Some things are sexier the second time around
Cal Payton has gruff and grumbly down to an art…all the better for keeping people away. And it usually works. Until Jenna Macmillan—his biggest mistake—walks into Payton and Sons mechanic shop all grown up, looking like sunshine, and inspiring more than a few dirty thoughts.
Jenna was sure she was long over the boy she’d once loved with reckless abandon, but one look at the steel-eyed Cal Payton has her falling apart all over again. Ten years may have passed, but the pull is stronger than ever…and this Cal is all man.
Cal may have no intention of letting Jenna in, but she’s always been his light, and it’s getting harder to stay all alone in the dark. When a surprise from the past changes everything, Cal and Jenna must decide if their connection should be left alone, or if it’s exactly what they need for the future of their dreams.
Praise for MEGAN ERICKSON
“A super sweet, extra sexy second chance romance that will have you laughing out loud and needing a minute to cool off. Dirty Thoughts is right!”
— Jay Crownover, New York Times bestselling author
“Megan Erickson ratchets up the romance and sizzle in her sexy new series. The Mechanics of Love will rev readers’ hearts.”
— Jennifer Ryan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author
“Megan Erickson writes hot, hot, HOT stories packed with emotion and humor. You’re going to want to read everything she’s ever written!”
— Sophie Jordan, USA Today bestselling author
Cal Payton sighed and braced himself as the opening guitar riff of “Welcome to the Jungle” reverberated off the walls of the garage. Sure enough, several bars later, his brother, Brent, began his off-key rendition, which didn’t sound much different from his drunken karaoke version.
Which, yes, Cal had heard. More times than he wanted to.
He growled under his breath. Brent kept screeching Axl Rose, and if Cal wasn’t stuck on his back under this damn Subaru, he’d be flinging a wrench at Brent’s head. “Hey!” Cal yelled.
There was a blissful moment of silence. “What?” Brent’s voice came from somewhere behind him, probably in the bay next to him at the garage.
“Who sings this song?”
“Are you kidding me?” Brent’s voice was closer now. “It’s Guns N’ Roses. The legendary Axl Rose.”
“Yeah? Then how ’bout you let him sing it?”
There was a pause. “Fuck you.” His brother’s footsteps stomped away. Then the radio was turned up, and Brent started singing even louder.
Cal blew out a breath and tapped the socket wrench on his forehead, doing his best to tune out Brent’s increasingly loud voice. Cal vowed to buy earbuds and an iPod before he murdered his brother with a tire iron.
He turned his attention back to the exhaust shield he was fixing. The customer had complained of a loud rattle when his car idled. Sure enough, one of the heat shields covering the exhaust system under the car was loose. It was an easy fix. Cal used a gear clamp to wrap around the pipe of the exhaust system to prevent the shield from making noise.
It didn’t necessarily have to be done, but the Graingers were long-time customers at Payton and Sons Automotive. And they always sent those flavored popcorn buckets at Christmas. He and Brent fought over the caramel while their dad got the butter all to himself.
He finished tightening the hose clamp onto the pipe and then banged around the exhaust system with the side of his fist. No rattle.
He slid out from under the Subaru and patted it on the side. He squinted at the clock, seeing it was almost quitting time. Their dad, who owned half of the shop—Cal and Brent split ownership of the other 50 percent—had already gone home for the day.
Cal put away the tools he’d used, purposefully ignoring Brent as he launched into a Pearl Jam song. Cal rubbed his temple, wiping away the bead of sweat he could feel rolling down his face. The back room had a small table and a refrigerator, so Cal made his way there to get a water.
In the summer, they kept the large doors of the garage open, but the air was thick and humid today. The American flag outside hung like a limp rag in the still air.
Cal wore coveralls at work and usually kept them on to protect his skin from hot exhaust pipes and any number of sharp tools lying around. But as he walked back to the lunchroom, he stripped his upper body out of the coveralls so the torso and arms of the clothing hung loose around his legs. Underneath, he wore a tight white T-shirt that still managed to be marked with grease and black smudges from the work day.
In the back room, he grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and leaned back against the wall. After unscrewing the cap, he tilted it back at his lips and chugged half the bottle.
