“Son of a motherfucking bitch!”
The roughly cried curse, followed by a deafening clatter and crash, ripped through Corsini’s Garage. Maddie Morgan raced out of her office into the body of the garage to see what was going on.
Across the open space, her brother-in-law was hunched over surrounded by coworkers, cradling his hand against his chest. She ran across the area, shouting as she went. “Garrick, what happened?” Blood dripped from his hand to the floor in big red splashes, and Maddie’s stomach lurched into her throat. She threw her arm around the much bigger man’s waist and pushed him toward the door. “We have to get you to the hospital right now. How bad is it? Did you lose a finger?”
Almost fully doubled over, Garrick nodded, and Maddie flung an order over her shoulder at the other men. “Find it fast! Throw it in my lunch cooler and one of you follow me to the ER with it.”
Garrick suddenly ground to a halt. “Wait, Maddie.” Groaning, he stagger-stepped, and whispered, “Oh, Jesus, it’s... It’s...” Flinging himself upright, he thrust out his bleeding hand. “It’s right here!” An arc of blood sprayed high into the air, not from a severed finger, but from the bottle full of crimson goo in Garrick’s hand.
And right on top of Garrick yelling and spewing fake blood into the sky, the other four guys closed in with screams of their own and sent more lines of bright red liquid shooting into the air.
What the hell? Maddie’s heart stuttered and her mouth gaped. The men quickly dissolved into gales of laughter, and in between breathless guffaws Garrick pointed and said, “You should have seen your face.” He mimicked sternly, “Find the finger and put it in my cooler.” He rolled his eyes and shook his head like a schoolboy who’d just gotten a huge prank over on his teacher. “It was amazing.”
Pointing right back at Garrick, Maddie cried, “You rat bastard. You asshole, no-good rat bastard.” She swung around to include the whole group. “All of you.” Trying to keep the deadliest look in her eyes and voice, Maddie fought to control her shaking shoulders and the trembling in her jaw. “You’re all despicable, every last one of you, right down to your cores.”
Robbie, a compact, muscular blond who’d come on board at the garage a little over a year ago, said, “We had to break you in, Boss. It’s your first week, fully in charge, all on your own.” He lifted his arms wide, his grin just as big. “If we don’t bust your chops at least once, what kind of crew would we be?”
Maddie not-so-quietly muttered, “You’d be the kind that wouldn’t be spending their lunch hour cleaning fake blood off everything rather than eating.”
She spun to walk back to her office amid “aaww mans” and “boos” and moaning and groaning among the men.
Stifling a smile and a soft laugh, Maddie covered her mouth with her hand, but from behind her Garrick shouted, “I saw that! You liked what we did!”
Not skipping a beat, Maddie flung her arm back and shot her middle finger to the whole group. “You didn’t see anything!” And with that, she strode into her office and slammed the door.
The moment the door clicked closed at her back, Maddie succumbed to laughter. As she did, she caught her reflection in a broken rearview mirror and whistled low instead. “Holy mother, girl.” The cracked surface reflected a freakish splintering of her features, but clearly showed splotches of red-streaked dirt marring her face, and fake blood matting one side of her long, dark hair as well as the navy coveralls faded to chambray from a decade of use. “Look at you.”
Hardly the image of a manager. Or an owner, for that matter. Maddie winced, even though intellectually she knew she had no reason to feel guilty or unworthy.
From the age of sixteen, Maddie had worked at Corsini’s Garage. At first Mr. Corsini had hired her to answer the phones, do some light office work, and in general be his gofer for anything he needed in town but didn’t want to get on his own. His wife passed away years before, his son left Redemption, and Mr. Corsini never got used to running all those little errands himself.
Right away Maddie began asking questions and expressed so much interest in the various vehicles that came through the shop that within six months Mr. Corsini had taken her under his wing, teaching her his vast knowledge of vehicles and running a business. Maddie had never looked back. She’d never even thought of doing something else or pursuing another career after graduating from high school. And other than Ernie, a wiry, wonderful, silver-haired African American man who was nearing retirement, nobody had worked for Mr. Corsini longer than Maddie.
Then, after so many years alone, Mr. Corsini fell in love again and married. Shortly thereafter, the only boss Maddie had ever known, decided to retire. He and his new wife wanted to explore the vast United States in an RV together—just as a start to their many tours, he’d said—and it made sense to officially begin the process of making Maddie the manager of the garage.
