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The opening riff of an old-school AC/DC song echoed through the garage. Johnny Devlin bit back a curse when he scraped his knuckles on the pump of the piece of crap Cadillac he was working on.
The smell of motor oil, sweat, and grease warmed the interior of Johnny's favorite place in the world. Webster's Garage boasted a double set of bay doors and a roomy interior complete with a cement floor and red-and-brown brick walls, a holdover from the original Tooley's Auto Shop.
"Hey, asshole," he heard Foley snarl. "We talked about this. Hands off my stuff."
Best buds Foley and Sam were squared off, staring holes through each other. When it came to orderand pretty much everything related to cleanlinessthe two thugs sat on opposite ends of the spectrum. FoleyMr. Tall, Dangerous, and Arrogantwas compulsively neat, while Sam might as well have had the word chaos tattooed on his forehead. Covered in tattoos, Sam was a walking billboard for badassery.
Lou stepped over to the radio near his work station, and soon loud classic rock drowned out the rest of the argument.
Just another day at the office.
A cool breeze made Johnny sigh. Seattle's unseasonably warm autumn temps continued to be a pleasant surprise this year, and they kept the garage doors open to let the air circulate through the sticky auto repair shop. Even at nine thirty in the morning, he had worked himself into a sweat.
Johnny cranked his wrench and stared at a stubborn pump assembly that refused to cooperate. He loosened it, got to the fan belt, then glared down at the problematic power steering pump.
After glancing over his shoulder to make sure he was in the clear, he softly muttered, "Shitty Cadillac."
The sound of someone shaking a familiar glass jar of coins made him tense. He heard it again, even over the blast of AC/DC. Ducking deeper under the Cadillac's hood, Johnny wondered who his sexy-scary boss was going to call out for cursing now. He was sure he hadn't been that loud.
"Seriously, guys?" Delilah Webster held the newly purposed amber glass growler out to Sam and Foley. The woman had a hard-on for swearwords lately.
Such a sad waste of a perfectly good beer container. Once the half-gallon jar had been home to a killer IPA flavored with hops and a hint of citrus. Now, it was nothing but a no-swearing jar filled with goddamn quarters.
As if the shop going clean would prevent Del from slipping up at her wedding.
He imagined her dolled up in a white gown, tats, piercings, and her hair all done up in some funky twist, looking like a million bucks. She'd be glowing at her behemoth of a fiancé before letting loose with an "I fucking do." With a snort, he buried himself back under the hood of the bastard of a car and did his best to calm his frustration. He never had anything pleasant to say before ten a.m. anyway. God knew he needed a jolt of caffeine, and soon, before he took a tire iron to the gray piece of crap he just knew was laughing at him.
Sam and Foley bitched about the new no-swear policy even as he heard them drop change into what Johnny had taken to calling the "Rattle of OppressionROP." A few clinks of change against glass and everyone seemed to sink into themselves, anxious that their fearsome boss would come storming back in, demanding a quarter for a "hell," "shit," or "damn."
Johnny knew better. Dubbed the smart one of the crew, he kept his nose out of trouble and everyone else on the straight and narrow. Mostly.
He heard Del step in his direction, grazed his already sore knuckle against the frame as he removed the assembly, and let it rip. "Fudge."
"See?" Del yelled to be heard above a man on the radio screeching about shaking all night long. "At least someone can keep his friggin' mouth clean." She patted him on the shoulder, and he did his best not to flinch. Woman had hands like rocks. "Thanks, Johnny."
He kept his head down and continued to tinker, listening as her footsteps gradually faded. Then an office door closed, and he found it safe to look up.
"You are such a kiss ass." Sam frowned. Then again, Sam did nothing but frown.
Next to him, Foley crossed massive arms over a broad chest and made kissy noises. A glance across the garage showed Lou shaking his head, looking disappointed.
"What?" Johnny tossed up his hands. "Am I the only one smart enough to know you catch more bees with honey?" He smirked at the many middle fingers shot his way. "Thought so. Dumbasses."
Of the four of them currently in the shop, Sam was the one whose temper could turn on a dime. He'd gotten better over the years, but everyone knew to avoid the brute when he sank into a rage. Only Foley could talk him down, the pair closer than most brothers. Lou had a sense of humor like Johnny's, but without the quick witor so Johnny liked to constantly tell him.
