She was the sweetest thing Mitch had ever seen.
From his position standing under an ’05 Volvo on the mechanic’s lift, Mitch watched her cool, cream-colored lines as she sailed into his garage. His heart leapt in his chest. Man, oh man oh man.
Two hundred and ninety-four horsepower, 4.2 liter engine, all packing speed in a feather-light aluminum frame, the Jaguar XK8 pulling in was a car to make any red-blooded male gasp for breath. She could do 0 to 60 in 6.3 seconds. She could round corners like hugging. She was power, class, and beauty, all wrapped in one.
Go ahead and look. Mitch’s mouth quirked. So long as he didn’t get any ideas about owning one, himself. After buying this garage two years ago, there wasn’t enough left over to get a new Volkswagen, let alone a Jag.
Meanwhile the XK8 purred into the empty berth next to the lifted Volvo, shuddered inelegantly, and with a horrible rattling sound, died.
Oh, that was sad. Lowering his wrench, Mitch started to hunch out from under the side beam of the lift. He came to a complete halt, though, when the driver side door of the XK8 clicked open. In fact it was all he could do to keep breathing as a woman every bit the match to her car stepped out.
Power, class, and beauty. She wore a skirt suit that skimmed her curves with well-tailored ease. High heels gave an accented end to some long, long legs, and her cream-blond hair was pulled into a sleek and elegant twist. She came to a stand by the side of her car, spine straight, a calfskin briefcase in one hand, and her long-lashed eyes looking around with an expression of incredulous dismay.
Mitch’s heart had leapt for the Jag. That was nothing compared to what it did now, even though the woman’s expression said what she thought of his humble, if excellent, garage, even though normally he wasn’t any kind of a lech — and even though cool, unapproachable females weren’t his type, not at all.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t help swallowing as he ducked under the side beam of the lift. The lady truly was magnificent, all silk and steel and cream. And God knew it had been a while since he’d had a woman in his life.
“Hey.” Pulling up his best smile, Mitch grabbed a rag out of his back pocket to wipe the grease off his hands. “Good morning there.”
She turned at the sound of his voice. As smoky gray eyes hit his, Mitch could feel the affable smile fade from his face. Man, she was — He didn’t know. She looked like she could chew nails…or tangle hot sheets all night.
“Good morning,” she said, and raised her elegant eyebrows a haughty fraction of an inch.
Chew nails, Mitch decided. From somewhere, he retrieved his aw-shucks grin. “So, what can I do for you today?”
The woman spared a glance toward her silent car. “That’s…unclear.”
It was? The car had died. He was a mechanic. What Mitch could do for her seemed obvious.
With the same haughty expression, the woman turned back to Mitch. “It’s been three weeks, and I’ve been through four repair shops. Tell me, is there anything you can do for me…that they couldn’t?”
Mitch’s face froze. Okay, so she’d been to four repair shops, but that didn’t give her the right to lump Mitch in with all the low-life know-nothings in the business. “I can fix your car,” he rumbled.
She raised one slim, disbelieving eyebrow.
Mitch felt a jolt of anger. Though the place didn’t look like much — he couldn’t afford to make it pretty or slick — he worked hard and took pride in doing a good job. A few of his customers even said he had talent. Mitch didn’t know about that, but he never claimed to be able to fix something he couldn’t. “The problem is the IAC,” he told her.
The woman blinked her eyes slowly. “Never heard of it.”
Yeah, well why would you have? You’re not the one who learned how to work on engines in the Army, and went on to gain ten more years of experience back in the States. Mitch stuffed his rag into his back pocket. “It’s the idle air control solenoid. Look, I saw you drive in, saw the way it died. That’s what’s malfunctioning.”
The woman’s smile was cool and contemptuous. “And if it’s not?”
“If it’s not the idle air whatever?”
Mitch put his hands on his hips. “If it isn’t the IAC, I’ll fix your Jag for half price.”
This seemed to make an impression on her, rippling the cool features of her face. “That’s…quite an offer.”
