Every family started with a house, a mother, a father, and a passel of squabbling siblings. Brooke Hart had no father, two unsociable brothers who seemed deathly afraid of her, and a 1987 Chevy Impala.
As far as families went, it wasn’t much, but it was a thousand times better than before. Then there was the mysterious message from an estate lawyer in Tin Cup. They needed to ‘talk’ was all that he said, and apparently lawyers in Texas didn’t believe in answering machines, because every time she tried to call, no one answered. In her head she had created all sorts of exciting possibilities, and journeyed cross country to see the lawyer, bond with her brother, and find a place to call home, all of which was exciting and expensive, which meant that right now, she was in desperate need of a job. Money was not as necessary as say, love, home, and a fat, fluffy cat, but there were times when money was required. One, when you needed to eat, and two, when your three year old Shearling boots weren’t cutting it anymore.
In New York, the boots had been cute and ordinary and seventy-five percent off at a thrift store. In the smoldering September heat of Texas, she looked like a freak. An au currant freak, but a freak nonetheless.
As she peered into the grocery store window, she studied the older couple who were the stuff of her dreams. In Brooke Hart’s completely sentimental opinion, the spry old codger behind the cash register could have been Every Grandpa Man. A woman shuffled back and forth behind the counter and the store room in the back. Her cottony gray hair was rolled up in a bun, just like in the movies. The cash register was a relic with clunky keys that her hands itched to touch. The wooden floor of the grocery was neat, but not neat enough, which was the prime reason she was currently here.
They looked warm, hospitable, and in desperate need of young, able-bodied assistance.
The one advantage to living with Brooke’s mother, Charlene Hart, was that Brooke knew the three things to absolutely never do when searching for a job.
One. Do not show up drunk, or even a more socially acceptable tipsy. Future employers frowned on blowing .2 in a Breath-alyzer.
Two. Do not show up late for an appointment. As Brooke had no appointment, this wasn’t a problem.
And the last, but most important rule in job-hunting was to actually show up. Although Brooke believed that deep down her mother was beautiful spirit with a generous nature and a joyous laugh, Charlene Hart was about as present in death as she was in life, which was to say, not a lot.
Frankly, being family-less sucked, which was she had been so excited to track down her two brothers. To better appeal to them, she’d concocted the perfect life. Storybook mother, devoted step-father, idyllic suburban residence, and a rented fiancée (Two hundred bucks an hour, not cheap). But her brothers had missed the Handbook on Quality Family Reunions, and although they’d been polite enough, their shields were up the entire time. If they found out the truth of Brooke’s less than storybook existence? A disaster of cataclysmic proportions. So, right now, she wasn’t going to let them find out.
Right now, get a job, work her way into her new family’s good graces, find out what the lawyer wanted, and then, when the time was right, Brooke would spring the truth on them.
But not yet. First step involved getting a job, paying her way, shouldering her own financial burdens. Slowly she sucked in a breath, bunching her sweater to hide the green patch beneath the right elbow. In New York, the mismatched patch looked artsy, chic-chic, but to two elder citizens, it might seem – frivolous. Finally satisfied that she looked respectable, Brooke walked through the rickety screen door, catching it before it slammed shut.
The friendly old proprietor gave her a small-town-America smile, and Brooke responded in kind.
“I’m here about the job. I think I’m your girl. I’m energetic, motivated. I have an excellent memory, and my math skills are off the charts.”
The man’s jovial mouth dwindled. “We didn’t advertise for help.”
“Maybe not, but when opportunity knocks, I say, open the door and use a doorstop so that it can’t slam shut.”
Behind her, she heard the door creak open, as if the very fates were on her side. Her spirits rose, because she knew that this small grocery story in Tin Cup, Texas was fate. Emboldened, Brooke pressed on. “When I saw this adorable place, I heard the door-knock of fate, and I knew it was the perfect opportunity. Why don’t you give me a try?”
The old man yelled to the back: “Gladys! Did you advertise for help? I told you not to do that. I can handle the store.” Then he turned his attention to Brooke. “She thinks I can’t do a gall-darned thing anymore.”
From behind her, an arm reached around, plunking a can of peas on the wooden counter. The proprietor glanced at the peas, avoided Brook’s eyes, and she knew the door of opportunity was slamming on her posterior. She could feel it.
Hastily she placed her own perfectly competent hand on the counter. “My brothers will vouch for me. Austen and Tyler. I’m one of the Harts,” she announced. It was a line she had clung to like a good luck charm.
At the man’s confused look, she chuckled at her own misstep, hoping he wouldn’t notice the shakiness in her laugh. “Dr. Tyler Hart and Austen Hart. They were raised here. I believe Austen is now a very respectable member of the community. Tyler is a world-famous surgeon.”
