Tanner Ellis left American Heavy Metal in her rearview mirror. She didn’t see the beauty behind the grease stains and the polished chrome until it was too late. Now she’s back, determined to save her father’s legacy—and bring the South’s premier classic-car shop into the new century. Nothing is going to stop her—especially not the sexy tech who refuses to follow her lead.
American Heavy Metal is the only home Duke Wilson’s ever known, and no high-heeled, sharp-tongued princess is going to take it away. He tolerates Tanner’s advice, and it’s fun to push her buttons, but she doesn’t belong in the shop—never has, never will. The sooner she realizes that, the sooner he can find his new normal.
When Tanner falters, revealing the pain beneath her bravado, Duke comforts her the only way he knows how. And when violence from his past threatens their future, she’ll be there for him, offering him the one thing he’s always wanted—a shot at a real family. He just has to convince himself to take it.
This book is approximately 49,000 words
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"You don't have to do this."
Mac reaches across the car console and grabs my hand. I take a slow, steady breath and open my eyes. His skin is smooth and tanned, his nails trimmed close. His grip tight and reassuring. His lips dropping that whopper into the air between us as easy as breathing. I swallow and shake my head. "I do, actually. The shop has appointments. The techs need to earn hours. I can't keep it closed while I pull myself together."
His low rumble of sympathetic laughter fills the car and he squeezes my hand. "I didn't mean it like that. I mean the shop. You have choices. You can go back to Chicago, your business there —"
I flinch. He has no idea how wrong he is. There's nothing left in Chicago but a mountain of debt and a bankruptcy hearing. I bite my lip. Should I tell him?
But he barrels on and the moment to come clean is lost. "Hey, it's okay if you need more time. I know you miss the city, and your friends — your boyfriend. If you wanted to sell —"
"I don't." I put on my brightest smile. "This is my family, and they need me. Craig and I broke up a month ago. And running a car shop isn't so different from running a day spa. Just different bodies."
Mac winces, then his face softens. "You're dealing with a lot. If it gets to be too much, call me. I'm a mile away."
In his dad's old office. Neither of us has to say it out loud for me to feel the rough pang of harmonious sympathy. Tears fill my eyes and a lump forms in my throat.
"It gets better, Tan." Mac's voice is deeper, gruffer all of a sudden. "It'll always hurt. But not like this."
I nod, and I open the passenger-side car door. If I sit here any longer, I'll start crying again and that's not the first impression I want to make on my new employees. "Thank you. Can you give me a ride home tonight? I don't know when I'll get a chance to go car shopping."
We both smile at the irony, and he squeezes my hand one last time.
"Yeah." As I get out of the car and straighten my spine, preparing to walk into my new life, he lifts a hand in a small wave. "I'll text you when I'm on my way. But you text me first if you need me."
As he drives away, I square my shoulders and face the building that was such a huge part of my childhood. Dad loved nostalgia and neon, and both are on full display. Between all the scarlet awnings and the chrome paint, the name American Heavy Metal stretches across the door in a retro font that takes me back to sitting on Dad's knee at an old computer while he hunted-and-pecked his way through invoicing.
With a heavy sigh, I cross the expanse of gravel making up our front lot and pull the key ring from my purse. Dad's key ring, complete with the football-shaped tag reading Champion Dad. Tyler had given it to him for Christmas a decade ago. I swallow around the lump in my throat and find the door key.
It sticks in the lock.
Dammit. Of course it does. I try twisting it this way and that, and then a blare of country music sounds behind me as a truck pulls into the gravel lot. Is this guy trying to wake the whole town? A door slams, music and diesel engine still loud, and then a rough hand closes over mine. The awareness of a gigantic male body behind me and the touch of his hand make me jerk away like I've been burned.
Welp. So much for professional first impressions.
"Slow down, princess. You need an easy touch with this one." He twists the key gently and the door pops open. "Now open the gate to the back lot so I can get to work."
