Chapter One

The blacktop amplified the summer heat exponentially as River Hemsworth crossed the parking lot, close to the temperature of the surface of Venus she imagined. River had just left the attorney’s air-conditioned office a moment earlier, and already a light sheen of sweat glistened on her exposed arms. The humidity was probably great for her skin, but her hair was suffering.

As she headed to her car, River searched in her gigantic purse for a hair tie. Her long hair was blocking any possibility of airflow to her neck. Of course, she never had a hair tie when she needed one. She opened the car door and paused, allowing some of the heat to escape. She tossed her bag on the passenger seat, climbed in, slipped out of her heels, and plunked them on the passenger side floorboard. The blazing sunbaked leather seat plastered her dress to her back. God, it’s hot. A solar flare was probably cooler than the interior of her aunt’s 1980s era Mercedes. 

Her bag had fallen open and the keys to the property, along with an unopened letter, were visible in the cave-like opening of her dark oversized purse. The key chain looked like some brass holdover from a vintage roadside motel, something from a Hitchcock movie perhaps.

River’s plan was to drive over, take a quick walk-through of the gallery and the house, then meet with the Realtor. She didn’t want to spend one more day in this humid, oven-baked small town than she had to. How did people live in a place like this? What had her aunt seen in Pine Cone? What had drawn her aunt to settle in here? River didn’t have a clue since she didn’t really know her aunt, except distantly from rare encounters at family gatherings when she was very young. There’d been some conflict between her father and her aunt that she’d never fully understood. And as a teen she’d been too self-involved to care. River had been shocked when she’d gotten the call from the attorney informing her that her aunt had left her not only her classic Mercedes sedan, but also a house with an adjoining art gallery.

The AC thankfully worked well, despite the car’s age. She switched the fan to high and reached for her phone. River began to scroll through messages as she tried to heed the twenty-five-mile an hour speed limit through town. She glanced around scoping out the quaint main street, lined on both sides by brick buildings from a bygone era.

She had to admit Pine Cone, Georgia, was not without charms. Granted, Main Street was only a few blocks long, but seemed to have a thriving retail environment. She spotted a cute café and bakery on the right and made a mental note to try it for breakfast. She slowed to weave around a tow truck double-parked in front. Just past the bakery was an antique store. River would definitely take a stroll through there. She had a serious soft spot for depression era dishware. She also noted a dress shop, a toy store, a diner, and at the end of Main, a classic hardware store.

No more than a block past the hardware store, the street transitioned to residential, stately Southern homes with ancient oaks and wide porches set back off the roadway. River leaned over for a better view when a plump squirrel darted into her path. She slammed on the breaks, dropping her phone. She waited for the animal to reach the curb, then accelerated as the squirrel scampered off. She reached down and felt around on the floorboard for her phone. She teased the phone closer with her fingertips so she could pick it up. But her line of sight dropped below the dash for an instant, and her foot pushed against the gas pedal as she stretched for it. When she righted herself, the back of a horse trailer and two sleek rumps filled her vision.

Adrenaline surged through her system, her heart pounded in her ears, her chest tightened. River white-knuckled the steering wheel and yanked a hard right at the last possible second to miss the trailer. The car lurched over the curb, jarring her insides. She managed to dodge a huge pine but took out several blooming azalea bushes as the car zoomed across the lush lawn of the small white-framed structure.

River’s brain processed the hand-painted sign identifying the little house as Connie’s Clip ’n Curl at the same moment a darling family of sun-faded fake plastic deer bounced across the hood. The antler of the papa deer was captured by the windshield wiper and temporarily blocked her vision. Momentum and the bouncy rough ride snapped the trapped antler and the deer slid away to reveal a second obstacle—the Clip ’n Curl itself—too close to swerve and miss.

The old Mercedes must have predated air bags because the only thing that deployed upon impact was River’s head against the steering wheel. The seat belt caught midway through her body’s forward motion so her forehead barely made contact with the steering wheel before the force of restraint from the belt caused her body to flail back against the seat. Her hair swirled about her face like a feathery wave, mimicking the recoil motion of her upper body.

“Fuck!” She held her palm against her throbbing forehead. She could feel a lump almost immediately along her right brow.

Excited female voices cut through the pain in River’s head. Women in various stages of beautification spilled out of the Clip ’n Curl. One woman was wearing something that looked like a shower cap, attached to a dangling hose. Another had some brilliant green paste smeared across her face, and two more had their hair up in giant curlers.