She liked knowing her oldest brother was in the medical profession. Everybody loved doctors.
The man scratched at the stubble on his cheek. “Wasn’t that older boy locked up for cooking meth?”
Patiently Brooke shook her head. If the man messed up this often, she would be a boon to his establishment. “No, you must have him confused with someone else.”
A discreet cough sounded from behind her, and once again the proprietor yelled to the back. “Gladys! Which one of the Hart boys ended up at the State Pen?”
Astounding. The man seemed intent on sullying her family’s good reputation. Brooke rushed to correct him, but then Gladys appeared with four cartons of eggs stacked in her arms. “There’s no need to yell, Henry. I’m not deaf,” she said, and then gave Brooke a neighborly smile. “He thinks I’m ready to be put out to pasture.” She noticed the can of peas. “This yours?”
“It’s mine,” interrupted the customer behind her.
Not wanting to seem pushy, Brooke smiled apologetically. Gladys placed the eggs on the counter and then peered at Brooke over silver spectacles. “What are you here for?”
“The job,” Brooke announced.
“We don’t need any help,” Gladys replied, patting Brooke on the cheek like any grandmother would. Her hands were wrinkled, yet still soft and smelled of vanilla. “Are you looking for work?” she asked. Soft hands, soft heart.
Realizing this was her chance, Brooke licked dry lips and then broke into her speech. “I’m Brooke Hart. I’m new in town. I don’t want to be an imposition on my family. Not a free-loader. Not me. Everybody needs to carry their own weight, and by the way, I can carry a good bit of weight.” She patted her own capable biceps. “Whatever you need. Flour. Produce. Milk. And I’m very careful on eggs. People never seem to respect the more fragile merchandise, don’t you think?”
Gladys looked her over, the warm eyes cooling. “You look a little thin. You should be eating better.”
The hand behind her shoved the peas forward, sliding the eggs close to the edge. Smartly, Brooke moved the carton out of harms way.
“I plan to eat better. It’s priority number two on my list – right after I find a job. I’m really excited to be here in Tin Cup, and I want to fit in. I want to help out. Perhaps we could try something on an temporary basis.” She flashed her best “I’m your girl” smile. “You won’t regret it.”
“You’re one of the Harts?” asked the old man, still looking confused.
“Didn’t think there was a girl. Old Frank hated girls. “ From the look on Gladys’ face, Gladys was no fan of Frank Hart, either.
“I never actually met my father,” Brooke explained, not wanting people to believe she was cut from the same rapscallion cloth. “My mother and I moved when I was in utero.”
“Smartest thing she ever did, leaving the rest of them,” said Henry.
Brooke blinked, not exactly following all this, but she needed a job, and she sensed that Mr. Green Peas was getting impatient. “I really need a job. My brother, Austen, will vouch for me.”
Gladys’s silvery brows rose to an astounding height. “Nothing but trouble, that one. Stole from Zeke…” Then she sighed. “He’s doing good things now, with the railroad and all, but I don’t know.”
“That was a long time ago.” Henry chimed in, apparently more forgiving.
“It’s getting even longer,” complained the man behind her.
Gladys shook her kindly head. "We're not looking to hire anybody, and you being a stranger and all. No references, except for your brother….”
“I’m new in town,” Brooke repeated in a small voice, feeling the door of opportunity about to hit her in both her posterior and also her face as well. Doors of opportunity could sometimes be painful.
“I’ll vouch for her.”
At first, Brooke was sure she had misheard. It had happened before. But no, not this time. Brooke turned, profoundly grateful that the goodness of small-town America was not overrated. She’d live in Atlantic City, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, and six freezing weeks in St. Paul. She’d dreamed of a little town with bakeries and cobblestone streets and hand-painted signs and people who smiled at you when you walked past. She’d prayed for a little town, and finally she was about to live in one. “Thank you,” she told the man behind her.
He was tall, in his mid-thirties, with chestnut brown hair in badly need of a cut. There wasn’t a lot of small-town goodness emanating from the rigid lines of his face. A black patch covered his left eye and he had a thin scar along his left cheek. In fact, he looked anything but friendly, but Brooke didn’t believe in judging a book by its cover, so her smile was genuine and warm.
“You know her Captain?” Gladys asked.
Mr. Green Peas nodded curtly. “It seems like forever.”
“Finally making some friends, I see. It’s good to know, Sonya will be happy to hear.”
Not sure who Sonya was, but sensing that Captain’s opinion counted with these two, Brooke turned and faced the couple. “Please, give me a job,” she urged. “You won’t regret it.”
