From the queen of the slow burn and delayed gratification, comes another one of her unforgettable romances, and you can read the first two chapters right here.
It was the “Goddamn it, Luna,” that had me prying an eyelid open.
But it was the rumbled, deep voice saying it that had me aiming my eyeball in the direction of the man standing about ten feet away.
The man who had his hands on his hips as he frowned.
If I had to guess why I was the lucky winner of that mouth being turned down, it might have been because I’d had my eyes closed for… I glanced at my old but faithful G-Shock watch… the last twenty minutes.
Who was I kidding? I would have bet all of my money that was exactly why.
When I had seen him that morning bent over the opened hood of an early 1950’s GMC truck, a hint of a white compression shirt showing beneath his coveralls, I’d known he was in a bad mood to begin with. Not that anyone was ever in a good mood on a Friday morning, but… the man glaring at me was always in a bad mood when he wore white. It was a fact.
It definitely didn’t help that, when I had brought him his cup of coffee that morning, he’d asked me, “Did you decide?”
And like every time he had asked the same question, I had given him the same reply I always had and would. “Ah, no.”
You’d figure he’d have finally started to expect my reply after the seven hundred-ish times of asking the same question and getting the same answer, but it still irritated him after all this time.
And while it wasn’t completely out of the norm for him—my boss, one of my two bosses, if you wanted to be technical—to say “Goddamn it, Luna,” it wasn’t common either. I didn’t like to get into trouble. My friends had said more than a few times that I was allergic to having people mad or disappointed with me. It was a curse I hadn’t managed to shake off, no matter how many times it worked against me.
I couldn’t help but give the man with his hands on his hips and a frown on his face a smile. I thought about winking at him, because I knew how much winking irritated him, but I didn’t. It was a white shirt day after all, and I had to conserve my energy where I could when I still had at least eight hours left before I got to go home for the weekend.
“Yes?” I went with as a response to his goddamn it, Luna instead of what did I do? I hadn’t done anything wrong by having my eyes closed for a few minutes.
Ripley narrowed his eyes, managing to level his gaze solely on me, ignoring the other seven full-time employees seated around the break room where we had our weekly meetings every Friday. At nine in the morning, two hours after I usually clocked into work, every employee at Cooper’s Collision and Customs waddled in to listen to our bosses go over things like upcoming projects, current projects, status updates, issues, grievances, arguing over who was overdoing it with the air freshener in the bathroom….
It wasn’t exactly fun, and it wasn’t a secret we only suffered through the meeting because we got paid to. It was hard enough to stay awake on any given morning during the work week, but on a Friday with the weekend only hours away, plus the heat of so many bodies sitting around? It was almost impossible not to close your eyes.
Staying up late past midnight to watch a scary movie with Lily didn’t help any either, but when she had asked, I hadn’t been able to find it in me to tell her no. Our time together was running out, and I knew one day I would regret not taking advantage of every opportunity we had to hang out. I’d learned that lesson with my other two sisters.
But I was pretty sure that the man glaring at me right then didn’t know or care about any of that, and his next words confirmed it.
“Didn’t we talk about you taking a nap during our meetings?” Ripley drawled the question in a tone that wasn’t exactly nice.
Not that it ever really was.
I kept one eye on him as I stayed in the same position I’d been in when he had called me out—slumped over the table with an elbow planted on it, chin propped up on my open hand. Instead of both my eyes being closed though, I only had one open. I kept the smile on my face as I told him the answer we were both totally aware of, “Yes, we talked about it.” Just in case he forgot what exactly he’d said, I reminded him. “You told me not to.”
Because he had. Luna, you’ve gotta quit going to sleep during the goddamn meetings. If you wanna take a nap, wait eight fucking hours until you get home, got it? We’d had that conversation behind closed doors and with Mr. Cooper—the man who had hired me, my original boss and owner, and as of three years ago, the now co-owner of Cooper’s Collision and Customs—present.
I had got his message, and I respected it.
My boss, at least the one frowning at me, didn’t physically react to my answer. He didn’t even blink as he confirmed what we obviously both knew, “Yeah. That’s exactly what I said.”
Beside him, but hanging back verbally, Mr. Cooper coughed but didn’t say a word. I didn’t take it personally. I’d overheard enough of their fights to know it had taken them long enough to just get to this point in their work relationship—disagreeing with each other but not arguing over it in front of us. I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who didn’t miss that phase in our lives at CCC. For a while there, we had all mastered sitting as still as possible and staring at the wall, pretending we were somewhere else.
I had gotten that PhD a long time ago.
“And nobody gets paid to be taking a nap during our meetings,” Rip finished, like it wasn’t common sense, hands still on his hips. That rough face, which was still shaped into the form of a scowl, somehow added a nonverbal touch of not even you to the end of his statement, like I expected some kind of special treatment.
I didn’t and I never had, despite whatever he thought when he was in a bad mood. It… not even you… was just only… me. The employee who came in earlier than everyone else, stayed later than everyone else, and had only called out of work a handful of times in the last nine years. The person who had never said no to extra hours.
But it was and always had been my choice to do all those things, and I knew it. That’s why I kept my mouth closed. I could have said no when they asked. It had been my decision to stay late and come in on the weekends each time I did.
You didn’t jump off a bridge, break your legs, and then blame the friend who dared you to do it for why you were in the hospital.
Taking responsibility for my actions and not blaming other people for things I brought upon myself was one of the few positive lessons I’d learned from my family, even if it was something they hadn’t tried to teach me on purpose.
I cut that train of thought off real quick. Some things and people were so acidic, even thinking about them could destroy. I was going to choose to be happy, and that meant not thinking about old crap. Today was going to be a good day, and so was tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. I wasn’t going to let other people take that choice away from me anymore.
It was with that thought that I kept the smile on my face and let it linger on the man staring at me. It took a lot more than Rip in a white shirt to make me frown or hurt my feelings. It took a lot more than thinking of certain people for all of a second to do it either.
The point was: I was tired. I’d closed my eyes. He’d called me out on it. There was nothing to get upset about.
“Luna,” Rip said my name in that ridiculously low voice that had caught me totally off-guard the first time I’d heard it, “we understand each other? No fucking naps during the meeting. It’s not that hard to get, is it?”
From a couple chairs down, someone snorted, but I knew from the sound of it who it was, so I didn’t bother wasting my time even looking in that direction, much less letting his amusement at me getting put on the spot bother me.
I still kept the corners of my mouth up high on my face as I nodded just once at my boss. I understood him loud and clear. I also understood the look that Mr. Cooper was giving him from his spot on Ripley’s left. He wasn’t supposed to be cussing at me, or any of us at the shop. That was something else the two owners of one of the most successful auto body shops in Houston, Texas had spent a lot of time talking about in the office when they didn’t know I was eavesdropping….
Which was all the time.
Not that they knew that.
At least I hoped they didn’t, but it wasn’t like they were subtle or secretive about it either.
* * *
It all started three years ago.
Cooper’s Collision and Customs had been a family-owned business that had been started by Mr. Cooper’s father in the 1940s. The shop had been successful for a lifetime by the time I got my job almost six years before that day that set everything into motion. Every employee at CCC got paid fairly, got paid every other week, and Mr. Cooper had been—and still was—just about the best boss in the world. In my opinion, he was one of the best men in the entire world period, and I doubted anyone I worked with would argue that.
