Copyright © 2012 Chloe Cole
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“Mother calling,” the drone-like voice of Mac’s cellphone announced.
“S**t.” He gripped the wheel tighter, weighing his options. If he didn’t answer now, she’d stalk him all day until he did, and he had a lot on his plate. Might as well get it over with.
“Pick up,” he growled to the device.
A moment later his mother’s voice came on the line. “Mackenzie?”
“Hello, Mother.” He gave a half-smile when he realized he’d been subconsciously mimicking Newman from Seinfeld in his delivery. If she caught on to his less than enthusiastic greeting, she didn’t let on.
“I’ve found a lovely young lady to attend the Friedman Benefit on Saturday with you,” she said without preamble.
“I’m well, and yourself?”
She released a long-suffering sigh. “Fine, have it your way. How are you, my darling son, future creator of grandchildren, fruit of my loins?” she gushed.
He winced. Men should never have to hear about their mother’s loins. Wasn’t that a rule somewhere? And the talk of grandchildren was nearly as bad. He wasn’t even dating anyone, but that had never stopped her before. It was his fault this time. He should have known better than to bait her when she was clearly on a mission.
“I’m sure you have all day to waste on pleasantries, what with having a schedule like some sort of gypsy, but I’ve actually got a very busy day ahead of me,” she continued, reverting back to her normal, clipped tone.
Yeah, because tennis at the club and making sure that the cook had her dinner instructions was far more taxing than building an architectural firm from the ground up.
“I know this comes as a shock to you, I’m pretty booked today as well. I’m on my way to meet a client. Can I call you tonight?”
“I only need a minute to confirm that you’ll take Melissa Figbert to the benefit, then you can go to your little meeting.”
Mild annoyance heated to anger. He usually managed his mother pretty well, but the patronizing jabs about his job were wearing on his nerves. “One, it’s not a ‘little’ meeting. It’s actually a very big meeting that could land me an extremely lucrative contract with a new client. Two, I don’t even know who Melissa Figbert is. And three, what the hell kind of name is Figbert?”
She must have recognized she was losing him and backpedaled. “Don’t get all up in arms. I didn’t mean anything by that. I’m sure this is very important. To you,” she amended.
Well played, Mother.
“As for Melissa,” she continued. “The girl is lovely. Elegant, sweet and very cultured. She went to Vassar and has returned to Rhode Island to start working at her father’s firm. The Figberts are relatively new to the area, but not to the money. She’d be a wonderful match for you. Lovely peaches-and-cream complexion, stunning white-blonde hair. The two of you would make gorgeous babies.”
“I haven’t even met her and you’re making our babies?” He blew out a sigh and resigned himself to the inevitable. His mother was on the Friedman board of trustees, and he’d already agreed to go to the fundraiser. Plus, it wasn’t like he had a date. Sometimes it was easier to sacrifice the battle to save your strength for the war. Nobody knew that better than him. Except maybe his dad. “Fine. Tell her I’ll pick her up at six o’clock. Text me her address.”
“Darling, I don’t text. I’ll call you day of and you can write it down on a piece of paper like a civilized person.”
“In one point four miles, turn left,” his GPS intoned.
“I have to go, Mother. Talk to you later.” He tapped his Bluetooth to disconnect without waiting for a reply. That would cost him later, but the small rebellion made him smile. At least he wouldn’t be the only one annoyed by their conversation.
He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. That had to be a record. They’d been on the phone less than a minute and she’d sucked at least twenty percent of the energy from his body. She was like a psychic vampire. How his father had managed to deal with her for the past thirty years, he didn’t know. Worse than the whole life-sucking thing, she also never seemed satisfied. She was forever telling the poor bastard what to do and how to do it. Not that Mac had the right to complain too much. His father had taken the brunt of his mother’s crazy more times than not, shielding Mac from her need to control everything around her.
“Turn left onto Wawaset Boulevard.”
He hit his blinker and stopped at the four-way stop sign before proceeding. He rolled forward as he refocused his attention on the upcoming pitch. He hadn’t been joking when he’d said it was a very important meeting and he needed to make sure he brought his A-game.
Halfway through the turn, a flash of red intruded on his peripheral, cutting his musings short. A Nissan was barreling straight at him, showing no indication of stopping or slowing down. He instinctively stomped on the gas, hoping to complete the turn before impact, but the other car was moving too fast. Even as it careened through the four-way stop sign straight for his passenger door, his fear was tempered by one last, comforting thought.
If the crash didn’t kill him, he was going to have the perfect excuse to go see Frankie Sepkaski.
A clang ricocheted through the interior of the garage, and Frankie yanked the headphones down around her neck, hitting pause on the AC/DC song blaring from her iPod. She shuffled her feet, rolling the creeper from beneath the GTO she was working on. Standing, she gave her back a quick stretch before walking over to the office door.