Keeping on Sam's good side would be the smart thing to do.
So of course, Johnny had to prod him. "Hey, McSteroid, you and your boyfriend got plans for tonight?"
Foley sighed. Lou grinned.
Sam's frown darkened. "Why? You got a death wish, stick boy?"
Johnny flexed a greasy arm. "Seriously? Stick boy? Man, I'm ripped. And it's all natural." He raised a brow at Sam and pushed his bicep up from the back, trying to appear bigger.
Even Sam couldn't withstand the Devlin charm. A rare smiled appeared on his face. "Whatever. No, I don't have plans. And Foleynot my boyfriend, dickheadhas his own life."
"So." Lou looked Foley up and down. "No plans for you then?"
Lou grinned. It took a lot to push the guy's buttons. "Back at you, hombre."
"I thought we'd hang at Ray's if you losers have nothing better to do. Darts rematch?" Johnny offered.
The others agreed.
"You're on." Lou looked eager. The only one of the group who gave Johnny a serious run for his money at the game. Intelligent, a real ladies' man, and he had a steady hand. A useful trait for a guy who painted with great attention to detail.
"Cool." Johnny gave them a thumbs-up. "Winner doesn't pay for drinks. So make sure you idiots bring your wallets."
"Dream on, motherfu"
"Foley," Del snarled from the office door. "What the hell did I say about swearing?" The ROP had returned.
Johnny buried his head back under the hood of the car. He was pretty sure the others did the same. Survival of the fittest worked only if you let the weaker ones, like Foley, take one for the team.
A few hours later, he lounged outside on a picnic table, eating a sandwich Dale, their service writer, had picked up from their favorite shop two doors down. The rare sunshine, not marred by a single cloud, added to the perfection of the moment. A few birds chirped, cars buzzed down Rainier, and only Foley crunching on a huge bag of chips interrupted Johnny's peace.
Foley glanced at Johnny's third sandwich. "Where do you put all that food? You should be really fat."
"You should talk. And just because I don't spend my leisure time jerking off with weights doesn't mean I'm not in shape. I like running."
"From the law," Foley muttered and crunched some more, a sly grin on his face.
"Nah. That's in the past. The trick now is not to get caught." He wiggled his brows, and Foley laughed. "I run after work, if you're interested."
"Nope. I'd rather ‘jerk off with weights,'" Foley sneered. "You know, with that smart mouth, it's a wonder no one's rearranged your face lately."
"It's been a few months," Johnny admitted. He had a hard time going without a fight, cursed with an inability to keep his mouth shut around less intelligent, ill-humored people. "I'm not a half-bad boxer. Hence my ability to still breathe on my own."
"I know. That's the only reason Sam and I tolerate you. That and if we're in a fight, we'll throw them the runt and mosey off."
Johnny laughed. Foley and Sam weren't known to mosey away from anything. The badass bros, as he and the others called them behind their backs, ended more shit than Johnny ever started. That weird moral code the pair insisted on keeping often had them interfering when a smarter man would steer clear.
"You still dating Alicia?" Foley asked out of the blue.
"Nah. She got a little clingy."
Foley sighed. "They all do."
"I take it you and Sue are quits then."
"Should make tonight at Ray's interesting." Johnny grinned. Sue waitressed at Ray's, and though he'd been curious, he'd been too intimidated by her rough edges to try her on for size. A sweetheart underneath the heavy kohl, many piercings, and fierce tats, Sue nevertheless didn't tolerate horny fools. Fuck with her and meet a bad end. Period.
Granted, Johnny wouldn't typically let a little thing like a woman kicking his ass stop him if he really wanted her. He'd charmed harder cases than Sue. But he didn't want to break her heart, then have to deal with her when he went back to the bar.
"It wasn't like we were serious."
"A little defensive, hoss?"
"Shut up. I am not."
Foley groaned. "It was just supposed to be sex. Then she's texting me all the time. Can I help it if I'm damn good in bed? I mean, Jesus. A little oral foreplay, and the chick's hinting at wedding bells."