Regarding him closely, the woman curved her lips back into the haughty smile. “On the other hand: half price. So…you’re not completely sure you can do it.”
Mitch narrowed his eyes. She wanted more? “If I’m wrong, your repair is free.”
She halted, obviously shocked.
Mitch was shocked, too. Oh yeah, he was good, and it probably was the IAC. But he could be wrong, and it might be an expensive wrong. Considering his many responsibilities now, he shouldn’t be taking chances with money.
Meanwhile, Ms. Chew Nails recovered her sang froid. Indeed, her expression changed from surprise to complete satisfaction. Straightening from her position leaned against the side of her car, she said, “Great. You fix my car — with that condition. If you’re wrong, it’s free.”
Mitch stared. In a flash, he realized he’d been had. For a minute, he got even angrier. Then he laughed. “Oh, you’re good.”
She seemed to hold her breath. “Pardon?”
Mitch eyed her high-and-mightiness, then started toward the side counter where he kept his paperwork. “You knew just how to play me.”
There was a cool pause from the woman’s direction. “I’m sure I haven’t ‘played’ anybody.”
“No?” Mitch smiled as he eased his clipboard out from beneath the ever-present pile of incoming mail. “What do you do for a living? Trial lawyer?”
He heard a horrified gasp. “I am not a lawyer.”
Mitch found an ancient ballpoint pen, stuck it on top of the forms that were already attached to the clipboard, then came over to her. “No? You’d be a whiz at destroying a witness.”
She glared at him. “I’m not.”
“Ah.” Mitch smiled.
“I’m a financial consultant.” She really was flustered. “It’s a completely different profession.”
“I’m sure it is.” Pleased he could ruffle her, Mitch held out the clipboard. “Here, fill out the top three lines. After four repair shops in three weeks, I’m sure you know the drill.”
She didn’t make a move to take the clipboard. Her eyes turned a steely color, completely belying her denial of lawyerlike, sharky tendencies. “People pay me to do something useful.”
Mitch grinned. “Same here.”
Her steely eyes flew wide, treating Mitch to a display of their underlying mysterious smoky hue. Then her lips curved, her lashes came down, and she reached for the clipboard.
A good thing, too. He’d been about to drop it. She’d smiled — and what a smile: spontaneous and real. Truly gorgeous.
“Point taken,” she said. As if nothing momentous had just happened, she balanced the clipboard on one hand and started filling out the forms with the other. Her full lips were still slightly curved.
Mitch swallowed and took a step back, away from her. But that just gave him a better view. Cool, crisp lines, sleek, long legs — And worst of all that smile, making her almost…approachable.
Oh, no. No, no, no. Mitch made himself look away. He squinted at the old Volvo. She wasn’t approachable. And he wasn’t an approacher. He wasn’t in any position to approach, least of all to come on to some fancy woman with a seventy-odd thousand dollar car. Besides, she could be married.
“Here you go.”
Mitch turned. She was holding the clipboard toward him, ballpoint pen on top. Just the faintest bit, she was still smiling.
And on her left hand there was no ring.
“Thanks.” Clearing his throat, Mitch retrieved the clipboard and pen.
She picked up her briefcase. “So when can you let me know?”
No ring, Mitch thought. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t going to hit on her. No matter that she had smiled and no matter that his heart was now beating about two hundred yearning thumps per minute. She was out of his league and he wasn’t stupid. “Oh. I’ll call you by noon. You got a work number on here?”
“Yes, I put down my work telephone number, everything on the form.”
“Fine, fine.” Their business was winding down. Soon she’d be gone, safely gone, and he could stop dreaming.
But she didn’t leave. Instead she kept standing there.
Go, Mitch thought.
“Look,” she said.
Mitch had to look. She was looking right back. Her eyes were again that amazing smoky gray. Her appearance was an odd mixture of competence and, weirdly enough…vulnerability. He felt his stomach sink into his loins.
“Look,” she said again, and bit her lower lip. “About our deal.”