“Just a sec,” she called as she wiped her hands on the rag stuffed in the pocket of her overalls.
“No problem,” a male voice responded through the door.
She closed her eyes and bit back a groan. That husky timbre was so distinct that there was no mistaking it. Mac Galbraith. He’d brought a car by the garage a couple weeks earlier, and she was still having sexy dreams about him. She couldn’t handle having him around more than once a month. Her lady parts would literally implode with lust. Granted, she’d taken matters into her own hands to dull the edge a little when the situation became unmanageable. But even at that, her body knew what it wanted and was rebelling against the distinct lack of Mac.
She resisted the urge to fluff her ponytail and pasted a flirtatious smile on her face as she opened the door. “Hey, Mac. Didn’t expect to see you until next month,” she said, eyeing the tan cashmere sweater and faded jeans that clung to his backside in the best way.
He turned and sent her a sheepish grin. She gasped as she took in his appearance.
“That bad?” he asked with a chuckle.
“What the hell happened to you?” Her initial fear upon seeing his injuries had faded somewhat with his reassuring smile, but his face was a total mess. A mottled yellow and purplish bruise circled one warm, hazel eye, and a small but jagged cut bisected his eyebrow.
“Car accident. Guy ran through a four-way stop and hit me pretty hard. I’m fine, but I got this shiner, some bruises and—”
She let out a theatrical squeak and staggered back. “Which car?”
“Frankie.” His face clouded with semi-mock grief as he lifted a hand to his heart. “I don’t know how to tell you this…”
She gave a solemn nod. “It’s okay, I can take it. Do it fast. Like a Band-Aid.”
His smoky bass held a hint of repressed mirth. “The sixty-nine Trans Am.”
Ouch. That was one of his favorites, and hers for that matter. Smashing it had to hurt more than the shiner. She arched her back and raised two fists to the sky. “Why?” she cried on a melodramatic sob, cursing the gods.
He didn’t try to contain it any longer, the laughter bubbling over. He groaned simultaneously and held a hand to his side. “Stop, stop. I’m still a little sore today, and you’re killing me.”
She winced. “Aw, sorry about that, pal. You sure you’re really all right?”
“Yeah, banged up, but okay. Missed an important meeting, but was able to reschedule, which was a relief.”
“And the other guy?”
“Same. Fractured his arm and got some burns from the air bag powder, but nothing major.”
She’d figured as much based on his demeanor, but the confirmation eased the remaining tension that had been gripping her neck like a vise since he’d walked in looking like hot death.
“Glad to hear it, seriously.”
He nodded his thanks and tweaked her ponytail. “I appreciate your concern. I gotta tell you, though, it’d probably go a long way in the healing process if you finally agreed to go out with me.”
Her heart thumped harder like it did every time he asked her out, but she shook her head anyway. “Guess you’re looking at the slow boat to recovery then. I’m sure you’ve heard, I’m the love-’em-and-leave-’em type, and that could be very bad for business relationships. Especially with you being my best customer.”
“You’ve got to settle down sometime,” he reasoned, his sexy smile never wavering.
“Even if you were the guy to change my wicked ways, now’s not the time for me to settle down with anyone. I’ve got too much on my plate for anything more than a laugh or two.”
Dark brows winged upward, and he let out a snort. “As opposed to any time over the past eighteen months that I’ve asked you? If I didn’t know how much time you actually spent in this place, your determination to crush my confidence might actually be doing some damage. It didn’t hurt that I had to fight eight women off to get out of the grocery store this morning, either. Some people think I’m a catch, you know.”
She did know, but she rolled her eyes anyway. “Dude, have you looked in a mirror lately? You’re not at your best right now.” She was rewarded with a flash of his dimples. He might be kidding about the grocery-store part, but she wouldn’t be surprised if it was true. He was a real showstopper, even in his current condition. Too bad she’d sworn off men. “I don’t think I need to worry about bruising your titanium ego. I’m just here to make sure it doesn’t run unchecked.”
“In that case, thanks. I appreciate your efforts to keep me in line,” he deadpanned.
She inclined her head. “No problem.”
He grinned again, and her eyes were drawn to his mouth. His lips were so pretty. Firm but beautifully shaped. She couldn’t count the times she’d imagined them on her neck. Her breast. Her hip. Her—
“Frankie?” His gruff voice cut into her fantasy. The smile melted away as his heated gaze snagged hers.
“I-um…when can I see the Trans Am?” she mumbled, cheeks burning. “Is it driveable?”
A long beat passed while he seemed to weigh whether to call her on her obvious preoccupation with his mouth. He shook his head and sighed. “Not even close. It’s in pretty bad shape. I was going to have Tub bring it in on the flatbed later.”
