Chapter 1


Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

Isaac Asimov

People—all people—are blinded by their own expectations.

I know this.

Folks with the highest degree of entitlement and inflated sense of self are the easiest to con, the easiest to exploit. My daddy didn’t teach me much worth knowing, but he did teach me that.

And despite knowing this, I adopt the mantle of a blind man from time to time.

Take today, for example.

Sure, I could’ve blamed my horse’s ass assumptions on being tired. I’d been driving three hours, up and out at the crack of dawn. I hadn’t slept much the previous night, though I didn’t regret the cause of my sleeplessness. But lack of sleep wasn’t the cause for my stupidity. My own foolish expectations were at root.

“I owe you one.”

I heard the clink of glasses from the other side of the call, which told me Hank was at the Pink Pony, cleaning up from the night prior.

“You owe me shit.” I lifted my eyebrows and rubbed one eye to cure my drowsiness. Maybe I shouldn’t have been driving and talking over the speaker of my cell phone, but I knew these roads well enough that I could have navigated them blindfolded.

“No, I do.” The glass clinking ceased and his tone took on a solemn note. “You know I wouldn’t trust anyone but you, and I really owe you one.”

Hank Weller, my best friend since elementary school, Harvard dropout, and owner of the local strip club, had always been overly conscientious about owing favors, and I’d just done him a favor. He’d wanted a 1956 XK140 matching numbers Jaguar in Nashville. I’d picked it up and transported his new ride back to Green Valley.

It hadn’t been a big deal to me. He was my best friend outside of my twin brother, it gave me an excuse to see a lady I’d been hankering to see, and I liked doing good things for good people. No biggie.

“Let me catch all the big fish on Wednesday and we’ll call it even.” I said this around a silent yawn, my eyes watering.

“I’ll do more than that. As a small token of my appreciation, I left something for you to find when you get to the shop.”

“What did you do?”

“You’ll see.”

I heard the grin in his voice. The man never could hide a grin, even when we were kids and even when his telltale grin made for a heap of trouble.

“Is it something that’s going to piss off Cletus?”

Cletus, my older brother, part-owner in the Winston Brothers auto shop, and the third in our family of seven kids. Technically, I was number five. The way my momma told it, I’d arrived with a smile on my face just a few seconds prior to my identical twin Duane made his grumpy presence known with an irritated wail.

Usually, I wouldn’t mind Hank pissing off Cletus. Usually I wouldn’t mind anyone—anyone other than me—pissing off Cletus. My brother was at his most entertaining when pissed off. But I didn’t want him pissed off this morning. Not until after I had a nap and maybe something to eat. Come to think on it, I couldn’t remember the last time I ate . . .

“It shouldn’t piss off Cletus, not directly.”

Not directly.

What the hell did that mean?

A rustling sounded on the other end, like he’d switched the phone from his hand to his shoulder and it scraped against his chin. “But, listen, you’ll know when you see her.”

Her?” I almost choked. “Oh no, not again.”

“Enjoy.” I could tell he was grinning wider now, the devil.

“What did you do?” Possibilities ran through my overactive imagination, along with hope and not a small amount of worry.

Maybe he’d figured out my secret, maybe he’d somehow arranged for Darlene to come home. But she hadn’t said anything last night and she’d been fast asleep when I left.

Nah. There was no way she could beat me home.

And Hank didn’t know about Darlene. At least, I didn’t think he knew. I was fairly certain he didn’t know. 82% certain.

No, the her to which he referred was not Darlene.

“Bye,” was all he said before clicking off. I was less than a mile from the auto shop and now sitting on a mountain of trepidation.

“Crap.” I hit the steering wheel with my palms, grinding my teeth as my mind jumped to the obvious conclusion.

The last thing I wanted as an expression of gratitude was another one of Hank’s strippers waiting for me at the shop. Don’t get me wrong, I liked most of them just fine. But I was trying to leave those days and acquaintances behind me. I’d been working real hard trying to prove myself to Darlene, show her I could be the kind of man she wanted me to be, the kind of man she could be with long-term.

It’s not that I was worried she’d find out from someone else that Hank had sent a stripper to the shop. I would know. Which meant I would have to tell her about it. And hell, that was not going to be a pleasant conversation. She already didn’t like the fact that Hank and I were buddies, nor did she like me being friendly with his employees.

But Hank was a good friend. Admittedly, a good friend often driven to excess. This would be the fifth time he’d hired a her to welcome me home. Three years ago had been the first. I’d come back from a trip to Ashville to find four strippers, dressed only in bikinis, washing all the cars in the shop’s lot. Being twenty-one and unattached, I hadn’t at all minded his thoughtful gesture. At the time, that is.