One day, everything had been normal. We’d had one boss. There had been ten of us. Everything had been fine. And the next day, I got to work, ignored the classic Ford pickup parked in the tiny customer lot upfront, and then overheard Mr. Cooper’s familiar voice and a much deeper one in the office at seven in the morning, talking about how they were going to split profits and where the business would move to.
It had shocked the hell out of me. Then again, I wasn’t sure how it couldn’t have shocked the hell out of me. Splitting profits? Moving a business that had been in the same place for the last eighty-ish years? The shop had always been busy. Things had seemed to be fine.
Honestly, even now, I still didn’t get why Mr. Cooper had decided to take someone else on to handle his business.
I had listened to them talking as long as I could before I’d taken off to pretend like nothing had happened, even though part of me was freaking out big-time at the implications of what their conversation meant. It wasn’t until a couple months later, months where I’d kept my mouth closed in case I hadn’t eavesdropped correctly, when Mr. Cooper had dropped the bomb on everyone during a Friday morning meeting.
“I have some big news,” the angel of a man had told all of us. I was probably the only person who had noticed how badly his hands had been shaking then because no one else had ever brought it up afterward. “We’re moving the shop.“
Everyone had started talking at once, but Mr. Cooper ignored them and kept on talking.
“We’ve needed more space for years now. We’re too cramped. You’re all aware of that. We’re moving to a forty-thousand-square-foot facility….” He’d said some other things I couldn’t remember as he sat there, hands tucked into the pockets of his worn jeans. Then, and only then, had he taken a great big breath and dropped the realbomb on everyone—everyone except me, at least. “That’s not the only thing growing either. With more room, we can handle more business.”
Everyone had stopped talking at that point, and I’d just sat there with my hands between my thighs, pressing my lips together as my stomach flip-flopped at the knowledge that I hadn’t imagined that conversation months ago.
“Lucas Ripley will be joining the team,” Mr. Cooper, a man we all loved, had breathed out, almost like he wasn’t sure about the news either. Or maybe I’d just been imagining it. “He’ll be a co-owner for Cooper’s and will be growing and handling the restoration part of the business from here on out.” He had swallowed hard, crossed his arms over his chest, and asked, “Any questions?”
Luckily for me, everyone had been too busy freaking out by the mention of the shop moving, expanding, and the new owner to notice that I hadn’t asked a single question.
None of us had wondered who Lucas Ripley was or why he was joining the business.
And the next day, when I got to work and found a semi-familiar truck parked right next to Mr. Cooper’s beautifully restored Mustang, I had figured out real quick who the car belonged to. Because in the years I’d worked for Mr. Cooper, no one else but he and I showed up so early.
And when I had gone into the building and walked by the office to head to the space where I spent most of my time painting, doing bodywork, or detailing, I hadn’t been totally surprised to find Mr. Cooper behind his desk, talking to a man sitting on the other side of it.
The man was huge, and the long-sleeved shirt he had on in the middle of July was basically a second skin. It covered everything from his wrists up over his collarbone, only managing to show off a few inches of tattooed skin on his neck. Maybe, I had thought, it was one of those shirts that kept a person cool.
As I’d stopped right by the doorway, I’d noticed that, even in profile, the man had the grouchiest, meanest face I had ever seen in my life. I wasn’t sure how to explain it, but he did. And he was straight-up gorgeous.
And I mean just freaking masculine. Like just testosterone and whatever the heck else was all man.
I saw gorgeous men in the wild every once in a while. I saw them online even more often. But that one, the one who I instinctively knew was going to be my new boss, the one sitting in the chair swallowing it whole with shoulders and an upper body that belonged on a professional wrestler, had to beat most of those men I’d seen in the past. He wasn’t what my sisters would have drooled over. He didn’t look like a model. His cheekbones were broad, his bone structure square, and his mouth hadn’t even been exactly full. Yet packaged together it was an unforgettable face.
A stunning face.
And I’d known instantly that his face and those thigh-sized biceps and calf-sized forearms that were covered in a tight long-sleeved shirt were going to haunt me.
And that had surprised me.
Then it had irritated me for a second as I thought about how much I didn’t wanta new boss. Hot or not. I loved Mr. Cooper, and I knew where I stood with him. He made me feel safe. This new man was a stranger I wasn’t sure what to do with. He wasn’t just going to be someone I might casually work with.
Looking back on it though, there had been no way for me to know then how much Lucas Ripley would haunt me in the future. I’d had no idea as I had walked into that room to introduce myself what he would end up owing me. And I definitely hadn’t known how much that debt would end up bothering him day in and day out.
What I did know and remember was how I’d gone to stand at the doorway to the original Cooper’s Collision and Customs office and waved and smiled at the two men inside.
“Luna,” Mr. Cooper had greeted me immediately, grinning so wide that, if I hadn’t known him so well, I would have missed how tense his shoulders were. “Good morning.”
“Morning, Mr. Cooper,” I had replied before turning my attention to the giant man sitting on the other side of the desk.
The huge man had looked at me, looked back at Mr. Cooper, then finally glanced back in my direction. That face, mean-looking because of the tightness along his jawline and the constant notch between his eyebrows, hadn’t changed at all. He hadn’t smiled back at me or even tried to look friendly. He’d just… looked.
In the blink of an eye, that look turned into a glare.
And my heart did what it always did when I met someone who didn’t want to like me—it made the rest of me want this person to like me, this maybe-possibly new boss of mine.
That was another curse I hadn’t been able to shake off even after all these years; the need to be liked. Realistically, I knew I could and would survive someone not being a Luna Allen fan, but… I had always tried. I could blame Those People I Wasn’t Going to Think About for that need, if I ever let myself think about it.
But I wouldn’t.
“Hi,” I had said, taking a step in and immediately putting my hand out between us. “I’m Luna.”
And Mr. Cooper, being Mr. Cooper, had said, “Ripley, this is Luna Allen. She does all our paint and helps out a lot with bodywork and detailing if we need her. Luna, this is Ripley, my… business partner.”
I had totally picked up on his hesitation at referring to the new man as his business partner, but I hadn’t thought much of it afterward. Especially not when my new boss took his sweet time raising his hand from where it had been resting on his thigh and slipped his long fingers and broad palm against mine, giving it a squeeze for a moment before releasing it almost as quickly. His eyes had narrowed just a little, but I had noticed, and it had just triggered that need in me even more.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I had told him, drawing my hand back.
My newest boss had watched me carefully; his eyes—this shade somewhere between an unreal blue and green—had slid back to Mr. Cooper one more time before returning to me.
I hadn’t been prepared for the question that came out of his mouth almost immediately. “You old enough to work here?” he’d asked in what I was pretty sure was the closest thing to a rumbling voice I’d ever heard in person.
I couldn’t help but glance at my longtime boss, but that was because he’d asked basically the same thing right before offering me a job when I’d been seventeen. So I smiled even wider when I put my attention back on the man with dark-colored tattoos that went up to his jaw. “Yes.”
He didn’t miss a beat, and those blue-green eyes, which seemed to pop beneath short but super curly black eyelashes, narrowed again. “How long you worked here?”
I didn’t miss a beat either. “Six years.”
That got me a blink before that deep, raspy voice asked, “What do you know about paint?”
What did I know about paint?
I’d almost lost my smile then, but I had managed not to. He wasn’t the first person to ask me that kind of question. I was one of the few females I’d ever met who did auto body paint. As a kid, I would never have thought that painting cars and parts was what I would end up doing for a living—much less that I would grow to love it and be pretty damn good at it, if I did say so myself—but life was crazy that way.