On top of placing Maddie in a management role, Mr. Corsini sold her ten percent of his business, as well as his house and the acres of land situated behind the garage. He’d almost gifted it to her, at a bargain-bin price, insisting he was coming out the winner since he wouldn’t worry while traveling around the country with Maddie in charge of the garage.
And so officially this week, Maddie had moved into the house on the other side of an open field behind the garage and become the sole boss of the day-to-day operations of the auto repair shop.
Even though the other employees knew of the business transaction and said it didn’t surprise them and that it made perfect sense, Maddie couldn’t shake a nagging voice in her head, whispering that she hadn’t earned this turn of events and that perhaps someone might be resentful of her good fortune.
Maddie peeked through the blinds on a window overlooking the garage floor, noted everyone hard at work, chattering and smiles and laughs between them. The trills of fear that one of the men secretly harbored resentment toward her melted into the dirty concrete under her boots and disappeared. Not these men. Warmth settled in Maddie’s belly, and she knew she was right. There’s not a bad one in the bunch.
Which wasn’t to say they didn’t enjoy a good joke, such as the one they’d just played on her. Maddie would let her crew off the hook for the prank with the blood in a bit—not about cleaning the garage, they’d all dig in and do that, herself included—but rather having to do it over their lunch hours. These men worked hard; they had busy lives outside of this job. And Jayden, only sixteen, a good-looking, soft-spoken kid with a mix of Latino and African American heritage, had school to keep up with when he wasn’t at work.
Maddie’s life was pretty damned perfect, and she knew it. She had no reason to be sad or complain.
Unbidden, pictures of a big, dark-haired, dark-eyed man filled her vision, heated her blood, and crept into her core. No. I won’t think about him. I won’t let him in again. Maddie turned from the window, but that rough-hewn face that had filled her most secret dreams from the time she was seventeen wouldn’t turn to mist and float away.
Wyn Ashworth. The only man Maddie had ever loved. And the one man who’d deliberately, cruelly, shattered her young and naïve heart.
* * * *
Off duty after a long morning dealing with a heartbreaking domestic dispute, Lieutenant Wyn Ashworth stepped out of his vehicle, braced himself against the onslaught of frigid wind and biting cold, and slid on a pair of mirrored shades to block the rays of brilliant sunlight beaming down from the sky.
“Wow.” A slow clap sank into Wyn’s ears, the pointed, rapping sound needling at his ego. “Someone’s angling hard to get into next year’s Redemption’s Hottest Cops calendar.” Wyn turned to find a teasing gleam in his older brother Ethan’s eyes. “That was the most practiced exit from a car and sunglasses donning I’ve ever seen.”
Struck hard in the chest with love for his only sibling, wanting to shake off the first half of his rough day, Wyn muttered, “Fuck you, E.” He shot his brother the bird. “I got out of the car the way I always do.” The same sunlight that had nearly blinded Wyn spun shades of blond in Ethan’s hair to burnished gold and made his eyes appear like the bluest oceans in the world. “I can’t help it if I’m the pretty brother in the family and naturally look superior at everything I do.”
Pushing his hands through his too-short brown hair and then striking a macho pose, Wyn chuckled at the picture he must surely be making. He was all blunt angles and too hard and big in comparison to Ethan’s all-American handsomeness, and he knew it. “I’m sorry if my overwhelming sexiness makes you feel inferior, but I can’t hide the perfection God created in me.”
With a smirk, Ethan slung his arm around Wyn’s back, got them walking up a narrow concrete pathway, and muttered, “Yeah, the next time you don’t have a date on a Friday night then you can come and try to sell that self-effacing humor to me, and maybe I’ll feel bad for you.” A few inches shorter than Wyn, Ethan quirked a brow up at him. “When was the last time you spent a full weekend home all by yourself?”
His spine stiffening, Wyn took a breath and tried to modulate his tone. “None of that means anything. Dating just provides someone to hang out with and pass the time.”
Ethan frowned. “Do you tell that to the women you see?”
Every metaphorical hackle rising, Wyn shook off his brother’s arm and shot him a hard glare. “Yes, actually.” Not that it was any of Ethan’s business, but Wyn spat out the truth. “I do.”
“Seriously?” Ethan’s eyes rounded comically big. “Not many people give that courtesy to their dates. Do they believe you?”
