WHEN THE STARS COME OUT
A bang shook the wall. No fist had come through the Sheetrock, and it hadn’t been violent enough to be a body. Probably a chair then. The break room sat a dozen feet from where Willa Brown worked. Indistinct male voices came in spurts and sometimes on top of each other. Overall, a typical Abbott family meeting. Good thing no customers were milling around to witness the fireworks.
Willa ducked her head back under the hood of Vera Carson’s Oldsmobile Cutlass 442. She wanted to do the car and Abbott Brothers Garage and Restoration proud, but even more, she wanted to do Jackson Abbott proud. While she’d learned the ins and outs of car mechanics from her father, she’d gained an appreciation of the classics over the last two years working with the brothers. Jackson in particular.
Another harder hit to the wall registered but she didn’t look up from where she was finger-tightening a bolt. While she had the disadvantage when it came to brute strength, none of the boys could match her dexterity in tight places.
The office door shot open and bounced against the wall, deepening the impression of the doorknob. Mack Abbott went out the front door and Wyatt out the back.
Jackson stalked out and slammed the door shut, looking like someone had borrowed his ’68 Mustang GT and gotten ketchup on the seats. If it were socially acceptable, Willa wouldn’t have been surprised to bear witness to Jackson marrying his Mustang.
Although twins, Jackson and Wyatt approached life from opposite directions. Wyatt was the wild charmer while Jackson was quieter and more circumspect. If past behaviors held, Wyatt was headed to the barn out back of the shop to expend his anger on a body-sized punching bag that hung from the rafters. Jackson would bottle up his aggression and let it explode all over the dirt track. She almost felt sorry for whoever raced him next.
Jackson headed straight for her. More likely his destination was the Cutlass. That knowledge didn’t stop her quick intake of breath as he drew close. He stopped next to her with his hands propped on the open hood, breathing like he’d gone for a sprint around the building. His anger vibrated the air around them. He definitely had a Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre vibe going on. Dark, brooding, mysterious.
She was used to the Abbotts. In fact, their idiosyncrasies made her feel right at home. Growing up, she knew more about cars than most guys which did not help her cred with the girls, who’d been more concerned with pageants and cheerleading. It had been just her and her dad for so long that being around men felt normal. Melancholy reared up and bit her in the ass. Whenever she thought about her dad and the life she’d left behind—had to leave behind—regrets threatened to swamp her.
She put her father and her past out of her head and focused instead on her favorite subject—Jackson Abbott. If he was a textbook, she would name him The Anatomy of the Perfect Male or if she was in a philosophical mind-set, Dwelling on Jackson. Her mind tended to dwell on him in her waking and sleeping hours.
Not that he saw her as anything but an employee. In fact, sometimes she wasn’t sure he saw her at all. Like now. Even though they were three feet apart under the same hood, he ignored her. She thought about making a funny face to see how long it took him to notice. He probably wouldn’t and her face would freeze that way.
She smothered a laugh and checked him out from the corner of her eyes, one of her favorite pastimes. He wore baggy gray work coveralls, same as she did, but in deference to the warm snap, he’d peeled off the top and tied the sleeves around his waist. His black T-shirt molded to his thick chest and emphasized his brown hair. His jaw was tight and his biceps flexed as he stared into the engine compartment.
“So how was the family meeting?” she asked in a singsongy voice.
“Shitty.” His voice was more hoarse-sounding than usual which made her wonder if he’d been doing most of the hollering even though that was unlike him. He was more the strong, silent type. Or the closed-off, brooding type.
Her chest tightened. Was the shop in financial trouble? Had the decision to expand into car restoration and the recent upgrades been too much of a strain? Oh God, were they going to fire her?
Where would she go? She didn’t want to start over. Not again. Not when she’d finally found somewhere to settle for longer than a few months. Even though the Abbotts weren’t her family, they were all she had. They drove each other crazy more often than not, but at least they’d stuck together and had each other’s backs.
Unfortunately, she was the odd woman out in the equation. She straightened and faced him. “Am I being fired?”
“What?” Finally, he turned his attention to her. “Of course you’re not fired. Where would you get that idea?”
She averted her face and pretended to work on something in the depths of the engine block. Her breath shuddered out. She didn’t want Jackson to know how important this job was to her. Without it—without the Abbotts—she would be alone again.
“What was all the arguing about then?” she asked.
“It was about Ford. Ford and his need for something big, something quick. Instead of being patient and building our reputation through hard, honest work, he wants fast cash and is threatening to sell out if we can’t buy him out.”