So I told this man, who was making the same mistake just about everyone I had ever met had made too, the truth. “I know everything about paint.” And I’d smiled at him, because I wasn’t being cocky. I was just telling him the truth, and I didn’t miss the way Mr. Cooper smiled as I did it.
The new man blinked again and his voice got even lower as he raised thick, dark brown eyebrows at me. “What do you know about bodywork?” he’d shot off next, referring to the act of fixing minor or major physical imperfections or damage to a vehicle.
I had still managed to keep my smile on my face. “Almost as much.” He hadn’t known it then, but Mr. Cooper had gotten me started on bodywork before moving me over to paint years ago. I’d been pretty good at it too.
But this man who had become my new boss had glanced at Mr. Cooper sitting on the other side of the desk for a moment before returning his gaze to me and asking in a tight voice I wasn’t sure what to think of, “What do you know about classic cars?”
Even I glanced at Mr. Cooper, but he was busy looking over at the other man to see that I wanted his attention and support. So I had said the first thing I thought of. “Some. Not everything, but not nothing.”
The man I had thought was gorgeous moments before pressing that not-thin but not-full mouth together. Then he’d asked, “Do you know how to weld?”
Did I know how to weld? I had narrowed my eyes at him. “Is this a test?”
This man I had barely met didn’t hesitate to repeat his question the exact same way he had originally presented it.
And I knew, I knew he was testing me. So I had shrugged and told him the truth. “I know the basics.”
That mouth twisted to the side as that big, bulky body leaned back in the chair he sat in. A chin covered in dark brown stubble with hints of silvery gray mixed in tipped an inch higher than it had been a moment before, and that confirmed he was still trying to test me. “If you were doing bodywork and found lead, what would you do?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Cooper sigh and cover his eyes with his hand. It was the first of many, many times I would watch him do the same thing over the next three years, but that’s another story.
Luckily—and I’d known right then how lucky I had been to know the answer because I was pretty sure he would have fired me if I hadn’t—I told him the right answer. “You can’t weld over lead. You have to burn it out.”
The man had leaned back in his seat, crossed his arms over his huge chest, and said, totally seriously, totally condescendingly—the same way he would a hundred times over the next few years—“You’ll do.”
And I had.
* * *
That had been years ago, and since then, I’d figured out how to deal with Lucas Ripley, or Rip, or Ripley, as he had told us to call him way back then.
So when he asked me if I understood him or not regarding his policy on taking a nap, I said the only thing I could have. “I get it.” And I said it about as happily as I could, even knowing that my response was going to irritate him even more than he already was.
But life was all about the little things, and getting a rise out of Rip without exactly pissing him off was a game I liked playing more than I should have. Every once in a while, if the situation was right and he was wearing his navy-colored compression shirt, I could get a smirk out of him. And on really rare occasions, I might sneak a quick half-smile out of him that was gone in a blink of an eye later.
And if my little heart sighed over that sneaky little smile or smirk, it was nobody else’s business but mine.
And my siblings.
And my best friend.
But that was it.
I didn’t let myself think too much of getting him to make an expression that wasn’t a scowl, a mildly annoyed one, or an eye roll. I definitely wasn’t going to think about the blank face he made that I might have kind of loved and hated at the same time. Nope.
It had only taken him two days of working at CCC for him to ask—with a grumpy side look—if I always smiled all the time. But it had been Mr. Cooper who had answered him that I did. Because I did.
In that moment in the break room though, I opened my other eye and full-on smiled at the man wearing a long-sleeved, almost turtleneck shirt that clung to every enormous muscle on his barrel chest. “But I wasn’t sleeping. I heard everything you said,” I finished explaining.
I wasn’t surprised when the man who had honestly only gotten more attractive over the years, even as the crease between his eyebrows had gotten deeper and the grooves bracketing his mouth had gotten more pronounced, shifted that nearly forty-one-year-old body toward me even more. “Yeah? What’d I say?” he tried to challenge.
He could be such a pain in the butt sometimes; he really did deserve me messing with him. Someone had to.
Slightly to the side of him, Mr. Cooper looked up at the ceiling, and I swear he started mouthing the beginning of an Our Father. Two of the guys sitting around the table started muttering under their breaths. I caught a hint of “micromanaging asshole” come out of one of them, and Rip must have too because his eyes immediately swept around the room like he was looking for whoever said it.
The last time he’d done that, two people had gotten fired, and I had liked them.
“First you talked about lunch breaks taking too long,” I blurted out. “Then you were talking about how the shop vac needs to be emptied after it’s been used because it isn’t your job.”
Cutting in must have done the trick to get him to forget what he’d been doing, because I’d only gotten a few words in by the time I was back to being the focus of his mostly unwanted attention. And that was because he was wearing that white shirt, and I usually had a 40 percent success rate of getting out of conversations with him not griping at me on white days. Gray shirt days were about 70 percent. Navy shirt days were about eighty-five. On navy days, I knew I could slap him on the back and not get even a side-look. Those days were my favorites.
I made my smile widen and even raised my eyebrows at him, hoping for the best. “Is that good enough, or did you want me to try and give you a word-by-word replay of what you said? Because I probably can, boss.” He could suck on those facts.
That face that I snuck glances at way more often than I had any business looking at didn’t change at all. He didn’t even blink. Then again, he should have known I hadn’t been lying. To be fair though, I didn’t think Rip trusted anyone at the shop. Not even Mr. Cooper, if the arguments I had overheard meant anything, and they had to mean something. The last time I’d been around people who argued that much, they had genuinely hated each other.
I let my lips pull back so I could show him my teeth as I forced a big fake smile at him, and beside me, my coworker snickered.
My boss—this boss—still wasn’t amused.
But he didn’t say “Goddamn it, Luna” again, so I was going to take it as a win.
“As I was saying,” Rip finally continued on after maybe two seconds of staring at me with his expressionless face, turning his attention back to the middle of the room and banishing me from his train of thought—he had a lot of practice doing that, “just because we have a cleaning crew coming in doesn’t mean you got a right to leave a mess. Nobody’s here to be anybody else’s maid or babysitter.”
Setting my hand over my mouth, I hid my yawn as I glanced over at the coworker sitting to my right, staring blankly at the wall. The forty-five-year-old was breathing hard but steadily, his mouth just loose enough for me to know he’d fallen asleep with it open. To my left, my other coworker, a thirty-year-old who had been at the shop almost as long as I had, was jiggling his foot. Noticing me looking in his direction, he slid a smirk in Rip’s direction, shaking his head as he did so. Jesus, he mouthed.
It was moments like these that I really remembered just how lucky I was to have this job, how lucky I was that almost all the guys I worked with were nice and treated me well.
At least now they were.
It had taken a lot of the men getting fired or quitting, until CCC got to the employees it currently had, but I couldn’t have been happier. This job, when I’d been seventeen, had been one of the last ones I’d tried applying for. I almost hadn’t. The ad to work at what I’d assumed was a mechanic shop hadn’t exactly been what I’d been hoping for. But at that point in my life, when I had met Mr. Cooper, he had given me two choices: work for him or… not.
I had taken the work, because when you’re seventeen with two hundred dollars left, no idea of what you could do with your life, just knowing you couldn’t go back to what you’d had before, and someone gives you a chance… the first real chance anyone has ever given you…
You can’t say no.
