A watched pot never boils, but a watched mechanic will.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard my dad say it, but damn if he wasn’t right. There was nothing worse than a hoverer, and old man Dodson was a serial offender.
“Are you sure you need to hit that so hard?”
Clench jaw. Count to three. “Yes.”
“Is that really the right way to do it?”
Take a breath. Don’t throw things. “Yes.”
“Are you going to be done soon?”
Not if you keep standing there asking me stupid questions.
My temper was nearly at the boiling point, but since I really couldn’t afford to lose customers, I turned around and attempted something resembling a smile.
“Shouldn’t be too long now, Mr. Dodson. Why don’t you take a walk? Maybe grab a cup of coffee and a donut at the diner? By the time you get back, I’ll have your vehicle all ready for you.”
The old-timer scratched his head and hitched up his kelly-green pants. “You know, Swifty Auto said they could have this done in half an hour. And their price was cheaper than yours.”
I gripped the wrench I was holding even tighter.
Fucking Swifty Auto. The fast food chain of automotive repair. High volume, low value, shitty rush jobs done on the cheap—but customers didn’t seem to care. Apparently, a chandelier in the lobby, glossy TV ads, and free cookies were more important than good service. “Well, they’re a bigger shop. And they’ve got a different philosophy.”
“But I’ve always brought my cars here, and your dad was a good honest guy. Knew what he was doing. I figure you’re a good honest guy too.”
“He taught me everything I know,” I said. In other words, I too know what I’m doing, asshole. Now go get a fucking cruller and let me finish this up. You didn’t even have an appointment—I squeezed you in as a favor.
Dodson exhaled and gave up. “Guess I’ll take a walk then.”
I watched him wander out to the sidewalk and begin his old-man shuffle down Main Street, then got back to work.
“Damn, that guy is annoying,” called McIntyre, the other mechanic at Bellamy Creek Garage. I owned the place, but he’d been working there almost as long as I had. We also had a helper—a “stack the tires” guy—whose real name was Andy, but we referred to him as Handme, since we were always telling him to hand me that wrench or hand me a towel or hand me the 10mm socket I just dropped in the engine bay and couldn’t fucking find if my life depended on it.
“Yeah, he is. But he pays his bill, at least.” I checked the clock on the shop wall. “Hey, where the hell is Handme? I thought he was supposed to be here by seven. It’s almost nine.”
“I think he had to take Lola somewhere.”
“Oh, right. He mentioned that yesterday.” I shook my head as I went back to work under the hood of Dodson’s Buick. “Poor kid.”
“What do you mean, ‘poor kid’? He’s getting laid all the time.”
“I mean, he’s a fucking mess over that girl.”
“So it’s Handme. She’s gonna eat him alive and spit out his bones.”
McIntyre laughed from beneath a Ford Mustang. “He might enjoy that. I know I would.”
“You and Emily fighting again?” McIntyre was engaged to be married in six months—if he and his high-maintenance fiancée could stay together that long.
“She broke up with me last night.”
“What was it this time?”
“Hell if I know. I think her words were something like, ‘Because you’re an insensitive asshole who doesn’t care about anything important.’ But by important, she means shit like what color the flowers will be at the church or what flavor the wedding cake will be, or who sits where at the reception. What do I care about that stuff? It doesn’t matter!”
I couldn’t agree more, but I kept my mouth shut.
“It’s all bullshit,” he rambled on. “Why can’t we just say ‘I do’ at city hall and go drink beers afterward like normal people? I’ll even wear the suit.”
I laughed. “Got me. You’re the one who asked her to marry you.”
“I know, but it’s like she lost her mind with all this wedding stuff. She used to be so fun. We used to hang out and listen to music and talk about shit that matters, like cars and baseball. Now all we do is argue. I have to say I’m sorry like ten times a night.”
“So stop apologizing. Let her crawl back to you for once.”
“That could take weeks, Griff. I can’t wait that long to have sex. Not all of us have the discipline to be a celibate monk like you.”
“I’m not celibate, asshole. I’m just not a slave to my dick like everyone else who works here.”
“But don’t you miss it?” McIntyre asked.
Was he kidding? Of course I did. But needing something or someone so badly made you weak, and I prided myself on being strong. Sure, I was human like anyone else, and occasionally a cute ass in tight jeans got the better of me, but I always followed my rules: I was a one-night-only attraction, I always used protection, and I never slept over.
“There are more important things in life than sex,” I said.
“Like what?” McIntyre sounded genuinely curious.
