Copyrighted Material Roni Loren 2015 - All Rights Reserved Berkley Publishing Group
Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday, dear . . .
I groan and lean back against the guardrail, shielding my eyes from the piercing sunlight. How exactly should I finish that?
Girl who currently smells like sweat and roadkill?
Girl about to go broke paying for this mess?
Girl whose boyfriend will not answer his goddamned phone?
My fingers move over the screen as I text Caleb again. Where r u???
I stare at my phone, willing a response out of it, but the screen goes black before there’s any answering ding. Caleb had warned me that he was going to be cutting it close for our date tonight. And I know his internship at the local campaign office sometimes runs late when they’re prepping for a rally, but he should be out by now.
My fingers move over the screen again. R U secretly Superman in ur off hours? Come on, u can tell me. If ur saving the world, I’ll understand.
Of course, there’s still no response. And now my neck is prickling with not just sweat but anxiety. What if something happened to him? What if he was in an accident? What if—?
I stop myself before the thoughts spiral, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath. Cool it, Nat. But that little exercise only gets me a lungful of the dead skunk that’s roasting in the heat a few yards away from me on the side of the highway. Blech. I press my fingers over my mouth, fighting a wave of nausea.
I check the clock on my phone for what seems like the hundredth time. The roadside-assistance lady said they would contact a local garage and get me a tow right away. But it’s been over an hour, and the only cars that have passed by have either ignored me or sent catcalls flying my way. Because, of course, my piece-of-crap car had to break down when I’m all dressed up in a low-cut dress and heels for my birthday dinner. Yay for timing.
One guy had at least offered to help and had seemed nice enough, but I’ve seen how those horror movies end. Girl on the side of the road accepts help from a seemingly harmless stranger, only to have her organs carved out later that night. No, thanks.
A grinding of tires on gravel draws my attention upward. A black tow truck rolls past me on the road and pulls to the side, sending a cloud of dust in its wake. I keep my phone clutched in my hand, quickly check the can of Mace in my purse, and then push off the guardrail. The side of the truck says Billy’s Custom Cycles and Auto Repair. There’s a tattoo-style logo of a motorcycle on fire, and I know that it’s definitely not the name of the repair shop the roadside assistance service gave me. It had been some big chain—AutoPlus or something like that. A little shimmer of nerves goes through me and I stop where I am, my heels sinking into the gravel.
The front door of the tow truck opens and a tattooed arm appears before anything else. For some reason, my eyes lock onto pieces of the man instead of the whole—like I can’t handle the entire view quite yet, only snapshots. That muscular arm as the driver slides out of the truck. The worn black motorcycle boots that hit the ground. I force myself to look up, tracking along the faded jeans and fitted black T-shirt, until I collide with a dark blue gaze.
“Looks like you need a ride.”
The deep voice startles me for a second and snaps me back into the moment like a slingshot. Ping! Pay attention, Nat. Now is not the time to let my guard down. “No, thank you, I don’t. I already have another shop on the way.”
His gaze tracks over my dusty dress, slow and lazy like, before he lifts a dark brow. “How long have you been waiting? It’s pretty hot out here.”
The once-over makes me more than a little self-conscious. He can’t be all that much older than me, early twenties for sure, but something about him is intimidating as hell. “I don’t know. Not long. I’m sure they’ll be here any second.”
He crosses his arms over his chest and eyes my car, which has chosen this moment to start smoking from under the hood—as if it senses help in its midst and is crying out for it. “What shop is coming?”
I brush at the skirt of my dress, trying to give my nervous hands something to do. I don’t want to look worried or scared or show him that I’m melting in this brutal Texas heat. “AutoPlus, AutoMart . . .”
He scowls. “Autoland.”
“You might as well set up a tent then. They take forever to get to calls, and they’ll charge you twice as much as we would. Plus, they close at six. They’re just going to tow you in and then lock up for the night.”
“Says the guy who wants to make a buck on a girl stranded on the side of the road.”
The corner of his mouth lifts. “Hey, princess, I’m just trying to be a nice guy and get you to your”—he looks me up and down again—“sorority party on time. I get paid the same either way.”
Princess? Sorority party? My eyes narrow and I give him my own head-to-toe look, taking in the messy dark hair, the tattoos, the heavy boots, the finely shaped . . . I snatch the thought back before I can go there. “Look, Son of Anarchy, I appreciate the nice guyoffer, but how do I even know you’re legit?”
He snorts. “You think I drive a tow truck around for fun? Call the number on the side of the truck if you want. But otherwise, I’ve got better stuff to do than stand here in the heat, smelling roadkill. Two minutes, princess. I’ll be in the truck. You want a tow and a ride? You get in. If not, good luck with Autoland.”
