“Did you hear that?”
I looked out the overhead door toward the street. Was that a W112 Mercedes? Looked to be a 1960 model, as far as I could tell. The black fintail was the sweetest thing I’d seen in at least a year of classic cars parading through the garage.
Mercedes had given it the W label during the design engineering. The beauty was later given a 300 moniker when it went to the dealers. I guess the W thing didn’t have the same pizzazz. Who knew? I left that kind of stuff to the pointy-headed guys in the big offices.
“Ow.” Jake Goldstein scratched the back of his head. “That ticking can’t be good.”
We’d just opened the door to move a car, so we walked outside. The mid-October day was cloudy, and a cold morning rain had left the streets wet and gleaming. Rubbing my hands on the greasy rag I kept in my back pocket, I watched the fintail come to a stop. It looked somewhat at home next to the 1950s-style gasoline pumps. In my grandfather’s day, the pumps had been operational, but since my dad had switched to just garage work in the 1980s, they’d been decommissioned.
That was the only word I could think of as the driver got out of the noisy car. It absolutely applied to both the car and the man. Thick, straight hair was pushed back from a pale forehead, the caramel strands streaked with blond. If that wasn’t natural, the price had to be spendy to get it to look that way. I would know, since I’d tried highlights once. The cost of repeating that had made my wallet shrink away in horror.
“Oh.” I realized who the guy was. Had to be. “Jake, this is the science guy.”
I couldn’t help but scope out possibilities as the visitor looked around. I liked looking at guys, even straight guys. I always had the thought that maybe this time I’d get lucky, maybe this one would be a little bent. Not that it would mean anything, seeing as how my luck with guys was usually bad. “Yeah, you know. The professor. The brain. He’s the only one on the list of Pentazi’s old customers who wouldn’t call me back.”
“That’s not very nice.” Jake tipped his glasses down. “Seems to me a man should at least return a phone call.” My head mechanic looked concerned as he watched our guest.
I shoved the rag in my pocket. “Not the first guy who wouldn’t call me back.” When I heard a snort from Jakey, I knew he appreciated the double meaning.
I headed outside, moving around the front of the Mercedes. “Sounds like you’re having a little trouble. I’m Nick Shelton. You’re Henry Travis, right?”
It took a moment before the guy I presumed was Henry Travis brought up a hand to meet mine. “Why, yes. How did you know?”
The guy’s mitt was a little soft, but the grip was strong. Rowr. “I recognized the car.” Man. His eyes were a rich blue—like the trademark blue Jaguar had back in the ’70s. “Jaguar blue.”
“Pardon me?” Travis tugged his hand back.
Oops. “Uh, sorry. Sometimes I talk before my brain gets into gear.” Idiot.
I pointed at his classic. “Not too many of these around here.” I reached out to touch the roof but stopped myself just in time. Dirty hands and clean cars usually didn’t go together, for sure not in front of the customer. I had to hand it to the guy. Travis didn’t run his palm along his stylish stone-colored chinos in an effort to ditch any grease I might have passed along. Good thing. Those pants looked mighty clean. That crease—man, it was severe. “Here.” I held out the rag. “Sorry. I wiped my hands before coming out, but I never quite get all the junk off.”
Travis’s expression was comical. His eyebrows scrunched, and his lips twisted to the side as he hesitantly ran the rag over his fingers. Fingertips gripping it by the edge, he held it out. “Thank you.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Sure. Mind if I take a look?” Some might think it rude, but I didn’t wait for his response. I reached in the open window for the hood release. “I promise I won’t get any grease on her.” I was pretty sure that if I waited for the professor to make up his mind, he’d still be thinking about it.
“Oh. Uh. Yes.”
“So, what made you finally come by?”
“Well, I figured you’d found somebody else by this time. Dominic Pentazi closed down five months ago.” Pentazi had run into a lot of bad luck—and a few worse customers, the kind who left him hanging for about fifty grand, all told. The Pentazi garage had been my main competition, and even though new customer potential had opened up, their place closing really wasn’t the way I wanted to expand my business.