After the Graingers came to pick up their Subaru, he was free to head home to his house. Alone. That was a new luxury. He used to live with Brent in an apartment, and it was fine until he realized he was almost thirty years old and still living with his younger brother. He was tight with his money, which Brent teased him about, but it’d been a good thing when he had enough to make the deposit on his small home. It had a garage, so he could store his bike and work on it when he had free time. Which wasn’t a lot, but he’d take what he could get. If his father would quit dicking him around and let him work on motorcycles for customers here, that’d be even better. But Jack Payton didn’t “want no bikers” around, ignoring the fact that his son rode a Harley-Davidson Softail.
Cal’s phone vibrated in the leg pocket of his coveralls. He pulled it out and glanced at the caller ID. It was Max, their youngest brother. Cal sighed and answered the call. “Yeah?”
“Cal!” Max shouted.
“You called me.”
“What’s going on?”
“You’re always working.” Max huffed.
Cal took another sip of water. “That’s what people do.”
“Hey, I work.”
“You play dodgeball with a bunch of teenagers.” Cal knew Max did a hell of a lot more than that at his physical education teaching job at a high school in eastern Pennsylvania, but it was fun as hell to get him worked up. Cal smiled. One of the first times that day.
“Hey, I had to hand out deodorant and condoms to those teenagers this year, so don’t give me that shit,” Max said.
“Yeah, they’re kinda liberal here,” Max muttered.
“Huh,” Cal said, scratching his head. They sure never handed out condoms in school when he was a teenager.
“Anyway,” Max said.
“Yeah, anyway, what’dya need?”
“How do you know I need something?”
“Why else do you call?”
“I want to hear your pleasant voice?”
“I just wanted to know if you had any plans for your birth—ouch!” There was rustling on the other line, some mutters, and a higher-pitched voice in the background. Then Max spoke again. “Okay, so Lea punched me because she said I’m doing this wrong.”
Cal smiled. Lea was Max’s fiancée, and she was a firecracker.
“We wanted to come visit you and take you out for your birthday. All of us.” Max cleared his throat. “And you can bring a date too. If you want.”
A date. When was the last time he’d introduced a woman to his family? Hell, when was the last time he’d had a date? “The five of us should be fine.”
“So that’s okay? To celebrate? I mean, you’re turning thirty, old man.”
Cal let the old man comment roll off his back. “Yeah, sounds good.” He paused. “Thanks.”
Max seemed pleased, chattering on about his neighborhood and how he was enjoying being off work for the summer. Cal drank his water and listened to his brother ramble. Max hadn’t always been a happy kid. Cal had tried his best after their mom left the family shortly after Max was born. Their dad was pissed and bitter and immersed himself in working at the garage. So as the oldest brother, Cal scrambled to hold the reins of his wild brothers.
He hadn’t done such a great job, he didn’t think. His brothers survived in spite of him, not because of him, he was sure. Brent was still a little crazy, and it had taken Lea to straighten Max out in college. Cal tried not to dwell on his failure and instead appreciated that at least they were all alive and healthy.
It was why he valued his own space so much now. His alone time. Because he’d been a surrogate father at age six, and he was fucking over it.
Although, by the time he hung up the phone with Max and slipped his phone back into his pocket, he had a warm feeling in his gut that hadn’t been there before his brother had called.
He was flipping the cap of the water in his fingers and finishing the last of the bottle when Brent poked his head in the back room. “Hey.”
Cal raised his eyebrows.
“Someone’s asking for you.”
Cal tossed the empty bottle in the trash. “The Graingers?”
“Nope, they just came and got the Subaru and left. This is a new customer.”
Cal threw the empty bottle in the recycling bin, turned off the light to the back room, and followed his brother out to the garage. “We’re closing soon. Is it an emergency? Are they regulars?” He pulled a rag out of his pocket and began to wipe his dirty hands. He thought about washing them first in case this customer wanted to shake hands.
Brent didn’t answer him, didn’t even look at him over his shoulder.
And that was when a small sliver of apprehension trickled down his spine. “Brent—”
His brother whirled around and held his arm out as they walked past a Bronco their dad had been working on. “I think it’s better if you take this one.”
Cal squinted into the sun and when his eyes adjusted to the light, her legs were the first thing he saw. And he knew—he fucking knew—because how many times had he sat in class in high school staring at those legs in a little skirt, dreaming about when he could get back between them? It’d been a lot.
His eyes traveled up those bare legs to a tiny pair of denim shorts, up a tight tank top that showed a copious amount of cleavage, and then to that face that he’d never, ever forget as long as he lived.
He never thought he’d see Jenna MacMillan again. And now, there she was, standing in front of his garage next to a Dodge Charger, her brunette hair in a wavy mass around her shoulders.
