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Bootleg My Heart by A.M. Westerling

Chapter One

September 1931

The hand lettered “Help Wanted” sign wedged in the garage’s ripped window screen was the only sign of life. That and the riot of pansies spilling over the edge of the wooden barrel slouched against the wall beside the front door.

“Now who in their right mind plants pansies in front of a garage?” muttered Jackson Durant as he parked his truck. He switched off the engine and glanced down at the address in the newspaper want ad. “Joe’s Garage”, it said, “Bandit Creek, Montana”.

The name matched the one on the freshly painted sign jabbed into the driveway like a giant lollypop. Whoever had painted it had been in a hurry, because red paint dripped from the bottom of the letters, striping the white background like a candy cane.

Shaking his head at the messy effort, he glanced around. The ad read “Busy Motor Stop requires mechanic” but the garage didn’t quite fit the image in his head. Somehow, he equated busy with vehicles. Of which there were none in the parking lot, only his beat-up green Dodge truck.

He slid out and, avoiding the puddles left behind by the recent rain, sauntered past the lone gas pump to the battered screen door. He pulled on the handle. The door didn’t budge. He yanked the handle again and this time, with a jerk, it gave. He winced at the screech of hinges sorely in need of grease as the door lurched open.

He stepped across the muddy threshold into the tiny office. No one paid any attention to him for it was empty – empty save for the grimy electric fan whirring briskly beside the grease encrusted cash register, and the numerous strips of black speckled fly paper dangling from the stained ceiling. He grimaced. Joe’s Garage needed more than a mechanic – it needed a janitor, too.

“Hello?” he shouted, his voice echoing over the scarred counter. “I’m looking for Joe. I’ve come about the ad.”

“Sorry about the door.” A disembodied, distinctly female voice floated up from behind the counter. “It sticks when it rains.”

The voice’s owner popped up from behind the counter, a sudden vision of generous ruby lips and tousled ginger curls propped up by a gingham scarf wound turban style about her head. “And Joe’s not here but I can help you.” A rag dripped from one hand; the other held a scrub brush. “You don’t need to shout,” she added, matter of fact. “It’s a small room.”

The first thing he noticed about her was her eyes: a dark smoky green that resembled the shadows of moss draped trees. Green eyes. He’d always been a sucker for green eyes.

His gaze dove to her left hand. A thin gold ring hung loosely from her third finger. That would be the second thing, then. She was married. Not long, though, judging by the ring’s shiny gold surface. A tinge of disappointment whisked through him but Jackson ignored it. Just as well she was married. He was here on business and didn’t need any distractions, particularly of the female variety.

“The ad,” he repeated, waving the newspaper folded open to the classified ads. He pointed to one of many circled in pencil. “It says you’re looking for a mechanic.”

“Yes.” She nodded and the curls bounced in unison. “And who are you?”

“Jackson Durant.” He extended his right hand.

She looked at it dubiously for a second then dropped the rag on the counter to wipe her right hand on her belted dungarees before extending it. “Delia Becker. What makes you think you can do the job?”

Direct, he thought. He liked that about her. She had a firm grip, too. She shook hands like a man, not with the insipid, dead fish kind of grip like some women.

She placed the scrub brush on top of the rag, this time wiping her left hand on her dungarees before impaling him with her gaze while she waited for his answer.

Once again he was struck by the sultry color of her eyes. Again his eyes dropped to her left hand – maybe he’d been mistaken about the ring. But no, there it was, gold and shiny. Damn but wasn’t that just the way – the pretty ones were always married.

“I’ve worked at stuff for the past couple of years.” Jackson deliberately made his voice casual. He didn’t want her asking too many questions.

“Is that so?” She crossed her arms and leaned her head back to look down her nose at him. “Where?”

There it was again, he thought, she got straight to the point. He’d been ready for the question so the answer slid smoothly off his tongue.

“Over in Missoula.” It wasn’t totally untrue. The Missoula jail had a small garage and he’d helped out there often.

“Do you have references?”

“Yes, but I left them in the hotel back in Missoula when I checked out this morning.” An outright lie but hopefully she’d buy it.

“There’s more than just mechanic’s stuff,” she said, frowning. “The place is run down and needs a bit of work.”

Good, she’d moved on from the references.

“Starting with that squeaky door,” he grinned, trying to dislodge the frown. A mouth that gorgeous didn’t deserve that. “Nothing a screwdriver and a bit of grease won’t fix.”

She cocked her head and gave him a uncertain look, twisting her mouth to one side.

A big improvement over the frown, in his opinion and he regarded her with an appreciative gaze.

“You look like a banker,” she said. “Even your hands are clean. Are you sure you can do the job?”

“Yeah, sure.” He nodded. “What’s it pay?

“Sixty cents an hour.”

Jackson wanted to jump at the offer but he didn’t want her to get suspicious at his intentions. Instead, he rubbed his hand over his jaw and opened and shut his mouth several times as if he were going to refuse.

“You seem to be running out of options,” she blurted, pointing to the x’s in his newspaper. Only one or two circled ads remained unmarked.

“Don’t you worry about me,” he drawled. “I have plenty of options. Thanks for your offer but I’ll be moving on now.” He turned as if to leave.

“Wait,” she said. Panic edged her voice; her gaze was anxious. “I can make it sixty five cents an hour. And there’s a room at the back you can stay in. The job’s yours if you want it.” She held out her hand.

She must be desperate for help, he thought, considering she’d already handed him a raise and he hadn’t even started yet.

“When can I start?” he asked as they shook on the deal.

He hoped he didn’t sound too eager. Bandit Creek was where he wanted to be and to tell the truth, decent pay and a pretty boss, although nice, were immaterial at this point. He had other business to attend to here and he’d found himself the perfect cover.

“Right now. Why don’t you take a look around and tell me what you think?”

“Sure thing.” He flashed another smile before turning on his heel. The door squealed as he pulled it open and he glanced over his shoulder with a grimace. “That’ll be the first thing I fix.”

Delia watched him until he disappeared around the corner before heaving a sigh. He really wasn’t at all what she had been looking for. Too much of a city slicker in his banker’s suit and shined leather shoes.

No, she’d had someone else in mind. Someone older, with grease under his fingernails and calloused palms, a shock of gray hair and a booming laugh. Just like her dad. She swallowed hard against the sudden lump in her throat. Dad was gone, leaving her to run the garage on her own.

Response to the advertisement had been poor. Actually, non-existent. Nobody wanted to work in Bandit Creek, what with the rumors of the lake and old mines being haunted.

Mr. Jackson Durant may not have been her ideal candidate but she liked him, liked his honest face. Too, she liked his friendly grin and the way his sandy brown hair waved away from his forehead. He wasn’t particularly handsome but it didn’t seem to matter. He had a self-assured air which in another man she might have found grating but in him just made him solidly confident. And he seemed not to mind dealing with a woman.

Maybe it had been foolish to hire Mr. Durant on the spot but he had been the only one to apply. Besides, she didn’t have much choice. She needed help and she needed it now.

Dad had warned her repeatedly that one day her impetuous nature would get her into big trouble.

Delia hoped this wasn’t that day.

2 Bandit Rating