“Good Lord Almighty! I thought we was havin’ an earthquake!” A plump full-figured woman trotted down the front steps past a sisterhood of Clip ’n Curl clients beginning to gather on the porch and rushed to the car.

 

Chapter Two

River shoved the door open but didn’t get out. “I’m so sorry, I…I couldn’t stop in time.” River kept one hand over her aching eyebrow and pointed a shaky finger in the direction of the truck and trailer.

“Connie, is she hurt?” The driver of the truck strode toward them.

River squinted up at the tall, handsome woman. “I just hit my head on the steering wheel. No airbags.” River fumbled with the seat belt and twisted to get out of the car.

“Here, easy there. Are you all right?” The woman knelt next to the open door, blocking her exit from the vehicle.

River accepted the assistance in extricating herself, then leaned against the side of the car. “I dropped my phone and looked down for just a second to get it. When I looked up, all I saw were horses’…um…butts.”

“Well, there are a few of those around here.” She extended her hand again, this time as introduction. “I’m Dr. Trip Beaumont, owner of those particular horse butts. Let’s get you out of the sun.” Trip led River under a nearby leafy maple tree. “Connie, did you call Grace?”

The woman who’d been the first to approach the car was obviously the Connie portion of Connie’s Clip ’n Curl. She was a beautiful, full-figured woman, with cascading waves of blond hair and perfect makeup.

“No, Lord no, I just ran out here without thinkin’.” Connie turned to go make the call.

“Cops are on the way!” a woman wearing oversized purple curlers called out to them from the top step of the beauty salon before Connie even got to the door.

“Thank you, Lula May.” Connie turned back to River. “What’s your name, honey? Can I get you anything? Maybe some sweet tea?”

“I’m River…River Hemsworth, and I’m so sorry about crashing into your cute salon.”

“Now don’t you worry about that, sweetie, as long as no one got hurt, that’s all that matters.” Connie took River’s hand between hers and patted it.

A woman wearing a smock covered with dancing pink piglets descended the porch steps and ran her manicured lavender nails down Trip’s arm and then touched her face. “Trip, sugah, are you hurt?” River was a bit surprised by the woman’s openly flirtatious physical display.

“No, Shayla, I’m fine. My horse trailer didn’t actually get hit.”

River’s head was beginning to pound, and the blast of a siren seemed to pierce right into her brain as a black and white squad car barreled down the street and pulled into the driveway. A female officer climbed out, adjusting her utility belt and holster. She had a large clipboard under one arm. The officer was closer to River’s height, maybe five foot five or six. She was shapely, not slender, with shoulder-length, wavy auburn hair. River’s first thought was that she didn’t look like a cop. At least not the sort of beat cop she frequently saw in her New York City neighborhood.

“Is anyone hurt?” The officer looked around the crowd and then introduced herself to River. “I’m Sergeant Grace Booker. You okay, ma’am?”

River nodded.

“Had a bit of an accident I see.”

That was stating the obvious. “Yes, I’m afraid it was my fault.”

“Well, I assumed the salon didn’t pull out in front of you.” The corner of Grace’s mouth hinted at a smile.

Before River could think of a sarcastic retort, Connie jumped in. It was just as well. She probably shouldn’t make sarcastic comments to cops, even one as seemingly playful as Grace.

“Shayla, run fetch Miss River a glass of something cold to drink. There’s a pitcher of sweet tea in the icebox.” Connie shooed Shayla in the direction of the front door of her shop.

The shock of the crash was wearing off, and River felt a little sick. She propped against the sturdy maple. The temperature in the shade was only imperceptivity cooler than it had been in the sun, so maybe a cool drink would help.

“I’ll call one of my officers over to fill out an accident report while we wait for Clay.” Grace stepped away from the crowd and spoke into her walkie-talkie.

“Who’s Clay?” asked River.

There were already enough random concerned citizens on the scene, not including the slow-moving traffic along the road as locals rubbernecked to see what had happened. River felt on utter display, and not at her best.

“Clay Cahill drives the tow truck.” Trip regarded her with an expression that either said I’d like to take you to dinner or have you for dinner. River wasn’t completely sure which. She also made a mental note that Dr. Trip Beaumont had used the word the, as in singular. A one-tow-truck town. Great.

“Are you sure you don’t need an ambulance, Ms. Hemsworth? That goose egg on your forehead could lead to complications.” Trip regarded her with an expression of concern.

