LEAVE THE NIGHT ON Excerpt
Wyatt Abbott spun a wrench in his hand and whistled appreciatively. He wasn’t sure what was prettier, the cherry-red Camaro convertible being inched into Abbott Brothers Garage and Restoration or the woman driving it.
Peeking over the top of her sunglasses, Sutton Mize was sitting tall, moving forward in a series of brake checks, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. Ashy blond hair peeked out of a scarf and called to mind pictures of old school Hollywood actresses, but her red-gingham, checked dress was all southern sophistication. From being around cars his entire life, he understood what counted was under the hood, but that didn’t stop him from admiring a good paint job.
It had been years since he’d come face to face with her. Eighteen to be exact. Judge Mize, her daddy, was a car buff and had been a steady customer of the garage for more years than Wyatt had been alive. Back then, Sutton had been so pretty, he’d alternated between fighting his tied tongue and saying something stupid. Typical, but acutely embarrassing.
Even in as small a town as Cottonbloom, their paths hadn’t crossed since. Not that unusual considering he was from the Louisiana side of the river, and she was from the Mississippi side. More separated them than just a body of water and a few miles.
She was probably nothing like the girl he remembered, sweet and a little shy but with a spark of spirit that had set him back on his heels.
His older brother, Mack, bumped his shoulder. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”
“She sure is,” Wyatt whispered back. Sutton tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, the scarf falling back.
“Tarwater’s car could be the key to breaking our restoration plans wide open.”
Wyatt should have known Mack was referring to the car and not the woman. Mack was all business, all the time. Wyatt was pretty sure his brother hadn’t gotten laid in that calendar year. Not that Wyatt was burning up the sheets around Cottonbloom, but at least he could appreciate a beautiful woman.
“What’s Sutton Mize doing with Tarwater’s car?” Wyatt asked.
“She wants us to rework the interior—new upholstery, instrument panel, the works. Wants it back to stock if we can manage it. An engagement present.” Mack rolled his eyes to meet Wyatt’s.
“I hadn’t heard the happy news.” Shock edged Wyatt’s voice. Not that he personally knew Tarwater. Which was a good thing considering Andrew and his father made up Tarwater and Tarwater—lawyers who handled anything from personal injury lawsuits to criminal defense.
The Tarwaters were prominent citizens on the Mississippi side of Cottonbloom and rubbed shoulders with Sutton Mize’s family both personally and professionally. A Tarwater-Mize wedding would be the social and political event of the year—hell, maybe even the decade.
Not that he would rate an invite. Wyatt glanced down at his grease-covered coveralls and shifted his feet farther apart. His social circle didn’t align with theirs.
“I don’t have to remind you how important it is that our work is impeccable.” Mack clapped him on the shoulder.
Expenditures to update equipment had weighed heavily on the garage’s finances the last three years. But committing to take the business in this new direction after their Pop’s death—from merely fixing cars to restoring them—had required major investment. Tarwater’s car could get them a foothold across the river and even further north into Jackson, Mississippi. The challenge was drawing customers to their backwoods location.
“No pressure or anything.” Wyatt laid the sarcasm on thick.
Mack ignored him and scrolled through his phone. “I’ve got invoices to get out, and Jackson is going to be tied up with the Pontiac. You can pull Willa if you need help.”
Willa was the only non-family member who worked at the garage. She’d been working as a mechanic for them going on two years, and Wyatt still hadn’t figured her out. He enjoyed her dry self-deprecating humor and skill under the hood, but she and Jackson had some Vulcan mind-meld in the garage. Watching them work was like watching a choreographed dance and he was loathe to cut in.
“What about Ford?” Wyatt regretted the question before it was out. Saying Ford’s name aloud was like Harry Potter speaking of Voldemort.
Ford was the eldest Abbott brother. He’d inherited a twenty-five percent stake in the garage just like the rest of them. Problem was he didn’t equate owning a stake to actually working for it. He was a decent mechanic, but whether he showed up any given day and at what time was anyone’s guess. His business degree from LSU set him apart from the family or, more accurately, above them. In his own deluded little world, Ford was the only one qualified to run Abbott Brothers Garage and Restoration.