“Why can’t you and Wyatt and Mack pool your money and buy him out? That would solve a lot of problems.” Now that her job was safe for at least another day, she could turn her worry outward for Jackson. He was more than mad. The gamut of emotions that flashed through his typical stoicism came too fast for her to interpret, but his voice reflected betrayal.
“We put most of our ready cash into the shop, and we’re still repaying the loan for the addition. The question is, do we overextend ourselves for another loan, find Ford and appeal to whatever family loyalty he has left, or let things play out?”
Three years earlier when the brothers got serious about expanding into car renovations and not just repairs, they had added two more bays and specialized equipment like a metal-bending machine and a top-of-the-line welder. Those upgrades had been necessary but expensive.
To counteract the despondency in his voice, she forced a tease into hers. “Is there anything to really worry about? I mean, who the heck would be interested in buying this grease pit anyway?”
While she didn’t garner a smile, tension leaked out of him like a drain being opened. The garage was actually the nicest she’d ever worked in. As the unofficial leader, Mack insisted they clean up after themselves. While she wouldn’t eat off the floors, she’d certainly slept in dirtier places.
“You’ve got a point there. Ford likes to throw out empty threats to get a reaction out of Mack. Maybe it will blow over and things will get back to normal.” The furrows along his forehead belied his words.
“What about Sutton?”
“What about her?”
“To be safe, why don’t you see if she’ll buy Ford’s part?”
Sutton Mize was the daughter of a prominent family in Cottonbloom, Mississippi. She and Wyatt had come together over her ex-fiancé’s car and had been inseparable ever since. On paper they shouldn’t work, but seeing them together made everyone believers. However, there was no arguing the fact that Sutton changed the dynamics of the garage.
Suddenly it wasn’t the Three Musketeers—Mack, Wyatt, Jackson—against the world. Willa had always cast herself as D’Artagnan, but with the addition of Sutton, Willa felt demoted and more of an outsider than ever.
“And if she and Wyatt end things? A vengeful ex who’s well connected could wreck our reputation. Hell, Ford could wreck our reputation and drive the garage into the ground. Garages make or break on word of mouth, especially in a town like Cottonbloom.”
Desperation stalked through her body. The feeling was only too familiar. Heat bloomed and a sickening wave of faintness passed through her, forcing her to unzip the top of her coveralls and flap the front to cool down.
“Hey, are you okay?” Concern for her replaced any angst he’d carried from the meeting.
“I’m fine. Fine.” She half sat on the edge of the engine compartment. The wave of heat and nausea passed. Her skipped breakfast and lunch were coming back to haunt her. All her extra money and then some were going to repairs to her car. Her clutch was nearly shot, the exhaust was leaking, and her tires were bald. Considering where she worked, the irony of her problems wasn’t lost on her. Black humor was the only kind she appreciated these days. But it was payday and since she wasn’t getting fired, she’d splurge on a decent meal.
“Wasn’t expecting a heat wave in November is all.” Her voice was embarrassingly shaky.
“It’s not like we have a dress code or anything. You can wear old jeans and T-shirts when it gets hot. And you’d be a sight cooler without a hat.” Before she could react, he grabbed the bill of her vintage Texaco ball cap and peeled it off.
Her hair sprang around her face. Usually as soon as it hit her neck, she hacked it off. The monthly ritual seemed a penance she needed to pay for her past transgressions. Plus, it was all-around easier to handle when it was short. Since the beginning of summer though, she hadn’t taken up scissors, and pieces waved around her face like new growth from a tree. A scraggly tree.
She’d given up her old life. Except for the name she shared with her grandmother, Wilhelmina, Willa for short. At the time she’d wanted something to hang on to, something to ground her.
But the hat and her given name aside, her hair had had to go. Wavy, thick, and chestnut colored, her hair had been her vanity and hacking it off had been symbolic. It had been her vanity and what had attracted her ex, Derrick, also known as the worst mistake of her life. She wanted to leave the selfish, stupid girl she’d been behind.
Unfortunately, cutting it hadn’t cut out the memories of her dad singing “Brown Eyed Girl” to her at night while stroking her long hair off her forehead. Her life hadn’t been all bad—not even close in retrospect—and remembering the good hurt.
She finger-combed her hair behind her ears. It was all split ends and tangles and dulled color. She might be a greasy mechanic and his employee, but she was still a female standing in front of an attractive man. She didn’t want Jackson seeing her with sweaty, gross hat head.
“Gimme that back.” She grabbed the hat and mashed it on her head, tucking the ends of her hair that stuck out underneath as best she could. Her fingertips stopped to trace the unraveling embroidery on the front. The hat had been her father’s. The last thing she’d ever stolen. Did he miss her?
