Tough Talk

Chapter 1

Tough clicked “publish” and allowed a small smile to hover on the corners of his lips. Funny how the words that never came easily out of his mouth flowed without effort from his fingers.

Placing his hands behind his head and leaning back with a loud squeak from the ancient, wobbling office chair, he allowed himself a grunt of satisfaction as his phone began chiming with notifications.

He had just reached to shut his computer screen off when a squeal and crash shook the walls of the old warehouse. His chair’s legs slapped back down on the concrete. He jumped to his feet and strode out of the office, through the cavernous, cement-floor interior that he used as his garage. He passed the now-deserted checkerboard, where retirees sat during the day while he worked on customers’ cars, and grabbed the knob of the side door. The warehouse wasn’t exactly square, and the old metal door always required a good jerk to slip it out of its frame.

Tough yanked. The door flew open.

Just off the sidewalk in front of his building, an older model car with minimal front-end damage sat beside a light-colored hybrid. The damage to the hybrid was heavier but still not extensive. According to the placement of the cars, it looked like the older one cut the corner too close and clipped the hybrid as it sat at the stop sign.

Tough’s heart did a light stumble as he recognized the perky little blond who had jumped out of her little hybrid and was walking around. Kelly Irwin. Her face scrunched up as though in pain when she saw the damage to her car. But she didn’t stop, continuing to the driver’s side of the other vehicle.

He glanced in the window of her car. Normally she had at least two underprivileged children with her anywhere she went outside of her job as a social worker supervisor. Not today.

Tough didn’t see anyone else in the other car, either.

The older gentleman had gotten out, meeting Kelly over his door.

Kelly lifted a hand to keep long strands of honey blond hair out of her face as a breeze tunneled down between the two large buildings on either side of the street. “Are you okay?” She let go of her hair and touched the man’s arm.

He rubbed his head. “I’m fine. I can’t believe how much damage there is. I wasn’t going that fast!”

She smiled reassuringly at him, her whole face lighting up, and patted his arm. “I know you weren’t.” She held her hand out. “I’m Kelly, by the way.”

“Grant Hormell.” The man shook her hand, but the worry lines never eased from his face.

Tough considered the damages and figured it was true; he really wasn’t going very fast. It might look like a lot, but really, the damage was minimal. Easily fixed in his shop where he did body and motor work.

At this point, Tough knew, any “normal” person would have walked over with their hand out. They’d introduce themselves and mention the auto body shop they owned just behind them. They’d mention that their shop had just emptied out this morning. They’d offer to give an estimate, get the cars in, and have them fixed by closing tonight.

Tough clenched his jaw. His eye twitched. Unfortunately, his unusual name was the most normal thing about him. Always had been.

Kelly opened her mouth, but the man spoke again. “I’m so sorry. I dropped my phone, and I just leaned over to pick it up, and that’s when…”

“Yes, it’s okay,” Kelly said gently. “I know these things happen so fast. Please don’t feel bad. Nobody was hurt. That’s the important thing. The cars can be fixed.” She patted his arm.

The man twisted his hands together and took a shaky breath. “I hate to ask this of you, but could we keep from reporting this? My kids have been trying to take my license from me for a year now, and once I lose it…”

Kelly’s hand stayed consolingly on the man’s arm, and his hands quit twisting together. “Hey. It’s okay. I understand. It could have happened to anyone. We don’t have to report this.”

“Really?” The man looked like he was going to hug Kelly. But then his face fell. “I won’t be able to pay for your repairs up front. I’m on social security. But I can do payments.”

“Let’s take it one step at a time.” Kelly shifted and looked at the front of the man’s car. “I think your car will be fine.” Her face tightened when she looked at her own. “Mine, not so much. I don’t know how much that will cost.” Kelly held up the phone in her hand. “I can Google body shops.”

Tough leaned out toward the street and looked up at the admittedly battered homemade sign above his door. “Tough Bodywork.” He’d deliberately not put an apostrophe “s” on the end of his name. Enough people had ribbed him about the idiotic names his father had given him and his brothers before his dad split for good. He’d decided he might as well make a play on it himself when he named his shop.

The name wasn’t the only thing he’d been made fun of for over the years. He’d learned a long time ago it was better to twist life to suit him than to wait for others to twist it to hurt him.

He straightened and looked back out on the street, at the cars that were less than ten feet from him. At the people who were not much farther away. How was he always invisible to flesh-and-blood humans? Why was it always so hard for him to get past the debilitating unease around strangers, especially women? Double that for Kelly.

If only he’d gotten even an ounce of his brother Turbo’s ability to lead with a joke.

Tough cleared his throat.

The man shifted nervously. Kelly’s fingers flew over her phone. The bright red nail polish glinted and flashed. The earrings dangling at her lobes clinked. The woman was never still and seldom quiet.

A tight little ball formed in the back of Tough’s throat. He swallowed it away. It didn’t bother him at all that most people didn’t notice him. He actually preferred it that way. It did bother him some that Kelly seemed to be the same as most people, at least in that area.