He shook his head and blinked. Did they have a deal? “Oh, yeah.” He was willing to fix her car for free — assuming he was wrong about the IAC.
She frowned. “I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s just that, well, I wasn’t kidding about the other four repair shops. I guess I’ve gotten…skeptical.”
It took a full ten seconds before Mitch got it. She was doing her best to apologize. “Ah,” he said, and his voice went deep all by itself. “But you’re in my shop now.”
He hadn’t meant to do that, hadn’t meant to sound a little bit seductive. He was surprised by himself, but he was even more surprised by her. She didn’t stiffen. Her face didn’t freeze in that classic female signal of rejection.
Instead she frowned a little bit, as if…considering. Maybe she was amazed Mitch would dare aspire to a woman of her class. Or maybe, just maybe, she was interested back.
Under his coveralls, Mitch went hot. He abruptly changed his mind. He was going to hit on her. All the reasons he shouldn’t — their different leagues, and the problems he had at home — all of that be damned. Maybe she was interested.
He smiled. “You want a ride?”
Both her eyebrows shot up. “A ride?”
Mitch watched her subtle fluster with deep satisfaction. “Well, your car is out of commission,” he explained. “How were you planning to get to work?”
Her mouth opened. “Work? Oh.” The tops of her cheeks pinkened. Clearly, a way to get to work wasn’t what she’d thought he’d meant when he’d offered her a ride. Yeah, her mind was running on just the track Mitch had hoped: the him-and-her track. “No, I don’t need — ” she started to say. “That is, my office is just across the highway there. I can walk.”
Mitch would have been more pleased by her now obvious fluster if he hadn’t managed to process the information she’d just given him. “Across the highway?” It was his turn to sound flustered. “In that new office park?”
“That’s right.” She smiled.
Well, hell. The new office park was top end rental space: marble lobbies, chandeliers, the works. Only for the chi-chi-est of chi-chi’s. For a minute he felt cowed. She was way out of his league.
But then she notched up her smile on the superiority meter. Challenging.
Mitch rocked back on his heels and grinned. “Well, well, well. I had no idea financial consulting paid so good.”
“Mm.” She gave a nonchalant shrug. “I consult for myself, too.”
It took Mitch a moment to get the implication, and then he laughed. Man, she was pulling out all the stops, doing her best to keep him down. It only made him all the more determined to fly right up into her stratosphere. “Say, if you’re that good, maybe I should take your card.”
Her gaze flicked suspiciously toward him. “You need a financial consultant?”
That did it, her hint of incredulity. It was the final straw. Mitch looked straight at her. “You have no idea,” he said, deadpan, “how much I could use one right now.”
All her superiority fell away. She stared at him. Mitch stared right back. He felt a primitive satisfaction. So okay, he was probably being crude, definitely being childish, but he’d gotten her attention. Her nostrils flared, her eyes widened. He wondered if she was going to pop him one. Or maybe she would…take him up on it?
His blood thrummed through his veins, making him feel more alive than he’d felt in a long while.
At the very moment he was sure she was about to respond, one way or the other, her cell phone rang. It trilled dimly from the depths of her calfskin briefcase. The sound broke the spell. The attention that had been so delightfully focused on Mitch shifted. The promise of passion, any kind of passion, disappeared.
“Excuse me,” she said, and turned aside. With her features perfectly cool again, she dug into her briefcase. Out came a phone. She pressed a button. “Hello?” Acting oh, so calm, she turned aside.
Mitch was amazed. It was as if nothing had passed between them at all. She began gabbing about interest rates. Gabbing fast, chatting loud. As if that weren’t enough, she started strolling toward the open doors of the garage, away from him. Still gabbing, she went through. Without a wave or even a last glance. And definitely without leaving her business card.
Mitch stood there a moment, disbelieving, then decided to chuckle about it. He walked over and tossed the clipboard back onto the pile of mail on the side counter. Hell, she’d been out of his league, anyway. Nor did he have room in his life for a woman, hadn’t for the past two years.
