit him up. I leaned forward to help, grasping Zed’s hard shoulders with both hands. My side and arm twinged. “If we had shit out a high-performance car that needed work, your boss woulda been onto us in a hot minute.”

Ben. I’d started this shit because I wanted to impress him—get his attention somehow—and look where I ended up. As it was, he never seemed to look directly at me, never seemed to see me. If I could rustle up the extra money to get my mechanic certifications, he’d have to take me seriously. He’d have to see the man, here and now, instead of the boy he’d let hang out and tag along on his projects. But Zed was hurt. My dream…was gone. There was no way in hell now.

It was a night for the record books, right up there with the one when I’d come home and found Grandad dead at the kitchen table.

“I don’t know. Ben might have been cool.”

“I’m fucking shot, people,” Zed announced like he was baffled by it. The neck tattoos edging up from beneath his collar looked darker than normal, and it took me a second to put together it was because he was nearly Casper-white.

Shit. Reality nipped at me, a rabid animal demanding my attention, right fucking now.

“Which hospital?” I asked as I hooked my arm around his shoulders and Teagan got him around his waist. We slowly rose to our feet, Zed yelling wordlessly, until we had him standing between us, sweaty and shaking.

“Fuck no,” he huffed out. “My girlfriend’s sister Jen is a nurse or some shit. She works in a doctor’s office anyway. Let’s go there.” Zed and I traded a long look where I willed him to change his mind, and then we turned our attention to Teagan.

Teagan’s smile was mean. It was going to be one of those weeks then, where everything that had gone wrong was my fault. “Hospitals call cops, Mouse.”

We walked Zed toward the open door. It would have been a lot easier if Teagan wasn’t almost a head shorter than Zed, as it left me straining with most of Zed’s weight while he tried to hop on his good foot rather than using his torn-up leg. It seemed to take forever before we passed into the cold dampness of the early spring night. It was so bitter it might as well have still been winter. The chill air sucked the breath from my lungs.

“I don’t like this,” I muttered. Teagan’s glance met mine, and for a second, an expression that might have been apology passed across his face. Then his bold lips tightened, and he went from attractive to frightening. I looked quickly toward the ground. Zed took a bad step, and with a grunt, I struggled to keep him upright.

“This wasn’t my fault,” Teagan said loudly as he opened the rear door on the first car we came to. We gently lowered Zed into the back seat of an old blue Honda that we’d lifted a few months back. After tonight, it might be time to dump it. Once we got Zed settled, Teagan slammed the door hard, narrowly missing my fingers, which were resting on the frame.

“How do you figure?” I asked, frowning.

“It wasn’t. Okay?”

“You told me you knew what you were doing.” A maddening anger worked through me—hot and fast, almost sexual—tightening all the same spots, except that it left me nauseated.

Teagan loomed up into my space, eyes on mine, and then fisted his hands in my jacket. He twisted the left corner of his mouth down and jerked until my face was level with his. I let him move me around—enjoyed it even, in a weird way—but it pissed me off too. There was a second when something horrible was going to happen. His face tilted toward mine. His lips were right there, and it was so fucking clear he wanted me to kiss him that it hurt. But when I shook my head, he shoved me back hard against the car.

Great. I’d hurt his feelings, but like everything else, he decided. When we were kids, he decided he wanted me in his gang because I knew cars, whether or not I was interested. I said no for months and then he beat me up.

He’d never changed.

He’d decided he wanted me, and he was pissed he wasn’t getting what he wanted on his schedule. Never asked me if I was interested, just kept pushing. I shook my head again. He was not getting this. We weren’t even going to pretend to be friends if he didn’t stop.

Zed tapped on the glass, and I shot a look toward him and eased away from Teagan. “Do you know where we’re going?”

“Yeah, get in the car.”

I started toward the square of light painted on the ground from the open garage door, but he snagged my hand in a soft grip. With a smile, he caressed my wrist with his free hand—almost an apology—a soft touch over the veins there. It twisted me all up because no one ever really touched me.

