Chapter one from RELENTLESS, live now! (Plus a giveaway at the end!)
I just had to sneeze.
My breath rushes in and out in quick succession, yet somehow isn’t enough. I open my mouth to drag in more oxygen so I don’t pass out.
The last thirty seconds are a muddled mess. I try to sort through them—there was the sneeze, that I remember—but it feels like trying to make sense of a huge ball of yarn that’s been batted around by a kitten.
I grip the back of my neck. The pain is immediate, as though someone flipped a switch and—voila!—the discomfort begins. I wonder vaguely if it’s due to the impact or from the shadow of someone coming around the side of my car.
Something tells me to find my insurance card. Please, let me have my insurance card. I reach for the glove compartment, figuring it’s where the responsible version of me would’ve put it, and glance up into the passenger’s side window just as the person who I rammed with my car appears.
My hand falls to the seat next to me, covering a ketchup stain from an errant fast-food cheeseburger. It flew out of my hands last week during an impassioned concert I put on at a red light.
“Sometimes” by Britney Spears just gets to me.
As does the stranger at the window.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. It wasn’t blue-green eyes that remind me of the ocean in postcards from faraway places peering back at me. Or sun-kissed skin. It definitely wasn’t beautiful lips and a jawline that’s squarish and bold.
I fall back into the seat as a surge of adrenaline rolls through me—my wits frazzling more by the second—and try to keep my composure. I just hit a man’s car.
He watches me quietly, licking his lips as if he’s having a hard time comprehending the situation. It gives me a moment to regroup.
A quick once-over puts him in his mid-thirties. He’s ludicrously handsome. Brown hair kissed with a touch of blond is cut short to his head and styled as though he rolled out of bed looking that handsome. A deep-blue Polo shirt is stretched across broad shoulders. Lines around his mouth and eyes lend an approachability, a warmth to his features.
Let’s hope that’s true.
“I just had to sneeze.”
I say it before I can think about it, which is unfortunate. My insides shrivel as the look on his face changes from concern to … surprise? Confusion? Judgment? I don’t know which it is, but it’s clear he’s thrown for a loop.
“Look, I’m not any happier about this than you are,” I say, glancing at his dented Range Rover. “Actually, my insurance rates are going to go up, and that’s devastating.” I look at him again and gulp. “Okay, devastating might be a stretch, but I’m not looking forward to it.”
He blows out a breath. I swear I smell peppermint.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
I think he means it like, Did you hit your head or something? but I can’t really tell.
His voice is honeyed and sympathetic—not at all the cool and annoyed tone I predicted. Sadly. Irritated would’ve been easier to accept when I replay this scene in bed at three in the morning.
“Are you all right?” he asks again.
“Me? Oh, yeah. I’m fine. I think. I mean, just a little pain in the back of my neck …” I clasp my hand over the area. “It’s probably just … stress.”
Stop talking, Shaye.
His brows pull together. “Why don’t you step out of the car so we can figure out what to do?”
I reach for the glove box again. “My insurance card. You probably want that.”
“Why don’t you … Let’s make sure you’re okay before we get into the insurance and stuff, okay?” he asks gently.
A quick scan of the glove compartment proves that the responsible me was not present the day I got my card from the insurance company. And I know for certain I didn’t download the app like they suggested.
Who needs an app when I have a paper card? I don’t need another dumb app.
I distinctly remember thinking that.
I sit back in my seat again—a little taller this time. I’m going to have to fake having my life together.
“My card is missing in action at the moment,” I admit. “But I have insurance. I swear.”
He holds his hands out as if the movement will calm me somehow. “It’s okay. Let’s start here—what’s your name?”
“Shaye. My name is Shaye Brewer.”
“Shaye.” He says it as if he wondered what it would sound like in his voice. “Okay, Shaye. I’m Oliver Mason.”
Oliver Mason. Good lord—even his name is sexy.
I mentally kick myself. Hi? Really, Shaye?
“I really am sorry for … that.” I shift my eyes quickly to the location of our cars kissing and then back to him again. “It was an accident.”
“Because you sneezed?”
His lips dip at the sides as though he’s fighting a smile. His eyes don’t fight it, though. The sides crinkle, the irises light up, and the blues and greens mix into crazy pools of color that are almost hypnotic.
“I sneezed four times, actually,” I tell him, my guard slipping thanks to his I’m-not-going-to-lose-my-shit-over-this demeanor. “Most people do twos or threes. I always do fours.”
He breaks. A wide, knock-me-off-my-feet grin splits his cheeks. It renders me breathless but, unfortunately for me, it does not render me speechless.
“Four times in a row is basically a blackout,” I ramble on. “It’s terrifying. This has always been a big fear of mine and now it came true.”
“Fear of talking too much?” he teases.