With a shrug, Wyn came to a stop on a small concrete porch. “I can’t control what they think.”
Not that it mattered. For way too long women only needed to go out with Wyn a few times before they moved on or put him firmly in the friend zone. Memories of the last four years of dating, the truth so different from what those who knew him best probably assumed, brought a hot flush to Wyn’s skin. He determinedly shook it off. Ethan didn’t need to know everything about him. Some things were too personal, even to share with his brother and best friend.
“I’m upfront.” Wyn couldn’t keep the caustic edge out of his tone. “That’s all I can do.”
“That’s true.” After murmuring his agreement, Ethan swallowed hard, making his Adam’s apple bob. His focus drifted as his voice dropped to a near whisper. “I’m lucky to have my husband. I’ve known that ever since I got back together with Aidan. But more and more when I look around at the world, I find little things that reinforce it to me every day.”
Bottled-up anger and frustration draining out of him, Wyn reached out and squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “As long as Aidan feels the same then it’s all good.”
A wistful smile took over Ethan’s face. “I’m very loved by him.” His gaze returned to Wyn, and the truth, the absolute certainty in this knowledge, shone brightly in Ethan’s eyes. “You know I am.”
“I do.” Shaking off envy he didn’t want to feel, Wyn did a right-face turn, confronted the locked door in front of him, and battled a more pressing pain hitting him in the gut. “Okay.” With an exhale, he glanced at his brother. “Have we made enough small chit-chat to be able to do this?”
Nodding sharply, Ethan pulled a key out of his coat pocket. “Even if we haven’t, it has to be done, and we’re the only ones to do it.”
With that, Ethan unlocked the front door to their Aunt Estelle’s home, the only sibling of their late mother, Jayne Ashworth, who had passed away almost seven years ago. The loss of Jayne, stemming from a second bout with cancer, had hit the brothers and their aunt Estelle hard. But Estelle, who had finally begun to bounce back and rejoin the world, in a devastating twist of fate, had crashed her bike while on a tour all the way across the country, hit her head on a boulder, and died instantly.
With the funeral and burial happening two days ago, today, Wyn and Ethan, their aunt’s only two surviving relatives, had decided not to put off the inevitable. They had to go through her belongings—Estelle had never married, had no children, and had lived in this home for forty years—decide what to keep, what to donate, and what to throw away so they could ready the house for sale.
Streaks of light slipped into the home through slits in the closed curtains, showing a lifeless shell that had once housed the heart of one of the kindest, gentlest women Wyn had ever known. Piles of flattened boxes waiting to be opened and filled lay against walls throughout the home. The sight of them, a physical sign of the finality of a huge part of Wyn’s life, widened the empty pit inside him into a gaping maw.
Wyn’s throat ached, and he murmured, “Where do we even begin?”
Ethan rubbed Wyn across the shoulders, and the connection helped warm the chill in Wyn’s core. The two of them had done this once before, in their mother’s home, but back then they had Aunt Estelle to guide them, and her wonderful stories of the past to keep the group uplifted and moving forward through the toughest parts of packing up another person’s life.
“How about the kitchen?” Ethan answered, a catch in his voice. “There’s a lot of stuff in there we know we can donate, so maybe packing that will gear us up to tackle the more personal spaces.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Shaking out of his coat, Wyn hung it on a rack by the door and then grabbed a roll of packing tape and a flat box. “Let’s get to it.”
Ethan did the same, and the brothers got to work.
* * * *
Hours later, now in the process of cleaning out Estelle’s study, Ethan arched his back, raised his arms, and yawned.
Drawn curtains no longer threw the home into shadows; twilight had long settled outside and darkness had taken over the night.
Wyn stretched too. “Ready to call it quits?”
“I think so.” Wiping redness from his eyes, Ethan turned his attention in a circle around the half-packed room. “We made a lot of progress today. And we have all day tomorrow to finish up.” Clouds crossed his sky-blue gaze, and he touched his hand to his chest. “I’m ready to head home.”
To Aidan, remained unspoken, but it hung in the air as if in neon for Wyn to see. Aidan had offered to rearrange his schedule at the fire station in order to help, but Ethan said he’d told the man this was something the brothers had to do on their own. Wyn had no doubt that the fire chief had worked the schedule so he’d be at home in his and Ethan’s cabin, arms open and waiting, the moment Ethan walked through the door.