From somewhere in the tiny grocery, Brooke could hear a relentless pounding. A rapid-fire thump that seemed oddly out of placed in the sleepy locale.
Gladys and Henry didn’t hear the loud noise.
No one did.
Because, duh, it was her own heart.
She told herself it didn’t matter if she didn’t land this job with this homespun couple. It didn’t matter if her brothers didn’t welcome her with open arms. It didn’t matter if the lawyer had made a mistake.
She told herself that none of it mattered.
All her life Brooke had told herself that none of it mattered, but it always did.
Her hands grasped the counter, locking on the small tin can. “What do you say?”
Gladys patted her cheek. Soft, warm... and sorrowful.
“I’m sorry, honey. We just can’t.”
As rejections went, it was very pleasant, but Brooke’s heart still crawled somewhere below the floor. They had been so friendly, the store was so cute with its handpainted HINKLE’s GROCERY sign over the door. She’d been so sure . Realizing that there was nothing left for her in this place, Brooke walked out the door, opportunity slamming her in the butt.
Her first day in Tin Cup. No job, no lawyer, an uneasy brother who didn’t know she was here, and ... she glanced down at the can of peas still stuck in her hand… and she'd just shoplifted a can of peas. Brooke fished in her jeans pocket for some cash, brought out two crumbled dollars, an old Metro Card, and a lint-covered peppermint -- slightly used.
Two dollars. It was her last two dollars, until she found a job of course. All she had to do was go back inside, slap the money on the counter, and walk out as if she didn’t care. As if they hadn’t turned down her best, “Pick Me!” plea.
Brooke turned away from the store with its cute homespun sign and stashed her money away. Better to be branded a thief than a reject. It wasn't the most honorable decision, but Brooke had more pride than many would expect from a homeless woman that lived out of her car.
Once she was gainfully employed, she'd pay back Gladys and Henry. They’d understand.
And was that really, truly how she wanted to kick off her new life in her new home? As some light-fingered Lulu, which apparently all the Harts were supposed to be anyway.
After taking another peek through the window, she sighed. No, she wasn't going to be a light-fingered Lulu, no matter how tempting it might be. And especially not for a can of peas.
In the distance a freckle-faced little girl on a skateboard careened down the sidewalk. Eagerly, Brooke waved her down, hoping to recruit an unwitting accomplice so that Brooke Hart wouldn't be another unflattering mug shot on the Post Office wall.
"Hello," she said, when the little girl skidded to a stop and then Brooke held out her hand. "Can you give this to Gladys? Tell her it's for the peas."
The girl looked at the proffered money, then back at Brooke, innocent eyes alight with purpose. "You going to tip me for the delivery?"
Yes, the entrepreneurial spirit was strong in this one. Who knew that honesty was such a huge pain in the butt? And expensive, too. After jamming her hand in her pocket, Brooke pulled out her last seventeen cents. Reluctantly, she handed it to the kid, who stood there, apparently expecting more.
"Please?" asked Brooke, still wearing her non-stranger-danger smile. At last, the little girl sighed.
"Whatever," she said and kicked a foot at the end of the skateboard, flipping it up into her hand.
"That's pretty cool," Brooke told her, and the girl rolled her eyes, but her mouth curled up a bit and Brooke knew that she’d made her first friend in Tin Cup. Sure, she’d had to pay for the privilege, but still, a friend was friend, no matter how pricey, no matter how small.
"Whatever," the girl repeated, then pulled open the screen door.
Now that Brooke's fledging reputation was somewhat restored, or about to be, her job here was done. She dashed across the street, leaping into the eyesore of a car before anyone could see. She had big plans before she showed up at Austen’s doorstep, and it wasn’t going to be without a job, without any money, and in a car that should be condemned.
Once safely behind the wheel, she tossed the can of peas in the backseat, the afternoon sun winking happily on the metal. It fit right in with the hodge-podge of things. A portable cooler, one beat-up gym bag, her collection of real estate magazines, the plastic water jug, and now peas.
What the heck was she supposed to do with peas?
The LED was blinking a steady green over his front porch, nearly hidden beneath the old wood doorframe. From inside, he could hear the sound of a dog barking.
Not that anyone was going to break into his less than fancy house, but old habits were hard to break. There was no dog, only a pimped out robotic vacuum cleaner with two golden LEDs for eyes, and a mechanical tail that wagged. Not the cutest puppy, but Jason Kincaid had invented the only canine in the world that cleaned up after itself.
