I pull my Jeep into the parking lot outside of Cal’s Auto, a tan, boxy eyesore of a building in the middle of a craftsman-style neighborhood where homes boast history and uniqueness in comparison. Nirvana is only steps away—a small tube of burn relief shoved inside a drawer somewhere in the shop. “Thank God,” I mutter with acerbic anticipation.
I tug my turquoise blouse away from my sunburned chest, trying not to cringe at what feels like sandpaper against my skin. I mumble and groan as I lean into the passenger seat for my clearance Coach handbag and my Batman lunch pail. Growing up with two brothers has always afforded me the very best in superhero merchandise, hand-me-down pajamas, Halloween costumes, and school supplies included.
Precariously draping my purse strap over my shoulder, I move to step out of the Jeep, only to be gracelessly yanked back inside when my silver bangles get caught on the stick shift.
“F—” I pause, squeeze my eyes shut, and press my lips together as firmly as possible to bite back both the pain and my favorite four-letter word. Carefully, I unhook my bracelet and climb out with my purse and lunch pail in tow. I might shut the driver’s door with more vehemence than is probably necessary before I rush toward the office, but I’ve never claimed to be a saint in any sense of the word.
The clack of my heels echoes in the empty parking lot as I stop in front of the glass door. The morning mist feels soothing against my face and my exposed, burning skin, but just the thought of how hot it will turn within the next few hours is enough to make me squirm.
My keys tangle as I search for the proper key on my ring. Generally, I don’t mind being the first one to arrive at the shop each morning, especially on Mondays with all the weekend drop-off order forms and keys that pile up in the after-hours box. There’s vehicle processing to be done—a triage of sorts, making sure the jobs are divvied up appropriately, ready and waiting in the guys’ boxes when they finally drag themselves in. But today is a particularly bad day to be fumbling with my key in a lock that’s older than me and refuses to work half the time.
“Christ!” I drop my key ring on the pavement and stifle a curse. I whirl around to find Mr. Sanchez getting dropped off by a woman I would assume is his wife. She glares at me before she pulls away. My purse slips off and scrapes down my skin, making my shoulder scream, but I smile through it, forced though it may be.
“I’m here to pick up the Tacoma.”
“You’re a little early, Rey,” I say, breathing out my agitation, and finally unlock the door. “You’ll have to wait out here for just a sec while I open up.” I nearly woot with glee when the door finally flings open. My skin is officially on fire now, and thanks to my brother, Bobby, I’m running a tad later than usual. While waking up an extra thirty minutes earlier allowed me time to sneak in a quick morning run before I popped into the shower, I didn’t account for his ripped jersey that needed mending for practice today or the clothes in the washing machine that smelled like wet dog.
“I’ll be right back, Rey.” I rush inside and toss my purse and lunch pail onto my desk without stopping as I head through the office. The moment I open the connecting door to the shop, the sharp tinge of metal in the air fills my nose, though I barely notice it. This has been my life for the past twenty-four years. The scents, the grime, the noise . . . it’s all ingrained in me and mostly comforting.
I rush toward the break room, tucked away behind the parts counter, and try not to touch anything or get my outfit dirty so early in the day. The overhead fluorescents flicker on above me as I flip the light switch and beeline for the drawers that line the underside of the counter. “Where did I see you last . . .”
The room rings with junk shifting in drawers as I slam them open and shut. I nearly panic when it crosses my mind that maybe it’s not in here anymore. But then I spot a twisted tube with a peeling label crammed in the corner of a drawer. “Yes!” I give a victorious and grateful smirk. “Thank you, Bobby,” I practically sing. I can almost feel my skin cooling as I reach for the outdated tube of aloe gel.
Ecstatic that I’ve never tossed the discolored tube out in all the times I’ve contemplated it, I uncap it, thinking of little else than the soothing pleasure I know will follow. For the first time in a while, I’m grateful for my brother’s stupidity—for his afternoon nap breaks across the street in the park and recurrent summer sunburns.
Impatiently, I tug my blouse up over my head, mussing my perfectly curled hair in the process, but I don’t care. Draping the turquoise chiffon over the back of a metal-framed chair, I proceed to squirt a glob of aloe gel into the palm of my hand and rub it all over my pink shoulder. The ache soothes. The burn lessens. The warmth seems to cool and the urgency rattling through me instantly calms.
