Authors: Brandi Kennedy
When he woke the next morning, Michael’s mouth was dry; his spirits were low, but at least he had slept well. His brain was still slightly rum-fogged, but it was nothing a little aspirin wouldn’t fix – he stumbled from his bed and down the hall to the bathroom, only realizing as he neared the door that it was closed.
Right. Renee had stayed there. How could he forget?
Turning, he headed back to his bedroom, trying to silence the jumble of thoughts that flew through his mind. Had she really lain naked in his front yard last night? And more importantly, after he had turned away, too disgusted with himself to keep watching her, had she finished what she had started?
Dropping his pajama pants to his ankles, he stepped away from them and reached for a clean pair of jeans. He had missed two days of work; he could cut out early to help make sure his mom got settled in at home, but he did have to at least go check in. He was glad he mostly worked with corporate fleet cars, rentals and limousines – it gave him the freedom to run his business without his business running him.
When he’d first opened his shop, he had mostly worked with customers by appointment and the bulk of his income had been from tire sales, doing the usual oil changes, fluid flushes, and engine tune-ups, but as his reputation as a quick and reliable mechanic grew, he had attracted the notice of a small, privately owned limousine company, who had contracted him as their regular maintenance and repair mechanic. It had felt good to take jobs that weren’t emergent; he had been used to finishing jobs quickly because the customer was waiting in the lobby. But with the limousine company, he got to enjoy his work again because he wasn’t in a rush. The company had a strong fleet with a steady rotation, and they brought their vehicles to him when they were out of use for maintenance. He would have a week to do the work, then they’d take the limo and bring him another. He liked being able to do the work on his own time though, and so he’d begun seeking more corporate contracts, jobs that would allow him to work and keep the bills paid, while still allowing him the freedom he had grown to love – and the contract he had scored three weeks ago would finally put him back in the black, undoing the last of the financial damage his divorce had created.
Pulling a tee shirt over his head, Michael tugged it down and turned back to the dresser for a pair of socks. He had to piss like a racehorse and he desperately needed the aspirin bottle from the bathroom. Had Renee come out yet? He peered out his bedroom door and down the hall; Renee was walking toward him, still wearing his shirt from last night. Her hair was mussed, but he could tell she had been running her fingers through it to detangle it, and her lips shimmered with the gloss she always wore. “Morning,” he said, his voice still gravelly with sleep.
She arched her eyebrows at him and smirked. “You look like you slept well.”
“Thanks. I did,” he grinned, ignoring the way the light caught in her eyes when she looked up at him. “Why, is my hair standing up or something?”
Renee laughed, and his gut clenched as she reached out to touch his hair. She had touched him a million times – passing him a glass, sharing popcorn during their movie nights, bumping shoulders as they walked together. He had even held her in his arms before; they had danced together at both of his siblings’ weddings. Why was it so different now?
Because she’s perfect.
No! She’s not perfect – she can’t be. She’s just Renee. Just Renee, and that’s it.
“It’s not standing up,” she said. “Too short for that, I think.”
Michael smirked. “Gotta say, I’ve never heard
Shaking her head, Renee grinned. “Yeah, that’s what they all say. Then when you ask for proof …” She laughed as his mouth fell open in surprise. “Alright, enough of this. I’m going downstairs to get my clothes from the dryer and get dressed. Want me to just leave your shirt in the washer for you?”
Her eyes were still sparkling with humor when she looked up at him, green with flecks of brown throughout, and his hands ached suddenly, itching to touch the soft skin below the line of her jaw, to feel the pulse that beat in her throat. He swallowed, staring stupidly at her mouth, wondering what she would taste like if he stepped forward right then and settled his lips over hers.
He jerked to attention, his face heating with embarrassment.
“Your shirt?” She plucked lightly at the fabric, drawing his eye back to the subject at hand.
“Oh, the washer … it’s, um, yeah it’s fine,” he mumbled. He hadn’t been able to see her clearly when she had lain in his yard the night before, but now he had to close his eyes to keep them from focusing on his tee shirt as it fell and molded itself over her breasts.
What color were her nipples? Rose? Pink? Darker, like a strawberry? Or were they lighter, like the blush-colored wine his sisters always served with the Kingsley family dinners?