While Dog wheeled around the floor, Jason put down his keys, pulled on his faded Orioles cap, and went outside to work. The missing can of peas didn’t concern him. Jason hated peas, but every Monday he went to the Hinkle’s store to shop. He hated shopping, too, but his father had told him he needed to get out more, so every Tuesday when his Dad called, he could tell the old man – with complete honesty – that he’d been out shopping only yesterday.
Outside the house, the flat terrain was exactly the same. The front yard, the back yard, the four storage sheds, and even the detached one car garage were filled with lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, small engines, large engines, lumber and scrap metal.
He’d never invited his family to visit, because the house looked too much like junk yard, like the long neglected habitat of a man who needed to live alone.
Which it was.
Jason pulled down the socket wrench from the upright mattress springs that had been recycled into his Wall O’Tools and got to work.
The current project was a five horsepower lawnmower in desperate need of a new carburetor or a humane burial, but Jason wasn’t ready to give it up for dead. Not yet.
He’d just gotten air to blow clean through the tube, when the red LED on the porch began to glow. Jason glanced toward the road and noticed the cloud of dust.
An HAV, or in layman’s terms: a car, still unidentified.
Salesman didn’t come out this far. He’d never met the neighbors, which were four acres away on either side, so when people showed up at his gate, they were usually lost.
After pulling his cap down a little lower, Jason made his way to the front gate, an eight foot black metal monster that he’d rescued from an old sanitarium. It looked exactly like it belonged at the front entrance of a sanitarium, which was Jason had wanted it, and why the sanitarium didn’t.
From behind the iron bars, he watched the beaten-up Impala approach. The rear door was black, the driver’s side door was red, and the hood was sunshine yellow. If Henry Ford and Picasso had gone out on a bender, that car was what the hangover would have looked like.
Jason stayed steady and impassive, not angry or unfriendly, but stood and watched as woman exited the world’s worst excuse for a car.
She still had the same never-say-die smile, which, considering the state of her transport, was just flat-out stupid. Once she was at the gate, a mere two feet from him, she held up the can of peas.
“You left these.” Her voice was nice, not high and bird-like, but no cigarette smoke, either. Sonya had a low, husky voice. At one point, Jason had thought it was sexy.
“You didn’t have to bring them all the way out here.” He probably should thank her for it, but he was distracted by the beads of sweat on her neck, and the green sweater had to be hot. Judging from the way it was clinging to her curves, the Hell-Car didn’t have air conditioning. He didn’t like that she was sweating for him. He didn’t like the way his one good eye kept locking on her chest, like some reconnaissance tracking system doped up on Viagra.
“I don’t mind,” she told him, then put the can to the bars, as if she expected the can to slip through. Nope. Jason could have her that metal didn’t work that way. It took five hundred pounds of force to dislodge metal, or eight-hundred degrees of heat. Sometimes both.
However, Jason stayed silent because he had learned that people never liked to work too hard at a conversation. Eventually, they always gave up.
“Are you going to open the gate, or should I toss this sucker over the top?”
His instinctive response was to instruct her to go ahead and throw, but two things kept him from going with the default. The knowledge that he would have crossed the crazy-old-man line in his head, and the beat-up sedan. Frankly, that car out-crazied his crazy-line anyway, so while she might not notice, but he would.
Those were his reasons. That, and he liked her breasts.
He typed in the combination on the keypad and the gate creaked open. He’d gone through a lot of trouble to get the exact perfect creak. A haunted house creak. At the sound, the woman’s eyes grew wide, but not in fear. No, she liked it.
“I bet the kids love this place at Halloween.”
“People don’t’ drive out this far for a stick of gum. “ People didn’t drive out this far for peas, either, but he left that part out.
“If they don’t, they don’t know what they’re missing.” While she talked, her eyes surveyed the yard, the seventy-year-old house, the mountains of scrap, the piles of engines.
Before she could trespass further, he took the can of peas. “Thank you.” Then he nodded once, held the gate open, and politely waited for her to leave.
Leaving didn’t seem to be part of her strategy. She ducked under his arm and wandered inside, looking at one pile, then the next. “What do you do with this stuff?”
Jason shrugged, not about to explain his hobbies to her, and not sure he could. Not that anyone would understand, anyway. Hell, he didn’t even know why.
He watched as she walked around, moving from one mound to the next, drawing precariously close to the house.
His pulse rate kicked up. Anxiety or lust? She was cute, short, stacked and curious. The clothes were out of place in the September heat, but he was grateful she was covered up, cause he didn’t think his pulse rate could handle any more. He liked her hair though. It was long, dark silk that hung down her back.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing to a modified bicycle. “Wait, wait, don’t tell me.”
