Her Sweetheart Brand Chapter One
Her Sweetheart Brand
Book One, The Sweetheart Brands
The Starrs of Montana Series
Excerpt. ©Reprinted by Permission. All rights reserved.
Not much about Sweetheart, Montana had changed in the time she’d been away. And yet everything had. At least for Jess Palmer.
The wipers stuttered across the damp windshield. The early May weather was cool and wet, a dismal change from sunny California. At this rate, the cherries wouldn’t be ready for harvest until August.
She had no idea where she’d dredged up that bit of trivia. The last time she’d worked in her uncles’ orchards she’d been twelve or thirteen—right before her father found out about it and decreed no daughter of his was performing manual labor. She’d never tried to explain how much she’d enjoyed it. Protesting would have been a waste of breath so she’d put her nose in the air and pretended the choice to quit working was hers. She’d left town straight out of high school, determined never to return. And to make sure she couldn’t change her mind about it either, she’d burned a few bridges behind her.
She might as well be honest. She’d burned them all. Oh, to be eighteen and stupid again…
Bumping one tire over the concrete curb, she pulled into the local service station on the corner of Main St. and 4th Avenue. A sign out front proclaimed it SWEETHEART AUTOMOTIVE REPAIR. That was different. She hoped the shiny new pumps meant it still served gas. The old clunker she’d bought with the small amount of cash remaining in her checking account was currently running on prayers.
Ten dollars should be enough. She only had to get to her grandfather’s house. That would leave her with thirteen dollars and thirty-eight cents to her name. Her credit card had already been cut off. It hadn’t taken John’s children long to see to that.
She pushed aside all thoughts of John and the accompanying pangs of sorrow and anger. Granted, a few of those pangs could be attributed to hunger. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning.
She rolled to a stop at one of the pumps and shut off the engine. It gasped with relief. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel while she waited for the attendant to come out. A chipped nail caught her attention and she muttered a swear word under her breath. Since manicures were no longer in her budget she’d have to fix it herself.
Unless, of course, her grandfather was willing to let her have her inheritance early. He’d always been generous and it was money he’d never miss. It wasn’t as if she was asking for something that wouldn’t someday be hers, anyway.
But if he hated the idea, she had nowhere else to turn.
A man in grease-stained coveralls sporting a SWEETHEART AUTOMOTIVE logo emblazoned across the back passed in front of her car without stopping. Jess cranked the window down. The rain had paused, although the angry black clouds suggested it was merely gathering its breath.
“Hey!” she called out. “What does a girl have to do to get service around here?”
“The pumps are self-serve. If you need a hand though, I’d be happy to help.” The attendant sounded good-natured, his voice filled with humor, not impatience.
He started to walk toward her car. The sun was in Jess’s eyes but there was something familiar about the way he moved. A memory stirred. So did apprehension.
But yes. Talk about bridges she’d burned. She’d torched this one with napalm.
The man walking toward her was no longer a boy. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Broad-shouldered and lean-hipped, he easily topped six feet. His sun-streaked brown hair had been cropped unfashionably short, but managed to look tousled and sexy regardless. Blue eyes crinkled at the corners. In spite of the coveralls he had cowboy written all over him—as did most of the real men in Montana. Her heart began doing jumping jacks in her chest. Age had improved him, no doubt about that. And he’d been hot to begin with.
She prayed he’d forgotten her, although there was faint hope of that.
“Well, well,” he said, resting an arm on the roof of her car and ducking his head to peer in the driver side window. “Jessica Palmer. Long time no see.”
Luck was completely against her these days.
He gave both her and the ancient Ford Escort a careful onceover. He couldn’t miss the fact that every inch of available interior space was crammed with bulging suitcases and loose clothing. She’d grabbed everything she owned from her condo and fled before John’s children had the satisfaction of evicting her.
The friendly smile never left his face, although it didn’t quite stretch to his eyes. “You should have hung on to that fancy little red convertible your daddy gave you for graduation.”
Defensiveness brought out her inner bitch. She’d sold that car to pay for acting lessons when she’d reached LA. Besides, until last week, she’d driven a black Boxster Porsche that put anything this place might service to shame. “Damon Brand. What a surprise to discover you’re pumping gas for a living.”
The crinkly blue eyes froze over. The smile disappeared. An awkward silence stretched between them like a worn out pair of cheap pantyhose. Maybe she should have kept that little dig to herself. Her cousin Carrie used to tell her she’d be better off if she didn’t let her thoughts loose without running them through some sort of filter first.
But he’d started it.
He patted the hood of the car, then pointed to the self-serve sign on the pump. “Not my job, sweetheart. Sorry to disappointment you. You can pay inside when you’re done.”
He strode away, the tight rear curves of those coveralls looking far better to her than they should considering she’d never pumped her own gas in her life. Pretty girls didn’t have to. Besides, her pale pink, Armani knit dress with the short, flared skirt hadn’t been made for this type of labor. Or labor of any kind.
