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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“Middle of a Memory” by Cole Swindell
The aroma of oil and exhaust fumes swirls in the air, mixing and mingling with the scent of metal baking in the strong summer sun. Even with the bays of the garage closed, the shop can’t escape the soaring temperatures. Every truck that’s brought in gives off waves of fiery heat for what seems like hours while we begin our work.
If you’ve ever worked under a vehicle that spent any amount of time kicking up rocks on the scorching Texas asphalt, then you know it’s about as close to feeling the heat of hell that one chick can take.
And I love every second of it.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been happiest when getting my hands dirty. Most of the girls I knew went to mudholes to find their dirty fun—not me. While they were in the passenger seats of their dads’ or brothers’ or boyfriends’ trucks, laughing and screaming as they bumped along through the holes, I was too busy climbing behind the wheel analyzing each and every move my truck would make—even before I could legally drive, which made my own brothers, Clay and Maverick, insane. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t get enough of it. I would envision ways to make the truck roar louder, kick up its spray of murky clay and water more powerfully, and take those backwoods trails with a supremacy that even the deepest rut couldn’t stop.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that while I was growing up, my father had owned the best auto shop around. It was also the only one around, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t the best. Davis Auto Works has been the place for custom auto needs since 1982.
And it’s been my haven for longer than I can remember.
“Q! You gotta second, doll?” Tank bellows from somewhere close to the 2017 Dodge Ram I’ve been working underneath for the last hour.
Taking a second, knowing he can’t see me, I close my eyes and take a deep pull of my special brand of calming air. The scent of motor oil, chassis grease, and brake dust trickles through my system and blankets my frazzled nerves instantly.
“What’s shakin’, cowboy?” I ask with a sigh, pulling myself to my feet. My hands go to the sides of my coveralls to wipe them clean out of habit before I realize I pulled them down after lunch to try and cool off. “Damn,” I mutter, peering at the black handprints now adorning my faded denim. “I liked these jeans, too.”
“Nothing a little elbow grease can’t handle, darlin’.”
I look up . . . and up . . . and up, finally meeting the dirt-brown eyes of Miles “Tank” Miller. The man is huge—hence the nickname—and, bless his heart, dumber than a box of rocks. He’s a handsome devil, don’t get me wrong, but even if he wasn’t a complete idiot when it comes to anything other than motors, I wouldn’t be interested.
I don’t date. Ever.
“What do you need, Tank? I need to get this lift finished before five so I’m not stuck here all dang night.”
“Got a real shitter comin’ in. Man said he wanted every whistle and toot out there. I ain’t sure what that meant though, seein’ as he said it ain’t even runnin’. Not sure you can put a whistle and toot on a heap of broken metal.”
It takes every ounce of sweet southern darlin’ I have deep in my soul not to snap at Tank and tell him I can barely understand his broken English, but my brothers didn’t raise a rude little bitch.
“Tank, sweetheart, can you be a little more clear for me?” I roll to the tips of my boots and reach up to pat his beard-covered cheek.
He looks down, blinks a few times, and shrugs one meaty shoulder. “Naw.”
Patience, Quinn. Patience. “Did you take his number?”
His eyes crinkle as his brow pulls into a frown. “Reckon I might have.”
“How about you finish up fine-tuning the suspension system on the Ram for me? I was almost done so there isn’t much left, just finishing up with the sway bar. I’ll go look for that number. How’s that sound?”
“Sure thing, Q. You takin’ this baby up nice and high. Chester handlin’ the engine on this bad boy?”
I nod, but don’t bother answering him since he’s already dropped down to disappear under the truck. I walk over to the sink in the corner and wash up with some GOJO. I might love getting my hands dirty working with trucks, but I still enjoy looking like a girl—which means I’m anal about washing often to avoid the perpetual black stains most mechanics have on their hands.
Stepping into the back office, I cringe when I see the mess on my desk. Normally, it’s kept in the state of what I lovingly refer to as organized chaos, but all it took was one visit from our resident Tank and it looks like an EF5 tornado blew through.
“Jesus Jones,” I mutter, shoulders dropping in frustration. “How the hell am I supposed to find something in this mess?”
“My guess would be clean it up.” A familiar sardonic voice laughs from behind me.
“I do clean! Which you know damn well!” Fake annoyance laces my words as I spin around, smiling as I face my eldest brother.
“Let me guess: Tank?” The corner of his mouth tips up as he smirks at me. I can’t see his eyes because of the shadow of his cowboy hat, but I imagine the deep hunter green is brighter than usual with a knowing sense of mirth.