My face flushes as I glance in my mirror at a car passing behind me. “No. Sneezing and getting into an accident, but thanks for that.”
His chin lifts to the sky, and a full, friendly laugh slips through the air. My body sags in relief. The pain in the back of my neck becomes a distant memory.
“I talk too much when I’m nervous,” I say, grimacing.
He grips the top of the window with one hand, his eyes still twinkling. “I was just kidding. I’ve never considered the dangers of sneezing and driving before. You have me wondering what other hazards lurk that I haven’t thought about.”
“There are tons of lurking hazards.” I tap at the air vent by the display. “Ever wondered if a snake climbed in your engine at night? And then it occurs to you while you’re driving that it could pop out one of these?”
He shakes his head, clearly amused. “I have not. I am also fairly certain that is impossible if it makes you feel any better.”
“Well, if you’re right, it does. But what’s your expertise in this area?” I narrow my eyes. “Do you even know anything about cars?”
He rewards me with a laugh again. “Get out of there so we can survey the damage and decide what to do.”
“So, that’s a no on knowing anything about cars,” I say as I climb out of the car.
A burst of wind greets me as I step onto the pavement. The contact of my shoe with the ground catapults me back into reality, causing me to look at the front of my car again. I so don’t need this headache.
Oliver walks around the car and stands beside me. He’s taller than me by a handful of inches, probably hitting six feet without shoes. He stands tall and confident, his body long and lean like an athlete but without the bulk of one. And, for the first time in a long time, I feel a crackle of attraction to another person.
I must’ve hit my head.
“Well, that’s disappointing,” I say, focusing on the mess in front of me and not at the man at my left.
“That depends on what you’re looking at.”
I don’t look at him, but I don’t have to in order to know he’s looking at me. His gaze is heavy on my cheek.
A chill fires through my body as I try not to read into his words or the way they—he— oozes sex appeal.
“My bumper is definitely not supposed to be touching the ground,” I say and then force a swallow. “That’s pretty disappointing.”
He switches his attention from me to the cars. “On the other hand, I’m pretty sure my mechanic can just pop my panel out, and I’ll be good to go.”
“Good for you.”
Knowing nothing about car repair except for the fact that it’s not cheap and the state of my front end is … hanging, all I see are dollar signs. Dollar signs that I do not have.
My stomach tightens as reality sobers me a little more.
“So, what do you want to do about this?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “What do you do in an accident?”
He moves to get a better look at the damage. “According to Georgia law, we don’t have to involve the police unless there’s an injury, death, or property damage over five hundred dollars.”
“This is not the first time you’ve been in this situation, I gather.”
“What can I say?” He grins. “I was a mischievous teenager and I have four brothers. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
“Four brothers? Your poor mother.”
He laughs. The sound is easy and comfortable, as if we’re discussing the weather or family stories and not property damage. I don’t really know what to make of that.
“Well, there’s no injury and no death, but I have no idea on the amount of damage. Do you?”
“Probably fifteen hundred or so.”
“That is,” he says, pausing for effect, “if you take it to a random mechanic and get ripped off.” He slips his hands into his pockets. “My mechanic, though—I bet we could get him to do it for less than five hundred.”
I twist around and square my shoulders with his. “So, what you’re saying is that we estimate the damage is less than five hundred dollars, so we don’t have to call the police.”
“That’s what I’m saying. We don’t have to call the police if you don’t want to. I don’t plan on turning mine into insurance. If you are, we need to call the cops for a report. The insurance will want that.”
I’m not reporting this to anyone. Involving the police sets us up for tickets and I’d definitely be getting one. I also have no interest in getting this fixed for five hundred or fifteen hundred if it’s not totally necessary.
“Let me ask you this,” I say, rocking back on my heels. “Can I drive it like that?”
“How far do you have to go?”
He bends at the front end and inspects it. He peers beneath the busted plastic or whatever a bumper is made out of and fiddles with things.
I stand behind him and watch. My mind takes off, sprinting away from the accident and straight into bed with Oliver. I’m visualizing his rough palms grazing over my body and the taste of his lips against mine. The way my name sounds when it comes through clenched teeth—“Oh!”
He stands abruptly, catching me off guard. I jump back and clutch my heart.
He dusts his hands off and grins. Amusement is written all over his handsome face.
“I have an idea,” he says, heading to the Rover.
Me too, but it’s probably not what you have in mind. It was nothing to do with getting my car engine running.
He opens the back of his SUV and digs around. I use the opportunity to catch my breath.
The whole day has been a whirlwind of fuckery. I stubbed my toe climbing out of bed. The water heater decided to go out two minutes into my shower. The staffing agency I have been using to fill an employment gap had me booked for a weekend afternoon shift downtown. When I showed up to the address they gave me, so did another woman—the right woman. She stayed. I was sent home.