I bristle at the nickname, but I swallow my pride and face him, catching the barest impression of a stubbled jaw and flash of brown eyes before he turns his back.
The guy — my employee — strides to his truck, hips swaying in low-slung jeans, arm muscles on bulging display in a white tank top, straight out of the pages of a beefcake calendar. In my years post-college, running a day spa, I've never had to deal with an unfortunate attraction to an employee. Holy shit, I need to implement a dress code.
He climbs back into the truck and gestures at the gate, an insolent smile on his face. "Ain't got all day, princess. I'm a flat-rate tech."
Nodding, I bolt for the side of the building. Thankfully the padlock there opens easily, and I push the button on the wall to activate the automatic gate.
The tech tips his UGA cap at me and drives through, truck nuts swinging from his trailer hitch. Of course he has truck nuts. The big truck, the condescending nickname, the muscles, and the crude ornament all add up to one thing: a cocky asshole compensating for something. At the front door, I rip down the sign that reads Closed for Funeral, and I start my new life.
And so it begins.
The new boss lady disappears into Ellis's office, the tap-tap of high heels on a concrete floor finally quieting behind the closed door.
She's a cute little thing, and definitely an Ellis — dark hair like Tiffani and Tegan, but bright eyes like their kid brother. And their dad, I realize with a jolt of sadness. Having said my goodbyes at the hospital, I skipped the funeral. That shindig was for his real family. Her High- ness included. And doesn't that chap my ass?
Still, I missed an opportunity to get a good look at her before, and now I have to admit she's an Ellis through and through, but all fancied up in a skirt suit — in a car shop. Sweet baby Jesus, she has some nice legs, and legs are a rare enough sight around here. A pang of guilt hits me for checking out the boss's daughter when he's barely cold in the grave.
I push the button on my lift to raise the GTO I'm servicing.
Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap.
"What's your name?" A nice voice too. Husky-like. I turn around and let my gaze travel up those long legs. She's lost the suit jacket — clearly clued in to the fact that the shop ain't air conditioned — and she crosses her arms over her chest self-consciously.
"Duke Wilson." I tip the brim of my cap.
"Duke?" Her eyebrows shoot up. "Your parents named you Duke?"
Yeah, my parents. Sure. We'll go with that. Never mind it was her old man who gave me the nickname. "A name's a name."
"It's a dog's name. You aren't a dog." She scowls. A shudder runs through me — a hot flash of shame.
Anger follows quick on its heels. "Well, princess, you don't know me well enough to judge that yet, do you?" I leer.
"Right." Rolling her eyes, she uncrosses her arms and puts them on her hips. "I need your measurements for the new uniforms. Please have them on my desk by the end of the day."
"Don't worry, the shop will pay for them."
"Princess, you want my measurements, you can come take them yourself. That's the only way you'll get me in a uniform."
She swallows, unable to look me in the eye, and she twists her hands together. "It's Ms. Ellis, Mr. Wilson. And you'll wear a uniform in my shop, or you can go work somewhere else." At that, she lifts her chin and meets my gaze.
"Listen, you stuck-up little —"
"Whoa, what's going on here?" Tiffani comes up beside me and stares at her sister. "Everything all right, Tanner?"
Tanner. Who the fuck is she to criticize my name? "I was just explaining to Mr. Wilson that we'll be instituting a dress code in the shop. Please explain to him the importance of properly fitting attire."
And she turns on her prissy little heel and struts away. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap.
"Duke." Tiffani smacks my arm. "Don't be a dick."
I look over at her. Unlike her sister, she belongs here. Jeans and work boots, a ratty old tank top, her hair in braids. I tug one of them. "Are you gonna let your sister make you wear a uniform? We ain't a dealership."
She shrugs. "I don't really care. Might be nice. Won't have to wash oil stains out of my jeans anymore. After a while, everything smells like Pine Sol. It's not exactly the sexiest perfume ever."