Not that he would have told her anyway, so he stayed quiet while her fingers traced over the twisted metal hump with the leather seat mounted on top. Crouching down, she inspected the spring-loaded frame with the four iron-spoke wheels. It’d taken him three months to find the wheels, and eventually he’d bought them on ebay. They were perfect.
“It’s an animal?”
Still he waited.
She rose, studied the thing. “First, there are four legs, or wheels. Second, the elongated back is almost like a hill… or a hump….” Her finger crept to her mouth, chewing absently. She had a nice mouth. Red lips that spent most of their time open. His mind, always running in a tangential, yet somewhat practical direction, began to think of all the uses for an open mouth: eating, breathing, kissing, sucking.
Her mouth opened wider. “A camel!”
And now that twenty questions were over, Jason needed to send her on her way. As he headed to the metal gate, he thanked her for coming. There was very little sincerity in the words, but he didn’t think she would notice.
Her dark eyes flickered once. Okay, she noticed. He kicked a particularly heavy cast-iron drum. The pain was solid, well deserved. His foot would recover.
"That's some car."
Back and forth she shifted, like she was embarrassed about her mode of transport, but after seeing his mode of habitat, he couldn't understand why she would care.
"I bought it in Tennessee."
"Long drive for a car," he noted, realizing he was making conversation, lingering in her company.
It was her breasts. Had to be.
His body hardened at the thought of touching her evil breasts.
"Tennessee was on the way," she responded, hopefully not tuned in to his thoughts.
"Surprised the car made it," he told her, channeling his thoughts into another more socially-acceptable direction.
Seeing her wince, he made a mental note to stop commenting on the dicey condition of her transport, but it was a little hard to ignore. The inside the car looked to be in as bad shape as the outside, with a blanket thrown over the back seat like a tarp. The tarp was most likely designed to keep out prying eyes -- like his own. A gallon jug of water was sitting in the front seat, some food wrappers, a pillow, a half-open gym bag, and a small sack for trash.
As he continued to stare at her mode of habitat, a flush crept up her face, and he knew her habitat was a taboo conversation topic, too. Which worked out well for him since he wanted her off his place.
All of her, including her breasts.
"You’re staying with your brother?” he asked pleasantly. As parting remarks went, it wasn't the best.
"Oh, yeah," she answered quickly, moving to stand in front of her car, blocking his view.
"Good," he said, not that he believed her. Considering the state of her car, her finances, he didn't think she was related to anybody in town. If she had family, she would have gone there first.
Probably the brother thing was a lie as well. In which case, she'd be jobless, living out of her car...
Not that he cared.
She reached for the door handle, yanked it open, the damn thing sticking so hard that her shoulder was now probably dislocated.
Jobless, dislocated shoulder, living out of her car...
Not that he cared.
"You need a job?" he asked, sounding exactly like he was offering her a job. The woman turned, her eyes swimming with hope -- until it was gone.
"You know someone who's hiring?" she asked, her eyes not so hopeful, unless a man was looking.
"I need some help here," he offered, thinking quickly. "Organizing.”
Not that he wanted organization, not that he wanted human companionship, especially of the female variety, especially of the homeless, jobless female variety.
Most likely, she was needy.
His old army buddies would be laughing their ass off.
Of course, if any of them saw her breasts, they would understand.
"I'm a great organizer," she said, hands clasped tight in front of her, prayer-like, and he realized how much she wanted this.
Not that he was even thinking sex. A man who lived in a junkyard, with one good eye was no prize. Nope, Sonya had made that clear, and that was long before his junkyard phase.
No, it wasn't the sex. It was the idea of this woman being out there alone. Jason might not be the biggest people-person in the world, but sometime people deserved better. Sometimes -- rarely, but sometimes -- Jason noticed.
"It'd be temporary," he added, in case she thought he was charitable.
"That'd be perfect. It'll give me a chance to settle in town and find a permanent position."
"Yeah. I can't afford a lot," he said, in case she thought he was loaded.
"I don't need a lot," she told him, obviously guessing he wasn't loaded.
"Good." They stood there and stared for a minute, and she didn't seem to mind his eye patch. Since she was going to be working for him, not shrinking in horror was a plus.
Finally she spoke. "I'm Brooke Hart."
"Jason Kincaid." He should have offered her his hand, but he didn't. A handshake implied a contract, a pledge. This was nothing more than one human being helping out a woman who needed a chance to get her life together.
Not that he cared.
"So, you're staying with your brother?" he asked again, in case she wanted to come clean about her living situation.
"Yeah,” she answered, not coming clean. Message received. Don’t ask about the living situation, either.
"You can start tomorrow?"
