Duct tape. She’d put duct tape on the child’s knee.
Nathan Gordon watched from the other side of the quiet street as the chestnut-haired woman knelt in front of a sweet little girl, patting the makeshift, duct tape bandage into place. The girl’s knee no longer bled, but there were still several small streaks of blood drying on her lower leg. She no longer cried, either. Although the salt tracks on her face testified to the fact that she had been.
But Nathan wasn’t exactly watching the little girl. It was the grease-covered woman who had caught his eye. The soft, late summer breeze skimmed the back of his neck as he stood, still and silent, on the cracked sidewalk in front of the hardware store. The woman’s beauty could not be denied–classic profile with perfect angles of nose and chin, hair curling down her slim back and long legs encased in soft blue jeans, wearing a worn tee with a heavy machine company’s logo. That wasn’t what made his heart thump and his eyes linger.
It was the unexpected contradictions.
The woman’s hands were tender and gentle, but what kind of woman carried around duct tape? Or would think to use it to patch a knee? There were streaks of black grease along one high cheekbone and more grease dotted her arms and clothing. Was she a mechanic? Her work boots were worn and scuffed; they weren’t a fashion statement.
He couldn’t hear what she said to the little girl, but he could see the woman’s grin and the slight toss of her head as she indicated the other children, mostly boys, who stood just inside the playground gate.
The little blonde head came up and the girl’s pointed chin jutted out. She nodded at the woman once, like a football player about to leave the huddle, and then with her thin shoulders squared she marched back to the gate, alone, while the woman watched with arms akimbo.
Was the woman her mother? No ring glistened on her hand.
The child met the boys, ran past them, her newly bandaged knee pumping, and raced to the shiny red and blue monkey bars. The woman stood for a minute more, then turned and stepped to a blue, long nosed semi truck parked close to the curb. Opening the door, she hopped up the steps of the big rig and disappeared inside.
Nate turned back to the hardware store to pick up the rest of his order. When his sister, Eve, asked him to come to the small Pennsylvania town of Transmission and run their trucking company while she and her family went on vacation, she had mentioned there was a local lady, Linda, who was just perfect for him. Nate found himself hoping that Linda carried duct tape in her purse and drove a big rig.
Nate leaned his elbows on the truck window. He looked in at his brother-in-law, Tank. “Have a great time and be careful.”
Eve sat in the passenger seat beside her husband. The scars that stretched from her left eye to the corner of her mouth twisted as her lips turned up slightly. She had never been jubilant or effusive, maybe because she was the only girl with nine boisterous brothers, but the happiness that had shone from her countenance since her marriage to Tank had dimmed. Replaced by the deep sadness he saw now.
Eve glanced at his hands. “Are you still fighting?” she asked him softly.
Nate stared at the handle of the infant carrier strapped in the back seat and barely noticed that he rubbed his knuckles. “One more and I’m done.” The money from this last fight would pay for the section of woods he was buying. A bit of unease slid through his body. He had to be able to give up the violence. He was too much like his dad, and he didn’t want to end up like him—a wife and child beater.
“Oh. I almost forgot.” Eve grasped her purse and unzipped a side pocket. She pulled out a small slip of blue paper and held it out to him. “Linda’s number.” She had the grace to look a little sheepish. “Linda didn’t want you to think that she was desperate.”
No more desperate than he was to find a nice, easy-going woman. She needed to be sweet and gentle, just like Eve. A picture frozen in time—broken glass and blood—flashed through his brain before he pushed the image back. No big powerful clashing of wills and passions for him. No tempting fate.
He thought again of the woman in town, grease covered, using duct tape, independent and beautiful. To thrive in the male-dominated business of trucks and big diesel engines, she would have to be tough and resilient. Not what he needed at all. He didn’t realize he was asking until the words came out. “Is she a mechanic?”
Eve’s hands stilled in the act of zipping up her purse. “What?”
Nate shook his head, shrugged and looked away. “Never mind.” That woman in town called to every cell in his body, but growing up he’d always heard how he was the spitting image of his dad. He needed to stay away from strong-willed, dominant women. Although he was looking to settle down to a quiet life, raising bees, and honey and kids in the woods. Peaceful.
“Of course not. She lives with her parents and teaches at the school.” Eve’s brows furrowed in concern. “You know you have some tendencies, Nate.” Eve was too sweet to come right out and say he could be a controlling jerk. “You’ll want a more traditional woman. A mechanic? You don’t really think I’d do that to you. Do you, Nate?”
Nate’s grin was innocent as he gave the expected head shake. But really? Yes, he almost wished she would.
