Mountain of Fire
When one brother accuses another brother of being too single...
HEART LAKE #10
It was one of those cars that was too beautiful for its own good. Jace Countryman had smelled trouble on it the moment his youngest brother had driven it into the bay. Still did.
He leaned over the butter-gold hood of the Toyota 2000GT, anxious to finish the tune-up he’d promised to give it. The owner was scheduled to show up in less than an hour to pick it up. Good riddance! He ran a clean business and planned to keep it that way.
He eyed the main engine, a 3M DOHC 2.0 liter inline six, knowing the car was probably being used for street racing. Not that he had anything against street racing, per se. What he objected to was the rowdy bunch of drivers it tended to attract — folks with a Santa-sized list of speeding citations and way too many stolen car parts.
Despite his distaste for what the car's driver most likely did for a living, Jace couldn’t hold back his excitement over getting to put his hands on such a treasure. Most of the vehicles he serviced were anything but rare — dented pickup trucks, rusty little sedans, and a whole lot of clunkers. It sort of came with the territory. Living on the south side of Heart Lake put the auto body shop he ran with his two brothers right smack in the middle of the seasonal workers population in town. Plus, their shop was located only a quarter mile away from the gates of a poverty-stricken Comanche reservation.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs leading down from the apartment over the shop. Moments later, Jasper joined him under the hood of the car. His tousled hair fell forward, half-covering the scar riding his cheekbone.
Though it was a few weeks old and fast fading to a pale slash of pink, Jasper had yet to tell his siblings where he’d gotten it. He lifted his sleepy gaze to meet Jace’s. “Is it going to be ready in time?”
“In time for what?” Jace straightened, not bothering to hide his irritation. He resented the fact that his youngest brother had brought in a last-minute job like this, then failed to wake up in time to help out. It looked like he’d just rolled out of bed.
Jasper glanced at his watch, suddenly looking a lot less sleepy. “She needs to pick it up in twenty minutes. Is that going to be a problem?”
“She?” Jace glared at him. “Last night you called the owner a he and said we had until nine to finish up.” Jace couldn’t have cared less what the owner’s gender was. He was simply pointing out his brother’s inconsistencies.
Jasper offered him a shrug, then winced from the effort. “Yeah, well, there’s been a change of plans.”
“Nice of you to let me know.” Jace stomped across the shop to return his tools to the rack against the wall. “Would it kill you to put on a shirt before she arrives?”
“It might,” Jasper groaned, arching his back a little and pressing a hand to his right side. “Think I have a few busted ribs.”
Jace ran a hand through his hair, pushing the brown, shoulder-length locks away from his face. “Remind me again why you thought it was smart to hop on a bull. You have zero experience on the rodeo circuit.”
“Not anymore,” Jasper reminded in a lofty voice. “In case you forgot, I stayed on eight point seven seconds and won the buckle.” His grin widened. “And the cash pot.”
“And now you can’t lift your arms or take a deep breath,” Jace pointed out. “That’s not sustainable, Jasper, and you know it. Bull riding certainly wasn’t what Ella meant when she begged you to consider a career change.”
Ella was the youngest of the four siblings and the only one of them who was married. After losing her first husband in an off-roading accident, she’d been imploring Jasper ever since to reconsider his choice of vocations.
“I’ll figure it out.” Jasper didn’t sound too worried. He yawned and winced again. “Not sure why you have to be such a stick in the mud about everything. It’s not like I don’t pull my weight around here.” He did, too, despite his long absences from the shop, sometimes months at a time. His race earnings were the sole reason the brothers had been able to pay off their fifteen-year construction loan a decade early. Because of him, they were now turning a healthy profit.
“I’m not a stick in the mud.” Jace pounced on the one thing he could continue arguing about.
“Yes, you are,” Jasper protested. “Always have been. Always will be. Just own it already.”