I pushed aside a wiring harness, then dug a little deeper. “Man, this is the cleanest engine I’ve seen in a while.” And I had some really anal customers.
“I… It’s… Well.” He cleared his throat. “I have it cleaned every year.”
Of course he did. “How many miles you got on her?”
“Seventy-three thousand, four hundred and ten. Exactly.”
“Exactly, huh?” Good thing the raised hood was between Travis and me, because I had to bite my lip to stop a grin. Jeez, the guy was precise. And apparently a little tightly wound, even if he was a hottie. I leaned around the black metal. “She must have sat in someone’s garage for a long time, then. I would have expected her to have a few more.”
Nothing I liked more than working on the German cars—a meticulous design process, and so much common sense in how to put an engine together. I couldn’t say enough about the long-ago Mercedes engineers. Dreaming of German precision, I continued poking around.
“…then he sold the car to an old farmer, whose son found it in a shed after fifteen years.”
Apparently, I’d missed some of the car’s history while I’d been drooling over the guts. “Uh-huh. Is that who sold it to you?”
Travis edged around the left headlight. “No. There was one more owner, a dot-com millionaire who had to liquidate two years ago.” He was looking itchy, like he wanted to pull my paw out of the engine compartment. His own hand was practically vibrating. “Are you sure you should—”
Pushing upright, I looked at Travis. The poor guy did look a little anxious. “Didn’t Dominic tell you about me?”
Travis’s lips tightened. “Yes. He sent a letter to his customers when he knew he was going to have to close. He listed your garage, plus the Kraus place up in Lake Geneva.”
“Oh yeah. Arty Kraus. He’s a piece of work.” I had to bite my lip to keep from saying anything more. I’d run into Arty a time or two, but mostly I’d heard about him from a couple of my customers. Arty was good at engine work—and, okay, he wasn’t bad at bodywork either—but the son of a bitch nickeled-and-dimed his customers for everything.
I watched the silky brows go up. “Yes, well…I researched his company, and it appears that his à la carte menu includes even the most basic services. Several of his customers mentioned that I should be aware Mr. Kraus charges extra for what should be included.”
This guy was thorough. It kind of fit with the egghead image I had of him. From what Dominic had told me, Henry Travis was a genius type, one of those guys who spent a lot of time in a lab. Doing what, I had no idea. Whatever it was, I was fairly sure I wouldn’t understand a word of it. My high school diploma didn’t get me too far in scientific circles.
I eased the hood down. “I’d be glad to pull this sweet thing into the shop and take a look. Can we give you a ride back to the office?”
“I was hoping I could wait for it.” Travis looked at his watch, then scanned the shop. He brought those Jaguar-blue eyes back to mine, brows arched. “You don’t appear to be busy at the moment.”
These rich guys sometimes liked to bust my chops with their scheduling. “Well, Professor, it’s like this.” I leaned against his ride, watching as he lifted his arm slightly. I just knew he wanted to push me away from his precious baby. “I just sent one of my jobs to the body shop over on Route 41. My shop assistant went to pick up parts for that car over there.” I pointed to the ’66 Corvette parked in my side lot. “Lee’s out sick today. My dad left at two. And Jake is working on two cars at the same time. So, yeah, we are kind of busy.”
“You could work on it.” Travis folded his arms across his chest. It was hard to tell how muscular he was, since the fifty-four degree autumn day had brought coats out of the closet for a lot of folks. But I had a strange feeling Travis wore his tweed sport coat all the time anyway. “And it’s doctor, not professor.”
He sounded so superior all of a sudden. I was dying to pull that stick out of the guy’s ass. I could replace it with something else. “Okay, Doc. Whatever you say. But I was
in the middle of trolling through parts sites to find something for that beauty over there.” This time I pointed to the gull-wing Mercedes that sat next to the Corvette. “She’s been here for a week and a half, and I promised her owner he’d have it by Friday. So, if you want to leave the 300 with me, I’ll look at her tomorrow and call you, tell you what I find.” Just because the guy was good-looking in a Johnny-Depp-as-Ichabod-Crane kind of way didn’t mean I had to roll over. At least, not until the guy bought me dinner.
