Her brother warned her against guys like me...


Ryan's her brother's best friend, and his son, Corey, broke into her shop. She has no reason to get close to Ryan. Her brother warned her against guys like him. Too bad she didn't listen.


Chapter 2

Ryan

We packed up the donation boxes and bags into the back of Jake’s truck, and I dropped them off at the local donation center.

Visiting Nana’s always held a certain nostalgia. It had become a second home to me over the years. An escape from the expectations of my parents.


On the way to the garage, Jake thrummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “What do you think’s going on?”


I shrugged. “She’s getting older, taking stock of her life. She wants things taken care of before she dies.”


Jake winced at my bluntness.


“Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest—”


He waved me off. “It’s okay. You’re probably right.”


Jake wasn’t one for talking about his feelings or emotions. He was quiet for a few seconds before he glanced over at me. “I’m worried about Hailey.”


Since their father had never been in the picture, and their mother was in and out, Jake had been the unofficial head of the family. He’d taken care of Hailey and Nana. I respected the hell out of him for that. I liked to think I would have been the same if I had a younger sister to protect.


When I lived in Annapolis before, I never thought of Hailey as anything other than Jake’s little sister because she was six years younger than me. But since I’d returned, I’d noticed everything about her. For the first time, I wanted to know more about her. “How so?”

“She doesn’t want anything to change. She wants Nana to stay in that house forever. I suspect she’d move in with her if she needed help.”


I nodded, remembering how upset she’d been when Nana talked about cleaning out things and potentially moving. “Is that what Nana wants, though?”


“Who knows?” He glanced over at me, then back to the road. “No one can tell that woman what to do. She has a mind of her own.”


When we’d gotten into trouble as kids, she had no problem speaking her mind. She wanted better for us.


Jake’s expression was pensive. “I just worry that Nana moving out and selling the house will be too much for Hailey. She doesn’t like change.”


I leaned my head back on the seat rest. “Who can blame her?”


Jake cleared his throat, and I sensed that whatever he was going to say was important. “Before Mom left us with Nana, we moved around constantly. We followed whatever whim she had. So, you’d think we would have been happy to be in one place when she left us at Nana’s, but instead, we felt abandoned.”


“I get that.” I studied Jake’s face, taking in every wrinkle in his expression and dip in his voice. He rarely spoke about this stuff.


“It was worse for Hailey. She was only six. She didn’t understand why her mother would leave her. At first, she waited at the window for her to come back. I think that broke Nana’s heart, even though she was tough with her, telling her she needed to pretend she wasn’t coming back.”


“That’s harsh.” But I understand why she did that. Hope was a dangerous thing when it was misplaced.


“It was the only way she could get Hailey away from that damn window. She’d sit on the ledge all day long. Wouldn’t eat or play.”


I soaked up every detail. I’d heard bits and pieces, but I never paid close attention.

“Nana was blunt with her. She said our mom left us here so we’d be able to go to one school, have consistency, and wouldn’t have to up and move every few months.”

“Was that true?”


Jake looked over at me with a rueful expression. “I honestly don’t know. I suspect Nana was sugarcoating Mom’s intentions. I think Mom only cared about herself and whatever she wanted. Nana was probably the one who convinced Mom to leave us with her.”

“You were probably better off.”


“Hailey’s pain was all-consuming. We sensed her despair, her loss, and I don’t think she ever got over it. Maybe this is Nana’s way of forcing her to deal with things. Get over it and move on.”


“Who says we have to deal with stuff? I’d rather just go forward.” That had been my motto since my father told me I was a disappointment to him. It started with refusing to play sports that he loved. I opted for technical classes in high school instead of college-preparatory ones, and then it ended with him telling me I was on my own.


“You’ll do better with Corey,” Jake said, bringing me out of my musings.


I chuckled without any humor. “I haven’t done a bang-up job so far.”


“What were you going to do, follow her around the country forever? It was time for you to do your own thing and open the garage. You can make a better life for Corey. If it’s successful, and she challenges custody, hopefully, the judge will see you as the steady one.”


“I don’t know about that.” We’d always had plans to open a garage one day. Getting Tiffany pregnant at eighteen delayed things. I wasn’t sure I’d ever do it until Jake convinced me to come back home.


