Braving the Heat(6)

By: Regan Black



They kept wanting him to be happy, checking in on him week after week, never letting it rest. Was he happy? He didn’t know. At this point he wasn’t sure he cared about happiness. Business was good. Booming, in fact. If that was enough happiness for him, his family should back off. Not everyone got a happy ending. He’d accepted that hard truth; why couldn’t they?

“Hey! Stephen Galway?”

Nearly to the truck, he turned at the sound of his name. Recognizing the waitress uniform, he was tempted to ignore the slender blonde jogging his way with a long, ground-eating stride. His brother earned points for tenacity. Stephen made a note to punch him at the earliest opportunity.

“You are Stephen, right?”

“That’s right. And you are?” The lamp overhead cast her features in shadow, illuminating pale hair pulled back from her face. He remembered seeing her in the bar. She was the one with the long braid that fell to the middle of her back, and great legs anchoring that willowy body.

“Kenzie Hughes.” She stuck out her hand, then let it fall when he didn’t reach out to meet her halfway. “You probably don’t remember me.”

“Should I?” The name wasn’t ringing any bells.

“Guess not. I was in the same high school class as Mitch.”

Stephen was ready to march back into the club and punch his brother right now for orchestrating this elaborate setup. He had work to do without dragging the tow truck out on a wild-goose chase. What bad idea or wrong impression had Mitch planted in her head? He stared at her, struggling for a polite way out of this. It wasn’t her fault his brother was an idiot.

“Um, anyway,” she continued, “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.” She pulled keys from her pocket. “The car’s right over here.”

Now he felt like a complete jerk. Stephen had assumed he’d be helping out one of Mitch’s male buddies. “Great.” He fell in behind her and put his mind back in car mode. “Let’s take a look.”

He tried not to wince when he saw the vehicle. Not his business what people chose to drive, and people who drove rust buckets like this one made up a core segment of his business. He let her explain Mitch’s opinion of the situation while he listened to a whole lot of nothing going on in her engine. Something didn’t smell right under the normal scents of oil and gas.

“If Mitch couldn’t get you running here, we’re better off hauling it in.” He dropped the hood, checked the latch. “Do you have a way to get home?”

She climbed out of the car and he noticed the interior was packed with boxes and suitcases. He couldn’t imagine Sullivan allowing any of his employees to live out of their car, and if she was doing so, she hadn’t left much room for herself.

“I’ll be fine,” she said, her gaze sliding to the crammed interior. “Here.” She handed over the keys. “I’ll get your number from Mitch and call you tomorrow.”

“One second.” Hughes, PFD, female. It all clicked into place and embarrassment flooded through Stephen. “You’re Mackenzie Hughes.”

Her entire body went on the defensive in one fluid movement. “Yes. Is that a problem?”

“No.” He couldn’t believe he didn’t recognize her in the club. Her name was at the center of a public debate about the ability of female firefighters. In person, her height and poise were evident and she looked far more capable than she did on television, where the images provided focused on her photogenic and fine-boned, feminine face.

“Of course not,” he reiterated, when she cocked an eyebrow at his long perusal. He’d heard his brother rant more than once in Kenzie’s favor. Like most people of his acquaintance, Stephen thought the gender bias was in the past. “I’ll take good care of the car,” he promised. “What’s with all the boxes?”

Now her shoulders slumped. “Do I have to unload them for you to tow the car?” She looked around as if a storage shed would appear out of thin air. “I didn’t think of that.”

“If you don’t have a problem with it, I don’t. Things might get jostled as I load and unload the car.”

“No. My stuff will be okay.” She backed away. “Thanks so much. I’ll pick up the boxes tomorrow.”

He trailed after her as if someone had set him on automatic pilot. “How?”

She skidded to a stop. “Pardon me?”

“If I have your car, how are you getting around?”

She gave him a weak smile. “I’ll figure it out.”

He blamed it on having sisters. Only her car was his business, but he still felt compelled to get a better answer from her. “What time are you off tonight?”

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