And it didn’t help that his dick was just as stupid around her all of a sudden as he was. Damn, he had to get away from her before he did something he couldn’t undo. “I’ll just – uh, I’ll just … meet you downstairs.”
“Sure.” She turned away briefly, but then turned back to look up at him again, her eyes flicking over his face. “Michael, are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” he lied, stuffing his hands into his pockets to keep them from touching her. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately. “Just everything on my mind. And work. I have to go in after I take you home. I have three cars on deadline, and I need to finish them so I can go help with my mom.”
“Will it help if I just ride with you? I don’t have any classes scheduled until tonight, so …” She allowed her voice to trail away, shrugging as she watched him. “There’s a book in my room that I forgot last time I slept here – I could bring it. Or you can put me to work if you want. Maybe I’ll learn something, and I’m sure you could use some help.”
“But you –“
She held her hands up to silence him. “I didn’t ask about me. I asked if it would help you,” she said. “Would it?”
“You know it would,” he told her, swallowing the lump in his throat. “But I can’t ask you to –“
“You didn’t ask,” she answered, grinning. “So it’s settled. I’m coming to work with you, and you’re going to teach me to get dirty under a hood.”
Unable to speak, Michael nodded as she winked, and then stood frozen in the middle of the hallway, watching as she walked away. Renee didn’t look back – and that was probably a good thing, since he couldn’t drag his eyes away from the backs of her thighs and the way his shirt moved over her swaying hips. Finally, she turned the corner at the end of the hall and he heard her footsteps as she made her way down the stairs. He swallowed, bringing his hands up to scrape his palms over the overnight growth of scratchy beard stubble on his face. Finally, with a groan, he turned to the bathroom. He had to face the day, and it looked like he’d be facing it with Renee by his side. He was going to really need that aspirin.
Later, as they pulled into the parking lot at Kingsley Tire and Automotive, Michael glanced over at Renee. “Sure you wanna do this?” he asked.
She shrugged, popping the last hash brown round from their takeout breakfast into her mouth. “Well, my dad didn’t teach me that stuff. He always just made sure it was done, you know? And I mean, I pay to have it done, but still. It wouldn’t hurt to know how to change oil or something.”
“Hmm. Well, how ‘bout you start with handing me wrenches?” Michael laughed, looking pointedly at her manicured fingernails as he shifted the truck into park. “Don’t want to mess those up before your date.”
She sighed softly, and his chest tightened. “Right, my date,” she said. She was smiling to herself as she said the words, testing them; the corners of her mouth twitched upward and her cheeks bloomed with color. “Hmm. My date.”
“You nervous?” He hoped she was. He hoped it was a train wreck. No, he hoped she decided not to go at all. Michael sighed too. He felt like an idiot. How had he never noticed her this way until now? And what the hell was he supposed to do about it now that he
"Yeah, I'm nervous. It's been a while since I went on a date, you know? I’m not really a … a dater. I mean, that’s kind of Chelsea’s thing, I guess. But I’m not going to meet Mr. Right sitting on my couch, so.” She shrugged. “Maybe I’ll meet him in a yoga class.”
God, I hope not
. “Right,” he agreed. “Maybe.” He pulled his keys from the ignition and stuffed them into his pocket.
“You never know,” Renee quipped, pushing her door open and stepping out of the truck. “The next wedding you go to could be mine. After Harmony, I mean.”
He felt like he was choking on his own tongue as he pushed his door open, and he hoped his panic wasn’t showing in his eyes when they met at the back of the truck. His stomach rolled and clenched, and as he imagined her walking down an aisle in a wedding dress, his breath quickened. The idea of her walking down that aisle to another man had his hands clenching into fists at his sides, though. She would have no more time for their movie nights. She wouldn’t always answer his calls. She’d be busy – with her husband.
Oh God, is she looking for a husband? She’s looking for a husband. How could she be looking for a husband?
Renee waited at his elbow for him to unlock the lobby door, but as they walked into the lobby and she realized they weren’t alone, she fell back slightly.
