Raleigh West works in an auto shop day and night, trying to put his broken past out of mind. It’s been seven years since the fiery crash that landed his teenage sweetheart in the hospital . . . and him in jail. In an instant, he lost everything: his passion for racing, his hope of escaping his father’s shameful legacy, and the only girl he ever loved. Raleigh hasn’t seen her since that awful night. Never got a chance to apologize. And never forgave himself, either.
When brave, beautiful Mia Wentworth returns to the Florida coast for the first time in what seems like forever, it’s not to see Raleigh. Even so, the moment she arrives she can feel his presence like a gust of wind that gives her goose bumps. Opening her heart to him again seems impossible. But staying away? That might be harder still. Lucky for them both, Mia’s never been the kind of woman to take the easy way out.
Seven years ago
Here I am again in this nothing little coastal town, not even a Starbucks or a decent Wi-Fi. We usually spend a week visiting Grandma, but this year it’s the whole summer while Dad consults on a dredging project.
If I were like normal seventeen-year-olds, I’d be missing my friends. Only it’s hard to have friends when you’ve spent half your life in and out of the hospital, having to explain why you’re bald and why you’ve been out of school for chunks of time. They either feel sorry for you or drift away because they don’t know how to relate to you anymore. I understand, because I can’t relate to them, either. It’s hard to sympathize with someone over a bad hair day or getting grounded when you see how insignificant it is in the big scheme of life. Besides, who wants to be friends with someone who might die, right? I should know. I’ve lost a few friends I met at the hospital, and it’s heartbreaking.
So, yeah, I’m not normal. But I just passed the two-year mark after my last chemo, so I am officially cured!
As long as it doesn’t come back. Damn, I hate how that phrase rolls right into my mind. But I still have nightmares about Dr. Cane walking in with that somber expression, and me with that sinking feeling while all I can think is NO, NO, NOT AGAIN!
Okay, so forget that. I’m cured. PERIOD. I feel like I should be celebrating. There’s this pressure to squeeze every ounce of life from every minute, but the super-secret truth is, I just want to stay in my cocoon and be safe and comfortable.
Being in Chambliss is both, but I’m totally bored. Most of the beaches are really small and covered in environmentally protected sea grasses or mangrove forests, so the area isn’t developed or touristy. Grandma’s neighborhood is a bunch of scrubland lots, with a scattering of older cottages on the Gulf. I don’t know anyone, and I’m not good at striking up conversations. It’s easier in the hospital, because you have something in common: “What d’ya got?” Then you trade initials, like my ARMS, or AML or Wilms’ tumor, and then comes the long words the letters stand for. And the war stories. Chemo, throwing up, the way the foods you love smell horrible. Yeah, fun stuff, but it bonds you.
Today Mom’s dropping me off at the garage so I can pick up the Lexus that was getting fixed. I finally garnered enough pity for her to let me drive the car to the public beach, where I might actually meet kids my own age. Alone. So excited!! I’ve resolved that I will initiate a conversation with at least one person today. So nervous!!
OMG. So Mom drops me off, right? I make her leave instead of going in with me. It’s Saturday, so the garage isn’t officially open. But the owner assured her that the mechanic who uses the shop in the off hours will give me the keys and the paperwork. When I walk to the open bays, I see muscular legs coming from beneath a supremely hot, souped-up car. I should have noticed the car first, though I’m not really a car girl. I’ve never considered myself to be boy crazy, either. But those legs, bouncing to the beat of the rock song blaring on the radio, are what snagged my attention.
What the heck? I enjoy the view, lightly dusted legs with fair hair. Runner’s legs. Finally, I feel guilty and a bit voyeuristic, so I try to get his attention. Clearing my throat doesn’t do a bit of good over the music. I think about touching that thigh, where the muscles tighten with his movements. Stroking my fingers down the hairs that look silky soft. But, of course, I don’t! I’ve never even kissed a guy. I could tap his beat-up sneakers, I suppose, but even that’s more touching than I can consider.
Finally, I kneel down and catch his profile. Strong nose and chin. Nice mouth, pursed as he jerks on a wrench that’s clearly not moving a bolt. Eyebrows furrowed in complete concentration. Yeah, I could stay there forever, too. But he must catch my movement, because he looks over and says,“Oh. Hey,” then pushes out on one of those mechanic’s skateboard-like things.