Pushing down a sprout of envy breaking free again, Wyn spun and strode across the room to the area behind Estelle’s desk. “Just let me finish this row of shelves.” There were four other rows still full on this wall, but Wyn wouldn’t make Ethan wait that long to get home to his man. “It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”
Ethan stepped to his side and grabbed a handful of paperback books. “I’ll help.”
After stuffing another row of books into a box, Wyn dipped down to start the second shelf, and his heart stopped. Maddie. Long dark hair, hints of silver in pale gray eyes, ruddy cheeks marring peachy skin on a chilly evening, and a genuine, big smile that could drop the staunchest man to his knees, that was the woman in the photo. Maddie. Good Christ, she was beautiful. Wyn’s belly twisted of its own accord. What are you doing here? The photo was of Maddie, Estelle, and Wyn together, with Maddie and Wyn each moving in to kiss the pink of Estelle’s wrinkly cheeks. All three of them were full with sparkles of happy light in their eyes.
Just as fast as the sight of the happy trio grabbed at Wyn’s chest, the warm twist in his belly turned into a cold cramp. Those were different times. Wyn had rarely entered Estelle’s study when he’d come to visit, and certainly never long enough to poke around in her crowded bookshelves. He’d never seen this photo before. Beyond any conscious command, he reached out and brushed his thumb across the slick glass protecting the picture. He lingered over Madeline Morgan, who’d once been the cleverest, most open, sharp-tongued friend Wyn had ever had.
“I didn’t know Aunt Estelle had this,” he murmured, picking up the frame to get a closer look.
Reaching in to tilt the frame, Ethan said, “Oh, yeah. That’s from Christmas the first year after Aidan and I got back together. At the party we had at the cabin.”
Wyn rolled his eyes so hard he was surprised he didn’t strain a muscle. “No shit, Sherlock. I was at the party. Obviously.” He pointed to himself in the photo. “What I was wondering was how Aunt Estelle got it. She wasn’t one to carry a camera around herself much. Did she ask you for it?”
“Yeah.” Ethan got back to piling paperbacks in a box. “I showed her all the pictures that were taken. She asked for this one, among a few others. I made copies for her.”
Still locked on the photo, thinking about how few pictures sat on the mantle at his apartment—almost all of them ones he’d taken when boxing up their mother’s house—a second hole opened up next to the first inside Wyn, slicing into his very being.
Clearing his throat, Wyn wondered, “How come you never made copies for me?”
Ethan whipped around to look at Wyn. “Because you never even asked to look at the photos, let alone expressed an interest in having a few. Why?” The longer Ethan studied Wyn, the more his forehead bunched into a series of pointed V’s. “Do you want one?”
“No,” Wyn replied quickly, and even put the photo back on the shelf. “I was just curious.” Feeling like a dancing monkey on display all of a sudden, Wyn turned away from his brother. “Can you go get me one more box? I think that should be enough to pack away these last few shelves.” He kept his head down and grabbed a candy dish off the shelf, trying to look normal and busy.
A long pause reigned between the men, wherein Wyn was sure Ethan was trying to bore a hole into the back of his head. Eventually, Ethan answered, “Sure. Be right back,” and left the room.
The moment Wyn knew he was alone, he exhaled and slumped forward against the built-in shelves. Knowing that his brother’s too-perceptive gaze wasn’t on him for a few seconds, Wyn studied the picture once more. They’d been happy in that blink of time, him and Estelle and Maddie. Ethan had snapped his camera in exactly the right moment to capture the feeling forever on film. Although Wyn hadn’t known the truth in that forever imprinted moment, he’d later figured out that Maddie hadn’t been smiling because Ethan had prompted her to, but rather because in that second she’d been looking at Wyn and laughing at something he’d said, and her heart had been exposed in her eyes. Wyn’s chest ached again, and he hated himself for the pain that wouldn’t go away.
Maddie would never look at him again the way she had the night of that party. One jackass-like, asshole move on his part four years ago had forever ended any chance of having Maddie Morgan as a friend again, let alone something intimately more.
Idiot. Wyn turned a snarl inward, on himself. You might as well be your father.
Unbidden, Wyn picked up the picture and folded it face down in a small pile of Estelle’s items he wanted to keep for himself, not sure if the move was designed to punish himself or take a small gift to help remember the past.
He just knew he needed the picture, as he knew he would never have the real woman in his life again…