Love without a cause
Leaves me trapped
Inside my own bars.
~ Romeo Santos, "Promise"
My first clear memory of Brian is the day I broke up his street scuffle with Vince.
He was sitting at the counter. His flirting made it hard to concentrate on the books. Crunching numbers ain’t easy with a soundtrack of innuendo going nonstop. So I got up to grab a drink. Needed something to cool my nerves before I said something. Especially since if I did? Mia would just tear me up for it.
I pushed the fridge door closed and he was watching me. This wasn’t just a casual glance though. This was a look of curiosity and something else. He was taking my measure. Didn’t have a problem with me knowing it. Wanted me to know it, in fact. Something in the tilt of his head, the intensity of his blue eyes, made it something more. It slammed into me hard, and for the space of a heartbeat I couldn’t move. Couldn’t even breathe.
It wasn’t his first time showing up for lunch, but it was the first time I’d bothered to be there. In fact, it was the team’s bitching (and Vince acting odd and moping) that goaded me away from the garage. I wanted to see him for myself. Especially since he’d become an unknown – and a source of unwanted drama – in the team dynamic.
Easy to see why. It was impossible to ignore that kind of presence.
Last thing I wanted was get involved in separating him and Vince. Their scuffle was entirely testosterone-driven, and I wanted no part of it. Public domain; they weren’t about to damage anything inside the diner, so what did I care? If delivery-boy couldn’t hold his own against Vince, it was better to let the team run him off instead of me doing it.
And if he could? Well. I guess you could say I used it as a test.
Must have been an even match. Because the girls both got up in my grill.
They weren’t about to let me finish my soda in peace. If I insisted, I’d never hear the end of it. I’m not a big fan of drama. Vince’s shit kinda pisses me off, and I had no problem at all letting him know it after pulling Brian off him. Took it out on Brian, too. Didn’t care what he thought. I just wanted a couple hours of quiet, time to work the damned books and balance a fucking budget. The pair of them had spoiled it.
What pissed me off more, though, was Letty and Mia wanting Big Bad Dom to flex his muscles. So it was all on them if I took it beyond what they wanted. I hoped maybe it would teach them not to try telling me what to do. Like I’m some Rottweiler on a leash, and all they gotta do is sic me on whoever they want.
It wasn’t that I wanted him gone. Far from it, really. I’d seen something in his gaze back there when he was staring at me. I didn’t scare him. Not even when I got in his face; he didn’t flinch, didn’t show the faintest hint of being intimidated. My logic in that moment, heat rising off the asphalt beneath the height of the California sun, was that he would spell trouble for me. Just looking at him made my gut tingle, and that was a bad sign. Enough confusion for me to want to be rid of him. Complication I didn’t need and wasn’t looking for.
But I liked him, against logic and sense and anything rational. Even from that first moment, I wanted. That gut instinct we find so easy to ignore. Deep down in that spot that craves.
And that’s why I indulged him that night. Told him so. Not in so many words; he met my gaze and saw it. The answering glint of understanding can happen between complete strangers.
That was a first, for me. A visceral connection with someone I didn’t know. Scary shit.
Cocky punk, standing there with his hands shoved in his pockets. Shaggy, sun-bleached surfer-boy curls. Flashing a million-watt smile, “yeah, that’s my car.” It’s so obvious he’s desperate to earn respect. It’s also crystal he knows it doesn’t come easy. Did he know he was so easy to read?
He’s so country-boy American, he’s cornbread. Makes me think of varsity jackets and Friday night lights on the football fields and all the rest; Sunday afternoon barbeques with potato salad, baked beans, and the heavy smell of mesquite. Paper plates, red Solo cups, and the squealing laughter of a dozen kids.
Bet he was a quarterback in high school. Bean sprout, whip thin. Long fingers perfect for wrapping around pigskin. Or other things... Wrenches. Mufflers. Yeah.
His confidence hadn’t dimmed the slightest when he pulls to a stop a few paces from my RX7 after the race. If anything, it’s got an extra glow thanks to the contact high of the NOS-punch. There’s a glazed look in those blue eyes. Really? A turbo-virgin? He never had me. I tell him as much. But he earns a wedge of respect from me, just for how he handled himself. He’s got potential. And more than that, he’s hungry for something. Not sure what it is, though. Definitely not the money, going by his car. Easily worth $50k the hard way – parts, labor, and tuning; tweaks, paint and decals.
And he didn’t hesitate to put up his pinks for a $2k buy-in. Is he that stupid? Maybe the sun bleached all the brain cells out through the roots of his hair. I mean, being a speed-junkie is one thing, but this boy takes it to a whole different level. His vibe’s changed, just in the ten seconds it took to cover a quarter-mile strip of asphalt.
He reminds me a bit of Jesse. Seems so young and vibrant, fresh and full of life. Like there’s more behind that vivid blue gaze than his body can contain. He listens to me rant at him, criticizing his driving and ripping it to pieces like an engine in the middle of an overhaul. Has a grin curling his lips the entire time. Even when the crowd cheers in agreement of my assessment.