He turns to go, and I feel a little dart of panic at being left alone again—even if he’s not exactly the company I want. This isn’t the best part of Austin, and the sun is on its way down. “Wait, what’s your name? You know, so I can verify.”
He doesn’t turn around but calls back. “Monroe.”
I dial the number to the shop and, of course, they verify that Monroe works for them and is driving the truck today. The guy on the phone sounds amused by my questions. And his reaction makes me realize that I’m being paranoid, that my nerves are officially frayed, and it’s making me act like a bitch. I thank the guy on the phone, hang up, and take a steadying breath. This is going to be okay. Not everyone is out to take advantage. Some people actually do things to be helpful without ulterior motives.
My mother would laugh her ass off at that logic. Everybody’s got an agenda, Nattie.
I straighten the neckline of my dress, hike my purse up my shoulder, and walk over to the tow truck with as much dignity as I can muster for a sweaty girl in a dusty dress. Monroe hasn’t climbed back into the cab, but is instead leaning against the front bumper and watching the cars zoom by on the overpass up ahead. He doesn’t look my way. “Verified that I’m not a serial killer?”
“Verified that you work for Billy’s. The serial-killer part is yet to be determined.”
He smiles out at the horizon. “Want to check the backseat for weapons or body parts?”
“I have a feeling you’d be too sneaky to leave such obvious evidence lying around. And if you aren’t that clever, I’m going to be seriously disappointed in myself if I fall victim to a dumb serial killer.”
He chuckles and it changes his whole face, warming it. When he turns his head, his blue eyes meet mine and my stomach tightens a little. I do my best not to let my reaction show on my face. Last thing I need is him thinking that I’m interested in him. Because, of course, I’m not. I’m totally not. If there’s an opposite of my type, it’s this guy. And plus, I have Caleb. Cute, smart, on-his-way-to-big-things Caleb.
Caleb, who won’t answer his goddamned phone.
Monroe pushes himself off the bumper. “I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult, princess, but I’ll take it you’re going to ride with me.”
“Yes. But only because I can’t handle the dead-skunk smell for another minute.”
“I’m preferable to skunk guts? The flattery just rolls off you, doesn’t it?”
The jab lands squarely. I press my fingers to the space between my eyes and rub. “Sorry. I’m really not trying to be a bitch.”
“It just comes natural, then?”
My eyes snap open and I’m ready to hurl an insult back, but I find him wearing a playful grin and clamp my lips shut.
He angles a thumb toward the truck. “Get in . . .”
“Natalie,” I supply.
“Natalie. And kick the A/C on. Getting your car hooked up is gonna take a few minutes. You may want to call someone for a ride, too, because there’s no guarantee we can get this fixed tonight. I’m assuming you have plans.”
I glance down at my outfit, suddenly self-conscious about the sexy getup. It’s not my typical style, but tonight was supposed to be special, and I had wanted to knock Caleb on his butt. He’s been so wrapped up in work and school lately that I’ve felt a little like furniture. So I borrowed my roommate’s dress with its plunging neckline and treated myself to the new risqué lingerie I’m wearing beneath. I’m not exactly Ms. Vixen normally, so Caleb would’ve never seen it coming. Now it’s all a waste.
“I have a date with my boyfriend,” I say to Monroe.
“Right. So, he can pick you up?”
“He’s not answering his phone. But I’m sure I’ll get him soon.”
Monroe makes some noncommittal noise and nods. “I’m going to get to work. You go and cool off. There’s bottled water in the ice chest in the backseat.”
Before getting in the truck, I find myself watching Monroe walk back toward my car. He’s easily over six feet tall but doesn’t move in that awkward, hunched way that most of the taller guys on campus move. There’s an easy confidence to him, like he’s fully grown into his body and taken ownership—a man’s walk. My eyes follow him as he pops the hood of my car and leans over. The hem of his shirt lifts as he bends, exposing a strip of tanned, muscular lower back. I find myself wondering what it would feel like beneath my fingers and if he has any more ink hidden under there . . . I force my eyes away.
What the hell is wrong with me? I don’t have random illicit thoughts about complete strangers. Especially not strangers who have tattoos and call me princess.
I shake my head and pull open the door on the passenger side. Maybe I have heatstroke or something.
I lay my head back against the seat and close my eyes. But all I can see is the image of my new mechanic pulling his shirt all the way off, sweat dripping off him, me putting my hands . . .
I sit straight up.
Yep, definitely heatstroke. Has to be.