Chapter 1

 

The flowers had made it.

Liberty Hopkins adjusted the tissue paper around the bouquet of roses in the box that she’d just placed on the park bench. Partly to arrange it before she got to her destination, and partly for the rest. She’d carried them over a mile and hadn’t spilled a drop of water.

That wasn’t exactly an amazing victory, but right now she was celebrating the small things.

It wasn’t every day that one was sort of fired, sort of not fired. But she was pretty sure that’s what Pamela, her boss, had said just before she left. Pamela’s niece was moving to Virginia from her current home in New York. When she arrived, Pamela was going to be giving her a job. Libby’s job, apparently.

Pamela had been saying something about there not being enough work for two employees, but she hadn’t exactly told Liberty that she was fired.

She picked up the box holding the vase and flowers and walked the short distance to the Richmond Rebels’ garage, trekking over the cement pad to where the man door was.

The instructions had deliberately said “take them to the garage.”

She supposed tomorrow morning over coffee, Pamela might slide a pink slip across the table. But they weren’t exactly the kind of company that would put one in her mailbox. She didn’t have a mailbox.

They worked out of the back room of Pamela’s house.

She was kicking herself now, because she should have been clear before she left. Asked the questions that she needed to ask. Rather than just nodding and leaving.

Maybe she wasn’t fired until Denise got there. But she couldn’t remember when that was going to be. She’d been kinda surprised when Pamela started explaining the situation, and hadn’t been able to get her tongue to work.

Cradling the box with her hand and steadying it against her stomach with her arm, she used her free hand to open the door. With the way her day was going, she wouldn’t have been exactly surprised if the door had been locked. This was an expensive bouquet of flowers. She didn’t want to be leaving it on the ground in front of the door.

Knocking didn’t seem to be necessary. After all, there was an open sign on the door, hanging right above a bold Help Wanted sign, so maybe men came in here to buy parts or something?

Not like she had ever actually been in the garage before. Of course, she got her oil and tires changed, but it was at a big-box store and hardly counted.

The interior of their garage was much cooler than the warm June day outside.

Her shoes clicked on the cement as her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, and she saw a counter against the far wall. It looked like belts and other car parts hung on the wall behind the counter. A white-haired lady held a phone to her ear and wrote something down with her other hand before turning to the computer and typing something in.

Libby had written the card for the flowers herself, and the name she had used was one she was unfamiliar with. Ms. Reva. This lady looked like she could be a Ms. Reva. Although Libby had assumed the flowers, since they were two dozen roses, were for a young lady.

She wouldn’t know. Not really. Her family did have history with the Truax boys, who owned the garage. At least, her sister and her dad did. Libby had tried to stay out of it, because she was pretty sure her sister had lied. She couldn’t prove it.

Still, no one in here was likely to be happy to see her, but she could hardly refuse to deliver flowers for her job.

She reached the counter and set the flowers down. The white-haired lady glanced up from the computer, her eyes flipping between the flowers and Libby and back again. She smiled before she looked back to the computer screen, holding up one finger, and Libby assumed that meant Ms. Reva wanted her to stay.

She didn’t like to leave without talking to anyone anyway. There was always the chance, the off chance, that she was at the wrong place. But she wasn’t confused about where the Truaxes’ garage was, and the order had clearly said Richmond Rebels.

However, she’d seen some crazy mix-ups in the three years that she’d been working at the flower shop, so she really didn’t want to take a chance.

Ms. Reva spoke into the phone, giving a line of letters and numbers that didn’t mean anything to Libby. Libby shoved her hands in her pockets and glanced around, curious but trying not to look nosy.

Blade had been out for nearly three years. About the time she started at the flower shop. She didn’t know anything about the terms of his release or whether he was still serving parole.

She did hear, local gossip, that he had to register for the rest of his life.

If her sister was lying, it seemed like an awful steep price for a man to pay.

But Libby couldn’t prove anything, and it would be hard to go against her sister and her family. Although if she had evidence, she would do it, because if Blade were innocent, he deserved to have someone fight for him.

A couple of trucks, a trailer, and something that looked like a box on wheels; bunches of tools she had no idea how to use or what they were for; and barrels of stuff along the wall were what she took in when her gaze swept the room.