Not that a man had to make much room for the kind of activity Mitch had been fantasizing about.
He stretched his arms in a vain attempt to work the unresolved longing out of his system. With a vigorous shake of the head, he started for the Volvo, which had been patiently awaiting his attention. But his eye caught on the cream-colored Jag instead. A pair of gray eyes rose up in his mind’s eye, eyes that had looked passionate, eyes that had looked maybe, just maybe…interested?
Mitch stopped and drew in a deep, steadying breath. She hadn’t been interested. Just surprised, or even insulted. Hell, this is what came from getting too far out of circulation. He was starting to imagine things. Outrageous things.
His mouth crooked into a wry smile as he continued on to his oil change. Once he finished that, he’d allow himself the pleasure of getting his hands inside the Jag. He looked over at the vehicle and smiled. Now that car was not a figment of his imagination.
Ninety minutes after leaving her precious, but misbehaving, Jaguar at the Fix R Up repair shop, Nadine Wentworth had nearly forgotten about her car problems. In her carpeted, air-conditioned office with its tempered glass windows looking out on the distant desert hills of California’s Antelope Valley, she’d consulted with three clients, checked the market, confirmed a rumor about some high tech stock, and increased her own net worth by about twenty thousand dollars.
Who said you couldn’t make money in a bear market?
Or at least, Nadine could.
Everything was going fine until Jonesy called. Nadine loved talking with clients, usually. But old Thaddeus Jones was a notorious skinflint. It was like pulling teeth to convince him to take a risk. He wanted to complain about her latest advice.
“It’s only a hundred shares.” Nadine rubbed the bridge of her nose. “At this kind of return, you can’t go wrong.”
In his penetrating, whiny voice, Jonesy gave his usual reasons for ignoring Nadine’s excellent advice. Truly, she had no idea why he paid her a monthly stipend when he never wanted to do anything she suggested.
But Jonesy wasn’t the real problem of the morning. The real problem began when the buzzer rang on Nadine’s intercom, interrupting Jonesy. She hit the mute for her end of the phone so Jonesy couldn’t hear her, then pressed the button for the intercom.
“It’s Mitch,” Nadine’s assistant, Sherry, announced. “He’s on line two.”
Mitch, Nadine thought? Mitch? Who the heck was Mitch? Had she signed him up at that personal finance seminar she’d given last week?
“Your auto mechanic,” Sherry elucidated. “Hey, so you took my advice. You won’t be sorry. He’s a wizard.”
Jonesy’s rantings faded even further into the background. Mitch was the auto mechanic. Nadine’s stomach took a slow, dizzying turn. Over the course of the morning, she’d tried to forget about the auto mechanic, about that whole weird interlude at the garage. It had been too…incredible. First on his part, that he’d been flirting with her, and then on hers. She’d responded.
Long ago Nadine had decided she was constitutionally unable to engage in a relationship with a man. Meanwhile, she had no interest in some sordid, purely physical coupling.
Or at least she hadn’t had any interest in one until earlier that morning when she’d turned and seen a shaggy-haired Norse god walking toward her. He’d been smiling. A pure, warm-hearted smile. His smile had transformed what Nadine would have considered a merely physical attractiveness into something truly compelling.
Now at her walnut desk, Nadine turned her wrist to check the time. Her stomach did another turn. “It’s less than two hours,” she muttered.
“It’s not even close to noon,” Nadine said. Never had a car mechanic called her before he’d said he would — if he ever called at all.
“Do you want me to put him through?” Sherry asked.
“Give me a second.” Nadine switched off the intercom. Her stomach felt even more funny. Was it possible — ? No. Ruthlessly, she squelched the surprisingly appealing notion. Mitch the gorgeous auto mechanic could not have been coming on to her. Men never came on to her — at least none had for years, not since Henry had lost his ardor, and had told Nadine exactly why.
Since then, Nadine made sure to put out signals, clear, unmistakable signals. Touch me at your own peril. She considered the signals like beacon lights set on treacherous rocks at sea. They protected both the ship and the rock. Mitch the auto mechanic had seen Nadine’s signals. She knew he had.