“I’m fine. Really.”

Grace asked River general questions, probably to distract her from the incident, as they waited. She seemed more attentive and concerned than any police officer River had ever encountered. River tried to remain focused and answer in a neutral tone, but became utterly distracted when a large truck eased onto the grass, pulled up behind her car, and the person she assumed was Clay stepped out. As Clay approached, River realized the androgynously attractive driver was a woman. She wasn’t sure who she’d expected to be behind the wheel of Pine Cone’s solitary tow truck, but it certainly wasn’t someone who looked like this.

Clay Cahill was tall, probably close to six feet. She was wearing faded classic Levi’s that hung low on her hips, with scuffed work boots and a white T-shirt that fit snug across her broad shoulders and leanly muscled well-tanned arms, but draped more loosely over her torso. Clay had short, unkempt dark hair, and when she stood next to River, she added dreamy brown eyes to Clay’s list of visual charms.

River was beginning to believe the bump to her head might have transported her to some twilight zone lesbian version of Steel Magnolias. Dr. Beaumont definitely gave off a gay vibe, and so did Grace, although that could just be the utility belt and sidearm tipping the scale. And now this incredibly hot tow truck driver with a brooding James Dean vibe was giving River a smoldering gaze.

Shayla returned with the tea, breaking the spell for a moment. River took a swig from the glass, wet from condensation as the cool beverage met the roasted summer air. As soon as she swallowed the sugary liquid, her throat began to close. She coughed.

There was the sort of sweet tea she’d had at the trendy southern cuisine café in Chelsea called the Whistle Stop. And then there was eating a bowl of refined white sugar with a spoon. This glass of tea was somewhere in the middle. It was so sweet she expected to pass out at any moment from diabetic shock.

“Now doesn’t that taste refreshing?” crooned Connie.

“Mmm.” All River could do was faux smile and nod as she pretended to take tiny sips.

“Thank you, Connie,” Grace said. “You’ve been real helpful. I’ll have my deputy come inside when she’s done here and get your statement and insurance information. You can get back to your customers in the meantime.” She motioned for the other bystanders to move away. “Nothing else to see here, folks.”

“Connie believes in having a little tea with her sugar,” Trip said, whispering as the woman being gently maligned hurried back into the shop. She set the only surviving member of the fake deer family—the buck with the broken antler—next to River and patted it on the back. “Have a seat. You look a little pale.”

River eyed the plastic statue skeptically, but was careful not to poke her good eye with the remaining antler as she sat. She did feel a bit faint. Maybe it was the glucose content of the sweet tea. Her eyes were drawn again to Clay Cahill who stood silently studying her with a look that was making her heart rate twitter like the wings of a butterfly.

“Clay, this is River Hemsworth. She’s having a bit of car trouble.” Grace looked up from her paperwork and pointed toward the crumpled Mercedes. “River, this is Clay. She’ll take care of you as soon as we finish the report.” She checked her watch. “Where the heck is my officer?”

“Clay can take care of her car,” Trip said, squatting in front of River and wrapping her fingers around River’s wrist. “I’ll be happy to escort River to her destination—just in case she has a delayed reaction to this terrible accident and needs medical attention. Your heart rate is a bit elevated.”

River shook her head and withdrew her wrist from the doctor’s grip and took another sip of the sugary tea. “I’m fine. Really. But I appreciate your help, Dr. Beaumont.”

Clay snorted.

“Trip might have playeddoctor with a few women around town,” Clay said, “But she’s actually our local veterinarian.”

River choked as she swallowed her mouthful of tea. She could blame it on the news that she was being examined by an animal doctor, but it was more likely Clay’s whiskey-smooth drawl that sent shivers down her spine. Clay had a thoughtfully sensitive air about her as she studied River, and she wondered if Clay’s sheer sex appeal caused an inordinately high number of incidents that required tow truck assistance. As she felt the heat of Clay’s gaze trace the outlines of her body, she presumed that was probably the case.

River stood, looking from Trip to Clay and then back to Trip. She smiled. “Thank you for your assistance, Trip, but I’m fine. I should go with Clay to make the necessary arrangements to have my car repaired.” 

Clay didn’t take her eyes off River as she pulled a bandanna from her back pocket and wiped her hands. It wasn’t really that they were dirty, but she needed something to do, some task. River was watching her, and it made her nervous for some reason. She’d given River an up-and-down look when she first arrived so it was probably her fault that River was staring back.

