“You’ve got to be kidding.” Lexie glared at her best friend Tom Lorde as she sat on the other side of his desk in the office of Bad Boy Autos. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”
Tom’s returning stare was just as direct. “I’m not doing anything to you. You’re the best restorer of Italian motorcars here, and that’s what this job needs. Besides, Sully is all over this. Do you really think I’d leave you facing this alone? Sully has your back.”
Stay cool, don’t get angry.
The private investigator she wanted to hire to find her husband—soon-to-be ex-husband, if she could find Jason—cost more than she ever imagined, and Bad Boy Autos paid the most. She needed this job. Besides, Tom had promised to help her find her ex.
Time was running out. If she didn’t find him, and soon, she’d lose… She refused to go there. The very idea made the locket, hanging against the bare skin of her neck, feel as if it burned.
Lexie lowered her voice to an ominous timber. “That’s not what I’m talking about. Kade Colter, Tom. Kade. He’s my ex-husband’s brother. You know, my coke head husband who cheated on me, abused me, and stole all my money and worse,” she took a deep breath, trying to keeping the pain at bay, “he secretly mortgaged my cabin and now I might lose it.” Tears filled her eyes.
Nine months ago she’d walked out of her marriage when she’d caught her husband, Jason, in bed with a track bunny. He’d already sold their car and spent the money on drugs, but she’d had no idea that he’d taken a mortgage out on her cabin by forging her signature. He’d changed the address for the correspondence and she’d only learned about it when the person who owned the neighboring cabin rang her to ask if he could buy it. He’d seen the mortgagee sale sign. She had less than three weeks to find the money or she’d lose the cabin. She knew looking for Jason was a waste of time. He’d likely have sniffed the money up his nose, but she would have her divorce and she also might bring charges against him.
Guilt and remorse flickered in Tom’s blue eyes before his expression hardened. “I know Jason was a real bastard to you, but Kade always treated you decent, right? They’re so different, I can’t believe they have the same parents. Besides, a few months ago we turned his business away for you. We can’t do it again. Kade could really damage our reputation if he lets everyone know. Never piss off a freelance journalist, especially when he’s also a hotshot New York Times author. He’s the Rick Castle of the racing car world. He’s rich, and he mixes in the right circles to destroy us.”
Sometimes, Tom could be a real hard-ass. There was no point in wasting her breath with her boss, but she didn’t have to pretend to like it. She rose and left the office without another word.
“Lexie! Come back here!”
Ignoring Tom, Lexie headed for the bay she shared with Jake Sullivan, aka, Sully. Since he was working on a vintage Indian motorcycle that week, there was plenty of room for the sports car currently parked in the bay—with Kade bloody Colter, leaning against a seen-better-days 1962 Alfa Romeo Spider. The quintessential sports car was a wreck, but it was a pure diamond in the rough.
She caught a quick breath at the sight of Kade before turning her attention to the lone Alfa. It sat there, looking forlorn with its faded and chipped racing red paint. A few scratches ran down the door on the side facing her. They reminded Lexie of the deep wounds gouged in her heart.
She wanted to hug the car; it was damaged like her, but hell, with some tender loving care, it would blossom. She took a gulp of air and rubbed her chest. All it needed was a bit of love. Just like her.
No. Never again.
Love sucked. Like this battered car, she’d become bitter and broken and thrown away.
“Can this morning get any worse?” she softly said to herself through gritted teeth. As she took in the self-assured, handsome as sin Kade. Sweat dripped down her brow as the thermometer inched up to 92 degrees, her temper rising with the mercury.
What a beauty!
She raked her gaze over Kade. Yep, a real beauty. Damn it.
Kade grinned, all denim and swagger, smelling like a male model. Looking like a male model. Hot. She ground her teeth. Handsome wasn’t even his middle name. It should be his first—Handsome Colter. And how like him to own the one car her hands itched to work on.
She walked nearer, pushing her hair back off her face. All the better to see the car with—yeah, right? Her gaze shifted from the car to Kade’s dark, mesmerizing eyes. He stepped closer, and suddenly the air fled from her lungs. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth to distract him from seeing the pulse pounding hard in the hollow of her throat. Could he see? Dear God, please no.
Why had she married the wrong brother? Her life would have been completely different if she’d met Kade first.
She blamed him for making her think that. She’d made her bed and now she was both lying in it, and drowning. She blamed him for the time it took him to help her find Jason. Nine months! It took the letter from the bank saying she was about to lose her property for him to decide perhaps he should share what he knew of his brother’s whereabouts. Only now it was too late. Neither of them could find him.