Presently, however, the air in my lungs felt like lead.

I pulled the truck and car carrier into the Winston Brothers auto shop parking lot, scanning the premises for a sign of Hank’s gift of appreciation. I didn’t spot anything out of sorts. We had a few new cars in the lot, the most notable a 1958 Plymouth Fury. It didn’t belong to anyone in the Valley or Maryville as far as I knew. I made a mental note to ask Duane about it and then climbed down from the truck, closing the door behind me as quietly as possible.

I knew all the ladies at the Pink Pony. In the past, before my recent dates with Darlene, I’d often helped many of them with handyman work around their houses and apartments. As I stretched the soreness from my muscles and walked toward the garage, I debated who the her might be.

Immediately, I crossed Tina Patterson off the list. Tina had been my twin brother’s on-again, off-again girlfriend before Duane and Jessica James had started things up last year. I also eliminated Mae, Roxy, and Hannah. They were too young at nineteen, twenty, and twenty-two respectively. Hank knew I liked my women more mature, both in body type and disposition.

Slowing my steps, I peeked around the Ford parked just inside the garage, spinning the ring that held the keys to the truck and carrier around my index finger. The late summer morning was bright and clear, which meant I was blinded momentarily by the dim interior of the shop. I heard boots shuffling against cement paired with a short grunt.

“Cletus?” I asked tentatively, hoping the grunt belonged to my brother, even though instinct told me the sound hadn’t originated from a man.

Taking a bracing breath, I debated how best to put the stripper off, fairly certain I could spare us both a wasted ten minutes by offering a twenty if we could simply skip the striptease. I decided to suggest grabbing a coffee and doughnut from Daisy’s Nut House instead.

Yeah, one of Daisy’s doughnuts sounded real nice just about now.

My attention snagged on a figure clothed in shop coveralls, bent over the hood of a Chevy I recognized as belonging to Devron Stokes. Despite the baggy attire, her womanly shape was impossible to mistake. At my arrival, she reached for a rag at her pocket and wiped her hands. Straightening, she leisurely turned and faced me.


My mouth fell open.

My back stiffened and my eyes widened because, holy fucking shit, the woman was the most strikingly beautiful person I’d ever seen.

Now, I’d seen some beautiful people before, but this lady was altogether different. I mean, the woman defied description. Gorgeous didn’t come close to what this woman was. She was so gorgeous, even dressed in greasy coveralls the sight of her landed like a punch to my ribs. I lost my breath. And when she lifted her eyes, the blunt force of her attention left me stupefied.

I caught my weight on the cab of the truck to my left, my stare moving over her long form.

Tall. Very tall. Maybe six feet or more. Her legs went on and on and on. Her hair was brown, but also streaked with blonde like she spent a considerable amount of time in the sun. It was braided in a long, thick rope hanging over a shoulder. I swallowed, my gaze traveling upward to her neck—long and tan—and chin. Lush pink lips, sharply pronounced cheekbones, large eyes fringed with dark, dark lashes set in a flawlessly formed oval face.

She was the kind of physical perfection that was difficult to look at. Blinding. Not helping matters, her stare was flinty, giving her an air of being unapproachable, like everything and everyone was shit on her shoe.

I was unable to temper my expression, saying, “Good Lord,” before I could stop myself.

But damn.


“Hello.” Her husky greeting was just as flinty as her glare.

Releasing the air from my lungs, I wrestled with my shock and forced a friendly grin, searching for the right words.

Oh man, that Hank. Hank was a good friend. But this . . . her . . . whoa. This was too much. Where did he find her?

Clearing my throat, I crossed my arms and tried to locate my manners. “Uh, where’s your cake?”

Stillness settled over her, the woman’s eyes sharpening with an unsettling focus, like she was flaying the flesh from my bones.



“What?” The single word cracked like a whip in the otherwise silent garage.

“Your cake?” I hazarded a step forward and leaned my shoulder against the side of the Ford. Needing to avoid her dissecting stare, I lowered my gaze to her body. I couldn’t see much, but I could see enough.

I’d bet my GTO that her legs are extraordinary.

Gorgeous or not, stunning or not, it didn’t matter. I might have noticed this woman—because it was impossible not to—but that’s all I was going to do. Notice.