Jackson had never looked at her the way he was looking at her right now. Was he suspicious? Curious? Either was bad. That was the nice thing about working with men, especially Jackson. He didn’t gossip. He didn’t ask questions unrelated to whatever projects were on the shop floor. He didn’t care about where she was from or what had brought her to Cottonbloom. She needed it to stay that way.
“You sure you’re okay? You’re really pale,” he said.
“I’m a-okay.” She waved him off even though it was a lie. “What’s your plan to handle Ford?”
His voice dropped as if talking to himself. “Can he be handled? I’m worried Mack and Ford are going to play chicken with the garage and then where will we be?”
Did he mean the garage might go under for real? The garage had been started by their father, Hobart Abbott, and had maintained a steady clientele and stellar reputation for more than forty years. Her heart accelerated from zero to one-twenty, bringing with it another wave of knee-weakening nausea. “Surely there’s something you can do to stave off a disaster.”
He muttered something unintelligible, ran a hand down his face, and scratched at the dark stubble along his jaw. “We’re talking more after work. I’ll let you know.”
He pivoted away and stalked toward the back door, maybe to join Wyatt in pounding his worries into the punching bag; or maybe he was seeking the privacy of the loft above the barn that he shared with Wyatt.
Turning back to the engine, all she could see was her tidy, small world disintegrating. That morning all she’d been focused on was making it to the end of the day when Mack would hand her the cash she’d worked her butt off for, and the barbeque plate from Rufus’s Meat and Three she planned to devour for dinner.
But wasn’t that the way of all natural disasters? Like the tornado that had peeled the roof off her rented trailer and let the rain in to soak her secondhand clothes and furniture. Thank God, she’d been at the shop with Jackson. They’d huddled in the closet full of cleaning supplies until it passed. He’d never made mention of the fact she’d reached for him during the worst of it. He’d let her hold on.
This disaster felt more like an earthquake, shaking the foundations of what she’d built in Cottonbloom. Could she get out before the fissures exposed her secrets?
* * * * *
Jackson exchanged a grunt with Wyatt, who was attempting to put his fist straight through the leather of the punching bag, and took the steps to their loft two at a time. He was glad to have a few minutes of solitude.
His usually orderly thoughts were like a mixed-up Rubik’s Cube he couldn’t solve. He gave the center support column a slap on his way to the kitchenette. Going against his rigid set of work rules, he grabbed a beer from the fridge, screwed off the top, and killed half before coming up for air. It was Friday, and everything on the shop floor could keep. He’d make up the time tomorrow. Not like he had any other weekend plans.
His thoughts still whirling, he walked to the windows along the back and braced a hand against the sill, taking more measured sips. Wyatt would be at the bag for at least another half hour. Jackson prayed Mack hadn’t wrapped his truck around a tree somewhere out in the marshes. They all had their ways of coping.
Except for Ford. He was a runner. Even when they were kids, he spent more time avoiding his chores than it would have taken to just shut his mouth and get them done. Jackson had spent their youth trying to reason with him while Wyatt had preferred to try to punch some sense into him. Neither method had worked. Ford went on and did whatever the fuck he wanted to do, acting as if he thought because he was older, he was wiser.
Jackson emptied the bottle, tossed it into the recycle bin, and collapsed onto the overstuffed couch, closing his eyes. The image of Willa’s pale face and huge brown eyes came into his mind. The mass of hair he’d released had given him his second shock of the day. The messy waves had framed and highlighted how delicately pretty she was with her thin nose, sharp chin, and heart-shaped face.
Of course, he was aware she was female. A girl. A woman. But for the last two years—really until the moment he’d pulled her ball cap off to cool her down and keep her from passing out—she’d first and foremost been a mechanic. And a damn good one. On her best day, she was better than either Mack or Wyatt, and almost as good as him. On her worst and blindfolded, she was better than Ford.
How old was she? He tried to recall if he’d ever asked. The day she’d come in with the want ad from the paper in her hand, he’d known she wasn’t being a hundred percent upfront. The biggest red flag was her insistence on being paid only in cash. His pop had agreed. All of them had assumed she wouldn’t last out the trial week anyway.
She’d not only stuck it out, but impressed the hell out of them. She’d become invaluable. But there was a dark, haunted look about her that spoke of secrets. As closely as they worked together day in and day out, he’d expected her to eventually crack and tell him the truth. Two years later and that day still hadn’t come to pass.