"Okay, so I'm exaggerating. But she wanted to go exclusive, so I backed out quick." Foley's ended relationship apparently hadn't dulled his appetite, because he finished the chips and started on a few cookies. Carrying around so much muscle obviously expended energy. "She said she's cool with it, but I haven't been face-to-face with her since Saturday night."
Johnny did the math. "That's nearly a week. Hey, with any luck, she'll be too slammed with orders tonight to notice you. You know how Fridays at Ray's can get." Johnny gave him a fake smile. "Good luck, friend."
Foley frowned at him. "You don't sound all that sincere."
"I'm not. I'll be placing bets on you leaving Ray's with at least one or two darts in your ass. You know Sue holds the bar record, right?"
Johnny snickered. Liam Webster, Del's old man and the other owner of the garage, approached alongside Sam. Before either could sit, Johnny announced the bet. "Okay, gentlemenand I use that term looselyten bucks says Sue tries to attack Foley before we leave Ray's tonight."
Sam considered Foley. "I'll take that bet." To Foley he said, "I told you not to date the chicks at Ray's. You bonehead."
"We're going to Ray's, if you're interested," Johnny told Liam, the rational half of his employers.
Del's father had to be in his late fifties but looked years younger. He had height and muscle on him that Johnny, no matter how hard he worked, would never have. Liam also had an easygoing attitude and knowledge of mechanics that put most auto-thugs to shame. Del was his pride and joy, and J.T., his bruiser of a son, was always good for a laugh when he dropped by.
Liam had grown up poor, worked his tail off to make something of himself, and had raised two fine if aggressive kids. A terrific boss, he didn't judge, knew how difficult it could be to get a second chance, and always gave a guy the benefit of the doubt. Hell, he'd hired Johnny, and Johnny would never claim to be a saint. Not after that pesky felony. Friggin' cops refused to let a guy joyride without making it a huge deal.
Ah, but life at eighteen had seemed so simple back then.
"I'd love to join you boys at Ray's, but I have a date with a lady."
Johnny said kindly, "Blow-up dolls don't count, Liam."
Foley and Sam chuckled.
"Shut it, Son, before I shut it for you." Liam made a fist at Johnny, but his amusement was plain to see. They all knew he'd scored big time a few months ago, and ever since, he and Sophie, his lady friend, had been acting like a pair of lovebirds.
Sam shrugged and sat next to Foley, stealing the rest of his cookies.
Sam put an open hand on Foley's face and shoved while inhaling a cookie whole. He talked around his food, opening his mouth to Johnny, especially because the bastard knew it grossed Johnny out. "Still can't believe you got a classy lady like that to give you the time of day, Liam," he said around expelled cookie crumbs.
They all looked at Liam, who puffed up. "I know. Boggles the mind."
They shared a laugh, though Johnny knew they'd all been beyond pleased to see the boss finally get lucky. For thirty years the guy had mourned his true love, raised two hellions, and somehow run a successful garage. Johnny looked up to Liam. Hell, he wanted to be Liam, someday. Especially since Liam had scored a fine woman. A mystery to them all.
"So what are your plans? Going to take her ballroom dancing?" Johnny teased.
The whole garage had given Liam shit for the dancing date a month ago.
Liam frowned. "As a matter of fact, we're going fine dining."
Sam stuffed the last cookie in his mouth and mumbled "Good luck" while chewing.
"Sam, close your mouth." Johnny cringed, pushed past his limit. "Just...gross."
Foley snorted. "Hey, at least he's dressed and not scratching his ass, drinking straight from the milk carton, and busting into your room when you're trying to get lucky."
"With a girl?" Lou asked from behind them. "What happened to Sue?"
Foley growled, "Sue's a girl."
"Yeah, but you already got lucky, right?" Lou shrugged. "Once you're in, you're in. Unless you're doing it wrong." And Lou would know. The guy never hurt for women.
Liam sighed. "You guys are pitiful. Now get back to work."
"Yeah, yeah." Johnny stood with the others and filled Lou in on Foley's dilemma.
"Cool. I'm down for ten. I say she ignores him completely. Kind of the way Lara treats you, Johnny."
His face heated, but he pretended not to hear the other guys razzing him and hightailed it back into the garage.