Kaitlyn flicked the gear-shift lever to the high side and listened to the big turbo whine as the machine began to purr. Ralph, who usually drove this truck, had complained about the throttle sticking. After going over the big rig thoroughly in the garage and finding absolutely nothing wrong, Kaitlyn had taken it out for a road test. Driving gingerly at first, just in case, she had opened the powerful motor up on the other side of town. Everything worked beautifully.
Lifting up on the accelerator, Kaitlyn slipped the shifter into the next gear without using the clutch, popping the Jake between gears and smiling at the echoing crack of the straight pipes. Ralph must have wanted a day off so he made up the sticking throttle complaint. There was nothing wrong with this truck. Rolling her eyes at the thought, Kaitlyn accelerated out of the turn.
Irritated at Ralph for wasting her time and missing a load for their company, it took a moment for Kaitlyn to register the large animal standing in the middle of the road. An instant later her stomach dropped as she realized a school bus travelled towards her in the other lane. The cow standing on the road was just one of a dozen or so that were spread out on the right shoulder. The beige garage of her neighbor, Tank Stanton, sat a few short yards beyond the cows.
Kaitlyn lifted her foot from the throttle, but in the split second before her boot hit the brake pedal, her brain signaled that Ralph hadn’t lied. The Jake brake did not engage. The throttle stuck on wide open. Hitting the brakes anyway, Kaitlyn yanked the wheel to the right.
Tires squealed as the school bus flew past in a yellow blur.
Her air ride seat bounced up and down as the rig careened off the road. Kaitlyn caught just a glimpse of the first cow, whose expression could only be described as annoyed. The truck jolted over the rough grass. The front end dipped and Kaitlyn was thrown to the right until her seatbelt jerked her body to a stop. The speeding truck continued on, and she flew back to the left. Her head cracked against the window. Pain shot under her scalp. Somehow her boot had slipped off the brake pedal. Kaitlyn scrambled to grab the gearshift with one hand. The other clenched the steering wheel. Her body shook like lottery balls in a jar. Her foot clawed for the brake.
Suddenly the massive shape of a bull loomed ahead.
Kaitlyn jerked the wheel to the right again. There would be no ‘speed beef’ on the menu today. That fleeting second of smugness disappeared into the black hole of her life a millisecond later. Her entire windshield showed the beige of Tank’s garage’s siding the instant before her truck slammed into it.
Kaitlyn’s seatbelt jerked her from full motion to no motion. The impact seemed to solve, at least temporarily, the problem of the sticking throttle as the rig rumbled at a low idle.
Kaitlyn slumped in her seat, her head rested on the steering wheel as she tried to pull her scattered wits together.
The motor sputtered and died.
She banged her head on the steering wheel. Duh. Why hadn’t she thought to turn the key off fifteen seconds ago? She blinked back tears, annoyed with herself, refusing to succumb to that weakness. Her chest rose as she took a deep, cleansing breath.
Feeling claustrophobic with the garage siding stuck against the windshield, Kaitlyn tried to assess her position and whether it would be safe to climb out. The truck had hit the back of Tank’s garage at an angle, ripping through the corner. Open ground showed out of a small corner of the driver’s side glass.
A set of legs strode across the small space. Tank Stanton. Great. Just the person she didn’t want to see again. Ever again. She reached to unhook her seatbelt, glad that her breathing was almost back to normal.
But it wasn’t Tank’s face that appeared when the door opened part-way.
The stranger’s green-eyed gaze focused on her face. His dark brows knotted above his deep-set eyes. Dressed in pressed pants and a loose, button-up long-sleeved shirt, he looked more like a door-to-door salesman than someone who would be hanging out at a garage.
“If you’re a door-knocking religious dude, I’m not interested.” Relieved that her voice sounded normal, and her bluster had returned, Kaitlyn moved to climb out.
“Thought you might have just had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. Wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity.” The stranger’s green eyes twinkled.
She rolled her eyes and tossed her head before squeezing through the partially open door, forcing him to step back. Landing lightly on her feet, she nodded her head towards the cows that were now being rounded up by an old man and a young boy. “Might have better luck with the she-cow that’s still standing on the road there.” She looked the man in the eye, surprised to find she had to crane her neck to do so. “She almost had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment too.”
One side of the man’s mouth kicked up.
Kaitlyn’s heart fluttered. She hid her disquiet by turning and making a show of checking the loose straight pipe. With all the torqueing around, the clamp had broken. Of course, the pipe was probably not the worst thing wrong with the truck, but she needed to focus on something while she pulled herself together.
A big hand appeared in front of her. “Name’s Nate.”