“If I’m a little crabby sometimes,” Jace conceded in a tight voice, “it’s because I had to finish raising you jokers.” Their parents had died when Jace was a few days shy of eighteen. To this day, he wasn’t sure how he’d kept his three younger siblings out of foster care, but he had. It had required working three jobs and skipping any chance of attending college. He’d done it gladly and harbored no regrets. He did, however, harbor a little resentment on mornings like these.
“Can’t argue your reasons for being crabby, but at least you agree that you are crabby.” Jasper smirked. “Wasn’t sure if you even realized it.”
“Whatever.” Jace shook his head as he lowered the hood of the car and snapped it into place. “I’m still Jacob’s favorite uncle.” Jacob was Ella’s son.
“Dude, he’s six-years-old. He doesn’t know any better.”
“He’s about to turn seven.” Jace doubted Jasper was tracking the kid’s birthday.
“Are you even listening to yourself?” Jasper gave him an incredulous look. “You so need to get out more. And a girlfriend. You most definitely need a girlfriend.”
Though Jace kept his expression schooled, it was a sore topic with him. Raising his siblings hadn’t left much time for a social life. Neither had owning and operating an auto body shop. It had taken years to get the business off the ground.
Before he could formulate a worthy comeback, however, the bell on the front door jingled inside the adjoining office.
“Hello?” a female voice called. “Is anyone there?”
“That’s her,” Jasper said excitedly, taking a step toward the office.
Jace stopped him with a finger pointing toward the stairs. “Shirt,” he repeated firmly.
“Fine.” Rolling his eyes, Jasper did a one-eighty and headed toward the stairs. “In case you’re wondering, she’s as desperately single as you are, so here’s your chance.”
Desperate, eh? Jace slapped a hand in the air. “Just…go get dressed,” he growled. His dating life, or lack thereof, was none of his brother’s business. And it certainly had nothing to do with the customer waiting for him in the office.
Stalking across the auto bay, he pushed the office door open, fully expecting to find himself facing a typical drag street gal in cutoff shorts and a shirt that revealed more skin than it covered.
Instead, he nearly plowed into the long-haired beauty who’d been reaching for the door handle. She hopped a few steps back, making her sleek ponytail bounce against the shoulder it was draped over.
Jace was afraid it was rude, but he couldn’t help giving her jean-clad limbs an appreciative once-over. He’d always preferred it when a woman left something to a guy’s imagination. Unless he was mistaken, she shared his Comanche blood. He liked that, too. He didn’t like the fact that it probably meant she lived on the rez down the street. It was a place he avoided like the plague.
Yanking his gaze back to hers, he thrust out a hand. “I’m Jace Countryman, and you are?”
“Alina Paddock. Your blind date.” Her voice was mocking as she clasped his hand in a surprisingly firm handshake. She was only an inch or two shorter than him.
He nearly choked as he met her innocent, slate-gray eyes that were only a few shades darker than her silk shirt. “My what?” He hoped her last name didn’t mean she was related to Mato Paddock. He was a pistol-toting loudmouth who rarely left the rez these days — probably because of the number of times he’d been pulled over for drag racing. It was a miracle he still had a license.
Alina’s laugh made Jace want to smile despite her shocking announcement. “Oh, come on!” She made a face at him. “Don’t tell me Jasper didn’t stress my singleness to you as forcefully as he stressed your singleness to me.”
“I believe his exact words were desperately single,” he informed her dryly as he stepped behind the cash register to ring up her bill. Jasper’s shirtless state suddenly made more sense. He’d known all along that Jace would make him go put more clothes on.
Leaving me alone with you. The fact that Jace was actually enjoying his youngest brother’s interference in his life was a testament to just how lonely he was.
“Is that a yes?” As she faced the counter, Alina slapped her hands down on a waistline that was neither thick nor thin. It was something in between that Jace decided on the spot was perfect.
His eyebrows flew upward. “You want to go on a date?” he repeated carefully. He tapped a finger against his chest. “With me?” Though he’d been secretly praying for the right woman to cross his path, he was thirty-five, for crying out loud! Whereas Alina Paddock looked, well…younger. A lot younger — by ten years or more.