“If he drags his ass in, you can have him.” The bitterness emanating from Mack was nothing new, but the last few months had seen the semi-contained mass spilling over more and more often into yelling matches between the two would-be leaders of the garage.
Wyatt’s glance crossed with his twin brother Jackson’s. Even from across the garage, Wyatt sensed the same worry he was feeling about the brewing trouble. What was the old adage? Never work with children, animals, or family? Sometimes his two older brothers acted like children and fought like animals, but they would be blood bound forever. It made for a sticky, tangled mess.
Mack walked off, his shoulders bowed up. Wyatt hoped Ford stayed away from the shop floor. Maybe he’d headed to New Orleans or Baton Rouge to schmooze vendors. That was the one thing Ford excelled at.
The ongoing family troubles had taken years to get knotted and wouldn’t be resolved anytime soon. The sweet little Camaro on the other hand needed his attention now.
“This okay?” Sutton Mize called out, twisting in her seat to half face him.
He approached and propped a hand on the window frame. She was taken, and he was a professional, but that didn’t stop his gaze from skating up her long legs to where her skirt had flipped up to reveal a toned thigh as she mashed the brake pedal.
“Perfect.” He peeled his eyes off her leg before she could notice.
She threw the car in park. The diamond on her left hand sparkled under the fluorescent lights of the shop floor. Damn. Tarwater had definitely “put a ring on it.” Sutton got out and came around the front to join him.
As she walked, she pulled her matching red-checked scarf to hang around her neck and ran fingers through her hair. The mass of waves tumbled around her shoulders, having lost its battle with the wind—pretty and wild. Her heels tapped on the concrete floor and her skirt swished above her knees. She was Southern femininity and grace.
And he was a grease monkey. A smart and talented grease monkey, who might have been called charming a time or two by the opposite sex, but a grease monkey nonetheless.
“I’ve been dealing mostly with your brother, Mr. Abbott.” She raised her chin in Mack’s direction and held out her hand. “I don’t know if you remember me, but—”
“Sutton Mize. Of course, I remember you. I’m—”
“Wyatt. One of the twins.” She glanced over at Jackson. “Yeah, I remember you too.”
Wyatt transferred the wrench to his left hand, wiped his right across the front of his coveralls, and took her hand in a firm shake. “I’m the youngest by a minute, and Jackson never lets me forget it. But that’s okay because I’m better looking.” He tried on a charming smile, but it felt awkward, like he was twelve again.
“I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the two of you, Mr. Abbott.” Usually that type of assessment was given as half curious, half teasing, but she said it like he might be hiding a communicable disease.
No telling what she’d heard about them. All the Abbott brothers been known to stir up a little trouble in their youth, but time and responsibility had matured them. Mostly.
“Mr. Abbott was our pop. Call me Wyatt. Otherwise everyone’s liable to get confused. We have more Abbotts crawling around here than we know what to do with some days.”
“I was sorry to hear about your father. He was a nice man. I remember he always had candy in the waiting room.” Her smile was wistful and full of sympathy as she pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head.
His stomach swooped like he’d crested a hill going too fast. He stuttered out a rote thanks. Her eyes. He’d forgotten about her eyes, or maybe he hadn’t noticed them as a boy. Not blue or green or brown, but a kaleidoscope mixture of all the colors.
Giving himself a mental shake, he slapped on a smile and forced nonchalance. He needed to regain control of himself and the situation. “Now you’ve got me curious. What have you heard about me and my brothers?”
Although nerves tinged her laugh, a natural throaty quality both relaxed him and cranked up his awareness of her in ways that would have lightning striking him in church. “Nothing bad. Just about the racing. And stuff.”
Jackson was the one who raced dirt tracks, even though Wyatt was often pegged as the risk taker. The “stuff” she referred to was probably the occasional hell they used to raise down at the Rivershack Tavern or at bonfires out in the marshes. Since their pop had died, Wyatt had lost his taste for mindless partying.
