“Okay then.” I hesitated for a moment, not wanting to lose the cool I’d been so desperately trying to keep. She wasn’t making it easy. I had a business to run, and the last thing I needed was to get mixed up in her drama.
“Thanks for the part, Wayne.” I gave him a nod as I grabbed the hose off the counter by the door. “Send me a bill.”
I didn’t even bother looking at Charlotte. If she wanted to take care of herself, she could do just that.
• • •
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered, trying to get the new hose into place. After the third try, I tossed it on the ground and stepped away from the Chevy. Frustrated, I kicked up some gravel from the driveway as I paced alongside the rusty old truck and slapped a hand on the fender.
“Easy there,” my brother said, easing up to me like I was a wild beast. “Take a breath. It’s not the truck’s fault.”
“It kind of is. Goddamn thing is so old, and everything is bent out of shape in it.”
“Kind of like you right now.” He cuffed my shoulder. “Especially the old part.”
“Two fucking minutes older than you,” I said, flipping him off. Charlotte might have been good at pushing my buttons, but Duke was an expert.
“What crawled up your ass this early?” He picked up the discarded hose and walked over to take a look under the hood for himself.
“Just one of those days. Weeks, actually. First, the leaky drum, and now this,” I huffed. “And don’t even get me started on Miss New York.”
“Ah,” Duke said as he wiggled the hose into place. “That explains it all. Lady’s got your tail in a twist.”
“The lady does not.”
“Mm-hmm.” He chuckled. “I’m sure you’re really this mad over the same shit we deal with all the time. We’re always fixing this truck or a broken part of the piss-tillery,” he said using the pet name he’d come up with for our non-profitable business.
“Yeah, I know.” I sighed. “Maybe that’s the problem. I’m sick of this shit.”
“No, you’re not,” he shot back. “You’re the only one in the family that actually believes we can make something out of this place.”
I looked around the property, taking stock of what exactly we had—a decent farmhouse, a couple of sheds, and a fully restored barn that housed the distillery. All on a nice piece of acreage.
Duke gave me a pat on the back before he shut the hood of the Chevy. “And I didn’t want to say this because I hate giving you any more of an ego boost than I have to, but that last batch we pulled was actually pretty damn good.”
I grinned back at him. “It was good, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, it was. I know it’s not all of this getting your goat,” he said, throwing his hands out. “If Miss New York is really getting under your skin that much, I suggest you either fuck her, or go help Wayne get her car fixed and get her the hell out of town. You and I both know that only one of us can be riled up at a time, and I’m not very good at keeping my composure.”
Fuck her? Was that what I really wanted? It had to be. Maybe we could take our hostility and turn it into something a little more fun.
God, I hated when my brother was the smart one. I usually wore that hat.
“Maybe you’re right,” I admitted with a shake of my head.
“You’re goddamn right I am,” he said, gloating. “So, what are you going to do about it?”
“Let’s start over,” I said, trying not to think about the sexy-as-hell country boy who’d just stormed out of the repair shop.
Sure, he was just trying to help, but the second he decided that I wasn’t capable of handling this situation on my own, I snapped. Now he was gone, and I was here negotiating a deal with the grease monkey.
“I need this car fixed as soon as possible. You and I both know I don’t belong here,” I said, and Wayne nodded in agreement. “Can you please help me out?”
“I’ll put your car at the top of the list,” he finally agreed. “I’ll aim for Wednesday, but I’m charging extra for the rush job.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” I said with a smile.
When he reached out his hand to seal the deal, I hesitated. Mine were still greasy from our first handshake.
When I didn’t take his hand, he laughed. “Okay then. Verbal agreement, it is.”
As I walked out of Wayne’s Auto Repair, I felt a sense of pride. I’d done it on my own. The words of the people I’d left behind in New York repeated in my head.
“Let me handle this.”
“Just be a good little girl and let the men take care of everything.”
“You don’t have to do anything but look pretty.”
The hell I did. I’d handle whatever came my way. I was an independent woman.
As I walked down the cracked sidewalks of Shady Grove toward the business district, I felt like a lioness. Sure, it was a small feat, negotiating a deal for my car repair, but damn it if I didn’t feel like roaring. This was what Katy Perry had been singing about.
I passed the terrible chicken restaurant with the ridiculous name and headed toward a block of small shops, all connected in a row. While the structures of the buildings were all the same aging brick and wood, each storefront had its own personality. An antique store was first, with gingerbread-style trim and a sign that read Yesteryear. It was followed by a small hardware store, then a newspaper office, The Shady Grove Gazette. I chuckled as I walked past the window and saw two people inside, busily typing away on their computers.
What could they possibly have to report on in this town?
When one of the newspaper workers looked up and caught me staring, she smiled and waved.
Oh shit. What if they’re writing about me? What if the out-of-towner is the headline story?
I quickly ducked out of sight and moved on to the next building. The last thing I needed was press, even in a small town. If the story somehow made its way back to New York, someone would surely come and try to find me. To talk sense into me, as my father had put it.
I didn’t need a talking-to; I needed to be left alone. I needed to do something on my own for once. I’d already imagined the surprise on my parents’ faces when they found my apartment empty and my belongings gone. They were probably still pissed that they had to send a church full of people home. Served them right for signing me up for something I didn’t agree to.
I took in a deep breath, pleased that the fresh country air seemed to calm my nerves. This place wasn’t so bad. With little to no traffic and little to no people, it was a quiet place. A good place to collect yourself. To reflect and plan ahead. Also, a good place to get some much-needed alone time . . . or to get my nails done, I realized as I found myself in front of a quaint little salon—Cut and Dyed.
May as well make the most of this morning, I thought as I looked down at my hands and grimaced at my chipped nail polish.
I walked through the door, and the eyes of the three clients and the stylists helping them all focused on me. The clients were all of a certain age, as in old. And the stylists all appeared to be in their mid-forties, each of them modeling the latest in mom cuts.
“Can I help you?” one of the stylists asked from behind the chair of an elderly woman getting perm rods twisted into her hair.
For a moment, I thought I must have entered a time warp. Perm rods?
“I hope so,” I said with a smile. “I was hoping to get a manicure.” I held up a hand to reveal the remnants of polish on my nails. “And a blowout?”
There was nothing I loved more than someone else doing my hair for me. Back in New York, I went every two or three days. I just hoped to God this place offered more than perms.
“Of course,” she said with a smile, and then yelled, “Audrey!” startling not only me, but her client. “Do you have time for a manicure?” she asked a younger-looking girl who stepped into the salon from a back room.
“Sure,” Audrey said with a smile.
Unlike her coworkers, Audrey was a little sprite of a thing. Her long dark hair was an unnatural color of burgundy, but it suited her style, which was black jeans and a vintage-looking T-shirt with the words Live Free on the front. Her eyes were dramatically lined with dark charcoal, and tattoos on her arms and collarbone peeked out from her shirt.