River was beautiful. She was wearing a tailored, sleeveless dress that hugged every curve, and she had a few. It wasn’t hard to imagine the yoga-fit, subtly curvaceous body under the dress. River had lively blue eyes, Clay might even describe them as bright, and long straight brown hair that just barely brushed her shoulders. She had a patrician elegance, despite the fact that she was barefoot. Clay tabled the question about shoes for later.

“Were you trying to make a quick getaway when the Clip ’n Curl cut you off?” Clay tipped her head in the direction of the car.

“Excuse me?”

“That’s Eve Gardner’s car.” Clay recognized the vintage Mercedes.

“Eve was my aunt.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, my condolences.” Clay regretted making the joke.

“Eve was a fine woman.” Trip cleared her throat. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“The best,” Grace added.

“Thank you.” It seemed obvious these three women knew her aunt better than she did. Exposed as an outsider, a twinge of uncertainty knotted in her stomach for a moment and then passed.

“Well, I need to get these horses home and out of that hot trailer. River, I look forward to meeting you again under better circumstances.” Trip offered a little salute to Grace and then turned and headed toward her truck.

“Catch you later, Trip.” Clay casually waved before turning her attention back to River. “Let’s get your things out of the car while we wait for the accident report.”

“Things?” River looked confused.

“Well, I assume at some point that dress came with shoes.”

River looked down. She seemed surprised to be barefoot.

“Yes, my shoes. I can’t drive in heels so I took them off.” She shook her head, smiling as if she’d amused herself. “I’ll collect them and get my purse. I also have a small bag in the trunk.”

Clay followed River to the open door of the car. She stood behind River with one hand on the doorframe and another on the roof as River bent over to retrieve her shoes from the far side of the car. It would have been easier to get them via the passenger side door, but River was probably still in a bit of shock and not thinking clearly. Clay wasn’t complaining; she was enjoying the view of the dress stretched tightly over River’s shapely ass.

The car had been in the sun this whole time, and Clay felt heat pulsing around her in waves from inside the car as she waited. River pulled back quickly and bumped her butt against Clay’s crotch. Clay hadn’t realized she was standing so close. She could easily imagine the salacious image they must’ve just presented to the crowd of onlookers from the Clip ’n Curl.

She quickly stepped back to give River room. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to crowd you.”

The thought of crowdingRiver was definitely appealing, tantalizing even, but not on the lawn surrounded by debris from a herd of maimed fake deer or an audience of overly curious women in curlers.

 

Chapter Three

Clay attached the Mercedes to tow cables while one of Grace’s officers spoke with River. Clay leaned against the truck cab in the shade. She studied River from a distance. Even though she’d retrieved her heels from the car, she still hadn’t put them on. She stood barefoot next to Grace’s official looking understudy, her shoes dangled loosely from her fingers. Clay hadn’t really gotten to know Pine Cone’s newest deputy, Jamie Grant, but from a distance, she was the picture of professionalism.

Clay placed River’s suitcase behind the cab, leaned against the truck, and watched Officer Grant talk with River. She wondered exactly how close River had been to her aunt. Clay hadn’t seen River at the funeral. In fact, most of those in attendance were locals, Eve’s chosen family as opposed to blood relations. Maybe there was some backstory Eve hadn’t shared. Clay had known Eve Gardner to be a generous but private person. Although as she searched her memory she did have a vague recollection that Eve had mentioned having a niece and a nephew from up north somewhere.

Clay watched Deputy Grant tuck her pen into her shirt pocket, then hand River a business card. She accepted the card with a tip of the deputy’s hat, then turned toward where Clay waited. Their gazes locked with an intensity that sucked the breath from Clay’s lungs. Time and motion slowed as a light breeze lifted wisps of River’s rich brown hair and her dress stretched across toned thighs with each easy, long stride. She was the picture of a barefoot runway model crossing the lush lawn.

Clay shifted her stance and looked away, then walked around the cab to open the door for River. Climbing in would require a bit of maneuvering to overcome some serious elevation.

“Use the running board to get in.” Clay offered her hand to River.

“I think I know how to climb into a truck. I didn’t hit my head that hard.”

“Sorry, no offense meant.”