Now I could see the impatience on his face. It seemed the doc was wanting to say something. Should I maybe throw him a bone? So to speak.
Maybe I could salvage this budding business relationship and maybe, just maybe, turn it into something more.
“How about this? I’ll try to take a peek before I close up today.” Would that make him relax?
“I would appreciate that.” Travis still looked uptight, but the pinched look around his lips had faded. “I’m heading to an MBCA event next weekend, and it needs to be perfect.”
Ah. The Mercedes Benz Club of America. I’d always thought it was kind of, oh, I don’t know, stuck-up or something to belong to that club. But to be honest, I also wanted to know what they did there. Did they have a secret handshake?
“Well, let me see what I can do.” I eyed him again, trying not to sigh at the pretty picture he made. “Uh. You need a ride anywhere?”
Travis shook his head. “No, not necessary. I can call my assistant.” With that, he walked away, pulling his phone out of his inside jacket pocket. Man, the guy hadn’t even looked sideways at me. I kind of felt insulted. Wasn’t I worth even a glance? Turn around!
Obviously straight. What other answer was there?
“Okay, Nicky. Keep your head in the game. Otherwise, you get into trouble every time.” Talking to myself was an old habit.
And no matter how many times I gave myself this particular brand of advice, I still managed to find the worst kind of guy. Not that I had a revolving door or anything. It was just that when I did meet somebody, he usually turned out to be the kind who believed in “wham, bam, thank you, man.” And oh, by the way? Sometimes, that was exactly what I was wanting. However, I did require the minimum of reciprocity on blowjobs. Just a little technicality there.
But all that? Yeah, all that was BG. Before Grant. Before the storm of the century—aka my sister, The Bitch—came through northern Lake County, Illinois. Before my life turned the fuck upside down.
Speaking of which…I looked at my watch. It was almost three thirty. Where was ole Grant, anyway? Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Travis heading for the customer entrance. Uh-oh.
I got inside in time to watch Rum and Coke jump all over my newest customer. Shit.
You know, I’d heard my name called many, many times, although I do admit not too many people called me “mister.” It was usually, Hey, Shelton, get your ass over here
, or something like that. But now? The way the doc shouted my name, oh man, I could tell he was pissed.
Puffing from dashing across the lot, I grabbed Rum and yanked his inquisitive nose away from the doc’s crotch. “Rum! Stop that!” The other stupid mutt was wrapped around one of Travis’s legs, humping away. I could feel my face burning, and it didn’t help that I spotted Jake snickering through the glass door to the shop.
“God, I am so sorry.” I had hoped Travis would be impressed by me and by my business. Fuck all, no way that was happening now. I reached down and grabbed Coke, crouching to hold the two quivering dogs.
“What kind of place are you running here?” Travis slapped at his pants in a vain effort to get rid of the black dog hair. Christ, my dogs could shed. And since I didn’t take them to the groomers very often, they were kind of shaggy.
Those Jaguar-blue eyes were burning now. I could feel the heat as I looked up at Henry Travis. Biting my lip, I stared helplessly.
“Well? Aren’t you going to say anything? I just got these trousers back from the cleaners.” The way he was leaning, I could see the sweet curve of his ass outlined in the khakis. Mmm. I jerked my eyes back to his face. It was pale, as if he didn’t go out in the sun very often, but his jaw was strong and his nose was long and straight.
I cleared my throat and tightened my arm around Rum. The little bugger was wily and could pull out of his collar in a snap. “Uh. Jeez. I’m sorry. These two don’t usually bother anybody.” Sheepishly, I made a face and shrugged. “Maybe your smell is kind of strong?” My voice cracked a little bit there at the end.
Travis made a strangled sound, giving his thigh one last swipe. “I beg your pardon?” He straightened sharply, glaring down at me.