It certainly hadn’t been intended to adorn the inside of a seventeen-year old economy car on a nineteen-hour road trip from Los Angeles, California to Sweetheart, Montana.
Look forward, not back.
She could do this.
She opened the door and placed the sole of one high-heeled, Manolo Blahnik suede lace-up sandal on the cracked asphalt. She examined the gas pump. All the instructions were there, but it took her a while to decipher them. The letters and numbers refused to fall into place. Knowing she had an audience made matters worse. She fumbled around until she got the nozzle in the gas tank, then squeezed the trigger.
By the time she finished patting herself on the back for her success, however, she’d passed her ten dollar limit and was rapidly approaching the twenty dollar mark. “Son of a bitch.”
She yanked the nozzle free, narrowly missing the toe of one fifteen hundred dollar shoe with a trickle of gasoline. She untangled the hose and got the whole contraption hooked back on the pump. She couldn’t find anything to wipe her hands on to get rid of the smell.
Reaching into her car she withdrew her wallet, straightened, then braced herself. Those acting lessons were about to come in handy.
Ten years ago, in another lifetime, they’d been good friends. He’d had a crush on her and she’d planned to go all the way. He was supposed to be her first. At the last minute, she’d chickened out. What followed next wasn’t something she was proud of, but really. Ten years was a long time to hold a grudge. He should be over it by now. She was.
Shallow puddles from the afternoon showers littered the asphalt like landmines. She navigated them carefully, needing to keep the sandals clean so she’d get top dollar from a consignment store when she sold them. Maybe she shouldn’t have worn them, but they were so pretty.
Pretty things kept her spirits high. They made the world bright. John had indulged her far more than he should. Now, they were all she had left.
She pushed open the glass door. The smell of grease, gas fumes, and machine parts smacked her in the face in its rush for freedom. She stepped inside. Through an open door to her right, in the service bay area, a lone car hung on a hoist. The customer service counter facing her appeared none too clean. And the too-handsome-to-ever-be-forgotten, boy-turned-man behind the cash register seemed, well…a little hostile. Justifiably so.
She examined the clutter on the counter, mostly to avoid making eye contact. “You might want to mention to your boss that he should keep hand sanitizer by the pumps for his lady customers.”
“I’ll pass that on.” He glanced at the register. One eyebrow cocked upward, but he made no comment about the unusual amount. “That’ll be seventeen dollars and thirty-one cents.”
She clutched her wallet a little tighter, not yet ready to let go of her money, and tried not to panic. Six dollars and seven cents would be all she’d have left. Her grandfather had been furious when he’d found out about John, yes, but that was at first. He wouldn’t turn her away now. He’d always been far more understanding than her parents. Jess swallowed a hard, painful lump. Besides, John was dead. No one spoke ill of the dead.
She wouldn’t let them.
She extracted a twenty dollar bill, counted out the exact change in coins, and handed it over. The cash register clattered open. As Damon passed her three crisp one-dollar bills in return, his fingers touched hers.
There were no sparks. No electrifying awareness. She didn’t believe in such drivel. The heart of a romantic didn’t beat in her chest. And yet she yanked her hand away as if he’d tried to set her on fire.
Amusement brightened eyes as blue as a cloudless Montana sky. “Whoops. Guess we should keep that sanitizer by the register, too. Don’t worry though, my hands are clean enough. Just a little stained. Hazard of the occupation.”
Her mouth went dry. She wanted to die on the spot. In town less than fifteen minutes and here she was, already provoking people.
And Damon didn’t need more provocation. He already hated her.
She lifted her chin. She wasn’t an insecure ball of fluff anymore. Nor the little blonde Barbie doll her mother had wanted. Jess might have hit an ugly bump in her life, but she was still a better person than the spoiled girl who’d left Sweetheart.
This time before she spoke, she ran that filter Carrie had recommended. She gave him her sweetest smile. “It’s been nice seeing you. I’ll be sure to drop in again on my way out of town.”
Please God, let that be soon.
* * *
So this was how they were going to play it. They were both going to pretend she hadn’t left him bare-assed to the breeze, without a stitch of clothing, twenty miles from home.
God, but he was stupid.
Damon refused to respond to the allure of that smile. Because, in spite of his past humiliation—which bordered on legend—those enormous, hazel eyes that changed color with her mood could still make him melt. Jessica Palmer had transformed from the prettiest girl in Sweetheart to the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He’d heard rumors she’d moved to LA and become some old guy’s mistress. Judging by her clothes, he’d guess those rumors were true.
Based on the look of her car, and the fact that what had to be every item of clothing she owned had been crammed inside it, the romance was over.
As she walked out of the garage to her car, he stared at the sway of her hips and that thick fall of blond curls streaking down the neat line of her back with a hunger he’d thought he’d outgrown. She should have looked overdressed in those silly shoes and that fancy pink dress, but on Jess, it all seemed to work. She’d always been the girliest girl imaginable—frilly and dainty—but with a saucy mouth on her that could knock a man flat on his ass.