I’d just left Darlene in Nashville. And though she hadn’t admitted as much yet, as far as I was concerned—for all intents and purposes—Darlene Simmons was my woman and I was her man. A pair of extraordinary legs attached to the most beautiful woman in Tennessee didn’t rank when I had my sights set on the long game with a person of substance.

Several quiet moments passed and I brought my attention back to hers. She was glaring at me with wide, glacial eyes. My, oh my, her stare was fierce. If this woman was stripping on the regular down at the Pink Pony, Hank was going to have to charge a higher entrance fee.

Squinting, I tried to guess her age. I couldn’t.

She looked older, mature, beautiful in a womanly way. Perhaps it was her height, because she also seemed young, a touch naïve. I cocked my head to the side, studying the hard set to her jaw and decided the flint in her glare looked like uncertainty.

Maybe she was nervous. Maybe this was her first time stripping. I hoped that meant she’d be easily dissuaded from it.

Giving her an encouraging grin, I teased, “No cake?”

Her jaw ticked and her eyelids lowered to half-mast, but still she remained silent.

“Hmm . . .” I scratched my jaw, choosing my next words carefully and trying my best to ramp up the charm. “Here’s the deal, sweetheart, I’m sure whatever you’ve got under those coveralls is sexy as hell. However, I’m seeing someone, and I don’t want to upset her. Whatever Hank paid you to take your clothes off, I’m willing to double it if you keep your clothes on.”

In my experience, nothing irritated a stripper more than a disinterested customer, except maybe one who was too interested. I didn’t want to offend, and I hoped she’d take my offer at face value.

She blinked. Once. Very, very slowly. “You are Beau.”

I waited for a moment, my grin slipping, before nodding. “That’s right.” Wait, did she think I was Duane?

“I should’ve known.” She shifted her weight to one side, her hip jutting out, and stuffed her hands in her back pockets.

Now I was confused. Why would Hank send a stripper for Duane? “You thought—”

“I thought you were Duane. But I see now that you’re Beau.”

“You see now . . . ?” My tired, hungry, sluggish brain had trouble keeping up.

“Duane’s facial features are symmetrical, your right eye is higher than your left.” She motioned dispassionately to my face, her tone flat.

“Excuse me?” I straightened from the Ford, my fingers coming to my eye.

“And your nose is bent. To the left.”

What the hell?

My smile completely slid away as my fingers moved to my nose. “My nose?”

She shrugged, sending me one more glare before turning her attention back to Devron Stoke’s Chevy.

I gaped. At her. Standing there like a dummy asshole touching my bent nose.

Your nose is bent.

Who says that to someone they just met?

But then, as if making rude statements about my face wasn’t enough, she mumbled, “And you’re clearly an idiot.”

My jaw dropped, as did my hands.




A sound of disbelief seasoned with indignation hitched in my throat. Irritation lightened the lead in my lungs, burning it up with an irrepressible flare of resentment.

“Clearly I’m an idiot?”

“You sound like my parrot.” Another mumble.

All thoughts I’d had about not offending this woman vanished, chased off by her nasty words and my own exhaustion.

Finding my wits, I placed my hands on my hips and glared at her profile. “Who the hell are you?” It was a rare moment. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a spike in temper. I also couldn’t remember a time when a woman complained about my appearance or called me an idiot. Except my sister, but she didn’t count.

So. Yeah. There’s that.

Without deigning to look at me, she tossed out, “Shelly.”

“Shelly who?” My eyes flickered over the movements of her hands. “And why’re you working on Devron Stoke’s Chevy?”

“I’m removing the transmission to rebuild it.” A note of impatience entered her tone, like I was wasting her time.

A low growl of impatience came from my chest because this bad-mannered woman and her non-answers.

“Listen, lady, if you know I’m Beau, then you know I own this here shop. So again, who the hell are you? And why’re you working on this car? And who gave you permission to be in here?”

Finally, her eyes cut to mine. And just like the first time she looked at me, my wits scattered for a split second. Luckily, she’d pissed me off enough that my anger prevailed.

Straightening once more, she pressed her full lips together. They were too big to form a flat line, instead, they thinned a trifle.

“I am busy. If you want answers, talk to Cletus.” She spoke slowly, like she truly believed I was an idiot.

Damnit, Cletus.

He better not have hired someone without talking to me.

“I will,” I growled, then turned from this vile person and prepared to give my brother an earful.

There was no way.

No. Way. In. Hell.

No way this woman was working at the shop.


Never going to happen.

Chapter 2


The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost

“Who the hell is that woman and why is she using my socket wrench?” I demanded as I burst through the door of the second-floor office, finding Cletus staring at the computer screen.