Before she could look for more detail, movement caught her eye and a ball of fur that seemed to be all legs and feet shot out from behind a car and came slipping and sliding over on the cement floor.

It was too cute to be dangerous, and Libby dropped gingerly to a knee, allowing the warm, wiggling body to come closer so she could scratch between the ears.

It was some shade between orange and brown, and the hair was longer rather than short, but she couldn’t really tell what breed the dog was, probably too many mixed heritages. Still, it was friendly and cute, and at her touch, it looked at her hand before dropping and rolling over on its back, sticking all four legs in the air, with its head lolling to the side and its tongue hanging out. It was a girl.

She was rubbing her belly when a deep voice above her said, “I’m sorry about Trixie. She loves attention from the customers.”

Work boots stopped next to the dog right at the top of her line of sight. Big boots.

Her stomach cramped, hard, before her eyes even started up the jeans-clad legs. This probably wasn’t going to be good. She recognized Blade’s voice. How could she forget it?

It stood to reason that he’d be here. If it wasn’t him, it had to be one of his brothers.

She and Mariam had an uncanny resemblance to each other. Everyone had always said they were beautiful, and Mariam was having a somewhat successful B-actress career on Broadway.

She stood as her eyes continued to track up long legs. The guy wore a T-shirt, and he wore it well. Flat stomach, broad shoulders.

Finally, their eyes met. His were brown and dark, holding a little humor, but it wasn’t hard to see when he recognized her, and the humor vanished like smoke in the wind. She hadn’t seen him in years, but it was definitely Blade; he hadn’t changed that much. Bigger, older, with a harder edge. But same dark eyes, same strong jaw, and that same pull that made her want to go to him and shield him with her body. Like he’d let her. Like she would be any good at protecting him, anyway.

His eyes narrowed, his jaw jutted out, and she really thought he was going to spin and walk away. Wasn’t hard to tell that he wanted to. His whole body seemed to pull away from her.

He wasn’t exactly the kind of guy that she found attractive, either. But he wasn’t repulsive. Definitely he was good-looking in a bad boy kind of way. But he wasn’t as bad boy as his reputation would make it seem. At least in her mind.

She deserved the reaction, but it still hurt. She lifted her chin and didn’t drop her eyes. She deserved it, but she wasn’t going to cower from it.

There was not an ounce of friendliness on his face. “I don’t think you’re in here to get your car serviced.”

His voice was as dark as his look, and the implication was that she was in there for nefarious reasons.

She swallowed against the tight dryness that had seized her throat. “I delivered flowers to Ms. Reva. I didn’t like to leave without at least speaking with someone.”

“You spoke with me. Now you can go.”

She wasn’t typically a confrontational type of person, but she couldn’t just turn around and leave with her tail between her legs. The sign in the door popped into her mind. She wasn’t interested in working in a garage. She had no qualifications to work in a garage.

But she did need a job.

“There’s a help wanted sign on the door.”

“It wasn’t meant for you.”

“Are you discriminating against me because of my gender?” It wasn’t her gender.

“I guess you could sue me for that. Your family already put me in the pen once. What’s a few more years?”

The dog wiggled around her feet and legs, like she couldn’t understand why no one was paying any attention to her. Libby didn’t look down, too caught up in the dark gaze in front of her.

“I didn’t have anything to do with that.” Other than it had been her father and her sister who had orchestrated his prison sentence.

“I didn’t say you did. You have their genes. A strong family resemblance.” One side of his lip lifted almost like a snarl. “Turns my stomach.”

Yeah. Lots of people remarked on her resemblance to Mariam. Libby was older by two years. But they had the same honey blond hair, the same light blue eyes, the same high cheekbones inherited from their mother. Movie star looks. And Mariam wasn’t afraid to capitalize on them.

Maybe, if the circumstances in her life had been a little different, Libby would be doing the same thing.

“Blade Truax, why in the world are you glowering at that poor girl? You’re upsetting Trixie.” The lady behind the desk had gotten off the phone. And she was right about Trixie. The dog sat on her haunches between Blade and Libby and whined.

“It’s the Hopkins girl. One of them.” Blade’s voice sounded like he was spitting the words out.

But Libby didn’t flinch, and she didn’t duck like she wanted to. His words hit her, but they weren’t bullets.

She shrugged her shoulders and gave Ms. Reva a sweet smile. “I delivered the flowers. I thought maybe you wanted to talk to me when you held your finger up.”