River made an attempt without Clay’s assistance, but the step was a bit high so she dropped back to the grass, and on the second attempt, put her hand in Clay’s. Clay looked at their joined hands, surprised by the warm sensation. River hesitated, meeting Clay’s gaze for an instant, and then launched herself up into the truck. Clay walked around to the driver’s side, clenching and unclenching her hand to dispel the tingling sensation that shot up her arm as she held River’s hand in hers. That was weird. She shook it off and climbed into the seat with one powerful lunge from the running board.

“Are you staying at the B and B?” Clay put the truck in gear.

“How did you know?”

“There’s really only one decent place in town to stay.” Clay pulled away from the grassy lawn of the Clip ’n Curl and eased out onto the paved road.

“I’ll probably stay at my aunt’s place if this takes more than a couple of days, but in the meantime, I thought it’d be easier to stay at the B and B tonight.”

“Well, the car will likely take more than a couple of days.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” River was rummaging in her oversized handbag with a frown on her face. “I have a meeting with the Realtor tomorrow about selling the gallery.”

“You’re selling Miss Eve’s gallery? What, you don’t like art?” Clay glanced at River. The powerful glare River shot her from the other side of the bench seat sent warm tendrils through her gut.

“I love art.” River gave up finding whatever she’d been looking for and set her purse aside. “I own a gallery in New York.”

The warm tendrils crystallized into fingers of ice. Clay clenched the steering wheel and gritted her teeth to keep from blurting out some expletive under her breath. River owned an art gallery in New York. Of course she did. Look at her. Look at the way she was dressed, the air of elegant superiority hovering around her. Clay thought she’d left the cutthroat New York art world behind and now she had someone from it sitting right next to her. This was exactly why she’d come back to Pine Cone, to get away from people like River. People not to be trusted with anything as intimate or personal as your art. Clay had learned this lesson the hard way, and she wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.

“I’m sure the Realtor will be happy to help you unload the place.”

River regarded Clay, whose mood had shifted so fast she’d almost given River whiplash. Such a chill crept over from Clay that she could have sworn a snowdrift had just blown through the driver’s side window and piled onto the bench seat between them. She’d obviously said something that bothered Clay, but they’d hardly talked at all so she couldn’t imagine what it might have been.

“Did I say something wrong?” Beating around the bush wasn’t River’s style.

“No.”

“You just seem…upset.”

“I’m not.”

All evidence to the contrary.

Not more than a few minutes later, Clay eased off the road but didn’t pull into the small parking area adjacent to the B and B. When she engaged the truck’s parking brake, it made a loud wheezing sound.

“I’ll get your bag.” Clay opened the door without making eye contact.

River did her best to gracefully dismount from the high truck seat, then turned to take in the scene. The front of the quaint two-story house was adorned with a large wraparound porch. The exterior was pale yellow with forest green shutters and a neatly landscaped yard. It felt welcoming. Picturesque, that was the word River would have chosen to describe the B and B.

“I need your signature and phone number.” Clay held a clipboard out to River with one hand as she placed the rolling bag on the sidewalk with the other. “I’ll call when I have an estimate on repairs.”

“If it’s even worth repairing. I know it’s an older car.” She took the paperwork and wrote down her contact info and signed the form. She could have sworn they’d had a moment earlier. Some sort of connection. There’d been warmth in Clay’s eyes when they’d first spoken under the old maple. And a few minutes ago when Clay helped her into the truck, well, she’d felt a spark when they touched. And now Clay was acting as if she couldn’t get rid of River fast enough. She’d obviously misread the signals. Whatever. She wasn’t going to be in town long enough to start something anyway. Clay took the clipboard once she was finished.

“Thank you.” River tried for neutral, but she couldn’t help feeling just a tiny bit disappointed to be so easily dismissed.

“You’re welcome. Enjoy your stay.” Clay strode back to the truck and pulled away. She’d said the words, but River was pretty sure she hadn’t meant them. She lingered for a few minutes watching the tow truck shrink into the distance before she turned and walked up the steps to the broad shaded front porch.

The oak door creaked when she opened it. The foyer was basically a small open space bounded on one side by a staircase. Double doors led off in two directions from the main entryway. One door led to a sitting room with a fireplace, the other into a small dining area. A large antique desk backed up against the stairs, facing the front door. No one was around, and River considered ringing the bell, but she didn’t want to act like the impatient Northerner everyone was surely assuming she was. Was that why Clay had suddenly given her the cold shoulder? Was it because she’d said she was from New York?