My heart does this crazy bumping thing. He’s probably just a little older than me, by the six o’clock shadow along his jawline and chin. And tall, over six feet, wearing a tight black T-shirt that shows off broad shoulders. And gorgeous. Eyes as blue as the afternoon sky, you know, when there’s a storm that makes it dark and scary. And light brown hair with just a hint of red that’s a few months overdue for a haircut. For a second, or however many I’m standing there taking him in, I swear he’s doing the same to me as he wipes his hands. He cracks a smile, and OMG . . . just OMG.
“You must be Mia Wentworth,” he says. “Here for the Lexus, right?”
I actually cannot talk for a second. So embarrassing. I do nod, so I’m not a total loser. But I don’t want him to just hand me the key and shoo me off. He’s the conversation I’m going to initiate today. I look at the car. It’s a Camaro, with a big spoiler and red paint that glitters when the light hits it a certain way. So I chat him up on the car. It’s his. He tells me he’s doing this and that, things I have no idea about but sound fast. Then, with this secret smile, he admits he races it. There’s a group of teens who race on weekend nights. Different places every time, so the cops don’t catch on. He does this kind of work for them, too, whenever they can scrape up the dough. That’s how he said it: “dough.” So sexy, with his deep, husky voice. He’s not nervous or trying to impress me, just casual and . . . cool.
Oh, and his name is Raleigh. Like the city in North Carolina, he says, adding that he doesn’t know why his mom chose it, since she died when he was five. His dad’s killed too many brain cells to remember the inspiration. Raleigh tells me this like it’s no big deal, yet I have a feeling he doesn’t just tell everyone.
Raleigh. I love that name, but I simply say that I like it. It’s different. Staying cool, right? Then he invites me to watch a race sometime. He winks and suggests that I can be his pit crew, cheer him on. Like he probably doesn’t have a dozen girls who happily do that already.
I know I can’t possibly watch an illegal race at midnight. Not with my parents’ permission, anyway. But I say, “Sure, I’d love to,” because my heart is racing, for sure, at the thought. He smiles like he’s looking forward to it. And I know he’s trouble. Big, crazy, scary trouble. And for the first time I want—no, CRAVE—that trouble. I crave the way he’s taking me in—a quick sweep of my body in my tank top and shorts, flip-flops with the plastic gems encrusted on the straps. and the toenails I’ve taken great pains to paint. He meets my eyes and smiles in a soft, intimate way. Yep, biiiig trouble.
He doesn’t know I’ve spent seven years of my life fighting cancer. That my short hair is not a fashion statement. Or a choice. The way he looks at me, as though I’m beautiful and healthy, makes me feel like I’ve never been sick a day in my life. He’s trouble, all right. And I don’t give a damn.
Raleigh West washed the grease off his hands. Not the way he usually did, with the soap that erased it completely, but enough to get the slickness off. He still had another hour or two dyno-tuning the black Corvette in the garage. The customer autocross raced it, and Raleigh promised it would be sexed up by the weekend.
He glanced up as Paxton Sullivan sauntered into the garage in his officer’s uniform. Pax didn’t usually come by when he was on duty. Of course, he always looked a little “off-duty,” with his wavy hair a tad too long and his lazy smile a little too laid-back for a cop. Raleigh was surprised he’d lasted this long.
“Sweet ride.” Pax traced the flames decaling and flashed a predatory smile. “Anyone I need to keep an eye out for?”
Raleigh planted his hand on the car’s roof. “Calm down there, siren boy. Customer’s a fifty-year-old banker from Alabama.”
Pax grinned in approval. “Alabama, eh? Word’s getting out about you. A-stounding. Now that the garage is for sale, you can make Hardcore Edge a full-time gig instead of skulking around at night like a chop-shop operator.”
“If I could get the bank to give me a loan so I can buy this place. Have an extra forty grand I can borrow?”
Pax gave him a regretful smile. “Wish I did, man. All my spare change goes into reopening the speedway. You are gonna race when we open, right? You’re just shitting me about not running, ’cause I know you want to.”