I owed Mr. Cooper everything. I really did. He had changed my life more than anyone else ever could or would, and I had thanked him daily for years. I was sure he had no idea what to do with me back then, but he’d offered me a job, given me a home, given me a fighting chance, and everything since was history.
My phone vibrated from my pocket, and I slipped my hand inside to pull it out just as Ripley started saying something about being more time efficient. I kept an eye on him as he stood there, those brawny arms crossed over his chest, and set it on top of my thigh. I wasn’t about to get caught with it out, especially not after already irritating him this early in the day. We still had the whole day left ahead of us.
I kept my gaze on my boss as I unlocked the screen from muscle memory. Rip was still going on, his attention lingering around the room like he was making sure none of us were falling asleep on him. I glanced down and saw that I had gotten a new text message from a number that wasn’t saved on my contact list. I had thought for sure it would be one of my sisters, but it wasn’t. I didn’t let myself get disappointed over it.
One eye on Rip, I opened the message and read it as fast as I could.
210-555-1230: THIS IS JULIUS THOMAS. I NEED TO SPEAK WITH YOU AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. PLEASE GIVE ME A CALL AT YOUR EARLIEST CONVENIENCE.
Julius Thomas? I didn’t know anyone with that name. The same number had called me yesterday, but I had ignored it and the voice mail they had left. It was a San Antonio number… but there shouldn’t be anyone calling me from there.
I had paid all my bills. I’d forgotten to pay my electricity bill on time, but it had only been two days late. It was probably a scammer, I’d bet. Losers.
I slipped my phone back into my pocket with my attention straight on the man still talking with his butt against the counter. I slid my gaze over to Mr. Cooper who was there, listening to Rip with a funny expression on his face that I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t frustration for once.
They hadn’t even been in the middle of an argument when I’d gotten to work that morning.
Just as I started trying to figure out what Mr. Cooper’s expression meant, a snore from my left had me sliding my foot over and kicking my coworker, Miguel. He sucked in a rough snore, his whole body tensing as he pretty much jolted awake.
“Son of a bitch,” he whispered as he sat up a little straighter. “Thanks, Luna.”
I wouldn’t let any of them get into trouble if I could help it, and they knew that. Not even the one on the other side of the room who had gotten a kick out of Rip catching me with my eyes closed. I loved this place. Lucas Ripley picking on me every once in a while or not, I loved this place and the people who worked here. I was loved, I had a home, I had a job, and it was Friday. There wasn’t much else I really needed.
And more than anything, today was going to be a good day. When you had so many good things and so many good people in your life, how could it not?
“Before we wrap up this morning’s meeting,” Mr. Cooper’s sudden voice made me realize I’d completely zoned out the last couple of minutes, “there’s one more announcement I need to share.”
Maybe I had spoken a little too soon about having a good day.
My day didn’t instantly start going bad after the meeting ended, but… it went downhill soon afterward.
Things could always be worse though. Always.
When I’d gotten to work that morning, I’d started working on a smaller project that wouldn’t take me long to prime; primer was kind of a preparation coat you put on things before painting. It helped paint stick to the surface better, helped increase paint durability, and helped protect the material being painted. When you were dealing with a car that might not ever get another paint job in its life, primer was one of the most important steps before changing its color.
By the time the meeting rolled around, I had finished my project and gone to the break room, already knowing the other jobs I had on the schedule. Usually, I had a pretty decent idea at least a week or two in advance of what work I would be doing on a specific date. Everyone at the shop did. We were a well-oiled machine because we passed around projects in different stages. Proper scheduling was something that Mr. Cooper excelled at to get cars back to their owners as quickly as possible.
That was part of the reason why the shop hadn’t just survived but thrived despite recessions. We worked hard, worked as fast as possible without compromising quality, and Mr. Cooper charged fair prices for everything. Cooper’s wasn’t the cheapest, but it wasn’t the most expensive either. I’d heard from more than enough friends over the years about how they were overcharged or how a mechanic had taken too long to work on something.
Mr. Cooper didn’t play those kinds of games. We were all supposed to work together. And we usually did.
The issue was that the car I needed to work on next had been added onto my schedule was an emergency job that the owner had requested, and was paying out of his butthole for, for us to have done by next week. But the instant I went to look for the car, I found it in the same condition it had been in the last time I had seen it.
Not freaking ready. Not anywhere close to being ready.
And that was why, two hours after our meeting had ended, I found myself going to lunch, just a little irritated.
Just a little. Because I wasn’t about to really get mad. It wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of life. If something didn’t kill or injure me or anyone I loved, I didn’t let it linger in me for too long. The body guys—the employees whose only job it was to fix the imperfections before sending a car over to me—hadn’t finished. There was no point in getting all bent out of shape, but a little bent out of shape was all right.
I had better ways to spend my energy; on that day it was finishing the freaking bodywork.
My frustration had to be apparent on my face, because I’d barely walked inside the break room when Mr. Cooper asked, “What’s wrong, little moon?”
I couldn’t help but smile at the term of affection the older man called me when we were out of the shop or when no one else was around while we were working. We had never talked about it, but I knew he did it so that no one would assume he had favorites. I was pretty sure everyone knew I was his favorite anyway.
It wasn’t just anyone he took into his home and into his life and family.
We didn’t hide that we spent birthdays, Thanksgivings, and Christmas Days together, and in years past, New Year’s Eve too. Now he claimed he was too old to stay awake until midnight. He was part of my family and had been for going on a decade. Just like his wife was. Just like my siblings were too.
Because he was my family, because he had gotten to know me so well, I couldn’t hide the fact that something wasbothering me—specifically, a person who worked for him.
The same person I had never totally been honest with him about.
“It’s no big deal,” I lied, trying to give him a genuine smile, but I must have failed because the worried expression on his face didn’t change.
The seventy-one-year-old man, in a brand-new olive green collared shirt with COOPERS COLLISION AND CUSTOMS stitched onto the breast, who stood right around six foot three, just kept on frowning. “Luna,” he said as I walked behind him, setting my hand on his shoulder for a moment before heading to the fridge. “Even if it’s a little deal, what’s wrong? Is it the girls?”
“No, the girls are fine,” I replied, knowing he was referring to my younger sisters.
“Something wrong at the house?”
“No, everything is fine, Mr. C, I promise,” I partially lied, grabbing my lunch bag from inside the fridge, finally wondering for a moment what my little sister had made. I’d worked late the night before, and by the time I made it home and showered, she had already loaded my bag up and set it back in the fridge for the next day.
That was definitely something I could be grateful for today. Thank God my little sister makes me lunch every day. She was the best cook in the family and wasn’t stingy about it. And I wasn’t going to let myself be sad that I had less than two months left of having my own personal chef in the house before she left me.
“Tell me what that face is for.” Mr. Cooper’s quiet, careful voice brought me back from the brink of being sad over something I had promised myself I wouldn’t be upset about. My baby sister was growing up and going to college. I had always known it was going to happen. It was what I had hoped for. I had already gone through it with my other two sisters, and I was proud of her—them—and happy. I was.
But I was never going to tell anyone that I’d cried twice already just thinking about Lily leaving.
And I was definitely not going to get upset about it at work. No, siree.
“Are you sad or mad, Luna? I can’t tell.”
Setting my bag on the table beside the seat Mr. Cooper was in, I started pulling containers out of it, eyeing the plastic Rubbermaids. There were three. One was full of chopped greens. The second one had what looked like rice, beans, and ground beef, and the smallest looked like it was full of pico de gallo. Yum.