Without looking up from his work, he responded in an infuriatingly even tone, “It’s not your socket wrench, it belongs to the shop.”

Seething, I lowered my voice. “Who is she?”

“She’s our new mechanic. Started yesterday.”



Cletus swiveled in his chair to face me, bracketed his mouth with his hands, and lifted his voice to a near shout. “She’s our new mechanic and she started yesterday.”

“Dammit, Cletus. Quit your hollering. I heard you just fine. What I don’t comprehend is how it’s possible for us to have a new mechanic without me being consulted.”

His eyebrows pinched together as he inspected me. “You weren’t here.”


“Beau, I can’t very well consult with you on matters when you are absent.”

“That’s bullshit.” My temper rose anew. “This shop is as much mine as it is yours.”

“Duane is leaving, Beau. He and Jess go off on their adventures in November.”

“I know that.” And I didn’t need another reminder. I wasn’t exactly thrilled that Duane was leaving, but I understood his reasons.

But I’d be damned if Duane’s replacement was going to be that nightmare downstairs.

“Then you know we need a new mechanic to take his place. We already have too much work between the three of us. How do you think it would be if you and I tried to manage on our own? The magic of math tells me we wouldn’t be able to keep up.”

“You can’t go finding a replacement for Duane without me getting a say.”

Cletus huffed, leaning back in his chair. “Let’s start over. Good morning, Beau. You look tired.”

“Did you hear me?”

“Why do you look tired? Didn’t you sleep last night? Have you eaten?”

Gritting my teeth, I breathed out through my nose.

My brother pointed at me. “You have a lady in Nashville keeping you up and not feeding you? Or maybe you didn’t feed her?”

He could guess all he wanted, but I wasn’t ready to confirm my involvement with Darlene, not with Cletus or anyone else for that matter. Not until she and I were on the same page.

Duane had his Jessica James. And now I figured I had my Darlene Simmons. Duane had pined for Jess since he was about fifteen or sixteen. Maybe a little older. I’d considered his single-mindedness shortsighted at the time. What on earth could be so remarkable about one woman? They all had the same parts, didn’t they?

Seeing Duane with Jess had sparked my curiosity, and going after Darlene had been the result. But I wasn’t about to admit as much to Cletus. It wasn’t any of his business, the sneak.

“Whether or not I’ve slept, or with who, isn’t pertinent.”

With whom—assuming it wasn’t an orgy—and it is pertinent, because you just came flying in here in a fit of temper. I’ve known you your whole life and I’ve only seen you in a fit of temper seven times, and most of those times were because you were hungry and needed a nap.” Cletus reached into a file drawer at his left, withdrew a protein bar, and held it out to me. “You know you get hangry if you don’t eat.”

I glared at him, then at the protein bar, then at him again. He was right. I was hungry. I crossed to him in four steps and snatched the offered food from his hand.

“I might be hungry and tired, but that’s not why I’m mad. That woman,” I pointed to the door with the protein bar, “is not working here. I won’t allow it.”

My brother’s beard twitched near one corner of his mouth. “She’s an incredibly talented mechanic.”

“I don’t care if she’s Henry Ford’s great grandniece, she ain’t staying.”

“She’s not related to Henry Ford, as far as I know.  She’s Quinn’s sister.”

“Who?” I stripped the wrapper away from the protein bar and my stomach growled loudly. I would’ve preferred a doughnut from Daisy’s, but this would have to do.

“Shelly—the talented mechanic you had the pleasure of meeting downstairs—is Quinn’s sister. You know Janie? Ashley’s tall friend from Chicago? With the red hair and the alarmingly thorough knowledge of trivia?”

Cletus was referring to our sister Ashley’s friend from her knitting group. There were seven women in the group, Ashley being one of them. Janie was married to a real big fella, security expert or something like that, by the name of Quinn Sullivan. All the ladies from Ashley’s knitting group had traveled to Tennessee last year for our momma’s funeral, and Quinn had accompanied his wife.

But that had been almost a year ago. It was a time I didn’t like to dwell on, so I didn’t. Unfortunately, the one-year anniversary of our mother’s death was coming up in just over two weeks. I was dreading the day.

And apparently this Shelly woman was Quinn’s sister. As I took another bite from the protein bar, I chewed on this information. I’d only met the guy a few times, but the family resemblance between Quinn and Shelly was strong now I knew the connection.

Quinn was six-four maybe, and his sister was at least six foot. They shared the same eye color—ice blue—and similarly sharp facial features. He’d had this watchful way about him, like he had secrets. And he looked at people like he knew all of theirs.