Damn but she was pretty. Her enormous brown eyes and the dark arch of her brows were usually hidden or shadowed by the hat he’d assumed she wore twenty-four-seven. Didn’t matter what she looked like, although it would have been a sight less disconcerting if she’d been hiding a few warts or hairy moles under her hat. He was basically her boss, and as such he stuffed any inappropriate thoughts back into the deep, dark recesses of his soul.
His frustration wasn’t really about Willa anyway. He was pissed at Ford and the way he’d betrayed his blood. Even before he’d headed to LSU and gotten his degree, he’d acted as if he were too good for the garage even as he took his percentage of the profits. Their pop had been blind to Ford’s lack of devotion to cars and the garage, and when he’d died unexpectedly last year, that blindness had incited a power struggle between Mack and Ford for the garage’s future.
The clomp of boots sounded on the steps. Jackson opened his eyes, but otherwise didn’t move. Still wearing his sparring gloves, Wyatt shot him a look, went to the fridge, uncapped two beers, and joined him on the couch. Jackson took the proffered bottle and sipped. Sweat rolled down Wyatt’s face, and after pressing the cold bottle against his forehead, he chugged the beer.
They were fraternal twins, unlike in both temperament and looks, yet the ties that bound them were made of bullet-stopping Kevlar.
“If—and it’s a big if—Ford is actually serious about selling, I think we should let things play out.” Wyatt tossed his empty bottle toward the bin underhanded. It thumped the side, and rolled back and forth on the floor.
“I’m sorry, what?” Jackson had been sure that Wyatt would cast his vote for tracking Ford down and beating some sense into him.
“I know what you’re thinking; Sutton has turned me into a wuss.”
Jackson couldn’t stop a chuckle from rising up and out. “You’re definitely easier to get along with since you’ve been getting some on a regular basis.” He sobered quickly. “What if Ford sells to some asshole out of spite?”
“Let me clarify. I don’t propose we do nothing. Just not as in your face as I tend to favor. Sutton’s already put out some feelers for information. Ford would have to contact a lawyer for the paperwork.” Wyatt grimaced and looked toward the window and the woods beyond. “Considering Ford and Tarwater are golfing buddies, he would be the obvious choice.”
“You okay with her talking to her ex like that?”
Wyatt and Sutton had met over a thong he discovered under the seat of Andrew Tarwater’s Camaro. The Cottonbloom, Mississippi, lawyer had been Sutton’s fiancé, and the scrap of lace had belonged to Sutton’s best friend. Tarwater had not remained her fiancé for long. What Jackson had assumed was a simple rebound had turned into love, and Wyatt was indeed the definition of whipped.
But as long as Sutton made Wyatt happy, then Jackson would support her—and them—one hundred and ten percent. If she broke his brother’s heart though, he would become her worst nightmare.
“I’m not worried about Sutton having second thoughts, if that’s what you’re getting at. Tarwater is a natural liar, so whether he’ll even give up the truth is debatable. Plus, he’s an asshat. If he says something to hurt her feelings, I’m not sure I won’t get myself thrown in jail for assault.”
“No worries, I’ll bail you out.” Jackson punched his arm and flashed a smile. “If you promise to clean my bay for the next month.”
Their chuffing, slight laughter petered into a comfortable silence.
“It’s a long shot, but Ford might actually do us a favor.” Wyatt’s tone was serious even though the sentiment sounded like a joke.
“Ford wouldn’t cross the road to tell us the garage was on fire. He’d stand there and watch it burn for the insurance money. Him doing us a favor is more than a long shot.”
“I don’t know. He’s lost weight and looks stressed. I’m worried about him.”
The fact this assessment was coming from Wyatt held water considering their naturally adversarial relationship went back as far as Jackson could remember. “You think he’s sick or something?”
“I don’t know.” Wyatt picked at the laces of his gloves, his voice vague but with an undercurrent of concern. “Let’s look at the bright side. Anyone interested in buying his stake would be doing it because they love cars and restorations, and if they’re rich, they might give the garage a leg up.”
“That sounds like a moon shot.”
“Maybe, but think about it. We’ll never attract the kind of cars we need to build the restoration business. Not if we limit ourselves to Cottonbloom.”
“You’ve made huge inroads over the river and brought in three cars in two months.”
“The widow’s walk of cars will dry up soon enough. Without some influence, this garage will stay small potatoes. We’ll make a living, sure. But no matter how hard we bust our humps, we’ll never get rich.”
“Is that what you want? Money?”
Had Jackson stepped into The Twilight Zone? Wyatt was rock-solid dependable. Did his work without complaining. He never seemed to need or want money, unlike Jackson who had his racing to support. Hearing him now rocked the foundation not only of the garage, but of their already-skewed family dynamic.