My face was a blast furnace. “I-I’ll stay h-here and close up, get the blood—” I clamped down hard on the tip of my tongue for a second. “—get the blood off the floor.”

Teagan shook his head and stepped closer to me, eyes unreadable. “In the fuckin’ car. What if Rocky comes back, and you’re here by yourself?”

“Why would he?”

For a second, Teagan’s eyes widened and then slitted dangerously. His grip turned hurtful before he dropped my hand. I tapped my tongue to the roof of my mouth a few times. He was pissed, so I didn’t bother arguing with him, just slunk around the car into the front passenger seat. Zed whimpered when I slammed the door. Teagan got in and slammed his door, glaring at me.

“Don’t break what you can’t fix,” I whispered to myself as I used the rearview mirror to check on Zed.

In the dim light from the dash, Teagan was a dangerous freckled specter, still glaring, brows low. “Huh?”

I shook my head. He sorted through a mess of keys on a ring he’d tugged out of his pocket. It took a bit for him to find the right one, and then he jammed it into the ignition and cranked the old car to life. Slowly, he pulled us out of the parking lot onto the road.

We were down the block before I realized we hadn’t closed the garage door. We were going to get busted one of these days on top of everything else. I wasn’t entirely sure that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Arrested sounded better than dead.

Chapter Two

Ben Jelen


The blue suede couch was a cloud, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be for this.

Grant stretched his foot out to nudge me and tipped his head to the side. He smiled, sweet and seductive, and twin dimples popped on his cheeks. “I started running again,” he said and then sipped at his drink.

I skimmed my gaze down his lean body. The white dress shirt he was wearing hung open to reveal an undershirt that was molded to his torso. His hips moved a little, more irritation than turn on. I didn’t want to do this waltz with him. Sleeping with him had been okay, but I’d never known what to do with the rest of this…whatever it was. What should I say to him?

“Your Dockers are fitting better.”

He pouted. “No one wears Dockers anymore, honey.”

I cringed inside every time he started up with the honey, baby, sweetie couple mantra. But all I could do was clutch the wide bell of my snifter, which had probably cost more than every scrap of dinnerware I owned.

His foot nudged my thigh again. “But thanks.” He bit his bottom lip and smiled again, pulling on the reddened skin. It was an attractive look on him. I knew how soft his lips could be wrapped around my cock. They were good. He was good. On every level. He was a lawyer in a local firm—successful, thoughtful. The perfect guy. Hell, I should have been happy to be with him.

I’d barely hinted to my friends that I was seeing someone, and by friends, I mean the guys who worked for me…Meeko

Grant’s longish brown hair was slicked straight back tonight, curling under at the ends over his collar. He was handsome, but it wasn’t working for me anymore. I rested a hand lightly on his foot and gave it a squeeze. “Thanks for the invitation.” When he dropped his chin in his hand, I got the feeling he was waiting for me to say something else. I smiled at him, and he made a noncommittal noise.

The firelight shone through the cognac in his snifter, turning it a glowing amber. I sipped at my drink, and the tart, smoky liquid burned a path down my throat. He set his snifter on the floor beside the couch and leaned forward, pulling his knees underneath him. I knew what he was up to, but didn’t stop him as he crawled over to straddle me, ass squarely on my lap. He teased the snifter carefully from my fingers and tipped it toward my mouth, but when I shook my head, finished it himself and casually bent to set it near my feet. He was short enough that when he sat up, he was eye level with me. I rested my hands lightly on his hips, and he plucked his fancy wire-rimmed glasses off and tossed them onto the couch cushion beside us. Without them, he looked younger.

“Hello there, sir.” His whisper had a come-hither smoky alcohol husk in it. He smelled fresh and clean, and his body heat was a turn on, but none of it was enough to kick-start things properly. He bowed his head and pressed a pleasant kiss to my lips. Soft. Warm. Meh. When I patted his sides, he leaned back, bracing himself on my knees—presenting the sleek lines of his body to me. His nipples were hard under the thin undershirt, pebbles to tease.

“Come to bed?”