Hell, yeah, Raleigh wanted to race. “I’ve outgrown the need for speed.”
“That’s a big load of bull. You didn’t buy that ’Cuda just ’cause you look purty in it.”
“I bought the car because it looked purty,” Raleigh said, imitating him. He’d tried hard to eradicate his southern accent. Pax, from more money than he came from, could afford to keep it without being judged as white trash.
Pax dug into his pocket and tossed something to Raleigh. Reflexively, he snapped it out of the air, eyeing the key in his palm. “What’s this?”
“Key to the gate at the track. Do your tuning there.”
Raleigh curled his hand around the key’s jagged edge. “Trying to tempt me? Figure once I’m there I won’t be able to resist running?”
Pax gave him the conspiratorial wink he used when they’d been planning some misadventure or another. “I’m countin’ on it. We have rules and regulations. No drinking. No screwing around. It’ll be like the good ole days, only better.” The good old days, when they were wild, young, and free. Before the crash that shattered Mia’s life and landed him in jail. “And safer.”
“I’m not afraid to crash again.” It went deeper than that. “Look, I’d better get back to work.”
Pax flattened his hands on the car’s roof. “I got some bad news, Raleigh. Nancy passed last night.”
Raleigh’s heart thudded painfully. “How?”
“She was eighty-two. Her doc thinks her heart probably just stopped tickin’.”
Raleigh fought the tingle in his eyes by jabbing his fingers into them. “I know she was older, but she was feisty. Full of life.” He never thought about her dying, even though she talked about it. And she was so damned nonchalant, too.
“She bought a plot at the Chambliss cemetery,” Pax said. “The funeral will be here. I bet she’ll come down for that.”
Pax was talking about Mia. Mia, here. Raleigh didn’t think his heart could beat any slower after hearing about Nancy, but apparently it could. He fought not to close his eyes and sink into the bittersweet ache Mia’s name evoked. What would she look like now? She’d be twenty-four. Grown up.
“Thanks for letting me know,” Raleigh said.
Pax patted Raleigh’s arm and headed out. Raleigh stared off into the dark long after Pax’s taillights disappeared into the night. Twin emotions battled inside him. Nancy gone. The woman who’d been like a grandmother, when she should have hated him the way Mia’s parents did.
Nancy wrote to him shortly after his incarceration, giving him an update on Mia and assuring him that she would survive. Nancy figured Raleigh must be frantic not knowing how she was. Both the update and the kindness behind it brought tears to his eyes.
His thank-you letter had started a continuous correspondence that made all those days and weeks and months tolerable. News of Mia’s treatments, her progress, her victories. After his release, she invited him over for a home-cooked meal. That was when he noticed the loose boards on her front steps, the latticework that needed staining. He’d volunteered to fix them. They shared another meal when he had. He spotted more things that needed fixing. And, over time, they’d become friends and, in a way, family. Better than any family he had. She had fed him pictures and news about Mia over the years. Not many pictures, and most of them dimly lit or long-distance shots—the only ones Mia would allow, apparently.
Mia had finished high school with private tutoring as she’d healed, though she’d managed to walk across the stage. Raleigh had pretended mild interest in Mia’s life, but Nancy probably saw the way he devoured every tidbit.
Now she was gone. His friend. Surrogate grandmother. Link to Mia.
Then there was the other emotion fighting for dominance inside him: hope, with a heavy dose of fear. Seeing Mia would be heartbreaking in a different way. How scarred would she be? How angry at him still? He could remember the pain in her voice during the one phone call they’d had since the accident. She’d barely given him a chance to say how sorry he was for letting her ride with him that night. Sure, she’d wanted to, but he should have said no.
He couldn’t refuse Mia anything, with her hunger for speed and life and him. He’d been as intoxicated by her as she was with him. Speed had nothing on the way she made him feel, how she felt in his arms, and the way she’d come alive beneath his touch. They’d been in love the way only a seventeen-year-old and a nineteen–year-old could be—fully, recklessly, unwilling to think about the thirteen hundred miles they lived apart, the million miles of social class between them.