Now she blamed him for insisting she work on his car when she wanted to put the past behind her and pay off all the debts Jason had left her drowning in. She knew it wasn’t fair on Kade. Tom was right, he was a decent guy. But she’d asked him to help her find Jason, and he hadn’t been very forthcoming. He’d only agreed to help when he learned she could have Jason’s ass thrown in jail for fraud. Too little, too late. Was he hiding his brother because she could get him in trouble with the police? She couldn’t blame him for wanting to protect his brother. But it didn’t mean she had to like him for it.
“I brought you a present.” He nodded his head at the Alfa. “How d'you like to work on my car?” Kade’s sexy voice added to the headache building behind her eyes.
Placing her hands on her hips, she smiled. Rock and a hard place. Trapped. She could tell him to fuck off, but as her fingers trailed over the chassis, she admitted she wanted this job. Her eyes flashed to Kade. For the joy of restoring the car. Only the car.
A memory of the ATM swallowing her card this morning was all it took to remind her she couldn’t afford to lose this job.
Kade stepped closer, and he smelled delicious.
She should run, leave, but Kade’s brother had taken all her choices—taken everything, in fact. Money, house, and her pride. The other owner of Bad Boy Autos, Marcus Black, only needed one little reason to show her the door, and pissing off Kade was a big reason.
Her eyes narrowed as she took in Kade’s stance, leaning over the hood of the Alfa as if he owned this workshop, with a smug look on that handsome face.
When did she really ever have a choice?
“She’ll be amazing when I’ve finished with her.” Her stare dared him to disagree.
“I know,” he said as he pushed off the car. “Good—”
“So, what’s her story?” Lexie interrupted. The pleasantries were over. She wanted him gone. She started looking the car over. The hood was in the same sorry state as the passenger side. “Needs a complete new paint job but let’s see what’s under this battered hood. Keys.” She held her hand out to Kade.
He gave her a smile that brought back a lot of memories she wished could be excised from her brain. “You haven’t changed. Still beautiful when you’re pissed off.”
She looked at Kade. “I know you’re not to blame for your brother’s sins, but I can’t deal with you at the moment. I have more to worry about than upsetting Jason’s brother. So the keys, please.”
“I really don’t know where he is.”
She nodded. “So you’ve said. Keys. Please.”
The warmth in Kade’s eyes faded along with his smile. “Look, I know Jason—”
“You don’t know shit, Kade, and I’m not discussing anything except this car with you,” Lexie said.
Or perhaps not. She eyed Kade, and a risky idea swarmed like buzzing bees in her head. Could Kade lead her to Jason? He’d said he didn’t know where his brother was. Her eyes narrowed as she waited for him to hand her the keys. Was he lying? Was he protecting his brother?
Only her pride stopped her from asking Kade to cover the debts his brother had left her with. This was all her fault for being stupid and gullible, so she would fix it. She eyed him slyly. But it wouldn’t hurt to have a backup plan. If the worst should happen…
Kade slid his Ray-Bans back on and held out a key ring. She took it and went around to the driver’s side. As she slid into the driver’s seat, Lexie spotted Tom standing right behind where she’d just been. His eyes held a steely glint, and he’d crossed his arms over his chest. Their gazes clashed for a moment before she cranked the engine to life.
She smiled at the deep growl that met her ears, but a moment later, the motor coughed, sputtered, and died. Lexie found the release lever and popped the hood. Kade beat her to the punch and had the hood propped open before she’d shut the driver’s door.
“It’s a mess,” Kade said. “Which is why I had it towed here. Bad Boy Autos is the best at this work. Money’s no object.”
Tell that to someone who didn’t know where her next meal was coming from. Her bloody attorney had taken her last two hundred, just so he could tell her that getting any money out of Jason was pretty much a lost cause since he seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. If only she could afford a P.I.
Her worthless ex took off and left her with debts she could never repay. He’d put the thing she cherished most in this world in jeopardy. She knew she would lose the cabin. She knew deep down inside that even if she found Jason in time, the money would be gone. It had been over nine months since he’d taken out the money, yet she only learned of it a week ago. Fraud was a word that struck like an ice dagger in her heart. He’d fraudulently signed her name on mortgage papers. Hidden his deceit really well by changing the address on the account.
Jason. Just his name made her stomach fill with acid. Handsome, confident, with a sexy-as-sin smile and money to burn, could turn any woman’s head. But unlike what she did with cars—i.e., check under the hood—Lexie was too young, too desperate for love, and too stupid to look below his surface.
She didn’t want to look under another Colter’s hood unless it had four wheels, so Kade could take that come-to-bed smile and try it on a woman stupider than her. But she wasn’t opposed to using him to get her property back.
She glanced back at Tom, who still stood watching her like a snake about to strike. Tom had warned her not to give Marcus cause to fire her. Marcus was not a fan of Lexie’s. It was Tom who’d hired her because they were best friends from their time working together on the racing circuit.