“I’m not sad. I promise.” Liar. “The car I needed to start today wasn’t ready is all,” I told him, prying open the lids to take a peek inside of them, trying to ignore feeling like a snitch for even saying that much.
“That looks good,” the much older man commented as I turned around to stick the bean mix into the microwave. His voice was almost a whisper as he asked, “Who was supposed to be working on it first?”
I bit my lip as I pushed buttons on the screen. I wasn’t going to get mad. I wasn’t going to assume the worst. “You know who,” I told him in my normal voice, because I wasn’t doing anything wrong telling him, so I wasn’t going to be secretive.
And he did know. Mr. Cooper might be the boss—one of the bosses—but I rarely complained to him about anything, mostly because there were rarely things to complain about. I wasn’t going to tattle on anyone and get them into trouble. I was never going to abuse my relationship with Mr. Cooper, which was why I was totally fine with us usually being mostly professional at the shop.
I had told him a couple times in the past about a certain coworker that I swear went out of his way to not just be a jerk, but a pain in the ass. But only to me. Because that was my luck.
I didn’t say anything to get the guy into trouble but just to vent. Mr. Cooper was mature enough and professional enough to take my words one day at his house for what they were: his daughter-like figure complaining to her father-like figure about someone who had cheated on someone she loved. Except I had never told him that part.
That “someone” being the middle of my younger sisters. So, of course that was already going to be a strike against the jerk who had made my sister cry. The fact that he wasn’t very nice to me even now didn’t help our relationship.
But in this case, Mr. Cooper, the owner of the business,peeked into our conversation, and I saw his head swing toward me, a frown on his well-loved face. “Again?Didn’t he do the something like that a couple weeks ago?”
He had. Two weeks ago exactly. And a month before that, he’d done it too, but on a smaller scale.
But I did the same thing I had done every other time; I sucked it up and did what I needed to do. It was my job, and I wasn’t going to get in trouble because someone didn’t do theirs. The only reason Mr. Cooper had found out about two weeks ago was because he’d walked in to find me putting filler on a car and hadn’t understood why I’d been the one doing it when he knew I had other things on the schedule.
I watched the seconds count down on the microwave screen. “I’ve worked on it for two hours, Mr. C. I still have another two before I can even start priming it. I’m supposed to work on another one after that too.”
Goodbye, my plans tonight.
I was getting aggravated again. Not because I was going to have to stay late, but because I had to stay late because my gut said my coworker hadn’t finished the job on purpose. He would deny it for the rest of my life, but I knew the truth. I’d heard him snickering that morning when Rip had gotten on my case.
“Did he explain why he didn’t finish?” he asked, sounding genuinely baffled.
I didn’t blame him. At the same time, it warmed my heart that he didn’t expect the worst out of people… even if I had a feeling that he should expect the worst out of the person we were talking about. I doubted Jason ever messed up things Mr. Cooper asked him to do.
I bit the inside of my cheek again and kept my voice low as I glanced toward the door to make sure a certain someone wasn’t standing there, listening. “He said something came up with another car and he didn’t get a chance to finish it.”
I wasn’t sure he knew that I’d had the same job as he did at one point. Cars that were on the schedule to go to paint took priority over everything else. There was no reason why Jason, the pain in my ass in question, would have just not gotten to it when he knew damn well I needed him to.
That punk that Mr. Cooper had hired six months ago—without me knowing it was him that had gotten hired until it was too late—would try and give me more work to do. Jason wasn’t technically a body guy. He got stuck covering for whoever was on vacation or had a personal day; he was basically me when I’d been his age, doing whatever anyone asked me to do.
“It’s all right,” I trailed off, reminding myself again of everything I had. I was loved, I had a good job, I had a home. I was happy, and I was safe. Most importantly, so were my sisters. So this was no big deal. “I’ll still get to everything.”
But Mr. Cooper seemed to be hesitating, probably still trying to work out a reason why something like that would have happened that wasn’t malicious. “Do you want me to talk to him?” he asked after a moment.
I blew out a breath as I dumped one container into the other before grabbing the container of pico and putting it in with the rest of my food.
I was a little pissed, but was I pissed enough to get the human yeast infection in trouble?
I hated how guilty just thinking about it made me feel.
“No,” I found myself muttering to him. “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”
There I went lying again. I definitely wasn’t going to give him that. I knew he was lying. I just knew it.
But the idea of him getting into trouble because I complained to one of the bosses—a boss that would do just about anything for me if I asked—made me feel bad. He was a lying turd, but you never knew what someone had going on in their life to get them to act like a jerk. Even if the acting like a jerk part had lasted for the last six months—and the six months he’d dated my sister before sleeping with some other girl. Maybe he needed money. Maybe I looked like his mom and he had mommy issues. Maybe he was stressed and I happened to be the easiest person to be mean to.
…but probably not.
I slid him a look. Then I nodded.
Mr. Cooper raised those super thick, gray-white eyebrows at me, blinking bright blue eyes, his face deeply wrinkled and pretty freaking serious.
“I’m sure,” I confirmed as I started shoveling at the food with the fork my little sister had packed for me from home. I didn’t trust the other guys’cleaning more than mugs at the shop, and she knew that.
My phone decided to ping from the front pocket of my jeans in that moment. “One sec,” I said to him as I pulled it out and glanced at the screen.
Thea: I’m going to stay in Dallas this weekend after all, but I’ll come down for Lily’s graduation for sure. Need to make some $$$.
I typed up my reply to my sister instantly, ignoring the pinch of disappointment I realistically knew I had no reason to feel when I understood why she wasn’t coming down to visit again. It was just that I hadn’t seen her in almost three months.
Me: Okay. Good luck.
A second passed before I got a response.
“Kyra?” he asked, referring to the middle of my three younger sisters. The same one that Jason, the jerk, had dated.
“No, Thea,” I corrected him. Thea was the oldest after me at twenty-one. I pressed the home button on my phone to clear the app and then set my phone face down on the table between our food. “She’s not coming down this weekend after all,” I told him as I picked my fork back up.
He knew all about the last time she had promised to come and ended up bailing. Just like on this failed visit, I had marked myself off on the schedule so that everyone knew there was no way I was coming in over the weekend. It wasn’t unheard of for me to work on Saturdays. I had bills, no money tree and no sugar daddy; I was all about that overtime life. But I could be honest and say I’d been looking forward to having the time off to spend it with my sisters. Oh well. “I guess they offered her some more hours at the school or something.”
The way he said “Oh” told me he could see right through me. Mr. Cooper knew my sisters almost as well as I did. And because he did, and because I talked to him about them pretty often, he had a decent idea just how often Thea and Kyra cancelled on me.
Even though it was always for a good reason.
I gave him another tight smile before giving my food a poke. “She said she’s for sure coming down for Lily’s graduation next week though, so that’s good.”
“That is good,” he agreed… a lot more softly than he needed to because it really wasn’t a big deal that she wasn’t coming to visit after all.
“I can’t believe that girl is finally graduating. I’d swear she’s still eleven.”
That made me smile. “Me too, Mr. C, me too.” Just a few weeks ago, we had gone to scope out apartments for her in Lubbock.
Either Mr. Cooper realized that I didn’t want to think about it anymore, or he understood that there wasn’t anything more to say, because he took another bite of his tuna sandwich before mumbling, “I meant to tell you someone called this morning asking for you.”