“Oh, it says that there’s one real close to here.” Kelly’s brows furrowed as she looked up, around, and behind her at the building across the street.

Tough crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall. Not there, Kelly.

She looked back down at her phone and tilted her head, as though trying to figure out which way to read the map.

So he stood watching as Kelly made a slow turn, her white and blue dress puffing out in the breeze, looking up and down the dilapidated buildings at the end of the street.

Tough’s heart pumped harder, faster as her gaze moved closer. She saw the sign first. She glanced at her phone then back to the sign. A smile tugged up the ends of her lips. His heart stumbled. Her gaze swept down the building. Her eyes widened as they landed on him.

His eye twitched, and the muscle in his jaw bunched. He didn’t even try to swallow the lump in his throat. From past experience, he knew he’d never be able to speak around it anyway. He had always been tongue-tied with strangers, and women in particular. He came out of the womb that way. Unfortunately.

He could talk cars, so he’d never had a problem in his shop, until a customer started talking about the weather or the ball game or, God forbid, something more personal.

Sparkling white teeth flashed in Kelly’s perfectly tanned face. Her dress swooshed around her legs as she hurried toward him, her hazel eyes bright and clear, polite enquiry on her face.

“Excuse me, sir. Could you tell me if the auto body shop behind you is open?”

“Yeah.” Tough managed to get one word past the logjam in his throat.

Kelly paused, as though waiting for him to say more. When he didn’t, her pink lips pursed, then she smiled even brighter.

“So, is it, or isn’t it?” She spoke slower, the way many people did when they talked to him.

His chest burned a little.

“Yeah,” he said again. That word and “no” were the two words he knew he could almost always get past his closed-up throat. They were sufficient in most situations.

“Okay, great. Then I’ll just head inside and talk to the owner.” She started to brush past him.

He forced his mouth open. “That’s me.”

She stopped so fast her sandals almost left skid marks on the sidewalk. Spinning around, her dress billowed out, brushing his jeans, reminding him of his airbrush with its light touch and attention to detail. Only it made his leg hot, like a welding burn. Her perfume flirted with his nose. He breathed deep to catch its full-bodied flavor. It was the smell of money with sunshine and glitter. Her hair shimmered like wet paint in the sun.

Her eyes met his, but he couldn’t stand the intimacy, and his gaze skidded over her shoulder to the peeling metal behind her.

“I’m sorry, Mr.—” She looked down at her phone. “—Baxter.” Her head snapped up. “Hey, you’re Torque’s brother.”

Tough jerked his head up in agreement. Yep. He was Torque’s brother.

“I didn’t know your shop was here.”

“It is.” He cursed his stupid tongue that knotted every time he tried to use it.

“Well, that’s just great.” She held her hand out. “I’m Kelly.”

He knew her.

“My best friend, Cassidy, is marrying your brother.”

Knew that too.

He held his dirty hands up to show her he wasn’t being rude by not shaking her outstretched hand.

She grabbed his hand as he raised it and pumped it anyway. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she said, her smile bigger and brighter up close. “I think we’ve been that close,” she held up two fingers about an inch apart, “to meeting several times over the last six months since Torque got out of prison…” Her voice trailed off like she was afraid she’d offended him by mentioning his brother’s prison record.

She needn’t worry. His brother was a fine man, and Tough was not ashamed.

Kelly’s fingers felt slender and cool as they disappeared in his rough grasp. His throat tightened even more. He looked away so she wouldn’t see the tic of his eye.

“Well, um, would you have time, and would you be able to give me an estimate on fixing my car?” She gave a little laugh. “And check Mr. Hormell’s car, too?”

Tough jerked his head up. “No.” His gaze skidded across her, avoiding her startled look, and focused on the damage. He’d seen Kelly around. A lot. That bright yellow car was hard to miss. No one else around here drove a hybrid, either. Especially not a Cadillac hybrid. He’d heard, from the rumor mill, that the car was a gift from her fiancé.

Tough didn’t know how that fiancé thing played out, exactly. But he knew what she did with her spare time, the kids she helped, and the money she spent on her own to ease the struggle of poor children in this town. She wasn’t paying him a dime for this.

He was saving to rent the other half of the warehouse so he could expand his shop, but he would do that without Kelly’s money. She hadn’t been born rich, although she was engaged to marry money.

“Oh.” The smile slipped a little from her face before she fastened it back on, brighter. “Well, could you give me a recommendation for another shop?”

A car ambled down the street, the driver rubbernecking at the two banged-up autos as it passed by.

Tough watched the brake lights come on as the car stopped at the stop sign at the intersection. She had misunderstood him. Somehow, he had to find the words to correct her, then get them out of his mouth, or she was going to walk away from him.

“I can do it.” It sounded more like a growl than actual speech to his ears, but at least the words were out.

The older gentleman walked closer and stood with his arms crossed. “He looks like he can handle it, but is this a reputable company? I’d hate it if you got fleeced on top of what I’ve done.”

