Today's Reading

Chapter One

Ella Boudreaux drove past Abbott Brothers Garage and Restoration instead of pulling into the parking lot and marching inside like the part owner she was. She wasn't scared exactly. More like slightly nervous about her reception.

Lies. Her stomach was ready to turn itself inside out. After all, she'd unwittingly performed a hostile takeover of twenty-five percent of the garage. Ford had made it sound like buying his stake would be doing his family a favor. The three other Abbott brothers had not viewed her buyout as a favor but as an act of war.

Especially Mack Abbott, the de facto leader. The oddity of a well- off society divorcee buying into a car garage and restoration business wasn't lost on her, but the opportunity had fired some deep well of sentimentality she'd thought had been slashed and burned by her divorce.

She stopped the car on the shoulder of the narrow parish road, the Abbott Brothers sign still visible in her rearview mirror. The coward's voice in her head urged her to leave the garage in her rearview and have Andrew Tarwater negotiate a sale back to Mack Abbott. She silenced the dissenting voice with her sometimes-faked bravado. "Fake it until you make it" wasn't just a quaint saying, it was her life motto. She was going to march into the garage and prove she could be an asset.

Would they judge her on her car? She squeezed the steering wheel of the small blue convertible. It wasn't her style, but it was sexy and expensive and had annoyed her ex-husband, Trevor, which had been as good a reason as any to buy it after the divorce.

Since moving to Cottonbloom, people had assumed she was living off her divorce settlement, and she hadn't done anything to dissuade the misconception. Let them underestimate her like her ex-husband had.

The truth was she had taken a cut of the business she had built with Trevor and formed Magnolia Investments. She was buying up promising real estate around Cottonbloom. Her above-average instincts coupled with her methodical research meant she rarely took a loss.

She'd stayed below the radar, using a young, hungry, discreet lawyer to close deals. The last thing she needed was her ex to catch wind of her new venture and to interfere. Negotiating when no one knew her gender was simpler and faster. Dodging all the "honeys" and "sugars" and infiltrating the south Mississippi good-old-boys' network would take time and proven successes.

The garage was different. Personal. Instead of taking on a silent investor role and flipping for a profit, she wanted to get her hands dirty. Her brother had taught her that anything meaningful required work, and she wanted to make him proud—even if he wasn't there to see it. His passion had been cars, and the hours she'd spent shadowing him as a kid had affected her. Although at the moment, she worried her nostalgia had affected her sanity.

She whipped her car around, the tires spinning on the gravel on the shoulder, and headed back toward the garage, parking next to a big black truck that could squash her little convertible like a no-seem- um.

Her hands trembled. While hard work might not scare her off, she was a teensy, tiny bit afraid of facing Mack Abbott. Not only was he physically intimidating, but his dark eyes could cut a person to ribbons.

She slipped out of her car and smoothed her gray high-waisted pencil skirt and retucked her white blouse. The red pearl-buttoned sweater she wore did little to protect her from the bite of the March breeze.

In case anyone was watching, she pasted on a smile flavored with more than a little bit of "I don't give a damn what you think of me." It was a smile she'd perfected since leaving her childhood home in the middle of nowhere, Mississippi, and it had served her well.

She threw open the customer door and was hit by a wall of noise. Sparks arced from a corner where an Abbott grinded down a piece of metal. His coveralls and safety mask made identification impossible, although he wasn't as big as she remembered Mack being. In another corner, another brother welded, and she averted her eyes from the snapping light. He too was concealed by a mask.

That left the third Abbott on a skid tucked under a jacked-up cherry red Datsun 240Z. Ella touched her fingertips against the cement- block wall to ground herself in the here and now. She'd sat on a worktable when she was a kid and watched her brother fix up a car exactly like it, down to the same color.

Her heart rate picked up like goosing a gas pedal even though her head accepted the fact that the man underneath the car wasn't her brother. Yet, could the car be an omen?

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