A wave of affection washes over me. I was the one who taught her the Pine Sol trick. When you grow up without quarters for the laundromat, you make do with what you can find under the sink. Bonus was discovering it could get oil or blood or mud or shit out of just about anything.
"I bet there's guys who date you just for the smell of old cars and Pine Sol," I tease.
She laughs, dimples digging into her cheeks. "I'll talk to Tanner. But please try to be nice. She lost him too."
"She left him," I remind her. "She wasn't here every day. I been working here ten years and I never met her until twenty minutes ago."
"I know." Tiffani's smile fades. "But she loved him. And she's pretty torn up, even if she doesn't let it show." I peer back toward the office, but the door is closed.
I turn back to the GTO and the familiar pattern of a service I've done thousands of times before. Loosening the oil filter, I hear the refrain of her voice.
You aren't a dog.CHAPTER 2
"Tanny." Tiffani pushes open the office door and steps inside. Tanny. No one has called me that in years. It was Dad's nickname for me, until my middle school rebellion. "Tiff." I glance up at her then back to Dad's — my — ancient laptop. The keys are dark with dirt and motor oil, pale circles in the middle of the keys he'd touched the most. Especially the T.
Sweat runs down the side of my face and I wipe at it with a twitch of my shoulder.
Tiffani shuts the door behind her, but doesn't say anything. I wait, staring at the numbers on the budgeting software, willing them to suddenly grow. There's just no way to afford air conditioning for the shop.
Finally, I look back up at her. She's got her arms crossed, and she seems confused.
"What?" I ask. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Nothing. I just ... Don't you think you should see how things work before making drastic changes?"
Ah. See, I'm ready for that one.
"Requiring uniforms in the shop is not a drastic change. It's common sense."
"We have two techs. Three when Tyler comes through in a pinch — but you know he'd rather be doing IT stuff full time."
"What's that got to do with maintaining a professional atmosphere? And you know Tegan should wear one too."
She scrubs a hand over her face. "I don't want to get into it with you on your first day. But clearly you and Duke were in the middle of something this morning. And it would mean a lot to me if you would try not to antagonize him."
That she would take his side — that there are even sides at all on my first day — stings. I'm her sister, for fuck's sake. I'm here because she needs me. Because they all need me. The least they can do is let me bring them into the modern age.
"I didn't antagonize anyone. He started it."
"What are you, a toddler? You're running a business, Tanny. Act like it."
"I'm trying." Tears sting my nose, and I hate it. I hate sitting in this stifling hot office in this dirty hovel of a car shop where everyone looks at me like I'm an interloper. Because they're abso-fricken-lutely right. I don't belong here. I never did.
But they're family.
"Okay, so you're a tech. Why are y'all dead set against uniforms?"
She sits in the chair across from me. "I'm not. And I'm ninety-nine percent sure Tyler doesn't care either way. Duke doesn't like change. Or authority. But maybe if you got his buy-in, it would be different."
"His buy-in? You want me to let him pick the uniforms?" Tiffani shrugs. "What can it hurt besides your pride? Anyway. I look good in blue, if you want my buy-in." She sticks her tongue out and opens the door. "By the way — it's cooler in here if you leave the door open."
And she does. Without asking.
Out in the shop, I hear her start singing along with the country song playing on the radio, and a surprisingly pleasant baritone joins her. It takes me a moment to realize they've changed the lyrics, and then my cheeks flush as the meaning of their X-rated parody hits me.
What the hell am I getting myself into?
I open a browser and look up the local — ish — number for the uniform company I'd used in Chicago. Their nearest office is in Atlanta, an hour away. How much will the laundering service cost? For three techs and a couple of parts folk?
An hour, two web searches, and four phone calls later, I have an appointment with a uniform service from Canton — much closer than Atlanta — and it feels like sweet victory.
Now I just need to convince the staff to wear them.