When I flopped my head back against the couch, he moved in, and his determined lips traveled down my neck. I pushed him away. “No.”

He leaned back with a sigh. “Oh, honey. What have I been doing wrong lately?” He wasn’t whining, so much as pleading. Nudging his crotch needily against my abdomen, hips loose from the alcohol, he ground against me. But there was nothing doing on that front when it should have been blowing my mind. I hooked my fingers into his belt to stop him. Bright eyes studied me intently.

“It’s been…” I struggled for words, and he slumped, resting his head on my chest with an unhappy grunt. Fuck knew, I couldn’t tell him what the real problem was.

“Going to pieces since it started?” he finished for me and shrugged. He craned his neck to look up, eyes filling with tears. “The day I asked you out and you said yes was amazing. Wasn’t any of this special for you?”

Panicking, I froze. “Please don’t.” This was why I hadn’t broken up with him yet. I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t take endings. “Please don’t cry.” Tears trembled on his lashes and slipped along his cheeks. “It’s okay.”

He nearly spilled out of my lap when he strained to pick up the snifter from the floor and then finished the liquor in three long swallows. Shivering with the booze burn for a second, he turned toward me, and I pried the glass from his loose hand and set it on the floor beside mine. More tears tumbled. “You never say you love me. You never call me. Hell, we don’t even exchange Christmas presents.”

“I’m not…I have no idea what to do about this.” I was talking about the waterworks. But he must have heard something else because he threw his arms around me in an awkward hug while my shirt soaked up more tears.

“I get it,” he croaked out after a few minutes. “But I thought if I tried hard enough you’d…”

Let a hole to hell open up under me, and I will jump in it. Please. I patted his back, instinctively knowing every move was wrong but had no clue how to do better.

And then I laughed—out of frustration—a nervous tic I couldn’t control. He sobbed harder. I had to say something.

“You’re so damned nice, Grant. Everything about you is nice. You’re wonderful. You’re probably the smartest man I know. I’ve got no clue what you want with a guy like me.” At that, his breath hitched, and he sobbed out an unhappy noise. “I’m sorry. I’m just…I think I’m just not—” He sniffed hard and leaned back. “I wish I could feel the same way about you, but I don’t.” I forced a smile.

“Can I do something? What’s wrong with me?” His eyes widened, and I got an uncomfortable crawl along my skin. “Is there someone else?”

“No!” I shifted around when his eyebrows twitched up, and laughed through a grimace, shaking my head. “You can’t do anything but be you. Uh…I hate doing this. You’re a great guy. I like you as a person.”

I wanted to be consoling, but it just felt awkward. Other than this, Grant was totally together. A professional. He didn’t need me for anything. Maybe I’d try harder if I thought there was a single thing he really needed me for, other than knocking boots…well, boots and fancy dress shoes…and checking out random noises in his car. A year was a lot of time. But I was done.

He frowned and growled out a little sound. “Your loss.”

I cupped his clean-shaven jaw and ran a thumb over his cheek. “I’m…I’m a world-class heel. The worst. I’ve been trying to tell you. I’m sorry.”

He jerked his head away and got a look on his face that was sad, but serious.

“How about one last fuck for old time’s sake?” Smiling, he leaned forward.

“Grant, I—”

He slid to the floor and edged between my knees. With a quick jerk of hard hands on my thighs, he had my ass hanging off the couch, and I found myself laughing again.

“What are you doing?”

“Maybe you want someone a little more take-charge?” He tried to look mean, but failed miserably, his lips ticking up into a smile.

I shook my head. “We’re not doing this.” I didn’t mean to sound mad about it, but my words were hard. His shoulders rounded, and he looked away into the crackling fire. A log fell, sending a puff of smoke into the room. I breathed deeply, using it to chase away the stink of awkwardness as I shifted my legs in his grip.

He had a saucy little grin as he looked up through his tear-dotted eyelashes at me. They reflected the light from the fire, and for a second, it lent him a slight otherworldliness. I wished I did want him more.

“I—”

He ducked his head.

“Ben?”