Lara Valleythe lust of his life. He'd been going to Ray's forever, and the first time he'd seen her, four-plus years ago, he'd fallen hard. But his reputation had preceded him: a player and proud of it. He'd teased and flirted his way to learning her name and a few details about the stunning brunette, but little more.
Currently twenty-seven years old and still single, she had her mom, dad, and sister, two nieces she helped care for, and took classes at the community college. For nursing, if he wasn't mistaken. Man, she could help him heal up anytime.
He'd spent many a night at Ray's, discreetly watching her. Long brown hair, deep, chocolate-brown eyes, a slender body curved in all the right places. She worked hard, didn't take shit from anyone, and had a genuinely kind heart for the poor souls sobbing heartache into their beers.
He preferred when she tended bar, because it kept her fine ass away from grabby customers, unlike when she waitressed.
Just the thought of seeing her again made his heart leap, but he knew better. A smart guy didn't shit where he ate. Look at poor Foley and his breakup with Sue. Guaranteed the woman would make him pay in some way tonight. Johnny knew women. He knew what they liked and didn't like. And Sue would be gunning for the guy who'd dumped her, even if she claimed the breakup was no big deal.
He snorted, wondering how Foley could appear so together and be so clueless.
Now take Lara. Johnny wanted her, no question. For a night, a week, a month. Hell, he'd been obsessed with her for a while, and he knew it would take time to get her out of his system. First he had to get her to go out with him.
But Lara? She had a thing about not dating the guys who hung out at Ray's. A smart choice, actually. Johnny loved the joint, but Ray's catered to a rough crowd.
The perfect place for his kind of people, he thought with a grin.
* * *
Hours later and a dollar in quarters poorer, having been goaded into a few f-bombs though Sam had sworn Del was outside the garage, Johnny sat with his buddies near the darts at Ray's, drinking and preparing for his weekend.
"No plans, guys. For once, I'm a free man for two whole days." He kicked back and sighed with pleasure.
"So no work at your dad's club for you, huh?" Foley asked. "Too bad. I was going to offer to help."
"Me too," Sam added, his voice like the growl of a wounded bear. "Damn. I was hoping to talk to Candy again."
"Sorry, sport. Dear old Dad is Candy's new squeeze."
"Bummer." Sam shrugged. "But the guy's got good taste."
He always had. Johnny had grown up without his mother, but with a bevy of maternal support. His father had a thing for strippers, so it made sense Jack Devlin had finally ponied up and bought his own strip club a few years back. Johnny had never faulted his father's fascination with tits and ass. But it would have been nice to have just one set around while growing up, and getting to know more than the girl's stage name before she squirreled.
"So have you seen Sue yet?" he asked Foley.
The others waited. Lou seemed especially amused. Johnny knew that gleam in his friend's eyes.
"Ah, not yet."
Sam snorted. "He's been either hiding in the bathroom or ducking behind Earl."
Earla huge-ass bouncer Johnny had no intention of annoying. Ever. And the same went for the other guy, Big J, whom everyone said looked like Mr. Clean.
Foley flushed. "First off, I had to piss. Second, I wasn't ducking behind Earl. I said hi to the guy, and he asked me what I thought about Dodge trucks."
"Uh-huh. Sure you weren't asking him about Sue's frame of mind?" Johnny teased. Over Foley's shoulder, he saw Lara smiling at a woman over the bar. His heart stuttered, and he did his best to act cool, collected. She's not interested. She's a nice girl. Leave her alone.
Like clockwork, his perverse, inner loudmouth had him offering to order the next round. "Be right back. And remember, don't hate the player, hate the gamewhen I win. Suckers."
Grinning, he left the guys at the table swearing, and nabbed a free place at the crowded bar. Lara, Sue, and a few others were hopping, grabbing drinks, and pouring like mad. Behind him he heard a scuffle break out, and he turned to see two guys who used to be friends hammering on each other.
"That's rough," a biker covered in tats next to him said. "But then, Jim should have known better than to hit up Sheila with her new guy right there."
"He really needs to lay off the tequila." Lara sounded exasperated. "I told Earl to keep an eye on him."