After the call, he’d sent a couple of letters, needing to say that he was sorry. Still no response. Nancy suspected that Mia’s parents were intercepting them. He’d even joined Facebook, something he had no other use for, just to see if he could find her on there. No luck. So he’d settled for Nancy’s updates.
He headed over to the ’vette, but work wasn’t in him now. He closed everything up, parked the car outside beneath the metal roof he’d installed out back, and got into his 1970 Barracuda. The engine rumbled like a caged tiger. Giving in and buying a muscle car—not a good idea, especially with the new 4bb carburetor that bumped the horsepower to over three hundred. It whispered to him, wanted to lure him into jamming his foot down on the gas pedal.
He needed to drive by Nancy’s cottage one more time. Maybe sit out on the deck and remember the times they had shared lasagna after he’d been painting all day or refinishing her wood floors. That was the only payment he accepted, her home-cooked meals and her friendship.
He pulled down the gravel road that housed five cottages built in the sixties. One of them was in the process of being torn down, no doubt to be replaced by something shiny and new. The small Panhandle town didn’t boast wide, sugar-sand beaches. The scrubland in this area, with its sea-grass-covered dunes, hadn’t been developed as it had farther west. But, with the economy recovering, Chambliss was now seeing the results of the dredging project begun years ago.
As he neared Nancy’s home, his heartbeat spiked at the sight of two cars parked out front, lights blazing inside. Mia and her parents, he bet. They’d probably just arrived, given the luggage in the open trunk. He paused, even though he knew that he should back up and leave.
Except he couldn’t, because the front door opened and a woman stepped out. His heart tripped and coughed and gasped like a gunked-up carburetor. Mia. Her dark-brown hair was piled up on her head, loose strands framing her face. She stepped off the front porch and out of the light, but in that brief glimpse he could see her tired, sad expression as she headed toward the open trunk. Which would put her only a few yards away from his car.
He still couldn’t lift his foot from the brake pedal. His windows were tinted, so she wouldn’t see him. He couldn’t see her as well, either, but he saw enough as she hefted out the black suitcase. Now his heart was racing, seventy, eighty, a hundred miles an hour. She wore a red top, one sleeve drooping off her shoulder, and shorts. Still trim and long in the torso. Still about five-five. It was her face, what he could see of it in the distant lighting, that gripped him. In this light, as beautiful as ever. Memories flashed through his mind like a slide show: her laughing; smiling shyly; closing her eyes and arching as she came beneath him. Whispering his name, her fingers digging into his back.
She looked up then, her gaze zeroing in on his car. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she tilted her head in the way he’d seen a hundred times. Something inside him screamed to lower the window and say something. Hello. How are you? I’m so sorry . . .
She turned to glance behind her, where her father was coming down the steps. Raleigh hit the gas and shot forward to the end of the lane, where he had to pry his fingers from the steering wheel to put the car into park. He was shaking.
Dammit, he’d almost screwed up. Talking to her would only dredge up a painful past for Mia. Maybe her anger, too. Her father would have blown a gasket. Mia didn’t deserve to suffer anymore over him.
He forced himself to breathe normally and pull around the small cul-de-sac. As he passed Nancy’s cottage, he vowed that he wouldn’t look. But he couldn’t help it. Everyone was inside, the cars closed up. He told himself it was for the better. That maybe he shouldn’t attend the funeral after all. How the hell was he going to handle seeing her without a tinted window and the night between them?
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About the Author
Tina Wainscott has always loved the combination of suspenseful chills and romantic thrills. She's published fifteen romantic suspense novels, as well as ten paranormal romances as Jaime Rush. Losing her nephew, a Marine, in the war made her realize that our military men are really the perfect heroes. Not only during the war but afterward as they try to stitch their lives and souls together once they're home. And so was born The Justiss Alliance, an agency where these men can find purpose, honor, and love outside the war zone.
~When five Navy SEALs take the fall for a covert mission gone wrong, the brotherhood of bad-asses join The Justiss Alliance, a private agency that exacts justice outside the law.~
WILD ON YOU
WILD WAYS – May 2014
WILD NIGHTS – Nov 2014
For contests, sneak peeks and more, visit www.TinaWainscott.com. For more on her paranormal romances, go to www.JaimeRush.com.
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