“Kaitlyn.” Her hand disappeared into his. Her eyes narrowed. What was it about him that gave her the impression that he was soft? His loose clothes that seemed to hang on his frame? The salesman picture? The intelligence that radiated from his gaze? It certainly wasn’t his hands, which were large and rough with knuckles as big as three-quarter-inch lug nuts. How old was he? Thirty? She squelched the rogue thought. She was absolutely not interested in some dude she could beat up with a wire tie and her pinky finger. Even if he was as tall as a church steeple.
Stepping back, Kaitlyn sighed as she got her first good look at the damaged truck and garage. A stuck throttle was the least of her worries. How would she explain this to The Boss? She could just see his unibrow raise when she uttered the words ‘cow in the road’ for her defense. How would she convince him that she was as good as any man…as good as Kyle…if she did things like this?
“I’m new around here, but I think most guys probably bring their trucks in through the garage doors at the front.” Nate shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned beside the mangled siding.
Kaitlyn didn’t take her eyes off her perusal of the damages. “I’m fine. Not a scratch on me. Thanks for asking.”
“Yeah, I figured the steam coming out of your ears was normal.”
Kaitlyn bit back the snort that threatened to derail her righteous anger. She knew that the farmer whose cows were on the road hadn’t meant for them to be there, and certainly hadn’t intended for them to cause an accident. This was just life in rural Pennsylvania. But now the stuck throttle had turned into an actual stuck truck, and she felt like putting her fist through the garage along with it. Of course, with her luck, she’d lacerate her arm and end up taking six weeks of anger management classes. Oh. She wanted to stamp her foot in frustration.
Nate still leaned against the garage as though he knew she needed a few minutes.
She turned to him. “How about instead of standing there making wise-cracks, you actually do something helpful.” She waved her hand in the air. “Like go get Tank so we can find out how he wants to handle this. My insurance policy or his. Or figure out how to get my truck out of his garage.” She raked her hand through her hair and lowered her voice. “A tow truck? A crane? Will his garage fall down? Do somethingworthwhile.” She put her foot on the step and gripped the grab bar. “I’ll get the insurance card.”
“Wait.” The pressure on her arm from his hand was just a light touch, but somehow it stopped her better than a block wall. She hadn’t seen him move.
She pressed her lips together and lifted her brows.
“I think it’s best to stay out of the truck. When I was leaning on the wall,” he tilted his head back to indicate where he’d just been standing, “I felt it move.”
“I’m no architect genius, but you’ve shifted the whole building on its foundation, Kaitlyn.” Clint, one of Tank’s drivers, walked up, wiping his greasy hands on a dirty blue rag. The small diamond stud in his ear blinked in the sunlight. “Best to stay out of the truck. The roof could collapse anytime. You can call your office and get the insurance info.”
Although his words were helpful and his expression seemed innocent, a slimy thread wrapped around her spine. The two worst days of her life both involved Clint.
But he was right.
And Kaitlyn would have to face the music with The Boss sooner or later. Would anyone blame her for trying to make it later?
“Hey, if you’re worried about your job, I can talk to Tank. This accident wasn’t your fault. In fact, it took a pretty cool head to miss every single cow, plus you avoided a sure massacre with that school bus.” Nate’s hand slipped from her arm. The cold it left behind made her shiver.
“I’m not worried about my job.” She might not want to face The Boss, but he wouldn’t fire her. Unfortunately. She glanced at Clint. It was because of the worst day of her life that she was stuck in this job. Forever. Most of the time, she didn’t mind. She reached into her back pocket for her phone, somehow surprised that it was still there. Tossing her head, she swiped then clicked to the office number. While she was waiting for the phone to ring, she asked, “Where is Tank, anyway?”
“Vacation.” Clint stuffed the rag into his back pocket. Deliberately nonchalant. “Took Eve and the kid out west for a while.”
To let the gossip die down. Because Tank owed it to Eve. Because he was trying to save his marriage.
Aware of Nate, knowing he had to notice the sudden heaviness of the unspoken words that seemed to shout their silence, Kaitlyn kept her face impassive. The phone in her ear continued to ring. She looked Clint right in his icy blue eyes. “He left you in charge.”
“No.” Nate’s eyes had narrowed slightly, as though he was trying to fit all the pieces together. “Me.”
Kaitlyn’s jaw dropped. Her eyes widened as she stared at Nate again. He didn’t talk, he didn’t walk, he didn’t actlike a mechanic or a truck driver—the tough-talking, loud, tattooed and pierced guys she worked with every day. Nate wore a billowing white button up shirt. The kind a preacher would wear. Baggy dress pants. Probably just pressed this morning. But he was whip cord thin. Although his shoulders had width, a lot of width, to them. Still, he didn’t look as if he could change a lightbulb by himself, yet alone turn wrench at Tank’s place.
“This is Eve’s brother.” Clint’s smile oozed battery acid.
From a distance Kaitlyn heard her phone hit the cement floor.