“I do, actually.” Her dark eyelashes fluttered a few times, the only telltale sign of nervousness he could pick up on. “Listen. I’m new in town, and my cousin has been pushing me nonstop to date one of his hotheaded friends.” She shuddered. “Uh…no thank you!”
A streak of sympathy shot through Jace. “I take it we’re discussing Mato Paddock?” The cash register did its thing and popped out a receipt. He ripped it off the dispenser and laid it on the counter for her to sign.
“We are.” She cocked her head speculatively at him as she reached for one of the pens in the plastic cup beside the cash register. “If you’re willing to help me out, we’d need to be seen around town together. Maybe at a few of the more crowded places…” she pursed her lips as she signed her name with a flourish, “like the Longhorn Grill on the rez and the Blue Brew in Heart Lake.” The Blue Brew was a coffee haven and café down the street from Heart Lake High School in the downtown area.
“It depends.” He narrowed his gaze at her.
“On?” Her eyes widened in challenge as she laid the pen down and slid the receipt across the counter in his direction.
He tried to pick it up, but she kept her hand on it, forcing him to hold her gaze squarely.
“On why you’re in town and how long you plan to stay.” As fascinating as she was, he had no interest in getting tangled up with any relative of Mato Paddock’s without first being clear about what he was getting himself into.
Her fingertips tapped the receipt restlessly, brushing his by accident. Her cheeks turned a delightful shade of pink as she curled them back. “Long enough to find out if there’s any truth to the rumor about a racetrack opening in Heart Lake.”
“Does that mean you race cars?” It was the first he was hearing about the possibility of a new racetrack. Come to think of it, though, it would explain why Jasper had remained in town as long as he had after Ella’s wedding ceremony. In a truly wonderful upward twist of fate, she was now married to the tribal chief on the rez.
“If I say yes, is this conversation over?” She caught her lower lip between her teeth. “Jasper made it pretty clear that you don’t approve of him racing.”
Jace was surprised to note a flash of genuine stress cross her lovely, fine-boned features. It was followed by a burst of unexpected protectiveness in him.
“Not necessarily.” He edged his fingers forward on the receipt to tangle with hers again.
She caught her breath and waited for him to continue.
He studied the way her delicate, pink-tipped fingernails looked against his longer, more callused ones and decided he liked how they looked together.
Though her problems didn’t need to become his problems, there was something about her flat-out honesty that appealed to him. She wasn’t pretending to be in love with him or his grease-stained jeans. In fact, she didn’t seem to be looking for anything other than his help in shielding her from the unwanted attention of her cousin’s friend.
“If you agree to this, I’ll let you drive my car,” she coaxed in a soft voice.
Jace already had her keys in hand. He’d been preparing to slap them down on the counter. He felt his lips twitch. “You drive a hard bargain, lady.”
She shook her head at him, chuckling helplessly. “I always play to win, Jace Countryman. If that’s something that scares you…” She started to draw her hand away from his.
“It doesn’t,” he said quickly. “How does dinner at the Longhorn Grill sound? Tonight. Six o’clock.”
“It sounds like you have a date.” Looking relieved, she tugged on the receipt again.
He stopped her. Sliding it out from beneath her hand, he deliberately tore it in two. “It’s on the house.”
“That wasn’t part of the deal, Jace.” She made a swipe for the two strips of paper. “I always pay my own way.”
“Tough. You’ll get over it.” He ripped them a few more times and tossed the tiny squares into the wastebasket beneath the cabinet. “One of the perks of dating a grease monkey.”
“Jace!” Her lips parted in amazement.
“When and where should I come by to pick you up for dinner?”
She drew a deep breath. “How about I come back here at five-thirty, and you can drive us there in my car?”
“Deal.” He dangled her keys in the air.
When she accepted them, their fingers brushed again. Something passed between them. Something intangible that he couldn’t have described in a million years.
I have a girlfriend.
It was a little mindboggling, considering who she was and what she did for a living. Even so, he was really looking forward to five-thirty.