“Like keeping this business alive despite the fact that we’re bleeding customers and Swifty Auto is soaking them up. Like finding time and money for hands-on training so we can stay up to date with advanced diagnostics. Like getting that small business loan so I can afford advertising, another mechanic, and better tools and software.” I straightened up and grabbed a blue shop towel. “Like winning the league championship.”
He rolled out from under the Mustang and looked at me, his expression somber. “Amen, brother.”
McIntyre and I played for the Bellamy Creek Bulldogs in a league my sister referred to as “old man baseball.” It’s true, we were all over thirty, not as agile or fast as we’d been in high school, and we consumed a lot more beer, but we took it very, very seriously. We lived for those Thursday night games, celebrating every victory—and drowning our sorrows after each defeat—at The Bulldog Pub, the bar that sponsored us. And it looked like this summer’s championship game would be a match-up between us and our most bitter rivals, the Mason City Mavericks. We’d won the title the last two years, and they were anxious to get it back.
“You’re coming to practice tonight, right?” I asked. McIntyre was our center fielder. He wasn’t a big hitter, but he was quick and had a good throwing arm.
“Definitely.” He paused. “If Emily says it’s okay.”
I shook my head—the guy was a hopeless case—and tossed the towel aside.
* * *
After closing the shop just after five, I locked the doors and re-entered the building from a door on the far left of the façade, which opened onto the staircase leading up to my apartment.
The garage was actually an old firehouse with two bays. It had been vacant for at least a decade before my grandfather bought it in 1955 and repurposed it into a service station. My father took it over in the early 1970s when my grandpa retired. Back then, they used the second story over the lobby as storage, but after I got out of the Marine Corps four years ago, my father offered to let me convert it into living space.
That hadn’t been the plan, of course, but life as I’d imagined it was no longer an option. So I returned the ring, withdrew my offer on the house, drank myself into oblivion and generally behaved real fucking badly for several months before my dad and my three best friends told me to get my shit together, because life goes on.
Having a project helped, and my buddy Enzo Moretti was a builder, so he’d worked with me on the apartment after hours. There was something cathartic about spending my spare time putting up walls.
It was a cavernous space with high ceilings, exposed brick, and wide-plank wood floors. My bedroom and bathroom were at the back, and the front was basically one big rectangular room, with a kitchen in one corner and a seating area by the three front windows overlooking Main Street.
Thanks to Moretti’s connections, I’d scored nice materials on a limited budget—leftover tile and granite from someone’s new vacation home, reclaimed wood floors from a lumber dealer, doors and fixtures salvaged from old barns and farmhouses, even some of the original details from the firehouse itself. It might have been a little mismatched to an expert decorator’s eye, but it didn’t bother me.
The only thing I wished I had was some land. If I could ever afford it, I wanted a piece to call my own. All his life, my dad had talked about saving up enough to buy some decent acreage when he retired. He’d planned to move out to the country and spend his days tinkering with old cars in a barn, going fishing whenever he felt like it, and teaching his grandchildren how to play pinochle.
Unfortunately, a heart attack had claimed both him and his dreams too soon.
“He worked himself into an early grave,” my mother said the day of his funeral. “Don’t do it, Griff. He wouldn’t want it for you. Find some other way to honor him.”
But my dad had worked his fingers to the bone to keep his father’s business alive, and I’d be damned if it was going to die on my watch. If it meant working longer hours to keep our customers loyal, so be it.
But tonight, there was baseball.
Hungry, I went to the fridge, hoping for a miracle, like maybe I’d forgotten there was a fresh-baked lasagna in there. Or a steak and potatoes. At the very least, a chicken pot pie.
No such luck. Clearly, I’d forgotten to grocery shop again.
But I had some lunch meat and half a loaf of bread, so I slapped a ham sandwich together and scarfed it down while changing out of my work clothes into some sweats.
I was hurrying around to the back of the building where my truck was parked when my cell phone buzzed.
“How’s my favorite big brother ever?”
“You mean your only big brother ever?” I jumped into the truck, tossing my glove onto the passenger seat.
“Seriously, Griffin, how are you? Have I told you how handsome you look today?”
“We’re on the phone, Cheyenne.” I started the engine. “You can’t even see me.”
“Then I think you should come over to the shelter so I can say it and mean it.”
“And what else?” I asked, because I know my little sister.
“And nothing else,” she said.
“There’s always an else with you, Cheyenne.” I shifted into reverse and backed out of my parking spot behind the building. “And you never say nice things to me. You must need something.”
“So suspicious,” she scolded. “Frankly, I’m offended.”
“I was only hoping to see you.”
“And show you something.”
“Something like an animal you want me to rescue?”