I barely have time to register the neon green of his car when he skids past me. Cop sirens wailing nearer with every passing second, adrenaline thick in my blood and my pulse pounding in my ears, I manage to keep from body-slamming into the passenger-side door. Door pushes open, “Dom, get in.”
Calling it shock would be an understatement. He’s the last person I expected to see. Where’s my team? Damn them, for bailing without giving me a second thought. It should be Vince’s car I’m clinging to the seat in, as he guns it and whips out of the alley into the street, drifting through the turn.
Makes it look as easy as taking a spatula to a bowl of brownie mix.
But God, am I glad to see him. And what a sight for sore eyes. I can’t decide what to watch, the intensity of his focus as he slaloms around a pair of cruisers, or the scowling patrolmen scant inches away. He might have a lot to learn about racing in a straight line, but he makes the rice-burner dance down the street without breaking a sweat or missing a beat. Downshifting to whip past them, shifting again to roar off and leave them breathing his dust.
Slides through another turn, weaves through traffic smooth as you please. Not the slightest hesitation, not a breath of wasted movement as he works the steering wheel, clutch, accelerator, stick shift. Tendons cording in his forearms and neck, his gaze flicks from mirror to mirror, back to the road. He wrings every bit of torque and sprint from the fried engine that it has to give. And not a drop of sweat on his brow – he’s in his element, no doubt about it.
The respect-o-meter inches up a few notches, and I don’t begrudge him that. Don’t know how much to trust him though. So I try to get a bit of background out of him. I know where the driving prowess comes from, bits and pieces of his past. Want to see how honest he’d be though.
Gotta put a stock engine on the dyno before you start to tweak it, right? Know what you got to work with.
He glances at me when I mention his juvie record. Tension around his mouth. “Supposed to be sealed,” is all he says before he goes back to staring at the road. One chilly cucumber, let me tell you.
Even when the crotch rockets swarm around us and Lance crams his semi-automatic in the window at him. No smart quips or sarcasm that would set off an unknown. Ice smooth, goes with the flow.
And damn, that’s impressive. None of my crew would’ve been so cool, but they know the history, the tension weaving around the car. Brian doesn’t. He takes his cue from me just as easily as he read me before the race.
I don’t know what drove me to deny I’d taken delivery of the car. Part of me was hoping to save such a beautiful piece of automotive artwork. Especially after watching Brain make it dance down the road like that. Anyone on the streets could appreciate the amount of time and effort he’d put into it – even if it wasn’t his money. I mean, if it had been his money, he could have come up with a couple G’s for the race, right? Maybe that had just been about upping the ante to be sure we – I – wouldn’t refuse him the chance to earn a measure of respect.
But if I admitted ownership of the car, Johnny wouldn’t have hesitated to rip it up. Deep down, I knew the odds weren’t in the car’s favor the minute Johnny and Lance led us back to the heart of their turf. Better the car than me, though. Or Brian.
The way Lance hardly even looked at the car, gaze locked on Brian, “yeah, it’s an amazing machine.” That got my hackles up. The only way for me to recoup anything was to make sure Brian still owed me a car. He wouldn’t fight me on that. I could read that much when his gaze met mine over the roof. Snowman, cool customer, hands crammed in the front pockets of his stonewashed jeans. Just looking at me. Big blue eyes a little wide, surprised I pulled that one. He’d honor his bet, pay his debt. And if he managed to pull a smooth one on me in the process, well. At that moment I didn’t much care. Not his fault he drove right into the Tran territory helping me evade the cops. His cool’s contagious though. Helps me keep a level head.
He owes me a car; that makes him mine. My mechanic. Much as it annoys me, slapping that look off Lance’s face won’t get me and Brian out of the situation unscathed. So I keep a good grip on the temper that’s making the vein throb in my temple.
The most remarkable thing about hoofing it toward the closest taxi… Having him there beside me was relaxing. Soothing. Them boys get me worked up way too easy. Too much history, and they’re just way too damned unpredictable. Takes me back to my days in Lompoc, trying to watch every direction at once. Of course you can’t manage it, right? But strolling down the middle of the empty road with Mr. Arizona, damn. I could use that cool of his. Like aloe on a fresh burn. Team needed something, that’s for sure. Him and Vince might not have gotten off on the best foot, but that didn’t mean much. I mean, hey. This is Vince we’re talking about, right?
Letty thought he was too pretty. Jesse’s input, “there’s no such thing, girl.”
Leon just kinda shrugged off the whole confrontation. He knew his opinion would count, but like me? He knew it was way too soon to say for sure. He wouldn’t begrudge the possibility though. Hell, him and Jesse just showed up one day for crying out loud. And never left. Wouldn’t be strange if it happened again, just when we needed it.
There are moments when I wonder what does frighten Brian. He asked what the display of machismo was all about. When I told him it was a long story, anyone else would have taken that for the dismissal it was. If there’d been any doubt, I’m sure the attitude rolling off me just then should have clinched it.
But not Mr. Arizona. Nope. Smooth as you please he jumps right back in with, “humor me.” So I give him the short version. What’s bad blood ever about, right? Money and family and women. One way or another. Just turns out this situation had all that rolled up in there. Honor and loyalty and trust, a fragile balance to maintain to say the least. Crush them all, and there’s no hope for redemption.