“I want the freedom money can buy. We’re twenty-nine. Haven’t you ever wanted to take some time off to travel? See something besides the undercarriage of a car? Are you going to live up here forever? Don’t you want to settle down with a good woman and maybe have kids?” Wyatt gestured around the loft and its mismatched furniture. The wall-mounted flat-screen TV had been their only splurge. “No offense, but I don’t want to grow into a grizzled bachelor with you.”
The questions whirred through his head like a misfiring engine. He hadn’t thought about the future in those terms. He was focused on the day-to-day micro issues that arose with the cars under his care, not the macro issues of life in general. All he could do was shrug.
“How long has it been since you brought a woman back here?” Wyatt scrubbed the back of his neck, his dark hair in need of a trim and curling at the ends. “If we had more money, we could hire on more help, and you could work on occasionally getting laid.”
A resentment that might have been tinged green with jealousy rose. “Just cuz you’re settling down, doesn’t mean everyone wants that. I prefer being alone. Love it, in fact.”
An alarm that signaled a lie went off like a distant tornado warning. Truth was, since Wyatt had taken up with Sutton and spent a majority of his nights at her house instead of their loft, the quiet had become more burden than blessing.
“Your life is this damn garage.” Wyatt linked his hands behind his head and looked to the beamed ceiling. “Just like it was for Pop,” he added softly.
The subtle admonishment drove a steel rod into Jackson’s spine and tensed his shoulders. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It means the most meaningful relationship you have is with your car.” The hint of a smile played around Wyatt’s mouth. “And maybe Willa.”
“Relationship? Willa and I work together. That’s it.” An echo of his earlier thoughts drove his knee-jerk defensiveness. It wasn’t a lie, yet it didn’t feel a hundred percent truthful either. He hated waffling through the gray area in between. Life was easier in absolutes. Black-and-white, right and wrong. One thing he could say with no qualms. “She’s the best mechanic we’ve ever had.”
“She’s a goddamn prodigy, which brings up another point. We pay her next to nothing. As good as she is, she could make more money over the river in Mississippi changing oil at one of those quickie lube places. I don’t know why she hasn’t already quit.”
“She wouldn’t quit on me. Us. I mean us.” He clenched his teeth together to corral his runaway tongue. If Wyatt’s raised brows were any indication, he’d noticed Jackson’s slip.
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. She asked for her pay and took off early. My guess is she has a job interview somewhere else. Might not even be back on Monday morning.”
Jackson shot to his feet. Wyatt might be right. Something had been amiss with her for a couple of months now. A skittishness had marred their usual camaraderie, but he’d ignored it, hoping whatever was bothering her would work itself out. Ignoring problems was generally how he approached life and relationships. But he couldn’t afford to ignore this one. He couldn’t lose Willa.
Wyatt grabbed his forearm. “Hold up, we have bigger frogs to gig. Mack texted. He’ll be back by five and wants to talk.”
Jackson sank back down and wished for another beer or six, but he needed to keep his wits sharp, especially if he was going to drive later. Which he was.
“What is Mack thinking?”
“No clue. He doesn’t tell me jack these days.” Wyatt’s voice reflected a wariness and worry that didn’t sit well with Jackson. Wyatt was the most emotionally intuitive of all of them, even if that made him reckless and prone to acting impetuously.
Jackson looked out the window. Trees spanned all the way to the horizon. Their family had gone through upheavals and hard times in the past. His grandparents had been forced to give up cotton farming and sell the rich land. Tough years followed while his father built the garage. With money tight, it sat beside their family home out of necessity. The location outside of town hurt their business, but except for Ford, none of them wanted to pick up and move.
Memories of summers long gone echoed through the woods. Most of the leaves were gone, leaving green pines interspersed with bare branches. After their mother ran off and left them, the brothers had taken care of each other while their father had toiled away in the garage. Those days were harder, but they’d managed to have fun anyway. The resiliency of children.
Jackson had known he was destined to work in the garage from the time he could walk. He’d never wanted anything else. Fixing a car inside and out provided a simple joy. Yet, darker impulses drove him to the dirt track in search of an adrenaline rush behind the wheel. He couldn’t explain the wildness that simmered under his general calm. Honestly, he did his best not to scrutinize the troublesome complexity of his moods.
Jackson usually confined his worries to his family and to the garage, but somehow Willa had gotten tangled up in his life without him noticing. All he knew was the thought of her moving on torqued his anxiety to new levels. Uncomfortable levels. He stood and held out a hand to haul Wyatt off the couch. “Let’s get this over with. I have something to take care of.”