Johnny turned and locked gazes with her. She had her long brown hair pulled back in a familiar ponytail. The silky mass reached her lower back, and he was dying to see her hair down just once. She wore minimal makeup, a bit of liner and some thicker mascara. Growing up around women who glammed up for a living, he'd learned early on about a woman's trade secrets. But he doubted the red in her cheeks came from blush. More like from the heat in the place. And damn, it would have been nice if everyone around him cared about personal hygiene as much as he did.
He wrinkled his nose when a new guy replaced the one next to him and leaned toward Lara, wafting his less-than-pleasant scent. Lara wiped her hand over her nose and pretended a cough.
He and she shared a grin, and his pulse galloped like a racehorse. The sight of her smile, and that heart-stopping dimple, always made it hard for him to breathe. More than physical beauty, Lara possessed a warm inner core that got him hazy and drunk faster than a hometown IPA.
"So, you the bartender?" Smelly drunk guy wanted to know.
She glanced at her black T-shirt that read "Bartender" in bold white letters. "Um, yeah." Lara gave smelly guy a fake smile. "Another beer?"
"Yep. And keep the change." He slid a grimy twenty her way.
She poured his beer and handed him back a few bills. "You gave me a twenty. You sure about me keeping all that change?" She was so sweet, so honest.
Way too good for you, Devlin. Leave her alone.
The guy belched, then pulled back ten, giving her a few bucks. "Thanks, honey. I'll be back." He stumbled from the barstool, which was quickly occupied by a new customer. Thankfully, this one a woman who smelled like cheap perfume instead of BO.
"What can I get you, Johnny?"
He loved hearing his name on Lara's lips. She had a husky quality to her voice, and he could too easily imagine it whispering her pleasure while he showed her why she should take a chance on him. Foley thought he had oral foreplay down to a science, but Johnny could have written a book on how to please women, a virtual connoisseur by age sixteen.
He cleared his throat and tried to will away his lecherous thoughts. "A pitcher for the crew." He nodded to the guys across the bar then leaned closer to her, to be heard above the crowd. "So what's with Sue? I hear she and Foley split."
Lara rolled her eyes. Of all the staff at Ray's, she and Rena seemed the most levelheaded. No drama for them. "She's pining for the guy. I warned her about him, but did she listen to me?"
"Foley's a good guy." He felt the need to defend his friend.
"Sure, but he's not a permanent guy. None of you are," she said with a direct gaze that aroused and annoyed him at the same time.
"Maybe we just need to find the right woman." He gave her the Devlin smile.
For a second it looked like he might have connected with her, but then she laughed and shoved his pitcher at him. "For you guys, there's a right woman, and a left woman, and a woman on the side..."
The woman next to him laughed. "Seems like she's got you pegged, sexy."
He gave her the Devlin smile and winked, and she stared at him, her lips parted. So at least he hadn't lost his magic. He took the pitcher from Lara, and their fingers brushed. He felt the tingle all the way to his cock and swallowed a groan. Pasting on a sly grin, he said, "But, Lara, if I had you, I wouldn't need any of those others." He drew her hand to his mouth and kissed the back of it. "See you later, gorgeous. And you know, you ever change your mind about mixing pleasure with pleasure, you have my number."
"You mean business with pleasure," she corrected.
"Do I?" He grinned and left, doing his best not to look over his shoulder at her, but it was damn hard. Especially when she laughed. The sound carried like wind chimes, and he felt a shiver start from his toes and work its way up his body. That hollow in his gut hit him, because he had a crazy urge to go back to the bar just to stare at her. Take in her joy with life.
I am such an asswipe.
An erect asswipe. Hell. Time to cool off before he rejoined the crew.
"Jesus, what were you doing up there?" Foley bitched when he returned. "Waiting for the hops to grow?"
Lou snickered. "More like dying for a smile from sexy Lara." He moaned and patted his heart. "What I wouldn't give for some alone time with that gorgeous woman."
Sam had to add, "She can tend my bar anytime."
"Shut up, dickheads." Johnny glared. "Drink your beer, and let's throw a few darts."
He waited until Foley stepped to the line before he added, "Oh, and guess what Lara told me about Sue?" When Foley hit a lousy one outside the ring, Johnny smiled wide.
Foley rattled. Mission accomplished. Now to get in Lou's headspace and win the game. He shot a glance at the bar, saw his favorite brunette laugh, and thought about strategy. About his endgame.
Because Johnny always played to win.