Marcus painted her with the same brush as Jason, because on the track, Jason had caused Marcus to crash, ending his racing career. Marcus still thought she’d been into the drugs scene too and didn’t trust her. Lexie had never touched drugs in her life. Her mother’s battle with addiction showed her where that could lead. When Jason started snorting, she’d stupidly thought she could help him because of her experience with her mother. She was so wrong…
She looked at Tom. She knew Tom was between a rock and a hard place with Marcus and her. Marcus was also Tom’s best friend. Tom had not left Marcus’s side while he lay in the hospital fighting to walk again. Tom stuck his neck out for her so she would do her job.
Besides, she needed this job. Needed the money.
She reached up and fondled the locket she wore round her neck and never took off. She didn’t need to open it to see the picture inside—she’d memorized it. A picture of her mother standing beside their cabin at Clear Lake. The cabin was the only thing her mother had left her, and now she might—would—lose it.
She squeezed the locket tighter, wishing she could beat Jason black and blue for fraudulently mortgaging the property.
She eyed Kade and knew she could call on him if she had to. But what would he want for the favor? To not press charges against Jason? She didn’t know if she could promise that; she was so angry at Jason for everything he’d put her through.
She would work with Kade. What was the saying? Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer? It wouldn’t be dangerous at all… Surely she was immune to men, especially if their last name was Colter?
She choked with the unfairness of it all. Rubbing her pounding forehead, she sighed. Suck it up! She only had to interact with the car. Not sex-on-legs Kade Colter.
Closing her eyes for a moment, Lexie called on the iron will that had helped her survive all the hell Jason had put her through. She would not let Jason win. No, giving up and crumbling wasn’t an option, wasn’t in her DNA.
Pulling in a fortifying breath, Lexie opened her eyes again and started examining the engine with a critical eye that many surgeons would’ve envied.
Kade studied Lexie’s profile, his brow furrowing when she closed her eyes. Her sooty lashes rested on her high cheeks, and her pretty, dark eyebrows were drawn together. Watching her Cupid’s-bow mouth purse, Kade’s thoughts fled.
Lexie was even hotter than he’d remembered—if that was possible.
Her red spaghetti-strap tank top showed off well-defined shoulders and arms. Lexie’s hands were pretty, but they also held strength, and she kept her nails short. The complete opposite of most of the women he hooked up with—regularly.
Kade’s gaze did a quick sweep over the swell of her breasts, waist, and flaring hips. Curvaceous, rather than pencil thin, suited him just fine. Lexie’s eyes opened just as his reached her toned, tanned legs and small feet. Her toenails, painted a metallic silver, reminded him of chrome, and drove him crazy.
Shoving his hands in his jeans pockets, Kade turned his attention to the engine. “I think the alternator needs replacing, engine reconditioned, and who knows what the hell else.”
Lexie didn’t respond, which irked Kade. His teeth ground together at her attitude. Why should he have to pay for all the shit Jason did?
Because you’re a reminder of how he ripped her heart out.
Kade told his inner voice to shut the fuck up.
He took a deep breath and noticed Tom staring at him. The message in his eyes said he’d better watch himself around Lexie. Hurting her was the last thing he wanted to do. His brother had hurt her enough. She’d explained Jason was the person who owed her, and she’d collect from him. What churned his gut like a concrete mixer was thinking about what she’d do to Jason if the money was gone. She could have his brother thrown in jail.
Didn’t she know she held all the cards? It amazed him Jason’s ass wasn’t in jail already. He’d fraudulently stolen from her.
Unintimidated, Kade gave Tom a half-smile and lowered his eyes to the car again.
Funny that both of them had the same goal. He wanted to find Jason as much as Lexie did. His bother might be the lowest of the low, but he was still his brother, and he wanted to help him. He’d pay for rehab and hope that Jason stuck at it this time. If Jason refused… then he knew his brother would likely be dead within two years, and he’d promised their mother, on her deathbed, that he’d look after his younger brother.
Guilt. You feel guilty.
He pushed the inner voice away, but he felt guilt… because he’d wanted his brother’s fiancée the minute he’d met Lexie, and then she’d married his brother, and a part of him had wanted the marriage to fail—but not like this.
The concentration on Lexie’s face fascinated and amused him. It was as though she had X-ray eyes and could see inside the metal, wires, and plastic to diagnose the problem.
“Where d'you get this?”
Her voice startled him a little because he hadn’t been expecting her to speak. “From someone I used to know.”