He listens without comment, and I glance over at him. Wondering why it feels like he’s reading between the lines.
Poor Eclipse. Talk about collateral damage. I’m just relieved I managed to get myself and Brian out of that intact. Cars? Replaceable. Limbs and lives, not so much.
I was the reason why he’d been at risk to begin with, that made him my responsibility. If it had just been him cruising through Tran territory, Johnny would have left him be. No doubt about it. They didn’t have a grudge against him. Course, they probably will now. Guilt by association and all that.
So now? Now, he’s kinda under my wing whether I planned it or not. My mechanic. Got a ways to go yet, but I’m liking the numbers I’m getting. Never know when some unforeseen weakness will crop up and set you back though.
My mind’s on the crew for the rest of the way back to the house. It keeps my awareness off the tingle in my nerves. The heat pooling in my gut. I don’t understand my reaction to him, don’t understand this intensity that makes everything else just blur into the background. Brian isn’t chatty, which is fine with me. The gears are too busy churning in my head. If the nights actually bothered to get cold at all, ya might’ve seen steam rolling out my ears or something.
It royally pisses me off that not a single one of them showed face to make sure I didn’t end up in cuffs somewhere. Don’t know why I told Brian I wouldn’t go back. Not that it wasn’t the honest-to-god truth. It was. Didn’t realize it was the truth until I said it. I don’t talk about that shit, not to anyone. It’s been almost ten years for fuck’s sake, and I still have nightmares. Nobody knows that. Nobody knows about the times I wake up covered in sweat, every muscle in my body clenched so tight I may as well be a statue forged from solid steel. Not even Letty.
Guess I told him because I feel a little guilty for digging around in his past. Only a little – ya learn real fast to be cautious, know what I mean? But I think I meant it as a peace offering.
Fuck, I could really use a Corona. Pretty-boy Snowman looks like he could use one too.
And it kinda startles me when he calls out “see ya,” makes off down the sidewalk.
Can’t hurt to show him a little gratitude. Whatever his motivation for saving my ass, he did it. And the fucking team – and Vince – could use a little reminder of who the big dog in the house is.
He trails up the steps after me.
God, this pisses me off so much. Party in full swing. Even Letty’s sprawled on the floor playing GTA without a care in the world. I could be sitting in jail right now staring at another sentence and they’re all sucking face, sucking beer, and kicking back.
I want to punch something. Torque a few nuts loose. Without the assistance of an air wrench.
Vince mouths off, predictably. And he sees something in my eyes when I lick into him. “Cuz the buster kept me out of handcuffs.” Know there’s more Coronas elsewhere – taking the one Vince just opened wasn’t necessary. Convenient, yes. I did it because Letty and Mia aren’t the only ones who seem to have taken up the “Rott-on-a-Rope” mindset. Brian ain’t stupid. He could see that, played right along and rubbed salt into the wound for me.
The moment Brian takes off for the second-floor bathroom, Vince descends on me. All sound and fury, and I offset it with a long swig of Corona while he does the po-po accusation skit for what seems like the hundredth time.
Gotta hand it to him, he’s got some dogged persistence. Damned pit bull is what he is. Grabs a hold of something, and you can’t break his grip to save your ass. Pisses me off that Vince can keep after that when he wasn’t there when I needed him, and doesn’t really even know the guy from Adam.
Then again, that’s exactly Vince’s point. I don’t know Brian either.
But you gotta give someone a chance now and then. Take a risk getting to know them. Don’t know your car’s potential if you aren’t willing to punch the gas – or the NOS – hang on and let her rip. Circle stays pretty small when you just stick to the people you know… We could use some fresh blood. I could use some fresh blood. I’ve been searching for something and haven’t figured out what.
They don’t need to know about the visceral kind of reaction I have to the man. The reasons for my choices are my own and I don’t have to share them. Or explain. Thank God. Back then, I don’t think I could have if they asked me to. “There was a time I didn’t know you, Vince.”
“Yeah, that was the third grade.” Motherfucker. He’s got me. I laugh, shake my head, and the nervous tension between me and the team snaps and fades away. For now. Them and their fucking drama. The peace won’t last long.
Letty laughs when I remind Brian he still owes me a ten-second car. And that look is back in his eyes. Same one he lit on me at the diner. Did he think saving my ass balanced out? Well. It does, actually. He doesn’t need to know that though. Don’t need to know that I’m doing him a favor. Someone needs to teach the boy a few things. Hate to see all that potential go to waste.
Hate to miss the opportunity to see him more. Can’t put my finger on why, though. And that’s got me curious. Mr. Arizona. As much a mystery as any other snowball in Hell.
Letty drags me off up the stairs for a quick fuck. Just the thing to take the edge off the irritation still cranking through me. Relieve some of that pent-up heat that’s been building all damned night. Distraction from golden halo curls and piercing blue eyes that make me feel like nothing ever has before. Not even Letty, with her rough edges and coarse attitude, and energy to match me.
Does it even matter that it feels like I know all I need to about Brian, simply because I’ve seen him drive?
Details are just window dressing.