“Well that’s just great,” I grumbled, taking another bite of the bar.

“I thought so.” Cletus’s reply was cheerful and he nodded his head like everything was settled. “Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have work to do and you need a nap.”

“No, I will not excuse you.” I inserted myself between my brother and the computer. “Just ’cause she’s related to a friend of Ashley’s doesn’t mean she gets a free ride.”

My brother crossed his arms and glared at me, leaning back farther in his chair. “Beau, what is wrong with you? Why don’t you like Miss Shelly Sullivan?”

“She’s rude.” I said this louder than intended, fire of frustration still in my veins.

“She’s a little quiet and standoffish, I’ll give you that. But I enjoy her economy of speech.”

“Oh no, she wasn’t quiet with me. She was rude.”

“What did she say?”

“She . . .” I slid my teeth to the side, not much wanting to admit that she’d made comments about my right eye and nose being uneven.

There’s no use pretending otherwise, I knew I was good-looking. I wasn’t Shelly Sullivan good-looking, but I knew how to work a smile and turn on the charm to achieve a goal. I’d never considered myself particularly vain. I didn’t spend hours in front of a mirror. Nor did I spend more than five minutes a day thinking about my appearance, usually just the time required to brush my teeth and pick out clothes.

This woman didn’t know me at all, and there she was pointing out all my flaws.


How would she like it if I’d done the same to her?

Except . . . 

I swallowed on that thought, because the woman didn’t have any flaws. Well, no physical flaws in any case.

“What did she say?” he repeated, his tone and expression telling me I was treading on his patience.

“She said I was an idiot.”

Cletus flinched back a smidge, blinking his surprise. “She said that?”

“Yeah. She said that.”

He looked at me for a long moment, his eyes growing sharp. “Well, what did you do before she called you an idiot?”

I rubbed my neck, avoiding my brother’s gaze, swallowing again, hoping I wouldn’t have to answer.

“Beauford Fitzgerald Winston,” his voice deepened as he used my full name, “what did you say to the lady?”

Releasing a heavy sigh, I turned from Cletus and walked to the door. “It was a misunderstanding.”

“Louder, please. I’m not Duane. I can’t hear you when you mumble and I can’t read your mind.”

“It was a misunderstanding. You know I picked that car up for Hank? The Jag? Well, Hank said he’d left a present for me at the shop, a . . . ‘her’.”

“Oh good Lord.” From the corner of my eye I saw Cletus throw his hands in the air and jump to his feet. “You thought he sent one of the women in his employ to give you a show? Well, he did not.” My brother reached for an item in the corner of the office and thrust it at me. “He bought you a fishing pole. A really nice fishing pole. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble catching fish on Wednesday, but you might have a time apologizing to our new mechanic today for mistaking her for a stripper.” He paused, waiting for me to meet his glare before continuing harshly, “And you will apologize. Or else.”

* * *

“Did you apologize?”

I caught myself before I snapped at my friend, instead taking a short pull from my beer before answering. “I tried.”

Hank grinned, glancing at Duane who was also grinning. Well, Duane’s version of a grin, which was more like a small smirk.

Both Hank’s and Duane’s smiles were at my expense. Usually I wouldn’t mind, and I hadn’t expected any different when I launched into my story, but I’d hoped they’d agree with me that the woman was a menace.

They hadn’t.

“He did try to apologize, he really did. I was there.” Duane’s smirk widened into a true smile. “And she flat-out ignored him. Pretended he didn’t even speak.”

Simmering anger reignited at the memory, making the beer on my tongue taste stale. “I don’t see why I needed to apologize in the first place. Ain’t nothing wrong with being a stripper, is there?”

“Firstly, I think someone needs to acknowledge how unusual this entire situation is.” Hank, sitting next to me in the booth, moved his hand in a circular motion, indicating to my whole person.

We were at Jeanie’s Country Western Bar the Wednesday after my initial run-in with Miss Shelly Sullivan. Jeanie’s was the best place to go in the Valley if you wanted a beer, a dance, and no trouble.

The biker gangs usually steered clear of Jeanie’s. They had their own hangouts and Jeanie’s was widely considered the Switzerland of Green Valley and the surrounding areas, neutral territory. If they did show up, it was only two or three fellas at a time, not a giant heard of them looking for a fight.

“I second that.” Duane craned his neck, looking toward the entrance. “But nothing about Shelly Sullivan is ordinary, as far as I can tell.”

