Read an Excerpt
Love for Beginners
An Under the Hood Novella
By Sally Clements, Lewis Pollak
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Sally Clements
All rights reserved.
A scrunched-up five-dollar bill lay on the floor.
Melody Swan bent and snatched it from the stained concrete. For a fleeting moment, her number-crunching brain started to calculate the army of Lincolns needed to stave off the impending disaster. Pretty much instantly, her brain cells revolted. Too many.
This particular soldier had attempted desertion when she tugged a stained rag from her coverall pocket. She knew how he felt, but running away from problems wasn't an option if it left a loved one facing the firing squad.
Mel tucked the bill into her pocket. Something else had caught her attention. Black crescent moons. She flexed her fingers and peered at their tips. Removing the varnish and trimming her nails had been bad enough. Now, with a sliver of black beneath them, her nails shouted mechanic.
With a sigh, she wiped the grease from her fingers.
The garage had never been so crammed. Cars in various stages of repair filled every inch of gray concrete. Rhythmic hammering synced to the country western tune playing on the radio thudded in the air. Across the floor, Betty was in the pit, working on Penny Jones's pickup. Getting the backlog of repairs under control seemed impossible.
Her cell phone vibrated, and she tugged it from her pocket. "Hello?"
"Mel, come around the front and let me in, will you? I have news!" Alice Starr, third owner of Under the Hood, sounded perky and excited, no doubt because she'd had plenty of sleep last night.
With a frown, Mel forced the thought aside. It wasn't Alice's fault she couldn't work. "I'm on my way." She strode to the pit and peered under the car. "Alice is here. I'm going to let her in."
Betty Smith pushed back her brown hair with the back of her hand, trailing a smear of grease onto her forehead. "I'll be there in a couple of minutes."
Mel's legs were so tired, the trudge across the lobby was like slogging through sand toward an oasis. With any luck, Alice's mysterious news would be worth the trek.
Even through three-quarters of an inch of glass, Alice's excitement was palpable.
She started talking the minute the door opened. "So, I ..."
"Come in and sit down." Melody stood back and held the door wide.
Alice maneuvered crab-like through the door, her crutch's rubber tip squeaking on the polished marble. Her plastered foot hovered a couple of inches from the ground as she edged forward. A skein of white-blond hair brushed over her mouth and she puffed it away, brow creased in concentration.
Mel pulled out a chair and helped settle her friend onto it. "So, what's the news?" Instinctively she glanced at Alice's hand. No ring.
Alice propped the crutch close between body and chair. "I've found a mechanic." She glanced at the pile of paperwork on Mel's desk. "Just in time, too, by the look of it. You're swamped."
Mel brushed Alice's concern off with a wave of her hand. "Once we hire a temporary replacement for you, I'll be able to get the paperwork under control. Don't worry." She forced a smile. Even though she was a fully trained mechanic, when Melody, Betty, and Alice started Under the Hood, a garage that catered to female clientele in Meadowsweet, Virginia, Melody had taken the role of manager while Alice was the garage's full-time mechanic.
Alice's injury had changed all that. For the past month, Mel and Betty had been rushed off their feet, doing Alice's job as well as their own. They were both worn out, and business was starting to suffer.
"I talked to my family." Alice's grin lit up her face like a sunbeam. "Dad was very keen to help us out, and when I explained we were swamped, he said he could spare someone to stand in for me." The corners of her mouth tugged down. "The hospital said it would be another couple of weeks before the cast comes off ..."
Mel nodded. "At least. Then you'll need physical therapy. You could be talking longer than that. It's not as if you'll just be sitting at a desk — fixing cars is a very physical job."
"I know. That's why I thought Dad's solution is so perfect. Heath can stay for as long as we need him ..."
"Heath?" Mel's head swam. Surely she hadn't said —
"Yeah, you remember my brother Heath? He's flying in today from New York." A micro-pleat of wrinkles fanned out from the corners of Alice's eyes as she smiled. "I know we said female mechanics only, but nobody wants a two-month stand-in contract, so beggars can't be choosers. He can stay in my apartment. I'm moving in upstairs with Mark until my ankle is healed. Maybe longer." Her face turned pink. "Great solution, huh?"
Heath Starr. A charmer, just like her father.
The exploits of Alice's oldest brother were legendary. As the only two women in a class of mechanics, Alice and Mel had become close friends, and Alice talked constantly about her large family. Alice had said there wasn't a woman alive who could resist Heath. Mel'd thought she must be exaggerating, until she'd actually met him.
The door from the workshop pushed open.
"Hey!" Betty rubbed her hands down her coveralls, smearing a viscous smudge of grease on the navy-blue fabric. "Great to see you!" She glanced at Mel. "I've finished Penny's pickup."