It turned out his taste in women hadn’t changed over the years. He still liked a bite of sour all wrapped up in sweet.
He really was dumb.
While Jess was far smarter than people gave her credit for. If she’d had parents who cared, and expected her to achieve her potential, she’d have had more sense of self-worth. Instead, they’d wanted a show pony.
Well, Jess had given them that. What a show she’d put on.
She’d never been the type of girl who made close female friends. Her cousin Carrie was the only one who came immediately to mind. Jess had been all about makeup and boys, and getting her parents’ attention.
And Damon, because he was stupid, had been all about Jess. He’d fallen in love with her when she was in grade seven and he was two years ahead. Her sharp tongue, so at odds with the whole “sugar and spice” packaging, had hooked him. As had the underlying layer of insecurity most people missed.
By the time she was a senior they were both in the same class. He’d missed a lot of school after his father drowned in a boating accident on Flathead Lake. He’d had to take on work in the cherry orchards and out on the ranches to help his mother make ends meet. His dreams of university had died back then, too.
Through the window—which okay, wasn’t as clean as it could be—he watched Jess drive off. Her assumption that he worked here rankled more than it should. Everyone in Sweetheart knew he’d bought this place. If he’d wanted the whole world to know it too, he should have renamed it BRAND AUTOBODY and taken out ads. Until this very second, he hadn’t cared.
He rapped his knuckles on the counter. The car on the hoist was waiting for him. So was its owner. He had to forget about Jessica Palmer and get back to work. It didn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out she was here to hit up her grandfather for money. Once she got it—and she would—she’d be out of here faster than she’d peeled her little red car out of that cherry orchard ten years ago, taking his boots, pants, and dignity with her.
As he walked into the service bay, his friend Tony Caputo came through the wide bay doors that led to the parking lot behind the building. He had his hands in his pockets and a sheepish grin on his face. Damon’s stomach dropped. He knew what that look meant. Tony’d been gambling in Missoula and lost his paycheck again. He already owed Damon more than five hundred dollars.
Damon didn’t have any more money to spare. His business was new and not yet flourishing. His equity was tied up in inventory, meaning he kept his personal salary small. He also had an art exhibit slowly coming together which took up his disposable cash. He couldn’t rob Peter to pay Paul. The IRS frowned on that kind of bookkeeping.
“Tony.” He nodded and said nothing more, hoping his friend would pick up on the vibe he gave off and know not to ask. He reached for an air ratchet.
“You know I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t desperate.”
Damon set down the tool. Tony had a wife and a baby, and a really big problem. The problem wasn’t gambling. That was a symptom. Tony had taken on too much responsibility that he wasn’t ready for. He couldn’t deal.
Damon gave up. The thought of a mother and child suffering didn’t sit right. His family had depended on handouts once, too. He had a few things in his kitchen cupboard he’d been meaning to eat. He’d spend more time at his mother’s, too. She was always asking him to come by so she could feed him.
“I can let you have two hundred dollars,” he said. “Promise me you’ll use it to buy groceries.”
Tony’s worried face smoothed with relief. “I will. Aileen’s looking for work. Once she finds something, I can pay it all back.”
Aileen finding a job wasn’t going to solve Tony’s problems, but Damon kept his opinions to himself. He liked Tony’s wife. A lot. But sooner or later, no doubt once she found work, she’d figure out that Tony wasn’t ready for a wife and family. Maybe she already had.
He gave Tony the money and watched his meal and entertainment budget for the next two weeks walk out the door. His friend hadn’t even offered to lend him a hand in exchange.
Damon was too soft a touch. He knew it, his friends knew it, and so did his own family—although he didn’t keep accounts on them. His brother and sister weren’t irresponsible in the same way Tony was. They were just young.
Jess’s lovely face popped into his head and just like that, he had a place to channel his frustration. She’d never explained why she’d run off and left him, bare-assed and bootless, stranded in the middle of the night, having to hitch a ride home with two old men who couldn’t stop laughing. She’d never apologized, either. He’d been the brunt of the town’s jokes for months. Years, in fact.
And what had he done?
He’d kept her identity to himself so she wouldn’t end up in trouble with her parents for getting naked with a boy they hadn’t approved of. Besides, their disapproval was the only reason she’d gone out with him in the first place. He’d known it.
He picked up the ratchet and prepared to get back to work. Outside the open bay doors, the sky’s rain spigot opened wide. Deafening sheets of water drummed off the steel roof and the pavement. His short burst of anger faded away. If he was going to be mad at anyone for taking advantage of him, he’d be mad at himself. He wasn’t blaming others because he couldn’t say no.
But this was it. No more Mister Nice Guy. The next time someone wanted money from him, they’d have to earn it.