“Oh. I just meant that, you know, some guys wear really expensive cologne or soap or something.” I was babbling. “Um. Well, Rum and Coke have very sensitive noses, and they like certain smells. Good smells.” Jesus, I was making it worse.
Travis was watching me now, and one silky eyebrow was arched. “Really.” His lips pushed out slightly as he tilted his head to one side. Wait. Was he taking a closer look? “And you think your…dogs…like my smell?”
“I see.” He shifted his feet, spreading them apart a bit.
What did he see? Oh, man, I’d forgotten to shave that morning. Was that it?
Realizing I was still crouching on the floor, all too close to the tempting package in front of me, I grabbed both mutts and stood up. Holding the wiggling bastards wasn’t easy, but I had a lot of upper-body strength. Even though I should have been using the damned Bowflex a hell of a lot more, I did have pretty good definition. Well, some.
“Let me put them in the back.” I scooted past him, walking behind the service counter. I bumped the billing office door open with my hip and dumped the dogs on the small leather sofa I had in there. Their blanket was at one end, and my two problem children snuggled in right away. Rolling my eyes, I sighed.
Pulling the door shut, I pasted on a grin as I stepped behind the counter. It was time for me to act like I actually ran this business. “Sorry about that.” I could feel Travis watching me, though, and it made me fumble a bit as I pulled the keyboard closer. I focused my attention on the monitor. “How long has the trouble with the 300 been going on?”
While Travis gave me the details, I kept my eyes on the screen. Straight guys seriously didn’t like it when I eyeballed them, and Henry Travis… Well, if he was gay, and I was thinking—hoping?—he was, I had the feeling he still wouldn’t like it if I stared at him with my tongue hanging out.
Why should this one be turning my crank? He was so like the professor type I had called him—tweed jacket, white button-down, and an honest-to-God bow tie. Normally, I liked the muscled suit-and-tie kind of studs, the young ones who went to the bars after work and hung around talking stocks and bonds and whatever. Not that I could figure out what the fuck they were talking about. I’d scope out a possible who played on my team, move in, and buy him a drink; then nine times out of ten, he’d blow me off for some other suit. Once in a while, though, I would get lucky. I think they liked hitting it with a working man, so maybe they could tell their suit friends about it.
Travis gave me his address and phone numbers. “What breed of dog are they?” His voice was more relaxed now, and I could feel him watching me closely.
“Huh?” I followed his gaze, looking through the half-glass door. The two boys were already snoozing, bodies pressed together. “Oh, they’re cockers.”
I couldn’t help but snort at Travis’s expression. “I know, right? Yeah, cocker spaniels. Originally a hunting breed, but now lapdogs, mostly.” I made sure to enter his home address in the correct field. Never know—might be I’d need it someday. “The Brits bred them, oh, maybe six, seven hundred years ago, to hunt woodcocks. Cockers are great at flushing the birds, then going after them when they’re down.”
Travis had a strange look on his face, like he didn’t quite understand me but he was trying hard to be polite.
“They’re good swimmers.” I shrugged, not quite knowing what else to say, and tapped my fingers restlessly over the keyboard. Now that the work ticket was filled in, I was feeling a little nervous. God knows why. Not like the first time I was talking to a guy I found attractive. Right?
“I see.” He seemed to like saying that.
Great. I’d completely killed any chance of having this guy take me seriously. At least, seriously enough to get laid. Jesus, when would I learn to keep my mouth shut? I blew out a breath. No hope for it—might as well get back to work. “Okay. I’m going to go back in the shop so that I can try to get to your car sometime today.”
He stared at me for a few moments, and I could feel my face heating up. He looked thoughtful for just a second before pulling out his phone again. “That’s a good idea. I’ll wait to hear from you.”
Pausing in the shop doorway, I glanced over my shoulder. The professor look was still a turn-on for me, but now I was just pissed at myself. Fuck.
Maybe I could make a good second impression? Uh, nope. Not putting lipstick on that pig.