Lexie shook her head and put her hands on her hips. “Good thing you have money to burn because this heap of junk will cost a fortune to fix.” She pointed out corroded battery terminals, bare wires, and worn hoses. “And that’s just what I can see. I have a hunch that when I get it up on a lift, I’ll find tons of other stuff wrong with it.” Her eyes met his. “Sure you don’t want to just junk it and cut your losses?”
Kade responded to the hope in her expression with a shake of his head. “Not a chance. This’ll be a sweet ride once you work your magic on it.”
“There are plenty of places that could work magic with it.”
The right side of his mouth lifted in a half-smile. “Not like you can, Lex. You’ve got the Midas touch. I’m sure you’ll have her purring for me in no time.”
Lexie’s expression tightened, and she gave a curt nod. “I’ll go over her today and work up an estimate of what she needs. I need to get changed so I can get started.”
As she walked away, Kade couldn’t keep his eyes averted from her fine ass. He tamped down his annoyance over her cold-shoulder treatment, telling himself that it was understandable. Why would she trust a Colter?
“Sorry about that.”
Kade shrugged as Tom walked over to him. “No problem. I expected as much.”
Tom frowned. “I’ll talk to her. Her history with your brother has nothing to do with you, and I don’t want it to interfere with our business. Do you know where that loser brother of yours is? That would help her.”
“Don’t go there, Tom. It’ll only make things worse,” Kade objected. “I’ll find him.”
Tom gave Kade a measuring look and nodded. “Okay.”
Kade held out a hand to Tom. “It’s good to see you again. Let me know how much this will rock me.”
After saying goodbye to everyone, Kade got in his silver Mercedes GT and started it. Driving away, he tried to put the scene with Lexie out of his mind, but he couldn’t shake the image of the anger and hurt in her eyes. Once again, he mentally cursed his brother for fucking up, but this time was different.
Jason hadn’t just given in to his addiction, he’d screwed over an incredible woman like Lexie, and Kade wanted to kick his little brother’s teeth in for hurting her so badly—if he could find him.
He might be a freelance investigative journalist, but he hadn’t fooled himself into thinking he could do this alone. The private detective he’d hired usually helped investigate any piece he was working on. In fact, he had him on a piece right now.
He was also the one who’d uncovered just how bad Jason’s addiction had gotten and the illegal shit he’d done. Nine months ago, he’d fraudulently mortgaged Lexie’s cabin and had absconded with the money.
That’s the reason he’d insisted on Lexie working on his car. He wanted to talk her into letting him give her the money to pay the mortgage, so she didn’t press charges against Jason and have his ass thrown in jail. The money for her cabin and Jason did not get arrested. He still couldn’t understand why she hadn’t gone to the cops already.
She couldn’t possibly still have feelings for Jason?
Well, it wasn’t the only reason he’d picked her. She was hot, and he still wanted her.
The idea of her still having feelings for Jason made his chest ache. He’d always had a thing for Lexie, and he wasn’t deluding himself. There had been a spark between them, but he wasn’t the type to make a move on someone else’s woman, especially one his brother wanted to marry. So he’d never acted on that spark.
If she’d been single, would he have made a move?
She wasn’t his normal type. So sue him; models were a draw card, and he met plenty in his line of work. Magazine journalists were magnets for models looking to get a foot in the door.
While Lexie was hot, a model she wasn’t, but she was still as sexy as sin. Lexie could model in a fitness magazine. She had a body full of sinewy muscles and not an ounce of fat on her.
He smiled. And she had a vicious tongue. He’d never gotten her out of his head. She intrigued and excited him.
For now, he wanted to help her out of the mess his brother had landed her in and save Jason from himself. He admired her resolve to sort it out on her own. Most women he knew wanted his money, usually as much, if not more, than they wanted him. Lexie didn’t give a shit about his money, and that was another very attractive quality.
As he downshifted and turned a corner, the little devil on his shoulder laughed. He wanted her, and when in his life had he ever let something he wanted slip away? He just wasn’t sure what he wanted from the dark beauty. He certainly didn’t want to hurt her, and she was still the walking wounded. He’d have to handle Lexie with kid gloves and go slow. Making friends with her was a good way to start out.
The absurdness of his thoughts made Kade laugh out loud. When could they ever be friends?
He must be insane to even consider his plan. Lexie would probably see right through it. He wasn’t above offering her the money to save her cabin in exchange for never filing charges against Jason. He wondered if it would be better for Jason to make him face charges. It might straighten him out.
Then his mother’s last words played in his head. “He’s not strong like you. I overindulged him. Promise me you’ll look out for Jason.”
Keeping Lexie on his side so she wouldn’t bring charges would take all his negotiation skills. Despite that, he was looking forward to spending time with her very much.
Smiling at his reflection in the rearview mirror, he said, “Colter, you’re one crazy son of a bitch.”