Tiffany moved around to different boyfriends and jobs like they were interchangeable. I was grateful she’d sent Corey to live with me, even if it was more challenging than I initially thought. “Corey screwed up on my watch.”


“Maybe he’s learned his lesson.”


I’d hoped settling in Annapolis was my chance to make a real home for me and Corey.

“You’re not worried about him working with Hailey?” It was the one thing we hadn’t discussed.


Jake slowly shook his head. “I’m not happy about it, but I don’t think he’d hurt her.”

“Me either.” I infused as much confidence as I could into those two words. It was my responsibility to ensure nothing happened to her.


“Just keep an eye on them, okay? If my baby sister gets hurt—”


“I’ll make sure she’s safe.” It meant I’d be spending more time with her. The thought held more appeal than it had when we were kids. She was no longer my best friend’s annoying little sister. She was all grown-up with the body to back it up.


I blinked away the image of her kneeling on the floor in a white tank top that showed off her cleavage and cut-off jeans that left her long, tan legs on display. When she’d looked up at me, all I could think about was her lips wrapped around my cock.


“You think your parents will want to be more involved?” Jake asked carefully.


“Now that he has a criminal record?” He didn’t, but my parents wouldn’t see it that way. An arrest, a charge, even if it was as a juvenile, was enough to condemn him in their mind. “I’m sure they’ll see him as an extension of me. Another fucked-up kid to be embarrassed by.”


I’d hoped for more for Corey. I wanted to support him in whatever he wanted to do, not making my love conditional on his choices, but I hadn’t expected this. That he’d be a troublemaker like I was. Where had I gone wrong?


Jake glanced over at me, then back to the road. “I don’t know. It might be good for you both to mend fences with your parents.”


“Have you lost your mind?” My dad told me when I left home, I wasn’t welcome back unless I wanted to go to college.


Jake shrugged. “I’m just saying, things change. People change.”


“My parents haven’t.” I reached out to them when Tiffany got pregnant, and it only meant more disappointment.


I cringed, remembering their reaction. All they cared about was that we’d barely graduated high school before I’d gotten a girl pregnant. They weren’t interested in meeting their grandchild. They still pushed for me to go to college, but I needed to get a job to support her and the baby. It didn’t make sense to wait four years or make her support me while I went to school. My parents couldn’t understand that. Tiffany and the baby were my responsibility.


Jake pulled into the garage’s lot. “It’s been twelve years. Just promise me you’ll keep an open mind.”


“If they want to see Corey, I’ll think about it.” It was so unlikely, I wasn’t worried.

As I got out of Jake’s truck, a surge of pride hit my chest. All of this was ours. The remodeled garage with our name on the top, Harbor Garage & Service Repair Center. I finally owned something I was proud of, even if my parents didn’t think it was a worthy pursuit. No matter what they said, I was a business owner. It had to be a success for Jake, me, and Corey. There was a lot riding on it.


Jake’s younger sister was a distraction I didn’t need. Jake warned me off her when we were teenagers. It hadn’t mattered much back then, but now, I didn’t want to do anything to hurt our friendship or business relationship. The fact that Corey was the one who broke into his sister’s store was already a source of tension between us. The last thing I needed was to be thinking of his sister as anything other than my sister, too.

Besides, he wanted someone better for her, and I didn’t blame him. Other than the garage and Corey, I didn’t have much to show for my life.


“You heading out?” Jake tipped his head toward my motorcycle parked under the roof of the garage.


“Corey has practice, and then the coaches were going to show the kids around the weight room, so I can stick around, and get a head start on what parts we’ll need for the next few weeks.”


Jake nodded and led the way to the door, unlocked it, and stepped inside. We were closed on Sundays, but we worked most days.


We had separate offices, but they were small. I booted up my computer, then brewed some coffee in our tiny kitchen area. Eventually, we’d get a receptionist to greet customers and make appointments, but we couldn’t justify it yet. So, I made coffee each morning and made sure we had the parts and supplies we needed to get through each week.


Jake managed the financial side, keeping the books and handling the schedule.

I didn’t mind being hands on. I liked knowing what parts we had in stock and how long it would be until we could get more. I felt knowledgeable and competent when I spoke with a customer. It made me feel good.