“Oh, hey.” Ben looked up from his place behind the counter, a shock of chin-length curly blonde hair falling over clear blue eyes. He swept the hair behind his ears and grinned. “I was just getting ready to call and see if you were coming in,” he said. “You got two more coming in today, and an appointment with one of your regulars for maintenance next week, but you’re good for turnover deadlines until …” he trailed off, turning to glance at the computer screen beside him. “Oh.” He said. “Tomorrow. Sorry, man.”
“It’s alright, Ben,” Michael laughed. “That’s why I’m here. Which jobs are on deadline?” From the corner of his eye, he saw Renee turn and look through the window between the lobby and the shop, chewing her bottom lip as she tucked her hands into the pockets of her jeans.
“You’ve got a tire change, two rotations, an oil change, a brake job. And a tune-up.”
“Damn, I guess I’d better get out there then,” Michael laughed. “I wonder how long they’ll take me. Six jobs, but I’ve only got three bays and the Camaro is in one. So only two at a time.”
“I’ll set the stopwatch,” Ben laughed. “I think the last time was like – hang on, let me look.” He turned back to the computer, his fingers flying over the keyboard. The mouse clicked, clicked again. And Ben looked up, a wide smile on his face and a challenge in his eyes. “Two hours, forty-nine minutes. I don’t even think
can beat that, Mike, and it’s your record. Not with two bays, man.”
Gritting his teeth, Michael crossed his arms over his chest and leaned one hip against the counter. “Are the keys labeled?”
“Just like always, Boss,” Ben answered, reaching under the counter. He brought out a small stopwatch and set it on the edge of the counter. “Make, model, and plate number on one side, job on the other. And they’re all parked in order of deadline, just like you like ‘em.”
“I got this,” Michael grinned.
He took the small basket of keys Ben handed across to him, and stalked from the room, Renee’s laughter following a pace behind him.
“You keep records?” she asked, following him into the garage and watching him step up to the control panel that worked the automatic bay doors.
Pressing the buttons for the first and second bays, Michael grinned. “Just for me,” he said. “But it depends on what the job combination is. It’s just fun to see if I can beat myself.”
“Don’t you worry about sacrificing work quality?” She had her eyebrows arched when he turned to look at her, her mouth drawn down in concern.
“Not at all. My times count double checks, Renee, and I’m fully aware that peoples’ lives rest on my thoroughness. What kind of man do you take me for?” He watched her eyebrows raise even higher, and felt guilty for being so defensive.
She tipped her head, watching him. “Alright,” she said finally, apologetically. “I wasn’t trying to imply that you don’t do a good job. I just asked, that’s all. Do your customers know you race yourself to finish the work?”
“What they know is that they can’t go anywhere else for faster or more dependable work,” he answered with a wink. “But if I’m timing myself, you can’t help; so just keep me company and don’t walk under the lifts. Sure you wanna be out here?” At her nod, he turned back to the window, where Ben was smirking to himself. He tapped the window to draw his attention, tapped his wrist to indicate that he was ready, and watched Ben reach out to set the stopwatch. When Ben gave a quick thumbs-up to let him know the timer was on, Michael stalked over to the bench on the wall and dumped the basket of keys there, sorting them quietly as he muttered to himself. He could feel Renee standing close beside him, watching. Twice, she stiffened, perhaps wanting to ask him something, but each time she changed her mind and continued to watch in silence.
Finally, with his routine set in his mind, he turned her and winked. “Watch this,” he said. He snatched the first pair of keys from the counter and stalked from the garage, pausing long enough to pound four times on the lobby window as he walked by – giving Ben the signal to get some music blaring, and quick.
When Michael pulled back into the bay, he was stuffed into a tiny Toyota Yaris, and mildly afraid he’d never be able to get back out. Pulling the Yaris onto the first lift and praising himself for investing in a lift for each bay, Michael pushed the car door open and lifted one foot onto the garage bay floor. From there, he had to press himself hard into the back of his seat while working his other knee under the wheel, finally freed from the tiny car, he stood up and glanced into the lobby, where he could see Ben and Renee laughing as they watched him. The chorus of Foghat’s
blared as he raised both hands and flipped them off; they laughed harder, and he turned, grinning, to his work.