I knew Duane kept looking at the door hoping to spot Jess. She wasn’t late yet, but my twin always got fidgety just before seeing his woman.

My lips curved into a smile, but it was one of frustration. “What are y’all talking about?”

“Well now, let me see. Let’s start with the fact that this woman didn’t immediately fall victim to your bullshit charm.”

I snorted, shaking my head at Hank. He was always complaining about me and Jethro, said we made terrible wingmen because of our “bullshit charm.”

But before I could speak, Duane said, “See now, you got it wrong. Nothing about Beau’s charm is bullshit. That’s just the way the man is made. And you can’t fault the ladies, either. In our momma’s womb, he got my share of good humor as well as his.”

“How convenient for you.” I flashed my brother a meaningful look, and knew he was reading my thoughts because he gave me a guilty one in return.

He was right and he was wrong. Between the two of us, I may have exhibited all the outward signs of good humor, but that’s because one of us had to. We couldn’t both be surly little shits all the time. I supposed being nice was just like anything else done consistently over a long period of time: it became a habit.

Missing our unspoken communication, Hank lifted his chin toward Duane. “Then what did you get in your mother’s womb?”

“All the meanness, selfishness, and recklessness I reckon,” he replied easily, then continued without malice or any trace of resentment, “which is why I agree with Hank about this situation being unprecedented. I’ve never met a person who didn’t like you best—especially at first and especially a woman—and I’ve never seen you hold a grudge before.” Duane shrugged, looking toward the door again.

He was right about the first part, as most women did like me best. Likely because it’s hard to get to know someone who never spoke, but easy to like someone who always smiled.

“Yeah, that’s the other part of this mystery. This woman pissed you off.” Hank motioned to the bartender for another round of drinks. “I’ve never seen you actually angry with someone before, and you’re still irritated, what, two days later. You didn’t even blink an eye when Mrs. Townsen hit your GTO in the church parking lot with her daughter’s old Oldsmobile.”

“It was an accident.” I waved off this example. Mrs. Townsen shouldn’t have been driving, she’d been unfit since totaling her Cadillac a few years ago, but she didn’t mean any harm.

“Some senile old lady wrecking your pride and joy isn’t a blip on your radar, but remarking on your bent nose is a war crime? Good to know. Hey Patty.” Hank handed over our empties to our waitress, who happened to be Jeanie’s daughter, and accepted the new beers with a flirty grin.

She ignored him.

“Hey Beau.” She gave me a wink. “My momma wanted me to let you know these are on the house.”

“What? Why?” Duane’s consternation at this news was obvious and I fought a chuckle. Only my twin would be put out by someone wanting to buy his drinks.

“’Cause your brother is a saint, that’s why.” She said this without breaking eye contact with me.

“He ain’t no saint,” Hank grumbled, though he accepted the free drink.

“Thanks for all your help, Beau.” Patty tucked her tray under her chin and hugged it close to her chest.

“No problem.” I waved off her thanks. “Anytime.”

“I might take you up on that.” Her voice dropped a half octave and her grin grew more flirtatious as she backed away from the table, giving me a meaningful eyebrow lift just before she turned and walked away.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Hank kicked me under the table. “Patty? Really?”

I drank my beer and quietly enjoyed Hank’s frustration.

Firstly, I’d known he had a thing for Patty for a while, at least a year. Secondly, I knew—according to Darlene—Patty would never give him the time of day as long as he owned that strip club. And lastly, I knew Patty’s intentions toward me were harmless because Darlene and Patty were good friends.

Darlene and I weren’t technically exclusive yet, but still. Patty was a nice person, and she knew I was seeing her friend.

“I can’t get two words out of her, and here you are, turning down what she’s offering for free,” he lamented flatly. “What did you do, anyway? Save her cat?”

“No. That was Jess,” Duane mumbled.

That made me laugh. “Jess was eight, Duane. Eight. All I did was climb a tree and get her cat.” And she’s yours now in any case.

“That’s right!” Hank snapped his fingers then pointed at Duane. “I forgot about that. Didn’t Jess have a thing for Beau before you two hooked up?”

“We didn’t hookup, Hank,” Duane bit back.

Hank lifted a hand, palm out, as though he surrendered. “Fine. Before you two pledged your troth. Is that better?”

Duane grumbled something I didn’t catch, then shrugged. “Yeah. So what? The past is in the past.” My brother glowered at me as he said this.

“Oh good Lord, Duane. What was I supposed to do? Not get the damn cat? You didn’t even like her then. You used to call her freckles, remember that?”