“No, Mr. Know It All, it’s not an animal I want you to rescue.” She paused. “It’s just a kitten.”
“A tiny little orphan kitten.”
“Stop it. I’m not fostering any more animals. They poop on everything. They chew shit.”
“Please, Griff? You’re the one who brought in the stray pregnant cat.”
“Because I didn’t want a pet and she kept hanging around my door.” Of course, that was because I’d been feeding her, but I’d felt sorry for the thing.
“Well, the babies are ready to be adopted, and it’s breaking my heart to see them there every day. I’d take one but you know how allergic Mom is. And of course, I gave up my lease so I could move in with her after her surgeries.”
“I am well aware of your sacrifice, Cheyenne.” My sister loved to bring this up in order to guilt me into doing things. And it always worked—there was no way I could have survived moving back home. I loved my mother, but she drove me nuts. “How long would I have to keep it?”
“Not long, I promise. Just until I can find it a permanent home, which I’m sure I’ll be able to do as soon as school starts up in a month.” Cheyenne was a kindergarten teacher at our old elementary school.
“Fine,” I said grudgingly, heading toward the ball field. “But I can’t pick it up right now. I’m on my way to practice.”
“I would not dream of interfering with old man baseball,” she said, laughing. “Just come to the shelter tomorrow. I’ll get the paperwork ready.”
“You know, you shouldn’t make fun of me after I just agreed to do you a favor. I could still change my mind.”
She laughed again. “No, you couldn’t. I know you, Griffin Dempsey. Granite on the outside, gooey on the inside. You’re like a soft-serve ice cream cone covered with Magic Shell chocolate. You’re like a Cadbury egg. You’re like a—”
I hung up on her. Little shit.
* * *
After practice, most of the team met up at The Bulldog Pub for a few beers, some pizza, and a lot of trash talk about the Mavericks. I sat at an outdoor table on the sidewalk with Cole Mitchell, our star pitcher, and Moretti, our second baseman and fastest runner.
“We’re gonna crush those assholes,” said Cole. “They’re not gonna know what hit ’em.” Then he winced as he adjusted the bag of ice on his shoulder.
Cole was a cop, widowed way too young, now a single dad with a little girl he adored. We’d grown up next door to each other and had been best friends since we could talk. He was the best human being I’d ever known, straightforward and honest, even if he was slightly in denial about our team’s ability to crush the Mavs.
Not that he was the only one.
“Fuck yeah,” agreed Moretti, lifting his beer bottle. He worked for Moretti & Sons, his family’s construction business, and we’d been buddies since his family had moved to Bellamy Creek when we were in middle school. “We’re gonna decimate ’em. And I’m gonna steal home just like I did the last time.” He shifted uncomfortably on his chair. “Hope my groin injury is better by then.”
I laughed and took a long pull on my beer. “Don’t fall apart on me now, assholes. We looked decent tonight. Solid hitting. Good pitching. The Mavs are tough, but I like our chances—if you don’t turn into a bunch of old ladies in the next two weeks.”
“Where’s Beckett tonight, anyway?” said Cole, reaching for another slice of pizza. “He think he’s too good for practice or what?”
Beckett Weaver was the only guy in our childhood foursome who’d left Bellamy Creek for college and hadn’t come back—not right away, anyway. It didn’t surprise any of us, since he’d always been the book-smartest in our group—straight A’s, Valedictorian, scholarship to an Ivy League school. He’d gotten two degrees, moved to Manhattan to work in finance, and fucking hated every second of it. He’d grown up on a farm and decided he missed it too much, so three years ago, he’d left the Big Apple behind and moved back home to help run his family’s cattle ranch.
It was awesome for the team, since Beckett had always been the biggest hitter of any of us. I was a close second, and a damn good first baseman, but against the Mavericks, we’d need all the muscle we could get.
“Nah, he just had something he had to get done tonight,” I said.
“Move his cows, probably.” Cole laughed and shook his head. “That guy spends more time moving his cows around his land than doing anything else. I don’t know how he stands it.”
“Beats being stuck behind a desk all day,” I said. “I don’t know how he did that as long as he did.”
“I do—he was making millions of dollars,” Moretti said, trying to catch the server’s eye to order another beer. It wouldn’t take long—his looks pretty much guaranteed him the eye of every female in the room between the ages of twelve and ninety. He’d always been the charmer of the group, able to flirt his way out of trouble with anyone—teachers, principals, coaches, girls. Even the mothers adored him. “It’s those dark eyes,” my mom said once, a little too dreamily. “They smolder.”