“The one and only,” I drone.
“I just stopped in to handle payroll. I didn’t have everything I needed at the ranch, but I can hang around if you need somethin’.”
“Now, Clayton Davis, you keep that up and I might think you enjoy tinkerin’ around the garage,” I jest, knowing damn well Clay hates working in the shop.
He takes off his hat, placing it on top of the filing cabinet open-side up as any good Texan would, running one hand through his thick black hair. “Funny, Quinny.”
“I try, big brother. I know you’ve got your hands full at the ranch, so don’t worry your pretty little head over things here. I’ve got everything under control.”
“I know you do, Q. You could run this place hog-tied and blindfolded. But everything is handled at the ranch. Drew’s been one step ahead of me all damn week. It’s drivin’ me insane.”
I laugh at the mention of the ranch’s foreman, Drew Braden. He’s the only man I know who works harder than Clay. He keeps that ranch running with so much pride you would think it was his own family’s land—but that’s just the type of man he is. He always does say you can tell the measure of a man by how hard he works. He’s been around since well before my father died last year, and he’s always treated all of us like his children.
“Still workin’ like crazy?”
“Ever since Jill told him she was pregnant. You would think at his age he would know how to wrap his shit up, but I have a feelin’ Jill knew exactly what she was doin’.”
“You make forty-eight sound ancient, Clay.” I giggle, pushing some of the papers around, hoping to find some sort of message regarding the call Tank took.
“Shit, Q, I’d be freakin’ out too if I was going to be a dad—again—years after my grown kids had already left the house. He’s old enough to be my dad.”
I roll my eyes. “I think that’s a stretch, cowboy.”
“He had Missy when he was fifteen, Q. And I graduated high school with Missy. Not exaggerating in the least, darlin’.”
“Well, even so, that’s what happens when you’re pushing fifty and get yourself a new bride who probably graduated with your daughter, too.”
Clay starts grumbling under his breath about beauty queens, big hair, and gold diggers. Not that I would call Jill a gold digger, but rumor around Pine Oak has it that she married Drew for his money. The man might work at the Davis ranch by choice, but he’s never had to work a day in his life, he’s that loaded. His grandfather’s grandfather struck it big in the oil fields years ago, and to this day the Braden family is rolling in money from the investment. Not that Drew acts like it; the man still drives the same truck he had when he was in high school.
Finally spying Tank’s near-illegible chicken scratch, I grab the torn scrap of paper and move to sink my tired body into my office chair. Clay heads toward his desk in the corner—much neater than my own—right as I pick up the receiver to dial what I hope are the correct numbers that Tank wrote down.
Then I see the name.
And everything around me washes away, my vision going foggy until memories long since banished start slamming into my head. They’re so crystal clear that I feel like I’m the same love-drunk eighteen-year-old all over again.
Nine Years Ago—Beginning of the Summer
“Damn,” a husky voice grits out. “It’s just not right how hot you look tinkerin’ around my truck, darlin’.”
I look up from the oil cap I just finished tightening and smile, wide and toothily, before giving him a wink. “Is that why you asked me to change your oil when we both know you’re more than capable? You’re lucky—I don’t normally make house calls.”
He reaches up, the material of his T-shirt lifting from his Wranglers, showing off the toned, rock-hard abs and that mouthwatering V at his hips. I let out a squeak when I feel the weight of the hood lift off my hand, looking up to see him gripping it, returning my wink with a smoldering gaze of his own.
“Busted,” he whispers, bending down to press his full, smooth lips against mine. The kiss is brief, but the butterflies that take up residence in my stomach whenever he’s around pick up their fluttering until I feel like they might fly right out of my mouth.
I move awkwardly out of the way while he slams down the hood on his brand-new Chevy. I busy myself with washing up, making sure to clean my hands thoroughly until not a speck of grease is left on them, even if my pretty manicure is blown to hell. The last thing I hope Tate Montgomery is thinking about is the chipped red polish adorning my nails. His grandparents are out of town at a craft show near Austin and my brothers think I’m at my best friend Leighton’s tonight.
We’ve got more important things to do than hold hands.
Tonight, I hope and pray that Tate makes good on all the promises our heated make-out sessions have been hinting at. I’m ready to give myself to him, pretty red bow intact.
“You hot, darlin’? I didn’t think it was that bad since the sun went down, but we can head on in if you want.” He points toward his grandparents’ house and all I can do is nod. I can see the questions in his eyes, but he doesn’t voice them as we make our way inside. “Paw said Gram left a fresh batch of chicken and dumplin’s if you’re hungry.”