Okay, so admittedly Jenna had known this was a stupid idea. She’d tried to talk herself out of it the whole way, muttering to herself as she sat at a stop light. The elderly man in the car in the lane beside her had been staring at her like she was nuts.
And she was. Totally nuts.
It’d been almost a decade since she’d seen Cal Payton, and yet one look at those silvery blue eyes and she was shoved right back to the head-over-heels in love eighteen-year-old girl she’d been.
Cal had been hot in high school, but damn, had time been good to him. He’d always been a solid guy, never really hitting that awkward skinny stage some teenage boys went through after a growth spurt.
And now . . . well . . . Cal looked downright sinful standing there in the garage. He’d rolled down the top of his coveralls, revealing a white T-shirt that looked painted on, for God’s sake. She could see the ridges of his abs, the outline of his pecs. A large smudge on the sleeve drew her attention to his bulging biceps and muscular, veined forearms. Did he lift these damn cars all day? Thank God it was hot as Hades outside already so she could get by with flushed cheeks.
And he was staring at her with those eyes that hadn’t changed one bit. Cal never cared much for social mores. He looked people in the eye, and he held it long past comfort. Cal had always needed that, to be able to measure up who he was dealing with before he ever uttered a word.
She wondered how she measured up. It’d been a long time since he’d laid eyes on her, and the last time he had, he’d been furious.
Well, she was the one who’d come here. She was the one who needed something. She might as well speak up, even though what she needed right now was a drink. A stiff one. “Hi, Cal.” She went with a smile that surely looked a little strained.
He stood with his booted feet shoulder width apart, and at the sound of her voice, he started a bit. He finally stopped doing that staring thing as his gaze shifted to the car by her side and then back to her. “Jenna.”
His voice. Well, crap, how could she have forgotten about his voice? It was low and silky with a spicy edge, like Mexican chocolate. It warmed her belly and raised goose bumps on her skin.
She cleared her throat as he began walking toward her, his gaze teetering between her and the car. Brent was off to the side, watching them, with his arms crossed over his chest. He winked at her. She hid her grin with pursed lips and rolled her eyes. He was a good-looking bastard but irritating as hell. Nice to see some things never changed. “Hey, Brent.”
“Hey there, Jenna. Looking good.”
Cal whipped his head toward his brother. “Get back to work.”
Brent gave him a sloppy salute and then shot her another knowing smirk before turning around and retreating into the garage bay.
When she faced Cal again, she jolted, because he was close now, almost in her personal space. His eyes bored into her. “What’re ya doing here, Jenna?”
His question wasn’t accusatory. It was conversational, but the intent was in his tone, lying latent until she gave him reason to really put the screws to her. She didn’t know if he meant, what was she doing here at his garage, or what was she doing in town? But she went for the easy question first.
She gestured to the car. “I, uh, I think the bearings need to be replaced. I know that I could take it anywhere, but . . .” She didn’t want to tell him it was Dylan’s car, and he was the one who had let it go so long that she swore the front tires were going to fall off. As much as her brother loved his car, he was an idiot. An idiot who despised Cal, and she was pretty sure the feeling was mutual. “I wanted to make sure the job was done right, and everyone knows you do the best job here.” That part was true. The Paytons had a great reputation in Tory.
But Cal never let anything go. He narrowed his eyes and propped his hands on his hips, drawing attention to the muscles in his arms. “How do you know we still do the best job here if you haven’t been back in ten years?”
Well, then. Couldn’t he just nod and take her keys? She held them in her hand, gripping them so tightly that the edge was digging into her palm. She loosened her grip. “Because when I did live here, your father was the best, and I know you don’t do anything unless you do it the best.” Her voice faded. Even though the last time she’d seen Cal, his eyes had been snapping in anger, at least they’d showed some sort of emotion. This steady blank gaze was killing her. Not when she knew how his eyes looked when he smiled, as the skin at the corners crinkled and the silver of his irises flashed.
She thought now that this had been a mistake. She’d offered to get the car fixed for her brother while he was out of town. And while she knew Cal worked with his dad now, she’d still expected to run into Jack. And even though Jack was a total jerk-face, she would have rather dealt with him than endure this uncomfortable situation with Cal right now. “You know, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. I’ll just—”
He snatched the keys out of her hand. Right. Out. Of. Her. Hand.