I stood, and he fell back onto his butt. “Over. It’s over.” Without looking at him, I walked out of the den into the dining room and grabbed my jacket off the back of a chair. My gaze stalled on the fancy table set for dinner. Delicate, antique china gleamed in the glow of guttering candles on heavy gold sticks. Bloodred roses in a matching vase glared at me—three small blooms.

“Damn it!” He’d gone out of his way tonight. “You deserve better.” I couldn’t put him through this anymore. Neither of us was really happy.

“Honey!”

His voice startled me into action. I stepped into my old brown Doc Martens, not bothering to tie them. Instead, I made my escape to the mirrored front hallway. Elation swam up in me. Almost out. I caught my reflection in the beveled glass. I looked like those people on alien shows who tell stories about getting abducted—freaked the fuck out. Couldn’t help it. My hand was on the doorknob when a frantic pattering of bare feet behind me made me stop against my better judgment.

“Ben, please. I was going to propose tonight,” he huffed, winded and too close behind me for comfort.

I held my breath and looked to the mirrored wall instead of turning around. Bent over with his right hand on his side, his hair was a mess, and his eyes were rimmed red as he squinted up at me, without his glasses.

“You were gonna do what now?” I asked, incredulous.

He thrust his left hand high before he straightened and waved a small wooden box at me. “Propose.”

A smile twitched onto his face as our eyes met in the glass. I didn’t want to see what was in the box, but he snapped it open and dropped to his knees before I could do anything. I could only stand there, staring.

He lifted the box and held it toward me, his smile brightening the longer it took me to respond.

“I know you don’t enjoy sentiment, Ben. I want you. I…I want you to want to be with me.” The ring flashed in the light, menacingly. “I love you.” There was a sheen in his eyes. He shook the box at my back, obviously trying to get me to turn around, his eyes still on mine in the mirror.

“I’m the worst. I should love you, but I don’t. I really don’t. And I’ve told you so many times this was for kicks, not keeps.” I laughed again, the most horrible time for it, but I couldn’t stop. It was my nerves kicking in again. I wasn’t brave enough to look him in the eye for real.

The Grant in the mirror shuddered as his hand jerked back. We were in a horror show, but I made myself turn and walk toward him. I hunkered in front of him and firmly pushed the lid closed on the box.

“I’m the bad guy here. Me. This thing between us was never supposed to come to this. You deserve the world at your feet, but I’m not the one to give it to you.”

His face crumpled, but this time I didn’t hesitate. His pride and hope followed me out of the room in a rush of warm air, and I stumbled down the porch steps as if the devil was after me. If I caved from his tears again, it would be over—I’d be stuck for good.

At the bottom of the steps, I stopped to inhale deeply, but only for a moment before I strode away from the house. Starlight stabbed at me from the cloudless sky. What was he thinking? How had I let things go so far?

He wasn’t the one I wanted. And, fair or not, he never had been.

Chapter Three

Ben Jelen


Easing open my front door, I didn’t bother turning on the lights. I shoved it closed behind me, shutting out the distant sounds of city traffic. The living room was warm and shadowy as I flopped on the well-worn couch. Blinking into nothingness, I spent a long time soul-searching, but in the end, didn’t call Grant to apologize. He probably wouldn’t answer after that spectacular cock-up anyway. I thought we’d had a situationship. He’d thought we had a relationship. There was no uncrossing those wires. But I hadn’t tried to fix his misunderstanding either. He’d been a warm body to spend nights with. No more.

With a sigh, I dragged myself to bed sometime after my neighbor, a baker, revved up his Ford F-150 and left for work. My alarm went off at six, setting me up for a strung out, exhausting day from hell. I stumbled out of bed, not bothering to shower, threw on clean, but still grease-stained jeans, and layered myself for the cold in the garage. My stomach was a little queasy, as if I’d had too much to drink last night, even though I was fairly certain I hadn’t.