He’s a few steps ahead—his back now facing me—when he speaks, so I take the time to take a deep fortifying breath before he turns back around. The last damn thing I want is chicken and dumplin’s, but how do you tell your kinda-sorta-maybe boyfriend that you would rather he eat you than dumplin’s?
“I’m good,” I whisper, my heartbeat roaring in my ears. God, Quinn Everly Davis, cowgirl up and take the bull by the horns . . . or the man by the balls, same thing.
“Darlin’?” he questions, heat pooling in his denim-colored eyes.
“Please,” I croak, the little badass that usually lives inside me long gone, made weak with hunger that has nothing to do with golden, fried buttermilk biscuits. “Please, Tate. We’ve been scratchin’ this itch for two years now, and every summer you say not yet. Don’t make this another summer where you leave without showing me how much you love me.”
“Quinn.” He sighs, taking off his white Stetson and running a hand through his chocolate waves. “Baby, you know I love you, but this isn’t just any other summer. I’m not goin’ back home when I leave this time. We’re both about to start the next chapter of our lives—you takin’ over the auto shop and me startin’ at Emory. Georgia is a long way away, and we both know we’ve never tried long distance for a reason. Not sure that’s somethin’ I can stomach, finally gettin’ to have you completely, only to lose you.”
His words are all it takes for my temper to snap. “We’ve never tried the long-distance thing because of you, Tate. Don’t put that bullshit on me.”
“Not because I didn’t want to, and you know it,” he growls in return. “Fuck, Quinn, you don’t think I’ve wanted to make you my girl since the first summer my parents shipped me off to Gram and Paw’s? You know damn well I have, but it isn’t that easy.”
“Because I’m not some high-society princess?”
He stomps the few feet between us and curls his fingers around the back of my neck with a touch that is gentle but unmistakably dominant. His thumbs, resting at my chin, give me a gentle push of encouragement to look up at him. I don’t even bother fighting him. My head moves, eyes traveling the strong planes and sharp features of his handsome face until I meet his pleading gaze.
“You know I don’t give two shits about what they think, Quinn, but until I finish medical school they’ve got more pull over me than I wish they did.”
I sigh, knowing he’s right. The Montgomery family holds the purse strings to Tate’s future, and that’s a hell of a bind. He’s had his hopes set on going to an expensive out-of-state school and we both know he wouldn’t be able to afford it without their help. I know how much it means to him too—going to Emory University—because it’s where his paw attended, so as much as I hate accepting him leaving for a school that far away, I’ll support that dream.
The silence ticks on while we hold each other’s gaze. I pray that he can see the desperation my love for him makes me feel. The need to get as close as two people physically can is almost unbearable. What I feel—this fire burning deep in my belly—only becomes more powerful the longer I deny what I crave.
He must see something written in the silence around us because in that moment, the deep, dark blue of his irises swirl and light up with understanding. And unmistakable lust.
“You sure about this, Grease?” he questions on a whisper, lips quirking with his nickname for me. He’s used it since the first day we met, when I was covered in engine grease.
“I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life, Starch,” I answer, the butterflies picking back up to full speed when his smirk grows into a panty-melting smile at the use of my nickname for him—a standing joke about the high-society world he comes from back home in Dallas.
“Nothing in this world could make me stop lovin’ you,” he murmurs, his head moving down, closer to me, and before I can reply, his mouth captures mine in a deep kiss. I feel him all the way to my bones with this kiss. He’s branding himself into my very soul, and I know without a shadow of doubt I will always feel him there.
There isn’t any more talking after that. Moans, grunts, and the sound of bare skin brushing against bare skin, tentatively at first and then more urgently as we move together, are the only things that fill the silence around us. Through the pain of losing my virginity to the only boy I’ve ever loved, I bask in the beauty of this moment we’ve been building toward for years, knowing that my life will never be the same. Our future might not be set in stone, but we’ve come this far with only summers together since we were middle-school age. I have no doubt that we have what it takes to make it through him starting his medical school career and beyond. We’re not little kids anymore, confused about how we feel. We’re on the cusp of adulthood, old enough to understand our hearts are connected so powerfully, you can almost feel them nestling close together, beating as one.
I gasp when the memory clears, feeling my cheeks wet as I focus back on the paper in my hand. I pray that the name I read wasn’t his, but even with the shaking of my hand making the paper vibrate softly, I know it’s just wishful thinking.
The Ghost of Heartbreak Past apparently is back in Pine Oak.