“I still call her freckles.”

“No you don’t, you call her princess,” I said, not about to lose an opportunity to correct my brother about his recent domestication, mostly because I was envious of it.

Hank pointed at me with his beer. “So, let me get this straight. You saved Jess’s cat when she was eight, and she had a thing for you after that?” Before I could decide how to answer, he turned to Duane. “And you’re okay with that?”

“Hank, let me tell you something.” Duane’s voice took on an instructional air that cracked me up, likely because it sounded like an imitation of our brother Cletus. “If you’re looking to pledge your troth to a woman within sixty miles of Green Valley, you might as well assume she’s had a thing for my brother at some point in her life.” Duane tapped the neck of his beer against Hank’s. “Welcome to the club.”

“I’m the founding member of the club, Duane.” Hank’s tone was dry and sour.

“And what club would this be?” I tapped my bottle against both of theirs just to be obnoxious.

“The Beau gets all the girls club. And, speaking of which, what’d you do that has Patty bringing you free drinks?” Hank gave me a pointed look.

“I didn’t do anything for Patty, not directly. Jeanie wanted to get rid of two old refrigerators, but couldn’t find anyone to come pick them up. I took them off her hands last week. No big deal.”

What I didn’t say, because it didn’t require saying, was that no matter how nice Patty was—and sweet, and pretty—the moment Hank stated his interest in the woman, she became off limits. Just like Jess had been off limits since Duane and I were teenagers.

It was unspoken, but I’d expect the same from them, if or when I ever told them about Darlene. Or—if things didn’t work out with Darlene—anyone else I might be interested in courting.

If there is anyone else . . . I scowled at the thought, uncertain of, and unsettled by its origins. Of course there will be someone else if things don’t work out with Darlene. Plenty of fish in the sea.

“What’d you do with them? How’d you get rid of the fridges?”

“Oh, I know,” Duane answered, like he was just now putting two and two together. “Those were the refrigerators you gave to Reverend Seymour today, right? The ones you fixed up at the shop this week?”

I nodded, surprised he’d noticed. He’d been busy with Jess, preparing for his big trip and leaving all of us. I hardly saw him at all.

Glancing over my brother’s head to the dance floor, a flash of long red hair caught my attention and raised my hopes. When I realized it wasn’t Darlene, I swallowed a gulp of my beer and my disappointment.

Typical for a late summer mid-week night with nice weather, the place was crowded with locals. Duane and I had left together after work, leaving Cletus and Shelly at the shop to finish up. I’d hoped Darlene would be able to make it back to the Valley this weekend, but she’d texted me earlier in the day that she couldn’t. She was busy. Two years older than me, she was in her third year of medical school and her schedule was crazy.

I understood.

Nevertheless, I hadn’t been able to shake off my disappointment since receiving her message.

Not helping matters or my mood, Shelly Sullivan had ignored all my attempts at making peace. I wouldn’t say I’d gotten used to the woman yet. More like I was starting to tolerate her, but just barely. She hadn’t spoken more than three words to me in two days. On the bright side, ignoring me meant she hadn’t made any more comments about how grotesque she considered my appearance or how stupid she thought I was.

I let my eyes linger on the woman with red hair. She was taller than Darlene and her curls were a fiery red, not strawberry-blonde. Unexpectedly, the woman turned, caught me staring at her. Recognizing her as Christine St. Claire—old lady of Razor Dennings, the president of the Iron Wraiths Motorcycle club—I immediately averted my gaze. I didn’t want any trouble.

“You know that’s tax deductible, right? Donating to the church? I hope you got a receipt.” Hank was always quick to point out when something could be written off. Take his boat, for example. He’d written it off as a business expense because he used it to take customers fishing on Bandit Lake.

“I did. I gave the receipt to Jeanie when we got here.” I kept my stare fixed on Hank as a slight whisper of apprehension tickled my neck.

I sensed Christine St. Claire’s eyes still on me and I braced myself. The woman was equal parts crazy and dangerous, or so my daddy used to say when we were kids. And he’d know, because he was equal parts crazy and dangerous, too.

My mother and father didn’t agree often, but I knew for a fact she didn’t like the woman much either. She’d always kept Duane and I close to her skirts at the Iron Wraith’s family days and picnics, giving Christine and the Wraith’s MC president a wide berth.

“No matter what she says, you never let her take you, okay? And always keep an eye on Duane,” Momma would say. “You’re older, he’s your responsibility. I’m counting on you. You keep him safe. Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere with that woman.”