“Well, I sure did,” Ms. Reva said as she finished unwrapping the tissue paper that had covered the flowers—all two dozen roses. “First of all, I’m sorry about Trixie. She’s my dog and I bring her because she loves people. Today’s our last day here and she seems to know something is going on. Also, this is a beautiful bouquet, and I want to know who it came from.”

Libby knew exactly who it came from. She’d written the card. “There’s a card right there.” She pointed toward the back of the bouquet, which was so big Ms. Reva couldn’t see over it.

Ms. Reva turned it around. “Oh, here it is.”

Libby could feel rather than see Blade shift behind her. His name was on the card. Along with his brothers Thad, Foster, and even Bram’s name was on it, although Libby had heard he didn’t have anything to do with the garage. He didn’t work there, anyway, since he was a doctor in the emergency room.

From the maternal way Ms. Reva looked, she’d been like a mother to the boys. Libby knew their history. How their mother had left, run off with someone else, leaving the boys with their dad. Who’d remarried. For a while anyway. It’d been like The Brady Bunch almost, since the woman he married had two daughters of her own. But that didn’t work out either.

And soon that lady and her girls were gone, and the four boys were motherless again.

Peach Bottom was a small town, for all that it was not far outside of Richmond. Everybody knew everybody else’s business. There wasn’t too much a person could hide.

The Truax boys’ sob story was made even worse with Blade being sent to prison and branded a child molester. Mariam had only been sixteen when she and Blade were found behind Richie’s grocery store. Mariam had been in a state of undress, which seemed to indicate guilt on Blade’s part. He had been twenty-two. That was enough to put him in the pen, with Mariam being under the age of consent. But then Mariam claimed that she’d been unwilling and he’d been forcing her.

It wasn’t a claim that could be backed up. But sometimes it didn’t need to be in order for the man be found guilty. Being that they were already dealing with an underage girl, the idea that he might’ve been forcing her made it worse for him.

Libby wasn’t sure how she could justify the fact that Blade had been there, behind the store. But she did know he wasn’t the kind of guy to be forcing a girl.

After she’d gotten over the wrenching of her heart, because she and Blade had been meeting, mostly by accident she thought, on the trail beside the river for most of that summer, she’d known there had to be something else going on. Had to be.

She wasn’t sure why Mariam would lie about it. And she couldn’t prove it either.

Her dad, the only judge in Peach Bottom county, had recused himself from the case. But his influence reached wide, and she had no doubt that he’d had some say in the sentencing. Regardless of what the official statement was.

Yeah, Blade had every right in the world not to love her family.

“Well…” She ran her hands down her pants, not liking the fact that it made her look nervous. She was nervous, so why not? “Congratulations on your move to Florida, Ms. Reva. I hope everything goes well for you.”

She hadn’t even started to turn when Ms. Reva spoke. “Did I hear you say you were interested in the job?”

Had she? Was she?

“No.” Blade’s voice was firm and brooked no argument.

Liberty was pretty sure she needed a job. But she wasn’t sure she wanted this one. She did not know anything about car parts, welding, nor working in garages.

Come on, she didn’t even own a car. But, as much as she maybe thought Blade didn’t get a fair shot, she probably didn’t want to work with his open hostility.

The door opened, and a female voice squealed, “Blade!”

It saved Libby from having to say anything or answer Ms. Riva’s question. Still, somehow, she wasn’t overly happy with the interruption for some reason, but she turned with everyone else to look at the new arrival.

The girl’s hair was dyed jet black, and it contrasted beautifully with her snow-white skin—a backdrop for the artfully arranged tattoos that covered her arms and neck. A diamond stud sparkled in her nose, and a gold ring pierced through her brow.

When she spoke, the gold ball in her tongue caught the light. “Are you done with my mom’s car?” she asked, her voice a purr with a hard edge.

Ms. Reva seemed to snort. Libby was tempted to turn to see if that was what actually happened, since Ms. Reva hadn’t struck her as the snorting kind.

But she didn’t, because the girl’s arrival made her realize that she didn’t really belong here. The idea of having a job and working with the Richmond Rebels hadn’t been something that would happen in reality.

She looked at Ms. Reva. “Congratulations again on your move. I hope you enjoy Florida.”