Footsteps on the hardwood floor caught her attention.

“Hello there! I hope you haven’t been waiting long. I swear I just stepped away from the desk for a red-hot minute and here you are!” The woman extended her hand to River. “I’m Mary Jane, the manager. Everyone calls me MJ. You must be Ms. Hemsworth from New York.”

“Please, call me River. I hope I’m not checking in too early. I had a bit of car trouble so I’m here sooner than expected.”

MJ’s grip was firm, her gaze candid and playful. “Is that how you got that lump over your eye?”

River lightly touched the swollen spot with her fingertips. “Yes, does it look bad?” She hadn’t seen it in a mirror yet.

“It’s not bad. I’ll get you an ice pack for it, and then I bet you’ll hardly notice it by morning. It’s probably good that your room is all ready for you. You can put your feet up while you ice that noggin.” MJ shuffled some papers on the desktop and uncovered a key attached to a brass keychain in the shape of a pinecone. “Here it is. I’ll just show you to your room. It’s on the second floor. I hope that’s okay for you. Some people don’t like stairs, but you seem to be in quite good shape so I’m sure you won’t mind. Are you one of those yoga folks? You look like you do yoga.”

Welcome to small town America, where everyone likes to know everything about everybody. “No, I’m not really into yoga.”

“Well, you look real fit, that’s all I meant. If I was twenty years younger I might just try it myself. Get myself signed up with one of those sexy male instructors who look good in tight stretchy pants. I’m sure you know what I mean.”

River stifled a laugh. “I do know what you mean.” Of course, River was picturing her ex-girlfriend in tight yoga pants, not some sensitive thirtysomething guy with a man bun.

River followed a few steps behind. She could see that getting a chance to speak while MJ was talking might be a challenge. MJ was probably close to seventy, but could easily pass for fifty. She was petite with a slender build and hair that had probably been dark, but was now streaked with gray. Her eyes danced as she talked. River got the distinct impression that not much got past the feisty manager of the B and B.

 

Chapter Four

“That looks like Eve Gardner’s car.” Clay’s grandpa watched from the open garage bay door as she offloaded the crunched Mercedes. Jed Cahill was eighty-four going on sixty, or so he thought. He rarely acted his age, especially when an attractive woman was nearby. Ever since her grandmother’s passing, he’d had women of a certain mature age lining up to bring him casseroles and baked pies. He accepted every one of them with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.

“It is Miss Eve’s car.” The winch whined as the chain released slowly, allowing the car to roll backward. “It seems she left it to her niece who drove it right into the southeast corner of Connie’s salon.”

“The Clip ’n Curl?”

“That’s the one.”

“What’s her name? Did she get hurt?”

“Her name is River, and no, she’s fine.”

“River? That’s an odd name.” He cocked his head. “She must be pretty.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Someone gave her that name because it meant something to them. It just makes me think she’d be pretty to carry an unusual name like that.” He paused. “Is she?”

“Is she what?”

“Pretty.”

“I suppose, but I didn’t really notice.” Clay actually thought River might be the prettiest girl she’d ever seen. Just visualizing her made Clay’s heart all fluttery. And River was an unusual name, but somehow Clay thought it fit.

“I didn’t even know Eve had a niece. How the hell did she hit the Clip ’n Curl?”

“She swerved to avoid rear-ending Trip’s horse trailer.”

“Well, I’ll be.” He helped her reset the sling once the car was on the ground. “So, are you gonna ask her out?”

“Who?”

“River.”

“Why would I do that?” Clay was surprised he’d even suggest it. Although, he was very open-minded for a member of his generation. Maybe it had something to do with having such a close relationship with his lesbian granddaughter.

“Because she’s new in town, because she’s here to settle Miss Eve’s affairs.” He took a breath and leaned against the truck. “And just maybe she’d welcome a friendly shoulder to lean on.”

Clay shook her head. “Well, it’s not gonna be mine.”

“Why? I thought you said she was pretty.”

“I did.” She stopped fussing with the winch hooks and turned to face him. “I know you think all it takes to light a fire is a pretty face and a home-cooked meal, but I’m not like you.” She considered telling him that River owned a gallery in New York, but she didn’t want to rehash things right now with him. Another lecture about not giving upas an artist was the last thing she wanted to hear.

“Well, maybe you oughta be.” He followed her as she circled the car.

“Oughta be what?” She’d been distracted by old wounds and had lost the thread of what he was saying.