"Not too early. I don't get up early," he lied. Jason got up at the crack of dawn, but he thought he should straighten up his place first. Get things in order before she started... organizing.
"Not a problem. I have a lot of things to do." She paused. "With my brother."
"Sure," he agreed like an idiot. Rather than her noticing that he actually was an idiot, he headed back toward the gate.
"I'll see you tomorrow around ten. That'll be okay?"
The smile was back in place.
Not that he cared.
Then she nodded and climbed in the Hell-Car.
Once he returned to the yard, where he spent the day repairing an old wheelchair until the sun started to fall. The old Impala stayed parked at the edge of the road.
When it was time to quit, he went inside and from his front window he could see the car. It was dark outside and she was still out there.
Obviously no brother. No place to stay, but at least she now had a job. A temporary job.
Not that he cared.
There were a lot of things to do before tomorrow. Make the house habitable for human consumption, do some laundry, and throw out the two-month old milk in the fridge. And while he was doing that, she would be out there alone. He tried to ignore the hole in his gut. There was nothing that he could do about the Impala that was parked at the edge of the road, but every few hours, he peeked out the window, making sure there was no trouble.
Not that he cared.
Brooke calculated that by day three she would have enough money to buy more suitable work clothes. First, she needed a cooler shirt, because the sweater was a merino wool blend that was starting to wilt. In order to have money for the car, she had sold most of her clothes in Nashville. At that time, a sweater had seemed practical. Now, not so much. The Shearling boots were looking sadder by the minute and would need to be replaced, too. Brooke believed that no matter the financial hardship, it was important to look capable and confident.
Unfortunately, the work that the Captain had given her was insultingly easy, as if she wasn't capable of anything more. That morning, he'd handed her a sheet of paper and then indicated a knee-high pile of assorted mechanical whatsits, a tiny island in a yard of complete chaos.
"Here. Write down everything you see."
"That’s an inventory, not an organizational system," she pointed out, and he glared at her out of his one visible eye, which he probably thought was intimidating, but she thought it was more sexy pirate, but she knew he wouldn't want to hear that, so she pulled her features into some semblance of lemming-hood.
He didn't look fooled. "Inventorying this pile is step one. Once that's done, we'll talk about step two."
She nudged at a wheelless unicycle with her boot. "It's going to take me fifteen minutes to do this. Why don't you let me sort by type?" By all indications, he'd tried to do that in the areas closest to the house. Wood boards were stacked together, some kind of electric gizmos were lined up like bowling pins – wait, they were bowling pins.
He put his hands on his hips, doing that intimidating thing again. "You don't know what each item is."
Unintimidated, she picked up a springy thing attached to a weight with a circular metal plate on the end, some piece of the Industrial Revolution that’d gotten left behind. Probably on purpose. "You really know what this is?" she asked.
At the Captain's silence, she dangled the part higher in the air.
As a rule, Brooke was usually a people-pleaser, but she had issues with anyone thinking that poor people didn't have a brain in their head. It was apparent that the Captain was giving her busy-work in order to give her money because he felt sorry for her. Charlene Hart would have taken the money and ran, possibly stopping for happy hour on the way. Brooke Hart needed people to see her as something more than a charity case, someone positive, someone good.
His gaze raked over her, inventorying her clothes, but lingering on the thingamaboobs beneath. Wisely Brooke pretended not to notice. "You're not dressed for working outside," he told her, because apparently his optimal working wardrobe was a thousand-year-old pair of jeans, a white undershirt, and a denim work shirt that hung loose on his rangy shoulders. Perhaps if Brooke had discretionary funds, she might have sprung for something more functionally appropriate, but no, she decided. Even if she were as rich as Trump, she still wouldn't be caught dead in clothes that were so... démodé.
Not wanting to argue about her clothes, she held the doo-dad up higher, just so that he would notice her chest. Cheap yes, but effective. "You don't know what this is, do you? Insulting my clothes won’t detract me from the truth. Exhibit one, an antiquated widget that got rusted over in the Ice Age."
He muttered under his breath. "I'll give you money. Go into town. Buy something. At least better shoes."
And now she was back to being a charity case. Brooke placed the doo-dad on the ground and pushed up her sleeves. "I'm here to work."
"You can't work in those shoes."
Seeing the stubborn set to his jaw, Brooke decided that there was no point in continuing the discussion. She walked toward the front gate, skirting one hill than another, demonstrating to the unbelieving that her boots were just fine.
Unattractive? Yes, but this was from a man whom thought exterior appearances unimportant. Or at least she hoped so.
"Where are you going?" he yelled, just as she reached the gate.