"Great, I'll call her." Mel made a note. "Alice has found us a mechanic."
Betty sank down onto the nearest chair. She yawned and rubbed at the dark shadows under her eyes. "Thank God," she muttered. "I hope she can start straight away."
"It's a he." Mel's gaze skittered to the corner of the room. "One of Alice's brothers."
Betty's eyebrows rose.
"I know the garage is female only, but you know — he offered," Alice said.
"Working with a man will be different. Is he married?" Betty leaned forward, elbows on her knees.
"Not Heath." Alice grinned. "He's your typical commitment-phobic bachelor."
"His nickname used to be the Ladyslayer," Mel added.
"He sounds fascinating. Is he hot?"
"I can't answer that, he's my brother. And Heath's just come out of a difficult situation." The momentary hesitation hinted she was about to reveal more, but she forced a tight smile. "As for hot, you'll have to ask Mel," she teased. "You met him that one time, didn't you, Mel?"
The heat of her friends' stares had Mel shifting on the chair. "Hot" didn't even start to describe Heath Starr. Of course, it had been five years since she'd hitched a ride to the train station in his pickup, three of them squashed in the front so close her thigh had been pressed up against his. The blaze of heat that had flared through the point of contact was so unexpected that looking back, she felt sure she'd imagined it.
She avoided his type like the plague. "He's good-looking," Mel forced out. "In an obvious sort of way."
"You're not going to find him distracting, then?" There was a teasing twinkle in Betty's eyes.
Mel crossed her arms. "Not at all. We have so much work to do, the last thing any of us needs over the next few weeks are complications. When can he start, Alice?" Her voice was calm and even, but something inside twisted at the thought of her reaction to him years ago. He'd made her feel awkward and nervous. He was handsome, charming, dangerous. If Alice's stories were true, the Ladyslayer didn't do complicated, but was the personification of "wham, bam, thank you, ma'am." And she for one had no intention of being another notch on his bedpost.
"He's flying in this afternoon. Mark will pick him up from the airport."
Mel nodded. "I have a busy afternoon. I have to clean up the house for the realtor, and then I have a meeting at the bank."
"I'll be here." Betty propped her elbow on the table, rested her chin on her hand, and gazed into Mel's eyes. "Is there much interest in the house?"
"The realtor has rounded up three new couples to view it. We're hoping one of them makes us an offer." With the local housing market what it was, making any sale at all would be a miracle.
* * *
"We're coming into Meadowsweet now," Mark Jameson said.
Heath Starr smiled as Mark flicked on the indicator and turned left onto a side road, flanked with trees on both sides. The buildings they passed seemed to be farms or private dwellings with large grassy fields around them. Very different from the inner-city home Heath and Alice had grown up in. "I'm looking forward to seeing ol' hopalong."
Mark shot a glance across the cramped interior of the MG. "Alice will kill you if you call her that. She's really frustrated at being out of action. I reckon the only thing that's lightened her mood any has been the thought of your visit."
Heath breathed in the air from his open window. "She's lucky she gets to take it easy."
"Work's been piling up since she busted her ankle. I know they're all very stressed about it. Get ready for some very grateful females."
Heath's lips stretched in a tight smile. Females, grateful or not, were definitely off the menu during this visit. He had a job to do for his little sister's company, and every moment he wasn't working, he'd be following his own agenda. Even now, he itched to grab his camera and head for the hills.
The flight had been pleasant enough, and Mark had picked him up from Roanoke Airport in the MG — no doubt that was Alice's idea; she'd known how much Heath would enjoy the ride. Mark seemed to be in the mood for playing hooky so they'd stopped a couple of times to admire the view and stretch their legs.
Maybe Mark was trying to impress, too. Heath's family was curious about the new man in Alice's life, and Heath wanted to make damned sure Mark was the real deal. The hour they'd spent driving to Meadowsweet hadn't been wasted. First impressions were good — he liked Mark. He'd take every possible opportunity to make sure Mark was the right man for Alice.
They drove into the town, passing numerous small stores with wide, full-length windows downstairs, striped awnings above, and an upper level that the owners probably lived in. They were painted all shades of cream, with pedimented tops. Dotted in between were brick buildings, dark red, like the brick sidewalks that ran before them — faced with old-fashioned sash windows and flat roofs. Many had white benches outside, where locals could sit, talk, and while away the hours. Meadowsweet had probably looked the same for fifty, heck, even a hundred years, nestled in the valley with the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop.
"This is Hickory Road, with Under the Hood on the left. I told Alice I'd drive straight to the apartment, so ..."
"Sure." There'd be plenty of time later to check out the garage, as well as hike out into the forests with just his camera for company. Alice's call had opened up a wealth of possibilities, ones he was determined to take advantage of.
The MG slowed, then pulled into a parking lot behind an apartment block.