Sure enough, the server, a pretty twenty-something with long blond hair and a shy smile, came rushing over to ask what she could do for him. Moretti gave her the smolder and asked for another beer, and she sighed before saying she’d be right back with it, hurrying inside the pub before anyone else could order anything. Cole and I exchanged an eye roll.
“Hey, has Beckett said anything to you about his dad?” Moretti asked.
“His dad?” I squinted across the table at him. “No, why?”
“My mom said she ran into him at the grocery store the other day, and he seemed confused. Like he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there.”
“Huh. That’s not good.”
Cole moved the ice pack on his shoulder again. “Getting old sucks.”
“We’re not that old,” Moretti said. “We’re barely thirty.”
“We’re thirty-two,” I pointed out.
“Okay, we’re barely over thirty. But what’s so bad about it? We still look good.” He smiled at the server as she set down his beer.
“Could I get one more too, please?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said, before glancing at Cole. “How about for you, Officer Mitchell?”
He thought about it and shook his head. “Nah, I better get home.”
“Okay. I’ll get your check.” She gave him a smile and picked up his empty plate.
“I think she likes you, Officer Mitchell,” I said, laughing as I tipped my chair back on two legs.
Cole rolled his eyes. “Fuck off.”
“No, Griff is right,” Moretti said with a grin. “She didn’t call me by name. Maybe you should ask her out.”
“No.” Cole was adamant.
“Well, besides the fact that she barely looks older than Mariah, I don’t even remember how to ask a girl out. I haven’t had to do it since high school.”
“It hasn’t changed,” Moretti assured him.
“How many times do I have to say it—I’m good,” Cole insisted, holding up his palms. “I don’t want to date anybody. I live with my mother. I’m raising a daughter. I’ve got enough women to deal with.”
Moretti looked at me. “What about you? What’s your excuse?”
I shrugged. “I’m smarter than the rest of you assholes.”
Moretti shook his head. “Jesus. You guys really are a couple of old men. You’re gonna end up like those two crotchety dudes on the Muppets, Statler and Waldorf, sitting alone up in the bleachers, watching Bulldogs games and complaining about everything.”
Cole laughed. “And where are you gonna be?”
“Oh, my wife and kids will have driven me into an early grave by then.”
I cocked a brow. “I didn’t realize you had a wife and kids.”
“I don’t. Not yet, anyway. But it’s inevitable. In my family, you have a wife—preferably Italian, definitely Catholic—and a bunch of kids. They’re expensive, loud, and they drive you crazy, but then you get to spend the rest of your life making them feel guilty about shit.” He shrugged and picked up his beer. “That’s how it goes. It’s the Moretti circle of life.”
I laughed. “And where are you going to find this wife? You know every single Italian girl in this town, and half of them are related to you.”
“I’m not worried,” Moretti said, lifting his bottle toward the sky. “I figure as long as I have faith, she’ll show up when I least expect it.”
Right then, we heard a huge boom next to us on the street. Since sudden loud noises trigger a hyper-alert response in me—a remnant of my three deployments in Afghanistan—I jumped to my feet and assessed the situation, my adrenaline pumping. But it was immediately apparent that the source of the explosion was a blown tire.
Cole and Moretti stood too, and we watched as a red vintage MG wobbled precariously before jumping a concrete chock block and coming to rest on the sidewalk in front of the Bellamy Creek Credit Union, which told me that the driver did exactly the thing you’re not supposed to do after blowing a tire—panic and slam on the brakes. Luckily, no one was parked in front of the credit union at this hour, and the sidewalk was empty as well. Still, the driver had to be pretty shaken up, if not injured.
Without exchanging a word, the three of us took off toward the car. As soon as we got close, we could see it had been the MG’s rear passenger-side tire that had blown. The driver opened the door and got out of the little car, which took some effort since she appeared to be wearing . . . a big, white wedding gown.
“Holy shit.” Moretti put both hands on his head. “I was kidding.”
We stared as the woman approached us, taking in all the details. The long strapless dress. The tiara perched on top of her dark blond hair. The white gloves covering her arms to the elbow. The shocked expression. She looked like a very confused Disney princess, as if she’d been well on her way to the Magic Kingdom and had no idea how she’d wound up here instead.
But she was undeniably beautiful, with wide-set green eyes and a full lower lip, and even though something about her spelled T-R-O-U-B-L-E, my gut instinct was protective.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She blinked at me. “Is this heaven?”
“It’s Bellamy Creek,” said Cole. “Ma’am, do you need help?”
“I . . .” she started. Then her eyes fluttered shut, her knees buckled, and her body began to collapse into the massive cloud of white.
I moved fast, catching her as she fell.