"I can't work under these conditions. You're trying to micro-manage everything and I'm accustomed to more responsibility. I suggest you find some able-bodied teenager who needs detailed instruction and doesn't mind a dress code."
"It isn't a dress code," he yelled back. "More a dress suggestion."
She turned, stared him down in silence until finally he shrugged.
"You win. I won't say another word about your clothes."
Still, there was disagreement in his face. Brooke stayed where she was. "I can help you with your inventory, but you have to let me do my job. Do you have a computer?"
"In the house."
"Good. You go do, and I'll go work. We'll get along fine, and I'll guarantee you'll be happy with the results."
At his nod of agreement, she picked a path from one pile to another, until she stood in front of him. Once again, his gaze drifted to her boots.
Brooke held up a hand in warning. "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."
Judging by his four-letter response, it was a rule he needed to work on, but Brooke was down with that.
Like she'd said, if he'd let her do her job, they'd get along fine.
By the time the sun was baking overhead, Brooke had sorted and inventoried fourteen small heaps of contraptions that no man in his right mind would want, which only proved her suspicions that the Captain was a standard left brainer. As even more evidence, not that she needed it, inside the house was a veritable smorgasbord of oddly designed gizmos and wuzzits. A push-button car radio hooked up to an ipod. Bookshelves made from stacked wooden pallets, a vintage coke machine made into a bar, and a small metal box with a blinking light that made her nervous.
That, and then there was Dog. The little, rounded ‘pet’ scooted around the floor at different speeds, and sometimes, he sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” in a voice that sounded just like Marilyn Monroe. Some dog, indeed.
Everything seemed to belong in an art gallery, a museum, or thrift store, possibly all three, but she had to give him high marks for creativity. Brooke would’ve never thought of an automated pot scrubber or a self-cleaning toilet. However, now that she'd seen them, she wondered why no one had ever thought of it before.
Judging from the never-ending materials she had left to inventory, he’d be making gizmos for the next two hundred years. A long trickle of sweat dripped in her eyes, and she dreamed of moving to the coolness of the house, but there were only three more piles to sort , and then she'd be done, so better to go forth and succeed, and celebrate an honest day's work. Hopefully, air conditioning would be involved.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the Captain watching her from the other side of the yard. In order to demonstrate her non-wimpiness, she hefted a ten-inch flywheel motor (thank you, Google) and placed it in a neat line with the others, before noting the type on her list. It was only after she had deposited the oily thing, that she realized why he was staring. In the middle of the sweater was a super-sized grease stain that no amount of artistic cover-up could disguise. Sensing the beginnings of another lecture, she waved happily, but it was too late.
The Captain advanced.
"I owe you a new sweater. That one's ruined." There was a glint in his eye as if he'd been waiting for just this moment. Nuh-uh-uh.
Pulling at the wool, Brooke shot him her sweetest smile. "It looks like a map of Canada. I think it's just the touch it needed."
His jaw twitched.
"At least put on a cooler shirt."
Certainly there was a logic to that. He seemed to be genuinely concerned, and she considered the idea, but was only Day One, Hour Six. He'd given her a nonsense job, and now he wanted to put her in his clothes like some vagrant, so what made her different from any other hard-luck case on the mean streets of life?
Absolutely nothing, and Brooke Hart wasn't just some other hard-luck case. No, she was going to work this off with grit and sweat, and probably a lot more grease, and the Captain would just have to deal.
Of course, she'd already put in a lot of grit and sweat. Fourteen piles were now neatly inventoried and identified. Maybe a cooler shirt was a fair trade, an old-fashioned barter sort of arrangement. Yeah, that seemed reasonable, and she was just opening her mouth to accept his offer, when he lifted a pint can of some unknown substance and threw it on her sweater.
Brooke’s mouth snapped shut as the wool plastered to her stomach like a skin mask gone bad.
The unknown substance was glue.
As the substance began to dry, Brooke glared at the Captain, trying to find words. Although as a rule, she wasn't usually a believer in violence and/or retribution, she felt that right now there were extenuating circumstances. Her hands fisted into small glue-encrusted WMD's.
Before she could move (flexibility was difficult when epoxified), he set the can at her feet, pushing a hand through the dark strands of his hair.
"I don't think I should touch you, but ah, hell, Brooke, I'm sorry, but we need to get you cleaned up." Oh, sure, now he looked sorry.
She plucked the sweater loose from her stomach, wincing like she was in pain, just so he'd feel worse. "What's the plan now?" she asked. "Hose me down with turpentine?"
He paused, trying to decide if that was a joke. Comprehension dawned slowly, and his mouth twitched with humor. "I wouldn't have used a hose. Go shower before you harden and turn into yard art."