“You oughta be more like me. I know you got your heart broke by that gal in New York, but there’s lots of nice women here and I daresay a few of ’em wouldn’t mind taking care of you a little, if you’d allow it. Women like someone to take care of.”

She did notwant to be having a conversation about dating with her grandpa.

“Can we stop talking about this?”

“All right, all right…but it wouldn’t hurt you none to take an old man’s advice once in a while.”

“You’re not old.” Clay caught a glimpse of Bo in her peripheral vision. Bodean Mathis made white trash look good. He was the perfect excuse for a subject change. Clay leaned over and whispered to her grandpa. “I thought we discussed you letting him go.”

“I decided to give him a second chance. Everyone needs a second chance every now and then. You of all people should know that.”

Clay frowned. Her grandpa had probably given Bo eighteen chances in the three months he’d worked there. And every time her grandpa got close to cutting him loose he’d come up with some sad tall tale that tugged at her grandpa’s heartstrings.

Jed Cahill was a softie for hard-luck stories, case in point, he’d given Clay a job when she’d needed it. No questions asked. But that was different. Clay was family. She looked out for her grandpa. And she worried the list of second chances he was giving Bo had more to do with Bo’s grandmother than it did with Bo. The Widow Mathis was famous for her pies, and she bestowed one on Clay’s grandpa at least every other week to express her gratitude for giving Bo a job.

When they were in high school, Bo’s twin brother, Bradley, had climbed an eighty-foot pole and, for some unknown reason, grabbed a live power line. He’d fallen the eighty-feet to the ground and his still smoldering body had started a grass fire. Bradley died shortly after arriving at the hospital. Bo watched the whole horrible scene unfold and, according to his mama, had never been the same since. Clay wasn’t so sure that Bradley’s demise was the source of Bo’s darker side. She’d known Bo since first grade and he’d always been a troubled, angry kid.

It wasn’t simply the fact that Bo was incredibly lazy, and it took him three times as long as any normal person to do even the most mundane task. Clay flat-out didn’t like him. No, more than that. She didn’t trust him. Everything about Bo set off alarms for her, and the sooner she could convince her grandpa to let him go the better she’d sleep at night. She hadn’t been able to prove it yet, but it wouldn’t surprise her to find out he was skimming cash every time he supposedly rang up a customer. If she had any decent accounting skills, she’d likely have figured it out by now. But she didn’t. She could hardly balance her own bank account, much less sort out the books at the garage. Her grandpa needed a real bookkeeper. She simply needed to convince him that he did. It was no mystery where her stubborn streak came from.

“I’m gonna get out of the sun if you don’t need me.”

“Nah, I’ve got this.” Clay watched her grandpa amble toward the small office at the far end of the concrete building that housed three large retractable doors across the front.

She reset the winch. The dangling heavy hooks banged against the truck bed. When the clanging stopped, she heard a phone ringing. It wasn’t hers; her ringer was off. It sounded like it was coming from the cab of the truck. She climbed up on the running board and reached for a phone with a rose gold case, facedown on the bench seat.

“Hello?”

“Oh, um, this is River.” She paused. “I couldn’t find my phone.”

“I think you found it.”

“I thought it was lost in my room, I’ve been feeling a bit scattered since the accident, so anyway, I dialed the number hoping to locate it. I’m sorry to bother you with this, but I really need my phone.”

River did sound a tad bit fragile. Clay felt bad for giving her the brush-off earlier when she unceremoniously dropped her on the curb along with her rolling bag.

“I can bring it by for you as soon as I’m finished here. Would that work?”

“Yes, thank you so much.” River sounded relieved.

“It’s no problem.” Clay was trying her best to sound as if she meant it, even though more personal contact with River was probably not a good idea. River was completely her type and absolutely the last sort of person she should foster any attraction for.

“Thank you.” River hesitated. “I’m feeling a little out of my element, and now, without a car. I’m a bit stranded.”

Clay was surprised by River’s willingness to admit her vulnerability. That only made Clay more curious about this woman who’d literally crashed into her life. Curiosity would only lead to more complications.

“It’s really no problem. I’ll see you in a half hour or so.” Clay clicked off.

Clay looked down at the screen which had a daunting list of alerts on it, voice mails and texts. River was obviously a woman in demand or very popular, or both. Clay stowed the sleek iPhone in her pocket and waved Eddie, the head mechanic, over to assist with River’s crumpled car.