I scrunched up my face as I looked down at my food.
“It was a man.”
“I asked a few times for a name, but he wouldn’t give me one,” he went on.
There was no way it was a customer, because I rarely ever met any of them. I might walk through the shop while one or two were inside talking to Mr. Cooper or Rip about a car we were working on for them or a car they wanted to buy from them, but it was rare that they let customers onto the main floor during work hours. But me personally speaking to any of them? No way. The only people I had to listen to were Mr. Cooper and Ripley.
“I wasn’t sure if maybe you were trying to pull a line of credit or if someone was trying to verify your employment—” He let out this adorable chuff like he couldn’t imagine me applying to work anywhere else. “—but I also didn’t want to confirm that you work here. You know, just in case.” We both knew what he meant by a just in case situation. Just in case it was someone I didn’t want to speak to. Just in case it was someone who I wouldn’t mind assuming I was dead. “I asked him who I was speaking to, then he asked again if he could speak to you. We went back and forth before he thanked me, then hung up, but something about it sounded professional.”
There was no logical reason why anyone would be calling looking for me.
At least not anyone that I wanted.
“I’ll let you know if they call again,” he told me. “I’ll do the same thing. I won’t say you don’t work here, but I won’t say you do either.”
“Thanks, Mr. C,” I muttered, trying to think, but also taking a bite of the food my little sister had prepared for lunch. I let my gaze slide over to him, picking up on the tension in his own shoulders. I had an idea what the cause was. “You okay? I was pretty surprised when you announced that Rogelio is leaving.”
The older man grunted as he chewed. The last thing he’d said during our meeting had been that one of the shop’s longtime employees was leaving to start his own mechanic shop. “I’m happy for him,” he finally said, and I knew he was telling the truth. “But you know how hard good workers are to find, and now I need to get someone else before he leaves. We’ll be hurting if we end up short-staffed.”
We were always almost hurting, and with one person less?
He shrugged the shoulder closest to me. “I’ll find someone. I get resumes all the time from kids straight out of school.”
I smiled at him. “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”
Mr. Cooper put his arm around my shoulders and hugged me to his side.
He rarely ever did that, and it caught me by surprise so much I barely had time to smile over at him.
His quiet laugh had me glancing down at where his eyes were focused: on my wrist. On the bracelet of linked, tiny plastic donuts with colorful icing on my left hand to be specific. “I was wondering what your fun thing of the day was.”
I gave my hand a shake. “Lily bought it for me,” I explained.
“That’s pretty fun, little moon,” the older man confirmed with a warm smile.
“Luna,” came a familiar male voice that had me looking toward the door just as Mr. C’s arm started to retreat.
Sure enough, Rip’s massive body took up the width of the doorframe as he stood there, a piece of grease-stained paper in his hand, his gaze intent on me. Totally ignoring Mr. Cooper sitting beside me, pulling his arm back toward his side. He wasn’t frowning, but there was something about his expression….
“Hey, Rip,” I said, giving him a smile as I straightened.
He tipped his chin up, making my eyes flick to the lines alongside his mouth from all the scowling he did. His voice was gruff and irritated. “You get started on that Thunderbird yet?”
“Not yet.” Should I tell him about what happened? I eyed his shirt once more and thought about how grumpy he’d been at the meeting that morning. Because of Jason’s screw up, it pushed back me getting to the car he was asking about.
“Do me a solid.” His eyes stayed on me so intently it made me feel like I’d done something wrong by letting Mr. Cooper give me a hug. But I hadn’t, and Rip was well aware of the father-daughter relationship I had with the older man. I had invited him to my house twice for Thanksgiving, making it clear that Mr. Cooper and his wife would be there too so that he wouldn’t think I was trying to flirt with him. He didn’t show up either time. “I changed my mind about it and left a new work order for it on your desk. Take a look at it. I know we’ve got the color in the back, so use that one instead, got me?”
I nodded. New work order. New color. He was using that barking, something-up-his-butt voice. All right.
Ripley’s blue-green eyes narrowed as he watched me from the doorway, pointedly still not looking at the man beside me. “Do you need to write it down?” he asked, dipping into that condescending tone just a little.
I let it slide right off me. “No, I’ll remember.”
From the doorway, Rip gave me a nod before walking off. I didn’t need to watch him leave to know what his butt looked like in those coveralls. It was perfectly proportionate in comparison to the rest of his six-foot-four built-like-a-tank body. Big and thick.
Beside me, Mr. Cooper let out a sigh that I’d heard a hundred or two times before. I couldn’t blame him. The less they communicated the better everyone’s day was.
But at that moment, I couldn’t focus on Rip’s butt, or relish in the fact that I’d gotten to see his face not completely scowling in my direction, even if it was only for a second. Sometimes he’d come up for lunch at the same time I did. Sometimes he’d sit next to me and eat. His elbow would brush mine. Maybe his forearm would touch mine. If it was a good day, he’d give me an eyebrow raise that I would take like it was a smile. If it was a really good day, I could talk to him about the car he was restoring, and we might talk about it for a few minutes.
I had given up trying to ask him personal questions about two months into him arriving at CCC.
But on days when Mr. Cooper and I happened to eat at the same time, none of that ever happened. I’d watched Rip turn around and walk out, noticing how Mr. Cooper sat there and tried not to let it bother him.
On this day, it was impossible not to notice that getting ignored was eating up the kindest man I had ever met.
So I turned my head to my favorite boss and gave him a smile he probably saw right through. “Have I told you that color shirt looks really nice on you? You don’t look a day over sixty-five in it, Mr. C.”
* * *
It was hours later when I realized how bad I’d screwed up.
I wasn’t sure what exactly had snapped together for me at the last second just as I had started to crouch down to keep moving the gun across the surface of the quarter panel I was in the middle of painting. But something had just clicked as I stood in front of the section of the car between the rear door and the trunk. That click had said Luna, wait a minute.
Wait a minute.
“Shit.” I pulled the hood of my coveralls down, raised my goggles to rest at the top of my head, and tugged my respirator to my chin, trying to think as I stared at the panel in front of me.
But the color on the car didn’t change without the goggles.
It was still a silvery blue.
It was still Silver Mink.
I left the work order for you at the top of your desk, Rip had said during lunch.
I had picked up the work order on the desk. I knew it. Silver Mink, it had said. I knew it. I wouldn’t have screwed up reading it.
But… Silver Mink…. Something about the color, about the name, didn’t sit well.
Silver Mink, Silver Mink, Silver Mink….
Wasn’t Silver Mink the original color he had requested?
Had I read the wrong order?
Heart freaking instantly pounding, I swallowed and tried to think about what I’d done. I had picked up the invoice, read through it three times, and gone to get the paint. I knew that for sure. I knew it.
I ran back to my desk and went through the invoices sitting on it. About a minute into looking, I found it—them more like it. I freaking found them.
It only took a second to look up the work order on my computer to confirm my suspicions.
I had started painting the car a different freaking color.
Not Brittany Blue.
Not Brittany Blue like one of the invoices requested. The right invoice.
Why hadn’t I double-checked? I always did. Always.
“Shit.” I blinked down at the sheet, the urge to throw up getting strong and stronger. “Shit, shit, shit!”