Shutting my eyes, I squeeze another dime-sized dollop into my hand and gently smooth it over my chest and reddened, exposed cleavage, mentally swearing to myself I’ll never tan and drink at the same time again. I briefly recall not being the only one that came back a mess. Sam and Reilly . . . I thought the crew’s annual camping trip would be the perfect excuse for them to talk their shit out and maybe even become friends again, but Sam seems to be struggling now more than ever, and I can tell Reilly is, too. I’m burned to a crisp, Bethany just had to show up and make matters worse, and, well, it wasn’t the weekend I’d envisioned.
I squirt a small amount into my hand and rub it on the back of my neck, sighing in relief as the cooling sensation makes my flushed skin tingle. “Orgasmically wonderful,” I breathe.
The sound of a shoe scuff in the doorway startles me, and I spin around. A man with piercing blue eyes is standing there, staring at me. His eyes widen for a moment before they seem to harden.
“Fucking Christ, don’t you knock?” I shout and reach for my blouse, crushing it against my lace-covered breasts.
“Excuse me? The door was open—”
“Do you mind?” I blurt out and slam the door, not considering for even a moment whether he’s a client or some Peeping Tom off the street. I take a ragged, deep breath, my heart racing and my hands shaking. Growing up in a smallish house with two clueless brothers and an impatient father has hardly afforded me much privacy over the years, but this . . . here? That was a first. I exhale slowly and stare at my hands a moment, realizing they’re covered in green goo.
In three steps I’m at the sink, rinsing my hands and hoping to God that the man—the stranger who just saw me topless—isn’t out there anymore, that he at least has the decency to wait outside the shop until we’re officially open. Or better yet, I hope he’s so mortified he fled and I’ll never have to see him again. I’m not one to blush easily, but flashing and peep shows aren’t really my thing.
Staring at the big gooey handprint on my shirt, I shake my head and try to curb my annoyance. It’s just another day, I tell myself, and quickly, I pull my top on, tucking the hem into the waistband of my black skirt. Straightening my shoulders, I run my fingers through my manhandled hair, clear my throat, and fling the door open, all poise and the epitome of control.
A pair of eyes, blue as ice, stare back at me and my steadiness wanes.
Iceman is leaning against the parts counter with his arms crossed over his chest. His smooth, strong jaw clenches like he’s been the one affronted, and he finally glances away from me.
“You’re still here,” I say, trying to stay grounded and calm despite my screaming pride and burning embarrassment. Or is that the sunburn? With mechanic’s hands I could spot anywhere, he picks at something on his arm—what looks like purple paint.
I smooth my shirt and skirt, shifting my gaze away from the ends of a black tattoo furling out from beneath the collar of his coal-colored button-up. “You look surprisingly put together for a Peeping Tom,” I jibe and walk past him.
“Funny,” he says, but I barely hear him over the clip-clop of my heels on the cement as I head into the office. I wave through the window for Mr. Sanchez to come inside, offering him a false smile of welcome. “I’m sorry, but you should’ve shut the door if—”
I whirl around. “You shouldn’t even be here. We’re not open.”
“You left the door unlocked.”
He seems more thwarted than apologetic and I’m near bursting with fury. “Just tell me what you want,” I grind out, needing him to leave and never come back so I can wallow in my mortification without him standing there, glaring at me. What looks like judgment fills his eyes, and to my abhorrence, I wonder for the slightest moment what he’s thinking.
Iceman straightens and I barely register Mr. Sanchez waiting, antsy in the background. “Cal said I needed to get here first thing this morning to fill out paperwork.” He sounds irritated, and his self-righteous air aggravates me even more, but I bite my tongue. “I’m assuming you’re Machaela, the office manager?”
