The Peer and the Puppet (When Rivals Play #1) - B.B. Reid
THE HARD BODY BETWEEN MY thighs came to life, and I reveled in the feeling. The vibration from the purring engine could rock me to sleep better than any lullaby. Closing my eyes, the peeling walls of the repair shop fell away, and I was on the circuit surrounded by stands filled with spectators screaming my name as I raced for the finish line.
“How’s she holding, girl?”
Snatched from my fantasy by the sound of my boss’ gravelly voice, I cooed, “Like a newborn baby.”
Gruff grunted and chuckled, making the sixty-year-old’s impressive beer gut jiggle, and his sharp blue eyes lighten as he stroked his gray, bushy beard. He was also the only person I knew who possibly loved bikes more than I did. He definitely knew more—I’d give him that.
“Think she needs another run?”
I nodded while concealing my growing excitement. Even though I was confident the owner wouldn’t have any problems, I never risked sloppy work. If bikes were plants, I’d have a green thumb.
Gruff took me under his wing seven years ago once he got tired of chasing me away. When all the other kids were forging friendships, I was sneaking into Russell’s Repairs. Sometimes, I’d simply watch the guys work, but on the more daring days, I’d give in to my urge to run my fingers over cold, hard metal. The first time Gruff caught me, he threw me out onto the pavement. He said the shop was no place for a kid.
Having no sense of self-preservation, I snuck back inside the next afternoon and almost every one after that until one rainy afternoon, I found a new sign banning profanity. No one ran me off that day. Tim, one of the workers, had even brought out a chair from the office, which was much more comfortable than crouching behind metal shelves filled with used parts. It wasn’t long before Jasper—Gruff’s only other employee—taught my first lesson. Gruff, whose real name was Robert Russell, had offered me nothing but an occasional grunt or grimace. His rough demeanor was actually how he got the nickname. Weeks later, when Rosalyn discovered where I was spending my free time, I learned the grump was really a big ole sweetheart. I was a latchkey kid without a sibling or friend, so Gruff had offered to keep me out of trouble during the hours she worked as a hotel maid. Her reluctance was embarrassingly obvious, but to my delight, she agreed. It would have sucked to sneak around again.
Gruff quickly became sort of an understudy to the father I would never know. Jasper and Tim also undertook brotherly roles until a swanky new automotive shop opened up a few towns over, and they moved on to greener pastures. Cherry’s three thousand souls was a mere drop in the bucket. Most of the locals had to travel to Rochford, a small city thirty minutes away, for business and work—Rosalyn included.
“Well, hop to it, kid. I’ll make the call.”
Gruff ambled into his office, and I grinned as I swung my leg over the bike and retrieved my gloves and helmet. I got my license a few months after I turned sixteen, but I didn’t have a bike of my own yet, so I relished any opportunity to ride. I was eleven when I finally convinced Gruff to teach me how to ride—off the record, of course. Widowed, and with his only son living a couple hours away, it was hard prying him away from his shop. It was a good thing I made him promise when I became his employee that he’d teach me. I thought it was a fair bargain—he needed the help, and I needed the lessons. He still even paid me a small wage that I saved for a bike and used to enter bidding wars for unique and sometimes rare helmets. So far, I’d collected twelve, a couple signed by professional racers, and others signed and sold by legendary undergrounds.
I quickly shoved on my worn leather gloves and pulled on one of my newer additions—Number Ten, a black, old-school, full face with a yellow outline and detachable eye shield and visor.
“I’m off, old man.”
My boot was poised to kick back the stand of the Ducati 1199 Panigale when Gruff stuck his head from his office. He had the cordless plastered to his ear with a stern expression.
“No joyriding, Four.” My smile was challenging, making the wrinkles on his forehead deepen. “I mean it.”
“Up one way and back again, Gruff. I promise.”