I wanted to punch the wall. Punch myself more like it. But the fact was, I remembered that I’d been thinking about the phone call Mr. Cooper had mentioned and my sister bailing on me, and being frustrated with my coworker for screwing me over. I’d gone back downstairs after lunch, still thinking about things that I couldn’t change even if I wanted to, gone to my room, spent another four hours sanding down the car then priming it. I let it bake while I picked up the first file I found for the Thunderbird, read it, and finally pulled the paint from the locker where we kept all the extra unused supplies.
The rest was history. I grabbed the paint, prepared everything, Miguel helped me move the cars around. Then I got in the booth and started spraying, my head going back to the text and the phone call despite the headphones I had on blasting the Wicked soundtrack into my ears. Then, then, it had clicked.
Holy freaking shit, I had read the wrong work order.
I had screwed up. I had started painting the car the wrong color, and it wasn’t like I could just paint over it.
Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no.
“Fucking shit,” I whispered to myself, panic filling up my stomach, making me nauseous instantly. Instantly.
For one microsecond, I asked myself how I could fix this without involving anyone. But just as quickly as I wondered that, I reminded myself that there was no way. What was I going to do? Hide the car and do everything all over again? The primer alone needed a day to dry.
I wasn’t sure I believed in miracles, and I wasn’t about to start now.
My hands went up to my hair on their own, smoothing over the chin-length hair I had bobby-pinned back behind my ears to keep it out of my face. I tugged on the ends, hard. But the color didn’t change and the words on the work order didn’t magically disappear, and I was still in deep shit.
There was only one thing I could do.
Suck it up, sugar tits, my sister would say.
What if you get fired? My brain tried to ask the rest of me.
I had messed up once before, but it had been wheels I had screwed up, and only two of them.
I rarely called out. I was never late. I couldn’t remember ever complaining. Sure, Mr. Cooper was the closest thing I’d ever had to what a real dad was supposed to be like. But this was going to be hundreds of dollars’ worth of work that was going to need to be redone because of me. That money being mostly what they paid me hourly for labor and the paint I’d just wasted. All because I hadn’t taken the time to find both orders and look at the stupid freaking dates.
I was going to be sick.
What if I got fired? It could happen. It was a white day for Rip.
And he’d fired people for less on white days.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit.
There’s only one thing to do, Luna, the voice of reason in my head told me.
Letting go of my hair, I took a deep breath that wasn’t deep at all and sounded more like I had asthma. I wasn’t going to be even more of an asshole and pretend like nothing had happened.
I had messed up.
I took ownership of my actions.
I didn’t run away from my problems, even if I sometimes ignored them.
I was better than that. I was better than that. I wouldn’t be that person.
I might have prayed a couple of Hail Marys I had learned from the Coopers under my breath as I headed toward the main floor. I considered calling Mr. Cooper to tell him because I didn’t think he was capable of yelling at me.
I couldn’t though.
It was a white day, and Rip had already blatantly ignored him. He’d be at home by now, and Mr. Cooper didn’t deserve to get chewed out for something I did, because that would be what inevitably happened if I used him as a buffer between me and the person who had actually given me the orders for the project I had screwed up.
I tried to tell myself that there was nothing to be worried about. What was Rip going to do? Yell at me? It wouldn’t be the first time someone had done it. I’d mastered getting yelled at as a kid. It wasn’t like he would hit me or call me stupid or hint that my entire existence was a mistake. He would make a face, use that condescending tone he used on everyone regularly, maybe he’d be grumpy for a few days, and then…
He’d decide to fire me.
No big deal.
I could find another job. I had job offers pop up every few months. Sure, none of them were in Houston, and sure I didn’t wantto change jobs and start over again around people who didn’t know me and didn’t care about me, but….
Don’t you dare get upset, Luna, my brain warned me. Don’t you even think about it.
I took another deep breath, but it went in jagged and crooked. I’d own up to my mistakes, I had sworn to myself a long time ago. I’d take responsibility for my actions.
Don’t overreact, I told myself as I placed one foot in front of the other, heading to the main floor of the shop and looking around at the eight different cars parked inside at the moment. There were four “lanes.” Each lane had two cars on it. Three lanes were usually reserved for cars that were getting mechanical work done, usually a car involved in a collision. One lane was always set aside for whatever car or cars Ripley happened to be restoring.
Sure enough, most of the mechanics for CCC had left for the day, but I still spotted two heads on the floor that weren’t Rip’s brown and silver mix.
At the lane furthest from where I stood, I could see him taking the seats out of a GTO that I hadn’t seen before lunch.
Why? Why had I screwed up today? Crap, crap, crap.
I had done it. There was no hiding it. I couldn’t go back in time and change my mistake, as much as I would have wanted to.
Own it. I had to own it. Lying was bad—most of the time. Pretending to be stupid was worse.
I repeated all those things to myself as I crossed between the cars, purposely ignoring the glances I got from the two guys still working as I made my way toward Rip. It wasn’t unusual for me to come out on the floor, but it wasn’t that normal either.
Maybe I could get him to talk to me in his office or in my room.
How could I have screwed up like this? Realistically, I knew that people made mistakes. Also, I knew that one mess-up in years shouldn’t be a problem. It shouldn’t. The man who had taught me everything he knew had messed up all the time.
Okay, it had never happened while Rip had been at CCC, and it had never been a mistake of this size. When the old lead painter had messed up, it was picking out the wrong color tone or not noticing that something had needed an extra coat of clear. It wasn’t a chunk of a car being the wrong color.
You will not cry, Luna. You will not cry. He’s not going to hit you, and if he yells at you, you can take it better than anyone else here. If you get fired, it’s your own fault. You can’t blame anyone else but yourself. You’ll be fine. Thea, Kyra, and Lily are almost all self-supportive. One day you’ll be able to laugh about the day you screwed up big-time. It might just take a decade to get there. You’re a good person and you try to do what’s right, even if it sucks a lot.
It was with that thought that I marched my butt toward the man who had ducked back into the car. I couldn’t see his head or his body as I got closer. I could handle it, I promised myself.
Then I made it.
Rip was taking the bolts off the driver side seat like I had expected, so I walked around to that side and stood there, watching him on his knees, half of his upper body inside the car, the other half kneeling on a dirty towel on the concrete floor.
He didn’t see or hear me.
Knowing him, he might just be pretending he didn’t.
So I said, loud, “Hey, Rip.” He was going to know something was wrong, I just knew it.
He didn’t stop working, and if he rolled his eyes, I had no idea, but I caught his reply of “What?”
What? Not what do you want or what do you need. It was a white day. What did I expect?
“Can I talk to you?”
“Talk,” was his simple reply.
I could do it.
“Can we talk in the office or in my room?” I practically croaked, wincing and hoping he’d miss it.
Only then did I see his arm stop moving, but I heard his voice clearly as he rasped, “Busy, Luna. What’s up?”
What’s up? Okay. That was a decent sign.
But I still couldn’t manage to say anything more than, “Did I tell you that your hair looks nice today?” The way he had it parted did look extra nice today. I wasn’t lying.
“Talk, Luna,” he clearly grumbled, aware I was full of it. “I don’t got all day. I need to get this car stripped. What’s up?” my boss, the same boss I had been planning on baking a cake for this weekend, the same boss who had already lost this patience with me when I didn’t give him an answer at seven in the morning when he asked what favor I wanted from him, and then again when he’d caught me with my eyes closed during a meeting, asked, not giving me a second to think of what I could say to get out of this.