“It’s Mac,” I quickly correct and walk to my desk. “What paperwork do you need? Are you a new parts distributor, or did Bobby do some sort of damage to your car last time it was in?” He takes a couple lazy steps toward me. I’m scared to know, but I have to ask. “What did he do this time, leave greasy footprints on your floor mat? Was it a sticky steering wheel?” I shake my head, wondering what exactly happened while I was on my camping trip and what my dad promised this poor fool. Bobby’s a fantastic problem-solver, finding rattles no one else can hear, troubleshooting error codes and misfires, but he’s a messy mechanic who has upset his fair share of customers. I push the power button on my computer, the buzz of it powering up a welcome sound that fills the noticeable silence.
“Nothing like that,” Iceman finally says. “I need to fill out a W-4.”
My fingers pause on the keyboard.
“And a new employee form. Cal also mentioned a handbook or something that I need to read over.”
I straighten. “A what?”
He outstretches his hand. “I’m Colton,” he says starkly. “Your new technician. Cal hired me on Saturday.”
Like hell he did, I want to scream, but I’m speechless and automatically reach for his hand. It’s warm and his skin is a little rough. When he pulls his hand from mine my brain starts firing on all cylinders again. I shake my head and sit down at my desk. “I’m sorry,” I say coolly. “But that’s not possible. My dad didn’t mention anything to me, and I do the hiring around here. He wouldn’t have—”
“Your dad?” Colton’s eyes narrow. When I glare back at him, he peers down at his watch then crosses his arms over his chest.
“Oh,” I start, “I’m sorry. Am I inconveniencing you this morning?” A gale of heat rushes over me as I picture him filling the door frame of the break room only moments ago. He’ll be here every morning—all day—every day. While he might turn a few ladies’ heads with his somewhat rugged, hipster look and the mysterious gleam in his eyes, today he’s a weight in the pit of my stomach and I’m feeling a little nauseous.
“Look,” he starts. “I know you sort of run the show around here. Cal told me all about you. But you weren’t here and he said he needed someone, so . . .”
I can’t help but stare at him—at the strain of his neck as he tilts his head looking at me, or the way his lips slightly purse as he waits for me to say something. I shake my head. I thought leaving for the weekend would be fine since my dad is supposed to be off on the weekends. “I’ve been wrong before,” I breathe and rub my forehead.
“What?” Colton’s brow knits together. “I assure you I’m more than qualified.” His annoyance is palpable. Good.
“I’m sure,” I say, grabbing a new employee binder from my filing cabinet. “Do you at least have a resume I can put in your file?”
Colton nods. “I already gave it to him.”
It’s too early in the morning for this. I smile the best I can. “Of course you did.” Who the hell knows where it is now. “So, you can rebuild trannies and diag diesels and restore—”
Colton’s nodding with each word. “I worked in a shop outside of San Francisco for eight years—”
“Which I would know if my dad had said anything at all. Got it.” I eye him carefully. “What brings you to Saratoga Falls . . . all the way from San Francisco?”
“Hey, Mac,” Mr. Sanchez says, inching forward.
I put my hand up. “Just a second, Rey. Thank you for your patience.” I look back at Colton.
“Family stuff, not that it’s any of your business.”
“Hmm.” My eyes narrow again before I give in and hand him his new employee binder. He eyes me a moment, like maybe he can’t believe I have the audacity to pry, but I do. “Take it. It’s your employee manual. It has our safety procedures, HR rules and regulations, that sort of thing.”
He finally does, and I sit down, reaching for Mr. Sanchez’s repair order in my outbox. “All the forms you need to fill out are in there, too,” I tell Colton, ready to give him the spiel. “And I can sit down with you to go over your benefits when you’ve finished. Rey . . .” I wave him over to my desk.
Colton nods and turns to leave the room like he’s in a hurry.
“Um, where are you going?” I peek around Mr. Sanchez. “You can’t start working until that paperwork is filled out,” I clarify and stand up, bracing my hands on my desk.
“I have to be somewhere. I told Cal I can’t start until Wednesday. I’m already late.” He holds up the binder and turns to leave. “Thanks,” he says over his shoulder, and he disappears out the door.
“Hey, Mac . . .”
“Yes, Rey. Your Toyota. Let me grab the keys,” I say, flattening out his receipt on the ledge above my desk. “Sign here, please.” I grab a piece of unopened mail from the pile on my desk and start fanning myself. A motorcycle rumbles to life outside and I nearly laugh.
If the past five minutes are any indication, this is going to be interesting.
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