Interesting the way that rumors carried upriver. He’d assumed his family was beneath the notice of the upper echelon of Cottonbloom, Mississippi—unless they needed a trustworthy mechanic for their precious Beemers.
“Racing is Jackson’s favorite pastime. I spend my free time knitting baby blankets and escorting elderly ladies across the street.” He waggled his eyebrows.
Her laughter peeled through the garage, and multiple sets of eyes swiveled in their direction, making his coveralls feel like an oven. She clamped her lips together and twisted the engagement ring on her finger.
Childhood crush aside, the ring was a good reminder that she was off-limits. He pointed. “When did you get engaged?”
Her gaze shuttered. “Earlier this spring.”
“When’s the wedding?”
“Right before Christmas.”
He nodded. The early August heat was cut by a breeze snaking through the open bay doors of the garage and the industrial-size fans. “Plenty of time then.”
“Is it?” Her face took on a distant quality as if looking straight through the solid cement wall of the garage before she assembled a bright, brittle smile. “Daddy thought it would be nice to have the car done before our engagement party at the end of September. You can have it finished by then, right?”
Time to get down to business. Car business. He ran an assessing glace over the interior of the car. Instrument panel was an ugly, early computerized mod from the nineties. The dark brown leather upholstery was in decent shape but the wrong color. The carpeting would have to go too.
“Shouldn’t be a problem as long as I can find parts. Do you want a stock panel or a replica?”
She shrugged. “Stock, I guess? Andrew insists on the best of everything.”
“Might take me longer to acquire, but I can make it happen.” He turned and propped a hip against the door. “We appreciate your business.”
She gave a half shrug. “Don’t thank me. My daddy’s always loved your garage. He fancies himself a car buff, but ask him to change his oil and he’s useless. And, your brother Ford talked up the garage to Mr. Tarwater while they were playing golf at the country club. That cinched it.”
Bitterness oozed out of old wounds. Wyatt’s destiny was to molder away under exhausts and hoods. He couldn’t compete with Ford’s degree or the connections he was cultivating on golf courses around the south. And Wyatt couldn’t blame anyone but himself.
The hammer of the air wrench from the other bay filled the ensuing silence, giving Wyatt a chance to paste a polite façade together. “We have everything we need. You got a ride outta here?”
“My best friend’s picking me up at ten.” She glanced around.
“It’s only half past nine.”
“Sorry. I thought the handoff would take longer, but you seem to know what you’re doing.”
“Hey, we’re professionals.” He held his hands up and grinned to take any sting out of the statement. Some people understood that restoring a car was a delicate, sometime frustrating, recreation of the past. Other people thought all they did was change oil and rotate tires.
Her gaze shifted over his shoulder, and he turned to see what had caught her attention. Jackson molded a piece of chrome to replace the rusted one on the Firebird he was restoring. With a focused intensity, he ran his hands over the curve he’d created like an artist admiring his masterpiece.
“It must be satisfying,” she said thoughtfully. “Improving things. Fixing them.”
“Nothing like taking something that’s been damaged or neglected and making it whole and beautiful again.”
“Isn’t it hard to let them go when you’re done?” She transferred her unusual eyes to him.
“Sometimes, but like Tarwater’s Camaro, the cars aren’t mine. They’re only being entrusted into my care for a short while. Once I’m finished, I’ll move on to the next project, and it becomes my new favorite. A never-ending cycle.”
Her hum was faintly sarcastic. “It has nothing to do with the money?”
“As I’m sure Mack has informed you, my love and devotion ain’t cheap.” He put a hand over his heart and winked. “But they are yours. For now.”
“From what I’ve heard, I’m lucky to have your love and devotion even if it is temporary.” Her sexy-sweet tease faded as her words hung between them. She shifted and fiddled with her hair. “I mean, the car is lucky. Not me.”
The graceful play of her fingers at her neck was hypnotizing. She cleared her throat and took a step to the side. He needed to do something besides stare at her like an ignoramus. He reached inside the car and unlatched the glove compartment. The small space was crammed with papers, a couple drifting to the floorboard.