Why? Why couldn’t have I screwed up with something Mr. Cooper had ordered me to do? He’d be disappointed in me, but at least he wouldn’t give me the death glare. He wouldn’t get rid of me.
On the other side of the Eclipse parked next to me, I spotted my two coworkers looking over at me, being nosey as shit. Owen and Miguel weren’t even trying to hide that they were eavesdropping. I wasn’t even sure what Miguel was doing here so late, much less why he was helping Owen, but oh well.
I forced myself not to curse Jason’s name. It was kind of his fault that this was even happening. If he had done his job, I would have already started painting the car by the time Rip had come to find me in the break room.
But at the end of the day, I could still only blame myself for not double-checking the work order.
I waved at my coworkers. “Owen, tell your daughter I said happy birthday!” I called out.
They both grinned, but it was Owen who gave me a thumbs-up. But they didn’t look away. Whoever had spread the rumor that women were worst gossips than men had never worked with a group of men on a regular basis before.
“Luna, what the fuck is up?” Rip asked, his tone finally genuinely taking on an impatient streak to it.
Now or never.
“Umm,” I trailed off some more, forcing myself to look away from Miguel and Owen and look down at the hint of an elbow that had started moving again inside the GTO.
“You gonna say something or not? This needs to get done,” he kept going, sounding even more aggravated and impatient.
I could do it. I had to.
“Luna,” Rip drew out my name, any and all ease finally gone from his voice.
“Rip,” I started, closing both my eyes for a moment. “I screwed up.”
There was a pause, and then he asked, slowly, so, so slowly I wasn’t fool enough to assume he hadn’t heard me. “What’s that?”
He was going to make me do this. Of course he was. “I screwed up,” I repeated. I didn’t deserve to wince. This really was my fault. And Jason’s. “I picked up the wrong work order for the Thunderbird. Instead of the Brittany Blue, I did the Silver Mink that had been on the original form, and I already started before it hit me.” I did it. I had freaking done it. I knew it was pointless and didn’t mean a thing, but I still threw in, “I’m really, really sorry.”
At some point, his elbow stopped moving. Hell, I was pretty sure he even stopped breathing because the two inches of his upper half that weren’t hidden inside the car weren’t moving either. Oh, hell.
“It’s my fault. I just… I spaced. I should have double-checked the system and I didn’t. I’m so sorry.”
Still, he said nothing.
“I can stay late tonight to start fixing it. Monday I can do the primer, and if I stay late, I can get all caught up again….”
He’d stopped listening. I could tell. So I stopped talking.
His body had started to move as I had blabbed on. First I noticed more of his abs, then his upper chest, followed by his neck, and finally his head came out from inside the car he was gutting. Those intense eyes zeroed in on me from a carefully blank face I had seen before, usually from a distance. Usually as an observer and not the focus of it.
And I knew. I freaking knew…
He was going to ream me.
Lucas Ripley didn’t let me down. His voice was calm and almost cold as he said, “I specifically asked you if you needed to write that shit down. ’Member that?”
Oh, man. It was going to go bad.
What else could I do but nod?
Those almost green-blue eyes didn’t even flicker. “I asked you if you needed me to write it down and you said no,” he kept going, staring at me with that furious face that was so roughly handsome, I didn’t want to look at it, not then. His voice got even cooler, if that was even possible, and I swear I could feel the skin on my back prickling. “And I’m gonna have to pay you overtime for work that was already done?” He narrowed those intense eyes. “I have to pay you to fix a mistake you did?”
All I could do was stand there.
I had messed up. There was no escaping that. “Rip, I’m sorry. I’ve never made a mistake like this before—”
That giant hand speckled in some kind of oil or grease sliced across the center of his body. “That’s not the fucking point, Luna,” he snapped, looking up at me. “It’s a waste of time. It’s a waste of money. It’s a waste of fucking paint.” Rip shook that dark brown head of hair that had just a few lines of silver through it, just in time for his birthday that upcoming Monday.
He was laying it on real thick, and I was taking it all in, feeling worse and worse by the second. He was right. He would have gotten mad at anyone who made the same mistake; that only microscopically made me feel better. “I’m sorry. I’ll stay late, and you don’t have to pay me. I know it’s my fault,” I replied, hoping Owen and Miguel couldn’t hear how pitchy my voice had gotten. I had to clench my fists when the urge to crack my knuckles got bad.
My boss raised his thick, dark eyebrows in a way that confirmed I wasn’t going to get out of anything, and I definitely wasn’t going to get absolved of a freaking thing. “Now you’re gonna try and give me a goddamn guilt trip for telling you shit any boss would?” His eyebrows lowered, and that mouth I thought was pretty sexy on good days stayed in a scowl. “You’re not gonna make me feel bad, Luna. You fucked up and that’s the end of the story.”
I had fucked up. I wasn’t trying to make it seem any other way. I nodded at him, making sure to avoid glancing over at where I had last seen my coworkers standing. “I know, Rip. I’m not trying to. I’m sorry,” I told him.
He shook his head. Shook me off. The man pulled out a clean-ish rag from inside his coveralls and swept it over his face as he muttered, “Sorry doesn’t fix shit.”
Of course it didn’t. I’d learned that lesson long before he’d come into my life.
“I know that. I’ll do everything myself. I’ll get started on it—”
His face was still covered as he breathed out, “Don’t bother.”
What did that mean?
“But I can do it. I know it’s my fault—”
“No.” He moved the cloth away from his face and zeroed in on mine instantly. His jaw was set, and if I’d had any doubts he was pissed, I would have gotten a confirmation then. There were more lines at his forehead than I had ever seen before. “Keep the paint the same goddamn color you already did,” he grumbled, dragging the rag roughly over his hands as his eyes pretty much burned a hateful hole straight into the middle of my features. “For the record, it’s fucking bullshit.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, ignoring the fact that I was pretty sure my coworkers had started creeping closer to us to hear better.
Rip shook his head again. “Sorry doesn’t fix your mistake. Go paint the car the color you already started.”
“I don’t want to talk about this shit anymore, Luna.” He glanced up at the ceiling before saying in a crystal-clear voice, “And this is going down in your file.”
In my file? As in strike one? Strike one of three that would get me fired? Was that how these things worked? I hadn’t even known that was a thing.
I stared at him, pressed my lips together, and then I sucked in a breath through my nose. I wasn’t going to get upset over getting in trouble. I wasn’t.
Rip, on the other hand, watched me with that quietly furious freaking face that said he didn’t even want to look at me in the first place. He didn’t want to look at my face that was usually makeup-less minus the pink lipstick I wore every day. He didn’t want to look at the cotton-candy blue hair I had kept over the last year. He didn’t want to look at me.
He wouldn’t be the first person.
“I am sorry,” I said to him, trying to cling onto whatever was left of my pride while feeling all of about an inch tall.
He just stared at me, and I knew he wasn’t going to say anything else.
I’d apologized and I’d meant it. That was all I could do. I turned around and slowly headed the way I’d come, purposely avoiding making eye contact with the guys watching because I didn’t want to see pity on their faces. I’d probably only gotten about two lanes away when I heard Rip call out, “You all gonna get back to work or what?”
I pressed my lips together and glanced down at my donut bracelet, rubbing my thumb over one of them. It could have been worse.
He could have fired me, and maybe then he could have gotten himself out of repaying the favor that he had felt like he’d owed me for the last going-on three years. I bet that would have made him happy.
Everything was fine, even if it didn’t feel that way.
Things could always be worse.