The day did not get better from there.
I sigh and look up as Oliver stalks toward me with zip ties dangling from his hands.
Oh, good grief.
Two possibilities fire through my mind at the exact same time. I didn’t know that was possible, but it happens.
One is that he’s going to tie my hands a la Christian Grey. Now that I think about it, he has that businessman-with-a-backstory vibe going on.
The other is that he’s going to secure my wrists together and perform a citizen’s arrest. It seems possible. He somehow knows the law.
Then it hits me.
He’s a cop.
I’m not sure whether to run or offer myself up. Getting detained could go either way, depending on the final destination—police station or Red Room.
Oliver stops a few steps away, his gaze turning wary as he reads my expression. “I was going to try to tie your bumper up with these, but if you don’t want me to …”
My shoulders slump and I sigh. Relief is mixed with disappointment. “Oh.”
His gaze narrows. “I feel like I missed something.”
“I was thinking about what you were going to do with those zip ties.”
His eyes darken. “Oh, really?”
“But tying up my bumper sounds like quite the plan,” I say, adding a laugh as if that will somehow erase the thinly veiled reference that we both know exists. “Zip ties are strong. I bet I won’t even need a mechanic, huh?”
His lips twist into a smirk.
“I once used them to hold up a clothes rod in my closet,” I babble, desperate for him to let it go. I haven’t flirted in a million years. My flirt-er is broken. “And I zip-tied my shoes onto my feet one night. Long story.”
I smile in hopes it distracts him. “So, about the bumper?”
“Yeah. The bumper.” He crouches down, keeping an eye on me. “Come here and hold it up.”
I squat next to him, doing my best to keep the scent of his cologne at bay. It’s persistent. Before I know it, the notes of tobacco and amber are flirting with my core.
It doesn’t take him long at all to fasten the bumper … somewhere. All I know is that it isn’t touching the pavement anymore and that’s good enough for me.
He wipes his hands down the front of his jeans as he stands. “That should hold pretty well for a while. But you do need to have someone take a look and make sure nothing else is broken.”
“I will,” I lie, ignoring the roar of a truck on the road behind us.
The wind kicks up, ruffling the edge of my shirt. But as I stand next to Oliver, I absorb the calm, sturdy energy rippling off him. It’s nice. I wish I could bottle it up and take it home with me.
His eyes search mine. “I wasn’t kidding about my mechanic. I’d be happy to have him take a look at it for you, if you want.”
“I’ve already caused you enough problems for one day.”
He smiles. “We could schedule it for tomorrow then. We could grab lunch while it’s being looked at.”
Suddenly, I don’t know what to say.
He’s been so kind to me, despite the situation. I could never tell him how much I appreciate that. But not only am I not getting my car fixed—tomorrow or any other day—I also have a laundry list of things that require my attention. Lunching with a gorgeous stranger is anxiety I don’t need to worry about for the next twenty-four hours.
Who am I kidding? I’d replay that scenario for days and overthink it every time.
“I’m sorry for all of this,” I say. “But I need to get going.”
“Oh. Okay,” he says warily. “You will get that checked out, right?”
I nod. “Yeah. Sure.”
I turn toward my car door.
“Should we exchange contact information?” he asks. “Just in case? I’d like to check on you in a day or two and make sure you’re all right.”
I grab the handle and pause.
My heart betrays me. It beats harder, obviously affected by this gorgeous specimen named Oliver Mason with four brothers and a miracle mom. My body double-crosses me too, tingling from my hairline down to my toes. I’d like you to make sure I’m all right too, Oliver Mason, it cries.
I take a moment to breathe.
I haven’t been attracted to anyone in so long. At first, it was because of the divorce. Six years of a marriage that blows up in your face will make you a little bitter about relationships. Then it was that my husband died before we could sign the papers. I wasn’t in love with Luca anymore, but there’s something about being a widow and not a divorcee that screws with you a little bit. And when you’re suddenly saddled with a load of debt that your ex was supposed to take with him? That’s fun—with every drop of sarcasm that will fit into the word.
Here I am, buzzing with an energy that’s taking me by surprise—something I haven’t experienced in years—on a day when it’s apparent that I have no time nor space in my life for such luxuries as lunch with a cover model. This kind man doesn’t need any more of my crazy.
“I’ll be fine,” I say, pulling the door open. “If you need my contact information for your insurance company, I use the local branch of Beach Bureau Insurance. They know me there.”
He furrows his brow. The sun shines from behind him, illuminating him like a hero in a movie. His lips part and I hold my breath, both hoping he says something and wishing he won’t.
“Goodbye, Oliver,” I say.
“Goodbye, Shaye …”
His words drift off into the air as though maybe I’ll capture them and volley them back again.
But I don’t.
I climb inside my car and pull away before I can change my mind.
I don’t even look back.