“You want to help me clean your fiancé’s personal effects while you wait? I’ll be ripping this whole panel out and the seats too.”
Sutton twisted her ring and circled the car to the driver’s seat. In Wyatt’s opinion, the Camaro was designed with a woman in mind. The engine purred instead of growled. The lines were feminine. The cherry-red paint even matched her nails. Damn, she looked great behind the wheel.
“Are you going to be late for work?” He joined her, taking the passenger seat.
“Yes.” She cocked her head to smile at him, her hair falling forward around her neck as she pulled papers from the glove box to her lap. “But, considering I own the place, it’ll be okay.”
“I didn’t realize—” He stopped himself before his foot made it all the way into his mouth and down to his stomach. He’d thought of her only as a socialite. “I thought you were big in that women’s group over the river.”
“The Junior League? It’s a volunteer gig, not a paying one. Honestly, it’s hard to find the time these days. My one responsibility this year is organizing centerpieces for the League gala.” The fundraiser was the biggest social event in Cottonbloom and benefited various charities and programs on both sides of the river. It got a huge spread in the Cottonbloom Gazette every year. “My day job takes up most of my time. My sister and I own Abigail’s Boutique off River Street.”
“I can’t say I’ve ever been inside.”
“No reason to unless you’re buying a present for a mother or girlfriend . . .” The lilting question in her voice had him narrowing his eyes. Was she fishing? Before he could answer, she continued on with a husky laugh that drew an automatic smile to his face. “Or maybe unless you like to wear women’s clothes.”
“I find women’s underwear too confining under my coveralls.” He kept his face neutral. “I prefer to go au naturel.”
Her laugh sputtered out, and her gaze brushed down his body, but faster than a hiccup, she turned her focus to the steering wheel, her left hand squeaking the leather, the flash of her ring a reminder of her status.
The flush of color in her cheeks didn’t seem to be entirely from embarrassment. Or, more likely, his wishful imagination was seeing what it wanted and not what was there. It didn’t matter. He didn’t matter. He was some Joe Schmo from over the river that she barely remembered from when they were kids and would forget again as soon as she drove off.
The glove box held a few receipts for oil changes and several from restaurants up in Jackson and down in New Orleans. Wyatt’s eyes widened at the price of some of the dinners. Andrew Tarwater thought nothing of dropping a couple hundred of dollars for dinner on a regular basis.
“Dang, you’re a lucky girl.” Wyatt handed over the stack of receipts.
“What do you mean?” She took the receipts, the tips of her perfectly manicured fingers brushing his for an instant.
He pulled his hand into a fist to hide the grease lining his fingernails. “Fancy restaurants. Tarwater must like to show you off. Not that I blame him.”
Her face had lost some of its color, and the receipts wavered in her hand as she shuffled through them one by one. “What in the world?”
Although she seemed to be asking herself the question, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. It’s probably nothing.” She shook a smile back on her face but with a new seriousness. “The glovebox is cleaned out. What else?”
“Check under your seat. Owners always leave stuff behind.”
They both leaned over and cast hands under the seat, the position putting their faces close. Her eyes were amazing, and if he was the sort of man who did sappy things, he’d be tempted to write a poem about them. Or a country song.
“Nothing under mine,” she whispered, staying curled over her knees.
His fingers brushed fabric. He tugged, but it was hung on something. Changing directions, he pulled harder, and the fabric slipped free with a rending sound. Even before he got a gander at his find, he recognized lace and identified them. He held them up as if putting them on display.
A black, very brief lace thong with a red heart embroidered at the hip. The sexiest scrap of anything he’d ever seen.
He was torn between embarrassment and jealousy. Two emotions that typically didn’t plague him. But, for a millisecond, some beast inside of him wailed, imagining Tarwater and Sutton in this car and the various scenarios that might have led her panties to reside under the seat.
“Yours, I assume?” he asked through a clenched, fake smile.