“Hey!” She propped a hand on her hip, but he wasn’t even looking at her, instead fingering the key ring. “Do you always steal keys from your customers?”
He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow at her. There was the smallest hint of a smile, just a tug at the corner of his lips. “I don’t make that a habit, no.”
“So I’m special, then?” She was flirting. Was this flirting? Oh God, it was. She was flirting with her high school boyfriend, the guy who’d taken her virginity, and the guy whose heart she’d broken when she had to make one of the most difficult decisions of her life.
She’d broken her own heart in the process.
His gaze dropped, just for a second, and then snapped back to her face. “Yeah, you’re special.”
He turned around, checking out the car, while she stood gaping at his back. He’d . . . he’d flirted back, right? Cal wasn’t really a flirting kind of guy. He said what he wanted and followed through. But flirting, Cal?
She shook her head. It’d been over ten years. Surely he’d lived a lot of life during that time she’d been away, going to college, then grad school, then working in New York. She didn’t want to think about what that flirting might mean, now that she was back in Tory for good. Except he didn’t know that.
“So, you think the bearings need to be replaced?” Cal ran his hand over the hood. From this angle, all she saw was hard muscle covering broad shoulders, shifting beneath his T-shirt.
She shook herself and spoke up. “Yeah, it’s making that noise—you know, that growl.”
The only reason she knew was because she’d spent a lot of weekends and lazy summer afternoons as a teenager, lying in the grass, getting a tan in her bikini while Cal worked on his car, an old black Camaro, in his driveway. She’d learned a lot about cars and hadn’t forgotten all of it. She wondered if he still had that Camaro.
“Want me to inspect it too?” Cal was at the passenger’s side door now, easing it open.
He pointed to the sticker on the windshield. “I can do it now, if you’d like. You have to get it done by end of next month.”
She opened her mouth to tell him sure, but then she’d have to give him the registration and insurance card, and then he’d know it was Dylan’s car. “No, no, that’s all right.”
He frowned. “Why not?”
“I just . . .”
He opened up the passenger’s side door and bent inside.
“What are you doing?” She walked around the car, just as he pulled some papers out of the glove box. She stopped and fidgeted with her fingers, because he’d know in three . . . two . . .
He bent and tossed the papers back in the glove box. “I’ll have it for you by end of the day tomorrow.” He started walking toward the office of the garage.
He had to have seen the name, right? He had to have seen it. She walked behind him. “Cal, I—”
He stopped and turned. “Do you need a ride?”
“Do you need a ride . . . home, or wherever you’re going?”
She shook her head. “I’m going to walk across the street to Delilah’s store. She’ll take me home.”
His gaze flitted to the shop across the street and then back to Jenna. He nodded. “All right, then.”
She tried again. “Cal—”
“You picking it up or your brother?”
The muscle shift in his jaw was the only indication that he was bothered by this. “I’m sorry, I should have told you . . .”
He shook his head. “You don’t owe it to me to tell me anything. You asked me to fix a car—”
“Yeah, but you and Dylan don’t like each other—”
That muscle in his jaw ticked again. “Sure, we don’t like each other, but what? You think I’m going to lose my temper and bash his car in?”
Uh-oh. “No, I—”
He shook his head, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer. “You didn’t have to keep it a secret it was his car. I’m not eighteen anymore. I got more control than I used to.”
She felt like a heel. And a jerk. She wasn’t the same person she was at eighteen, so she shouldn’t have treated Cal like he was the hothead he’d been then. “Cal, I’m so sorry. I—”
He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it, Sunshine.”
That name—it sent a spark right through her like a live wire. She hadn’t heard that nickname in so long, she’d almost forgotten about it, but her body sure hadn’t. It hadn’t forgotten the way Cal could use that one word to turn her into putty.
He seemed as surprised as she did. His eyes widened a fraction before he shut down. “Anyway”—his voice was lower now—“we close tomorrow at six. Appreciate it if you’d pick it up before that.” He jingled the keys and shot her one more measuring look, and then he disappeared into the garage office, leaving her standing outside the door, her mind broiling in confusion.
She should have known Cal Payton could still knock her off her feet.
Megan Erickson grew up in a family that averages 5’5” on a good day and started writing to create characters who could reach the top kitchen shelf.
She’s got a couple of tattoos, has a thing for gladiators and has been called a crazy cat lady. After working as a journalist for years, she decided she liked creating her own endings better and switched back to fiction.
She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids and two cats. And no, she still can’t reach the stupid top shelf.