Before Tough could react, Kelly stepped between the man and him. Her finger waved in the air, and her little sandal, with its skinny, pointy heel, stomped on the sidewalk. He could almost feel the head of steam building up inside of her. The side of his mouth tugged up. Slowly, like it was rusty.

“Tough Baxter has a reputation around town for excellence in body work. I didn’t realize this was his shop at first, but I’ve heard only good things about him. His brother is a prodigy with motors. The whole Baxter family has the kind of intelligence that enables them to fix anything.” She punctuated her words with her waving finger.

There was nothing slow about the movement of Tough’s mouth this time. After he pulled his chin off the ground, both sides were smiling at her offhand compliment. How could she know that about him?

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” The man stepped back. “I really need my car. I know I’m not in a position to make demands, but can he have it done quickly? Maybe by tomorrow?”

Kelly said, “That’s asking a little much, I think.”

“It’ll be done,” Tough ground out.

Kelly whipped around. “Seriously?” she hissed in a softly shouted whisper.

Tough didn’t move. He couldn’t. He’d never been this close to her before, although he’d seen her plenty of times from far away. Color infused her cheeks. Her lively eyes seemed to sparkle and snap. He could almost feel the tingling energy that surged off her. Tempted to touch her, just to see if she would shock him like an electric fence, he resisted, keeping his arms folded over his chest.

He nodded slowly.

She tilted her chin, acknowledging his nod, then looked back at the older gentleman. “That’s good with you?”

Reading people wasn’t his strength. Heck, there wasn’t much that was his strength. But he could fix cars. Or trucks. Or busses, bikes, boats. Heck, he could probably even do body work on a locomotive, not that he’d ever had the opportunity to try. So Tough wasn’t sure what, exactly, Mr. Hormell was thinking as he huffed out a breath and took another look at his older model car.

“How much?” the man asked, rubbing his chin. “And when?”

Tough didn’t have to calculate. The cost, time, and complexity of the repair had automatically computed in his head when he’d first seen the accident. He couldn’t tell about Kelly’s car, just because he couldn’t tell from this distance whether or not the headlight holder had cracked or whether any pieces of the grill had punctured any part of the front end of the motor. Both of those things were common. And both would complicate repairs. He could do it. It would just take longer. He still wasn’t charging.

“By midnight,” he said. After he fixed the dent, he’d have to spray primer and give it time to set before spraying the color-matched paint and then the clear coat. He gave an estimate on the price, grateful now that the shop had emptied out that morning.

The man nodded. “Fine.” He held out his hand. “Mr. Hormell.”

Tough nodded and shook his hand.

“Thank you, Mr. Baxter.” Kelly bounced to the cars. “I can take you home, Mr. Hormell.”

“No,” Tough said. Hearing Kelly call him Mr. Baxter didn’t sit right. But there was no way he was going to find the words to tell her about that.

She put a hand on her hip, planted her tiny sandals on the pavement, and opened her mouth.

Tough didn’t let her start. He forced his mouth open. “Don’t drive it ’til I check it.”

Took the wind right out of her sails. Her whole body deflated like a flat tire in summer. “Oh,” she said meekly. She looked over at her car. “I guess something might be wrong with the motor or something…”

Yeah. And the Pope would ice skate in hell before Tough allowed her to drive away alone with a stranger.

He glanced toward Mr. Hormell. “I’ll get them off.” He nodded at the wrecked cars. “Then I’ll take you.”

Mr. Hormell shifted. “I’m from Scranton and was staying in a hotel for the night.”

Tough nodded.

He stopped in the act of turning away when cool fingers landed on his arm. A light touch, but a vice couldn’t have stopped him faster. As much as he wanted, really wanted, to look down and meet her eyes, he just couldn’t force himself to be that intimate. He set his jaw, angled his head so his ticking eye pointed away from her, fastened his eyes at a point over her left shoulder, and waited.

“Could you…would you mind taking me to the community center across town?”

She volunteered there after she put in a full day as a social worker supervisor. It’s where she got most of the kids she was always dragging around, picking them up and dropping them off at their houses. But a part of him didn’t want her to know that he knew so much about her.

Experience had taught him that most people used their mouths more than their eyes and ears and they expected the rest of the world to do the same. That same experience said that she would be freaked out, think he was a stalker, weird, or worse, if she knew the facts he knew about her life and habits. Just from watching and listening. He breathed deeply through his nose. And now he had a scent to attach to all of that information. His arm burned. A scent, and a cool touch that scalded his skin.

He forced his eyes to meet hers for a fraction of a second before they skipped away.

“The community activity center on 15thStreet,” she said slowly.

He was able to get his gaze to land on her dress but couldn’t quite meet her eyes. His eyebrow twitched.

“I volunteer there,” she added.

“Yeah,” he ground out, trying not to look like he knew. He wanted to tell her to wait, that he’d get the cars off the street and come back for her, but his back was turned and his feet were walking away, and his tongue never did unknot itself.