"We're here." Mark turned off the engine and rolled up the window.
Heath climbed out, stretching left and right to free the cramped muscles in his back. He shook out his legs, then reached into the tiny backseat for his backpack.
Happiness radiated from Alice as she opened the door wide. She tugged him into a close embrace, and hugged the air right out of his lungs. "I've missed you," she muttered against his denim shirt. "I'm so glad you're here."
Angling back, she gazed into his eyes, her wide smile teasing forth an echo on his own face.
"I couldn't leave you in the lurch." He swung his backpack to the ground.
"Hi." Alice transferred her attention to Mark, and her face glowed as though a light had been turned on inside her. "I was wondering when you were going to get here."
"We stopped a couple of times on the way. Checking out the view." Mark grinned and kissed her softly. "I'm going upstairs to grab a shower and change clothes."
"Thanks for the ride," Heath said.
Mark thumped Heath on the back. "See you later."
"Come on in," Alice said.
Heath followed her to the sofa. He shoved an overstuffed cushion behind him and stretched his legs out on the coffee table.
Alice's eyes shone. "I thought Dad would send Ben or Will. When he told me you volunteered ..."
"It's about time that Dad realized that Ben is able to run things just as well as I ever could."
She blinked. "Aren't you worried about being replaced?"
"Hoping for it."
Alice leaned forward. "Seriously?" She chewed on her lip. "You're the oldest."
Heath rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. He hadn't meant to open up about his plans to anyone, least of all Alice. This break was supposed to show his father that he had more than one son capable of running the business — after which Heath would drop the bombshell none of his family was expecting.
Alice stared, waiting for an answer.
"Maybe I'm not the best man for the job." Heath stood and glanced around, looking for an easy out. "Kitchen through there?" He raised a hand and pointed.
"I'll make coffee."
* * *
The windshield's blur sharpened with the upstroke, quickly returning to a smeary film on the down. Silvery light gleamed on the wet sidewalks reflected from the streetlights above. The roads were empty. Everyone with half a brain was inside, curled up with a cup of hot chocolate or a hot whiskey.
Just as I intend to be, once I check that the garage is okay. Every other night, Mel was the last one to leave Under the Hood, after checking that each door and window was securely fastened and the alarm was on. Her partners had given her no reason to suppose they wouldn't take just as much care with their business, but old habits were difficult to break.
She rubbed at the ache in her temples. There were so many things to keep on top of. So many elements of her life to control. She'd been distracted lately, with the garage and the renovation of the little house she'd bought less than a year ago. So distracted she'd just presumed all was well with her mother after she'd lost her job. She should have checked — should have suspected that Marcia was having money problems.
Knowing the realtor was showing people around her home, that they were strolling around on the solid wood floors she'd stayed up nights sanding to perfection, had gouged a lingering ache in her chest.
Mel said she was happy with the decision to sell her house in order to save Marcia's, but she really wasn't. If things were different, she'd never sell her home. Assigning blame was pointless, but if Marcia had told her she couldn't pay the mortgage two months ago, rather than pretend the whole thing wasn't happening, they wouldn't be in this situation.
The garage was just ahead, and through the smears on the windshield, she glimpsed lights on in the back. A quick glance at her watch revealed it was almost ten o'clock. There was no way that Betty would still be working, and Heath had only just arrived. It couldn't be him.
She pressed her lips together. Felt panic's wings flutter in her chest. I should call the police ...
Maybe someone had just left the light on. She clutched her keys between her fingers, point out, and transferred her cell phone from her purse to her pocket. She climbed out of the car and walked to the front door.
It was locked. The panic subsided somewhat as she unlocked the door and crept in. The layout of the lobby was so familiar, even darkness was no impediment to navigation. In a quick movement, she slipped off her heels to muffle the sound of her approach and crossed to the door leading into the garage.
A slow push of the door into the workshop and she was inside. Mel held her breath as her gaze flickered from car to car. There was a noise, a humming. Creeping closer, she saw a pair of jean-clad legs extending from under the car jacked up on her left.
Tension left her body with her exhaled breath. It must be Heath. No self-respecting burglar would tinker under a car when they were intending to rob the place.
The humming stopped.
"Someone there?" a deep voice asked.
"Melody Swan." Her voice sounded prim, but at least it gave no indication of the fear that had flowed through her veins like gasoline mere moments before, ready to ignite her body into a flight response.
There was the sound of wheels scraping on concrete as the backboard slid, then an entire body came into view. Long, lean legs, clad in worn denim. A white sleeveless T-shirt, then Heath's familiar face. He stood.
"Melody." He rubbed a hand across his thigh before extending it. "Great to see you again."
Excerpted from Love for Beginners by Sally Clements, Lewis Pollak. Copyright © 2014 Sally Clements. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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