Not a big fan of his sense of humor, Brooke stalked inside. If there had been a carpet or a rug, she would’ve worried about dripping, not that she had any business being worried, since this was all his doing, but still... a nice rug would have done wonders for the faded wood floors, and given the place a marvelous homey appearance.
She found the bathroom, painted in a surprisingly cheery buttercup yellow. His quiet footfall sounded behind her so stealthy for such a big guy.
"I imagine this will take some time. The towels are where?" she asked, happy to see his face still covered in guilt.
The Captain held up a pair of large scissors.
Brooke frowned. "That's isn’t towels."
"Unless you want glue in your hair, you'll need to cut the sweater, and uh, anything else I screwed up."
Cut? Cut? Was he out of his mind? Didn't he know this was high quality apparel? "I'm not cutting this."
"It's gone. Let it go. I'll replace it." His smile didn’t look so sad, and that was when she knew, when his Dr. Evil behavior became apparent.
"You did this just so that I'd have to trash it."
He nodded. "Reason and logic weren't winning the war. Sometimes covert maneuvers work best."
And still he didn't see the problem. "Aren't you the least bit sorry?"
"Of course," he said, sounding sincere...mostly.
Her eyes narrowed. "But you'd do it again, wouldn't you?"
At her words, he wanted to lie. She could see the denial building on his face, but no, the man was damned to tell the truth.
"Probably. Although I'd have come up with something a little less drastic than accelerator glue. The smell's killer. I didn't get any in your hair, or your face?" He frowned. "Are you allergic to anything?"
"A little late for concern." She grabbed the scissors, shut the door, and got to work destroying her most favorite sweater. After two not-so-awesome tries, she could see this was going to be a problem. The wool was hard, getting harder by the second, and the glue was mucking up the scissors. Determined to avoid asking for help, she hacked on, but the scissors were getting worse, and her fingers were starting to stick, and from outside the door, she could hear him pacing.
Three more times she tried, three times she failed, and finally, Brooke sighed. The shabby girl in the mirror wasn't responsible, or plucky, or capable of surviving whatever life threw at her. Dark hair stuck out in sweat-damp clumps. Her wonderful sweater was now crusted over with a glossy sheen that looked wrong.
Her brothers would disown her.. again. Maybe she didn't have much, but she had her pride, she had her self-respect, and she had a body that was uncomfortably stiff. All because of him. No, the Captain was going to pay for this and pay big. Slowly she smiled, the girl in the mirror looking less shabby by the minute. Thoughts of revenge did that to a woman.
Flinging open the door, Brooke brandished the scissors like a sword. "Ruined. Do you have something better? A blowtorch maybe?"
He looked her over, studying her partial sweater-ectomy. Then he scratched his jaw, where the darkened stubble was starting to show. "Nah. Glue's flammable."
"This is no time for sarcasm."
"Not sarcasm. Look it up."
She glared. He shrugged. "Give me a minute."
Less than thirty seconds later, he was back with a hunting knife capable of great destruction. The Captain’s face was tense, waiting for her to take the knife, but that wasn't part of her plan, and so she spun around, giving him her back. "Make a clean cut, neck to hem," she instructed. "You didn't get any glue back there. It should go easier."
The air crackled with his fear. "You're sure about this?"
"Just do it," she whispered in a teasing, taunting voice.
Gently he pulled aside her hair and in one quick slice, the sweater hung in two loose pieces, her back bare except for the single bra strap.
"You can... uh... handle the rest?" His words were rough, hesitant... awkward.
Oh, yes, revenge was a dish best served hot.
Brooke whirled around, plucked at the sweater's remains and then pulled it off, standing before him in jeans and bra. His eye flickered, mouth tightening, but to his credit, he didn't look down. Not once. The man had the self-control of a monk.
Well, pooh. However, Brooke wasn't done. Not by a long shot.
With a sticky-fingered snap, she unhooked the front fastening, pulling at the tacky material, finally ridding herself of the bra, which was a genuine la Perla and had put her back an even fifty bucks.
Still the man didn't look.
Here she was, stiff and uncomfortable, flaunting herself like some cheap tart. The least he could do was pay attention. Drastic measures were called for.
"You know, I might need mineral spirits for these babies, after all. Got some?"
This time, the eye flickered and his face flushed, the scar turning a liquid silver. One gray eye met hers, the same hot liquid silver color as his scar. Brooke's skin bloomed hot, then cold, the remains of the glue clinging to her chest, making her damp, moist, sticky....
Nope, not just the glue.
She thought he was going to touch her, was dying for him to touch her, but instead he spun on his heel and walked away.
"One can of mineral spirits, coming right up.
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