Slamming the cheerful yellow front door—painted this summer to match the fake stone siding Vandi had picked out—I had trouble getting my head together. She should be up for school soon. A purple and peach dawn crept across the sky, all awe-inspiring. Unreasonably pissed off with it, I left our little two-story house to cross the street to the garage. I stomped across the front porch, also freshly painted, and then along the newly poured sidewalk to the street. A quick dash, after a car check, put me in the gravel parking lot for my business—Rick’s Repairs. A harsh pang whipped through me as I avoided glancing at the simple board sign at the end of the drive. I ran a hand down my face and held in a sigh. There was a car already waiting in front of the garage doors, engine running, with a customer inside. I gave them a little absent wave as I walked by and unlocked the front door.

Shoving inside, I took stock to see that everything was in its place. The garage was about four times as big as it was when Rick and I first thought about turning it into a real operation—I finally had the funds to expand two years ago. I’d redone the outside in smooth gray stucco and added a little finished waiting area for customers, with a nice, plump couch and coffeemaker. Dragging my feet across the shiny black tiles, I made my way to the inner doors that led to the work area. A fumble of the keys had it open.

“Fuck me,” I growled at the paperwork stacked on the desk that I’d left for my refreshed morning self to deal with. I was always so goddamned optimistic at the end of the day.

An insidious pounding started up behind my eyes as I checked that the closer tools had been put away last night. Old tires that should have been run to the recycling bin were in a pile by the bay doors. A welding canister had been left out along with the rest of the welding equipment instead of being placed properly outside in the storage locker. I wanted to bitch someone out, but it was my handiwork.

“Fucking lazy. You only screwed yourself, genius. You were in such a hurry to get out of here.” I rolled my eyes and slammed my keys down on the desk. The folders there wobbled, but thankfully, didn’t scatter.

The garage itself was still simple. Concrete and cinderblock walls with an open workspace, same as it had been when Dad fixed up cars for shows. Simple had the advantage of being cheap, but every now and again, I wondered if I shouldn’t have spent more money—especially on days like today when I’d be tackling paperwork, hovering over the small space heater under the desk.

From the waiting room, a rap rap on the glass window made my jaw twitch. I glanced up with a tight smile and held up a finger. It was a gaunt man with white hair corkscrewing out from under a plaid winter cap with earflaps. His tan winter work coat was spotted with dirt and stains. Great. He’s probably tried to fix the car himself. He’ll want to talk my ear off. I braced myself for the start of my day.

My phone vibrated when my hand was halfway to the window to open it. I ripped it out of my pocket and thumbed through to texts. Michael. My Meeko.

Sick. Will come in as soon as I can peel myself out of bed. Sorry. I’ll stay tonight until the backup is cleared.

I turned away from the man at the window and considered bashing my skull off the nearest hard surface. The unfinished cars from yesterday earned a glare. Gasoline and touch-up paint lingered heavy on the air, a potent cocktail. Of all the times I needed him most, he finally decided to take a sick day.

His first one ever.

Texting in was such a Rick move. For a second, I wanted to call my brother and bitch at him for passing on his bad habits, but then, with a harsh stab of pain, I remembered I couldn’t. I set my phone on the desk gently. Nope, won’t skip along that lonely road today.

I took a deep breath, turned, and opened the window. The old man on the other side smiled as he held up a few bolts.

“What can I do you for?”

“Help me figure out where these go?”

Worst. Day. Ever.



There were so many customers and cars that didn’t get finished the day before that by nine I was in the trenches with the guys even though I’d specifically scheduled time to do orders and catch up on tax shit. Each of my five crews had a leader, a good one, but they all seemed to need my help today. I stood next to a black Infinity that had only come in for an inspection and was now, for some reason, torn apart with all four tires off and the hood popped. I glared at the work order stashed, forgotten, on the roof of the car.

“Can’t figure out what’s fucking up the pressure in the system,” Gary bitched as he picked at his big nose with the corner of his thumb, fingers of his other hand wound into his beard. I wanted to smack his hand away from his face. He shrugged his wide shoulders. His scalp shined through thinning brown hair as he stepped closer to the work light hooked to the hood of the car. He pointed at the torn-apart engine with a wrench as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “I checked everything.”


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