“You gave the tax receipt to Jeanie?” Hank had been about to take another drink of his beer, but stopped, the bottle suspended from his fingers, his tone edged with disbelief.

“Yeah, they’re her refrigerators, aren’t they?” I rubbed my neck.

“But you fixed them up.” Hank set the beer back on the table. “You went through all the trouble of moving those things, fixing them up, and taking them to the church. And then you give her the donation receipt?”

“Yep.” I ignored Hank’s stare and searched my mind for a subject change. “We still going fishing next Wednesday? Cletus wants to come.”

“We always go fishing on Wednesday. The only reason we didn’t go this week was because I had to be in town. And stop trying to change the subject.” He shook his head, sounding and looking like he considered this topic highly amusing. “You just proved my point.”

“What point? What are we even talking about?” I sighed tiredly, glancing to the side and noting with relief that Christine and her entourage were leaving the bar.

“I’m not surprised much by what you did for Jeanie. But framed in that context, why’re you still pissed off at that woman mechanic?”

“It’s ’cause she’s real pretty.” Duane scratched his jaw thoughtfully, peering at me.

I opened my mouth to object—not because I didn’t think she was pretty, but because that’s not why I was pissed off—but Hank cut in, “What do you mean, real pretty? How pretty is she?”

“Like, fancy supermodel pretty.”

“Oh man, I’m going to have to check this girl out.”

“She’s not a girl.” Duane took a pull from his beer, then added, “She’s older than us. I think she’s at least thirty.”

“That doesn’t matter to me, and it certainly doesn’t matter to Beau.” Hank lifted his chin toward me. “You know he likes his women older.

“Have at her.” I waved my friend off. “And good luck.”

Duane’s eyes grew unfocused, like he was debating weighty thoughts. “She’s almost too pretty, you know?”

“Too pretty?” Hank shook his head, his eyes moving from me to Duane. “No such thing.”

“Yeah, there is,” I said flatly. “You know like when someone has a talent, like they’re too good at football, or they’re too smart? All they focus on about themselves is how smart they are? They’re nothing but smart? Same thing goes for people who are too pretty. Her talent is what she looks like.”

“She’s good at fixing cars.” Duane pointed his beer at me before taking a gulp.

“So, she’s real vain?” Hank addressed this question to me, but Duane answered.

“No. She’s not vain at all.” My brother looked puzzled as he said this. “Not as far as I can tell, anyway. She gets covered in dirt, grease, and sweat like the rest of us, and doesn’t seem to mind. She’s just . . . too pretty. It’s hard to look at her.”

I knew exactly what Duane meant, she was hard to look at. Her beauty was too harsh, too flagrant. Even though I didn’t like the woman, meeting her eye still sent my wits straight out of my brain.

Hank continued to look confused. “So, what’s she like otherwise? Is she a nice person?”

Duane shrugged. “Not particularly. She’s businesslike, to the point. Cletus calls her efficient.”

“Duane and Cletus would know.” I indicated to my brother with my chin. “She’ll talk to them, but she still doesn’t speak to me.”

“So, Miss Too Pretty ignoring you has your boxers in a bunch?” Hank looked like he was stifling a laugh.

“Like I said, it has nothing to do with her looks. And she can keep on ignoring me. I don’t care about that. But you’d be irritated too if someone you didn’t know told you your face was distorted.”

“She didn’t say your face was distorted, dummy.” Duane rolled his eyes.

I pointed at my brother. “She said your face was perfectly symmetrical and my face was wonky. And that—plus I’m an idiot—is how she could tell us apart.”

Hank barked a laugh.

I glowered at my friend. “And I’m the one who needed to apologize?”

“Now see, I don’t think you needed to apologize for mistaking her for a stripper. I think you needed to apologize for suggesting she take off her clothes. There’s the difference.” Duane nodded at his own words.

“Technically, I didn’t suggest she take off her clothes. I suggested she keep them on.”

Hank rubbed his chin. “You shouldn’t have made any reference to her clothes at all, especially since you’ll be working with her for the foreseeable future. That’s just unprofessional.”

“Unprofessional?” I couldn’t believe the words out of my friend’s mouth, especially considering his practice of sending strippers to welcome me home was the cause of this mess in the first place.

“Don’t look at me like that. I work in a strip club; you work in an auto shop. Of course I have to talk to my employees about their costumes and such.” Hank gave me a pointed look as he brought the beer bottle to his mouth and said before taking a sip, “The only stripping you should be discussing with this woman is salvaging for car parts.”


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