Tub owned the garage down the road. He was the go-to guy for hauling cars around town, and he also fixed most of the family cars in the area. When her dad had opened the garage right up the street, Tub had taken it personally. It was a couple years before he realized that Big Frank wasn’t trying to horn in on his business. Frank’s was a specialty shop for vintage cars, and this town was, indeed, big enough for the both of them. Ever since then, they’d enjoyed an easy, symbiotic relationship. Tub had sent many a job their way and vice versa. He and Frankie had continued that tradition for the past year, since her dad’s death.
She cleared her throat to ease the sudden tightness. “Meh. Last time, Tub dragged a sixty-nine Mustang Boss in with a tow truck. I could’ve killed him. Who slaps a hook on a vintage, sixty thousand dollar car? He’s a frigging Neanderthal sometimes. Make sure he actually uses the flatbed this time.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” Mac barked, snapping off a two-finger salute. “Where’s Dan today, anyway?” he asked, peering around her into the garage.
Danny was her body guy. While she made the engines purr, he painstakingly rediscovered the beauty of the old machines and made them sparkle.
“He’s on vacation until next week, but at least I can get started on her innards.”
“Sounds good. Give me a call tomorrow after you have a look. If we’ve got it on the lift anyway, I’m thinking I might want to make a couple modifications.”
He turned to go, and she tamped down a surge of irrational disappointment. “Will do. See ya,” she called after him, wincing at the wistful tone that had wormed its way into her voice.
He stopped and faced her again, eyeing her thoughtfully. “It’s lunchtime. Are you hungry? I could take you out for a bite.”
She peered down at her filthy clothes and gave her oily-covered fingers a wiggle. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Imagine how people would react if you were seen with me? And like this, no less?” She let out a crack of laughter she hoped didn’t sound bitter.
“Who cares what anyone else thinks?”
“Really? Imagine how your mother would react seeing you with the grease monkey from Big Frank’s Garage.”
“It’s no one else’s business, least of all my mother’s,” he said, closing the distance between them. “I want it to be about you and me.”
She’d known a lot of Mimi Fairchild-Galbraiths in her life, and they’d done quite a number on her psyche. She wasn’t cultured enough, her father’s business wasn’t highbrow enough, their pockets weren’t deep enough. It wore on a girl after a while and was a big part of why she’d rebelled as a teen. Well, that and the incident with Nicky Melita. After ten years, that reputation continued to precede her, except now, instead of letting it hurt her, she embraced it. Still, the last thing she needed was to put herself back in the line of fire by being seen with the town’s golden boy.
His hazel eyes turned a dark mossy green and she took an involuntary step closer. The minty scent of his warm breath washed over her lips as he tipped his head toward her. Their bodies were nearly touching now, the rise and fall of his chest growing more rapid. If she leaned even an inch in his direction, they’d be torso to torso. She could run her hands over that—
Cashmere. Jesus. She’d almost gotten grease all over his ridiculously gorgeous and outrageously expensive sweater. That was exactly the reminder she needed to bring her back to reality.
She dragged a breath in through her nose and stepped back. “I can’t,” she mumbled lamely.
“You know what, Frankie? I think you can. And I also have a sneaking suspicion you really want to.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off before she could. “Not lunch then, but what about dinner? Then you’ll have time to shower and change. We don’t even have to call it a date. It’ll just be two friends sharing a meal. What do you say?”
His earnest gaze held hers, and she couldn’t look away.
“Say yes,” he urged softly.
Her fears crumbled under the weight of his stare, and suddenly it seemed silly to deny herself the pleasure of his company. As friends. “Yes.”
His smile could have powered a football stadium. She couldn’t stop herself from grinning back.
“Not around here, though,” she added hastily.
“Deal. I’ll pick you up at seven,” he said. “Now, I’m leaving before you find a reason to change your mind.”
The door hadn’t even finished closing behind his fine ass when she started to have regrets. Part of her—the wild child she’d never quite managed to squash completely—quivered in anticipation of their non-date. The rest of her dreaded the thought of her name being on the lips of the townsfolk again, and if by chance they ran into anyone, this would surely cause a stir. Times like these she wished her dad was around more than ever. He would’ve given her his patented helpless stare, hauled her in for a self-conscious bear hug and said, “You’re young, healthy, beautiful and brilliant, and this is what you spend your time worrying about? Go out there and live your life. F**k those people if they don’t like it.”
She had no memory of her mom, but based on the TV mothers she’d watched obsessively growing up, she was pretty sure that wasn’t how a mom might have handled it. But like with all the issues he hadn’t known how to deal with, at the end of the day, Big Frank had always managed to say the right thing. So what if the delivery was a little coarse?
God, she missed him. Tears pricked the back of her eyelids and she blinked furiously to ward them off. If there was no crying in baseball, there was sure as hell no crying in Big Frank’s Garage. That had been the rule since she was four years old, and she wasn’t about to start breaking it now.
Too bad she wasn’t as disciplined when it came to her own rules. She had a strong feeling that by the end of the night the ones she’d created specifically for dealing with Mac Galbraith would go up in flames.