Late in the afternoon, the door to the office slams open, and my sister Tegan struts in, carrying something rusty and gross, Tyler trailing behind with a shit-eating grin on his face. As Tyler provides a capella fanfare, Tegan deposits the rusty scrap on the desk and crows, "Found it!"
And then she proceeds to do a victory dance, complete with something that might be twerking.
The long strip of metal looks like junk, and considering Tegan and Tyler spent the day at the junkyard, it probably is.
"What is it?" I ask.
"Here's the receipt." She thrusts a scrap of paper at me. "Original hood hinges from a 1968 GTO. The other one is on my bench. The car was picked over pretty good, but these beauties will clean up so nice." She picks up the hinge and kisses it dramatically.
Fondness and revulsion well up in equal measure. "Gross, Teegs. Just, gross." I glance at the receipt. "Seventy-five dollars? Two scraps of rusted metal cost you seventy-five dollars?"
"Isn't it great?" she squeals.
"Don't kiss it again." I pull out my phone, take a picture of the receipt for QuickBooks, and then stick it in the notebook Dad kept them in. "Congratulations on your victory."
"Thank you." She grins. "You coming over tonight?"
"You getting a tetanus shot on your way home?"
Tyler guffaws then peers out into the shop. "Be right back." He disappears out the door.
"My tetanus shot is up to date. Katie's cooking country fried steak and mashed potatoes. Tiff and Tyler will be there. There's no point in you holing up alone in Mac's guest room on your laptop. Dad would want us to be together."
Ouch. I know she doesn't mean it as a dig. Tegan isn't the type to send me on a guilt trip on purpose. That's way more Tiffani's speed. But it hits me right in the chest with a wallop of shame anyway. I wasn't there for him. And now he's gone.
"Yeah. I'll come over."
"I'll tell Katie to set another place at the table."
"Thanks." I try to smile, but it sits on my face like a grimace. "Where'd Tyler go?"
She glances over her shoulder. "Oh, Mac's out there. I think there's a little hero worship going on."
"Already?" I look down at my phone. "It's after five." And I haven't gotten nearly as much done as I'd hoped.
"Don't worry, I'll lock up." Tegan pats the pocket with her keys. "Don't keep him waiting."
"Thanks, Teegs." I grab my jacket and purse, and follow her out into the shop.
And stop in my tracks.
"Man, that game killed me." Duke Wilson is shaking his head and grinning at Mac. "I couldn't believe it when Jackson missed the free kick. A man should lose a scholarship for that bullshit."
And Mac is grinning right back, polished and handsome and so out of place — but not. Even in his suit, he looks comfortable leaning against Duke's toolbox, with Tyler perched on top of it next to him. Across the shop, his gaze meets mine and he lifts a hand in greeting.
"There she is." He nods to Duke. "Good to see you, man."
"Same." Duke wipes his hand on a dirty shop rag and holds it out for a shake. Without hesitation, Mac grabs it and pulls him into a hug. He says something low into Duke's ear, and Tyler looks away, face flushed.
Then Mac lets him go and looks back at me. "You ready?"
I nod, baffled by what I've just seen. Mac has never been the type of guy who pals around with wrench jockeys and opines about football. And Duke doesn't seem the type to let an openly gay man hug him and whisper in his ear.
"What was that about?" I ask as I buckle my seatbelt, glancing over at Mac.
He shrugs. "Royal's a small town. We're friends."
"You're friends with him?" I can't keep the shock out of my voice. "He has truck nuts."
Mac laughs. "They're ridiculous, aren't they?"
"He's a redneck jerk."
The laughter falls from Mac's voice and he glares at me. "Don't be a snob. Duke's a good guy. Once you get to know him, he'll grow on you."
Stung, I fall silent.
Another person I love taking his side. His obnoxious, insubordinate, patronizing side. He'll grow on me? What, like cancer? No, thank you. Whatever magic he's worked on my family and friends, he can keep to himself.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hard Chrome"
Copyright © 2019 Vanessa North.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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