Each step pushed me further away from my parents’ beliefs that I wouldn’t amount to anything. I didn’t have a degree, but I’d make the garage something worthy of people’s respect, even if I’d never get theirs.


After a few hours, I closed my computer, rubbing my eyes. I cleaned the coffee mug in the sink and then paused at Jake’s doorway, where he held his head in his hand.


“Everything okay?”


“Yeah, I was just looking at the cash flow projections.”


Jake was stressed and worried we wouldn’t break even soon, much less make a profit.

Unease settled in my stomach. “It’s good to know what’s going on, but staring at the numbers doesn’t change anything.”


He looked up at me. “What if we don’t make it?”



That question sucked the air out of my lungs. I hated to think about the possibility. “But what if we do?”


The goal was to add more services as we grew. Jake’s specialty was restoring old vehicles and fancy bodywork. He was insistent there was a market for both in historic Annapolis, and I believed him. But occasionally, he had doubts. It was my job to make him see the possibilities when he was down.


He gestured at the spreadsheet on his screen. “The numbers don’t lie.”


The accountant suggested making a cash flow spreadsheet, which was essentially projections of income and expenses based on what we’re doing now. He’d said we should be steadily growing.


“How can we assume we’ll have business in the future when we don’t have it now?”

“Word of mouth. Customers tell their friends. Bed-and-breakfasts tell their guests that we’re trustworthy and conveniently located in town. They can save money coming here instead of the dealerships.”


Jake stared hopelessly at his screen. “I hope you’re right.”


“I know I am.” The truth was something a little less confident, but when Jake worried, I needed to be the positive one.


We fell silent for a few seconds, each lost in our own thoughts. There had to be a way to increase revenue quicker. “Most women don’t trust small garages. Is there a way to draw them in?”


Jake leaned back in his chair, a smile spreading over his face. “Now that’s an idea. Our clients tend to be younger men.”


“We could increase our clientele and reach. You know how women talk. If we can get the word out that they’re welcome here, and we won’t screw them over—”


Jake laced his fingers behind his head. “I think you’re on to something, but how do we do it? It takes time to build trust like that. Hailey complains that the dealer tries to upsell her all the time, and she just ends up more confused.”


I leaned a shoulder on the doorjamb. “Why doesn’t she come to you?”


“She’s got that certified used car, so maintenance is free at the dealership for a couple of years, but then they try to convince her to do all this other stuff.”


Jake and I vowed not to be like that when we opened our own business. We wanted to be honest and straightforward, even if it cost us business in the beginning. “What about offering classes to anyone who wants to be more knowledgeable about the basics like changing their oil and a tire?”


He nodded thoughtfully.


“We could advertise around town and on social media. Anyone who attends gets a discounted service.”


Jake leaned his elbows on the table. “Do we charge for the classes?”


“Let’s make them free. An incentive to try us out. Give us a chance.”


He nodded. “I like it.”


“Hopefully, we’ll get word-of-mouth referrals, too. If Hailey feels this way, it’s probably worse for women who don’t have a friend or family member who’s a mechanic.”


“We’d be reaching out and more involved in the community. Max is always talking about the importance of that.”


Max owned a bar and restaurant in town. The shop owners were a close-knit group of friends who met once a month to discuss business. They called themselves Shops on Main if I remembered correctly.


“You’ll work on the advertising?”


Satisfied we had a solid plan to increase visibility and potential profits, I said, “I’m on it. I’m heading out now. Corey’s supposed to be dropped off soon. You need anything?”


“No. I’m going to finish the projections for the year. Then I’ll be right behind you.”


“Don’t stay too late. We can’t be fresh if we’re working late every night.”


Jake smiled. “That’s why I wanted to go into business with you. You’re the voice of reason.”


It felt good that Jake relied on me. I wasn’t just a mechanic working for someone else. This was our creation, and we did everything together. “We work well together.”


He was the realist, and I was the dreamer. My parents hated that about me, but it was serving me well now. Jake had a hard time seeing what the future could be past the reality of numbers on a spreadsheet. I had enough hope for both of us.


“Have a good night,” Jake said.


“You too.” I grabbed my helmet and headed out to the lot. I pulled out into traffic, enjoying the warm evening. There were a lot of tourists out walking, eating, and shopping, so my ride across town was slow.


But it felt great to be home, and to be going home to my son.

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