But as she sat back in her sleek leather office chair, Nadine felt a warm flush beneath her Ralph Lauren suit. She also knew Mitch had appeared unfazed by her signals. As if he didn’t believe in her rocks — or wouldn’t mind getting smashed by them.
Nadine felt the heat beneath her suit grow as she imagined there might exist a man that reckless. She closed her eyes and fought back the unruly heat. Please. This was ridiculous. Whatever she’d thought had to be a mistake.
All the same, she was getting rid of Jonesy. Leaning forward, she hit off her mute button. “Why don’t you take a few days, think about it. This opportunity isn’t going anywhere — ” Nadine paused. “At least not immediately.”
Jonesy paused, too, then began sputtering. He didn’t like time constraints, which was probably why they usually worked on him.
“I’ll call you,” Nadine promised him. “Tomorrow.” She broke off his connection. Good, let him stew. Then her gaze shifted to the blinking light on the other line.
Mitch. So that was the name for six foot something, two hundred pounds of pure male beauty.
Nadine bit her lower lip. Irrelevant male beauty. This was all too absurd. The fellow was fixing her car. Nothing more.
Setting her jaw, Nadine hit the blinking light for the auto mechanic. “Yeah, so what’s the story?” She’d regained enough control to strike just the right tone between casual and accusatory.
“The story’s good — for you.”
So much for her control. His voice scattered her thinking. It was a really nice voice: deep and somehow affable. It was a moment before Nadine could get past the sound of the voice to the meaning of its words. “Oh.” She blinked. “You mean it wasn’t the IAC that was the problem?”
“Not even close. You got a bad transmission converter lockup. My mistake. Your repair is free.”
He sounded strangely cheerful about it. Nadine took a curl of the telephone cord around one finger. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll pay you, if it’s really fixed.”
“Nope. I told you I knew what was wrong with it. A deal’s a deal.”
Nadine frowned. Why was he refusing her offer to pay him? Was it simply pride? Or was there something else going on here, something pretty unbelievable? Men didn’t offer her free car repairs. That is, they didn’t offer them unless she’d sufficiently intimidated them.
But Mitch wasn’t sounding particularly frightened.
Nadine pulled the telephone cord tight around her finger. “Look, I don’t want you to be out anything.”
“I can handle it.”
“But — ” Nadine uncurled the cord from her finger. This was ridiculous. She was actually arguing with a mechanic over how much she wasn’t going to pay him. “Well,” she said, “I want you to be motivated — ”
“It’ll be ready by closing. That’s six.”
The telephone cord curled quick and tight around Nadine’s finger again. “Oh.”
“Will I see you then?”
Nadine opened her mouth. Nothing came out. That phrase, the way he said it — It sounded like…a date. She cleared her throat. “Sure,” she said, deliberately casual. “I’ll pick up the car at six.”
“See ya then,” he said, and rang off.
Slowly, Nadine untwisted the telephone cord from around her finger. Her heart was racing as if she’d just bought a thousand shares of small cap right before the market closed high.
Oh, this was…so stupid. She didn’t want to feel excited like this. It had been years since she’d allowed herself to feel desire. It hurt too much to want, and know she couldn’t have, or at least she couldn’t have if she wanted to preserve her heart and her pride.
Nadine released a deep breath and told herself to get real. Mitch was just a naturally friendly guy who happened to be very good-looking. Football hero, jungle explorer good-looking. The whole package of him had thrown her this morning. It had got her…fantasizing. But she was back to the hard facts of reality now.
She was a businesswoman who made good money. That was her forte.
Romance was definitely not her forte.
That’s…just the way she was made. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world. She had a lot to be thankful for. A lot.
Nadine smoothed back her hair. She made herself breathe deeply. Then she felt herself grin. This was all so silly. Mitch hadn’t been coming on to her. It was all in her head. Of course it was.
As she’d find out later this evening when she went to pick up her car — nothing else, just get her car — at six.
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