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 1950s 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 Ph.D. 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.
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 real bomb 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 want a 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 pressed 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.”