Braving the Heat(9)

By: Regan Black

“Saves him a trip to the shop tomorrow,” Stephen replied, pulling away from the club.

“That’s...thoughtful.” So why did Mitch seem aggravated?

Stephen’s gaze slid from the nearly deserted streets to her and back to the road. “Practical. I’ve got your car in pieces already, easier for me to put it back together. If that’s what you want.”

“It’s what I need,” she replied. When the case was settled she would take great delight in buying a better car. “You didn’t have to give me a loaner this nice.”

“This was what I had available.” He shifted in the seat as if he wasn’t comfortable with the conversation. “You needed something with better security.”

She could argue the point, though the irritating sabotage spoke for itself. “We don’t even know the prank was aimed at me. It could be someone who thought the car still belonged to the previous owner.” A weak argument was better than none.

He snorted, clearly not any more convinced of that than Grant had been. “Better not to tempt fate again. This one has a tamper-proof tank and hood.”

“Guess that limits someone to cutting the brake lines, slashing tires, rerouting exhaust, planting a GPS tracker or even an explosive,” she said. She’d meant it all as a joke, but the list unnerved her.

“Your safety isn’t a joke. Did you ask Grant for protection?”

“No.” The idea was absurd. She could take care of herself. She leveled her toughest stare at him, the one she saved for those who aimed sexist comments at her when they heard she was a firefighter. There had been far too many opportunities to perfect the expression since Murtagh went public with his complaint and civil suit. “While I’m dressed as a waitress at the moment, you might recall safety is an essential aspect of my career.”

“I only meant—”

“I’m an adult,” she interrupted. “As a firefighter I’m trained to cope with any number of crises, including saving people and property. It’s my job to put out fires.” At least she put out fires whenever lawsuits didn’t keep her on the sidelines. “I’m merely pointing out there’s no way to prevent all forms of trouble. That, too, is an element of my career.”

He didn’t reply and in profile she noticed his jaw set in a hard line. She imagined if the radio were off she would have heard his teeth grinding.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was really rude.” Embarrassed, she toyed with the straps of her backpack. “You’ve gone above and beyond to help me today. Despite the rant, I do appreciate it.”

“Forget it,” he said. “I understand irritable.”

He stopped in front of a wide gate barring the entrance to Galway Automotive. Plucking a key ring from the cup holder, he pressed a button on a fob that must have been connected to his security system. The gate slid back, rolling along the inside of the tall fencing surrounding the business. Rather than put the car in Park, he drove through the opening and the gate slid closed behind them. She caught the cameras mounted at the gate, assumed there were more around the property.

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but it wasn’t the well maintained blacktop pavement surrounding an L-shaped building. What must serve as his office jutted slightly forward from the line of bays stretching to the side. Several cars were parked on a strip of gravel at the far end of the building and the tow truck had been backed into a space near the gate where Stephen could leave quickly if necessary.

Bright security lights mounted around the property were aimed at the building and they came on as he drove by. The manufactured sunlight smothered any hope of shadows. Made of metal rather than stone, the garage didn’t have much in common with a fairy-tale castle, yet Stephen had definitely created a fortress. The only things missing were a moat and a vigilant dragon.

A dragon? The whimsical thought was a clear sign the late hour had taken its toll. She felt a bizarre wish to stay right here in this sheltered place until her troubles went away. Too bad lawsuits didn’t disappear if they were ignored.

He parked next to the office, away from the other cars, and the headlights glanced off the gleaming silver siding of a sleek, bullet-shaped camper.

“It’s bigger than I expected,” she said.

“The trailer?”

“No.” She laughed now, giddy and definitely overtired. “The business.”

He gave her a long look. “I own the block now.”

Impressive. She managed to swallow several prying questions about the man and his work that were none of her concern.