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Copyright © 2013 Jayne Rylon

She stood, towering in her six-inch heels, and jammed out her hand. “Nola, Nola Brown.”

Without hesitation, he returned the clutch with interest, while she wondered at the crinkle blossoming around the corners of his eyes—yeah, she’d tried to make him uncomfortable, but a guy like him shouldn’t dent beneath even her firmest grip—for a moment before glancing down and catching sight of scabbed knuckles. Who had he pummeled?

Banged-up hands but not a bruise on that pretty face meant it had been no contest.

For an eternity, they locked horns—or hands—their gazes clashing as if they indulged in a world-record-setting staring contest. Neither of them volunteered to back down first.

Until Eli intervened with a less-than-subtle clearing of his throat.

Balancing her no-nonsense stance with Kaige and the necessity of pleasing his boss, she yanked free of the newcomer’s hold, trying to convince herself that the pulse hammering through her veins had more to do with annoyance than attraction.

Because that was a really, really bad idea.

“I was talking to the lady.” Kaige flumped into the seat beside the one she’d recently occupied and slouched, his long legs stretching all the way to the base of the desk in front of him.

“Looked more like a pissing contest to me.” Eli grinned.

He waved her off when she began to give some lame excuse for their immature showdown. “He deserved it. You don’t have to spare anyone’s feelings around here. We’re big boys and girls. Or should be. Guess you see why we call him Super Nova, though. He’s got a bit of a temper. Sorry ’bout that.”

Nola nodded. “No worries. I can handle myself.”

“Nobody doubts that, honey.” The lascivious slant to Super Nova’s glance had her insides squirming despite her chastising. She’d long ago trained herself to ignore bad boys. They only brought trouble.

Somehow, she knew that went double for this one.

She cleared her throat. “So tell me what you’re looking for? Why am I here?”

“Am I allowed to make suggestions?” Nova winked.

“No,” Nola and Eli responded in unison.

Eli, King Cobra, repeated his spiel from their initial meeting about generating a long-term strategy, organizing existing ideas and formalizing their business plan, which they both understood was for the benefit of Kaige, not her.

She hoped the toolbox was listening. He seemed more intent on playing games, leaving his legs spread so his knee maintained contact with hers. If he thought she’d head for the hills before they even got started, he was destined for disappointment. Intimidation tactics had never worked on her.

“Excuse me.” She stopped Eli mid-sentence and turned to face the asshole beside her instead. “I don’t care how big you think your balls are, you don’t need all that room. Move the hell over. This is my space.”

She drew an imaginary box around herself, uninviting Kaige from within it.

Nola didn’t bother to glance away from Nova’s stunned expression toward the gasping Eli didn’t come close to covering with his faux cough. Thank God he busted a gut at her directness instead of booting her to the curb. Maybe this could work after all.

Kaige shuffled to the left then splayed his legs even wider than before. She didn’t give a damn as long as he kept away from her. Turning toward Eli again, she caught his stare in her peripheral vision. She wondered if the glimmer there had anything to do with begrudging respect, or if resentment still took top spot.

She didn’t come here today to make enemies. And whether she’d asked for it or not, she had one. The only way to get this job, and keep it, would be to form an unlikely alliance.

“I think what you’re saying makes sense, Cobra.” She felt a little silly using their nicknames but the guys wore them as easily as a second skin. “But I don’t know the restomod business specifics.”

“Exactly,” Nova nearly spat.

She choked on the suggestion she knew she had to make twice before she could force it out through clenched teeth. “So what do you think about Mr. Davis and I teaming up?”

This time Eli couldn’t contain his guffaw. “Mr. Davis. Who the hell is that?”

It surprised her more though when Kaige snarled. “Don’t call me that. Reminds me of my father. I’m nothing like him.”

Still, he glanced at the floor, away from her for the first time, when he denied it.

“Fine. Super Nova.” She barely refrained from rolling her eyes. “He could help me vet my ideas before committing them to the plan and wasting time chasing dead ends.”

“Can you do that?” Eli raised a brow at Nova.

“I’m not an idiot, you know.” He crossed his arms in a way that highlighted the bulges of his biceps. “I’ll show her my plans if it’s what’s best for Hot Rods.”

“Wait. You have your new business concepts formalized somewhere? Like in a proposal or something? I thought you just had them up here.” Eli tapped his temple with his index finger.

“Nope. They’re on my laptop. Been honing them for a while.” Kaige turned serious for a moment. When he dropped his thug routine, she had to swallow hard. Beneath his resentment, there lingered a whole lot of hurt. The flex of his throat, the shuffling of his boots and the wringing of his damaged knuckles said it all.

Nola imagined him pouring himself into the improvements he wanted to pitch to Eli. For endless hours, fiddling with them at night, after Cobra retired to the rooms he shared with Alanso and Sally.

Suddenly, she could understand maybe a tiny bit of Nova’s frustration. She’d fume too if the chance to show off her work had been stolen. Even if they partnered now, the guys would think she had influenced him, generating the new goals he hoped to pursue.

For once second, she pitied him.

And then he ruined it by opening his big, dumb mouth. “As long as Hot Rods thrives, I don’t give a damn who gets credit for being the brainiac behind it. I’m no glory hound, and I don’t need some bullet point on a fancy resume like Ms. Brown here. Besides, it’s what your dad would ask of me.”

Eli scrubbed his hand over his face, pinching the bridge of his nose. The way the trio had spoken of Tom London during their consultation with her sister made his importance to the group clear. A low blow, bringing the man into this discussion. Or maybe genuine concern. Would Kaige put aside his differences to make the guy proud?

Nola bet the answer was yes.

Why couldn’t this damn assignment have been easy? Emotional landmines scattered across their playing field.

“You’re right. Dad would want us to collaborate. So why haven’t I seen these roadmaps for the shop?” Scratching his head, Eli narrowed his eyes a bit.

Nola held her breath as something heavy seemed to pass between the two friends, who seemed a hell of a lot more like brothers than pals. At least they shared the same capacity for communicating a whole lot with a few words, just like she and her sister did.

“You’ve been busy. I didn’t want to bug you. Plus there are a few kinks I was still working out.” A shrug loosened some of the knots in Kaige’s shoulders for the first time. “Your girl Nola here can help me brainstorm how to get around the roadblocks. I guess that would be okay.”

The first sign of thawing had Nola perking up. Maybe it wasn’t hopeless.

“Hey, I didn’t mean to step on your toes.” A wince slashed Eli’s face. “I screwed this up. But in the end I think we’re going to get where we need to go. I’m sorry, Kaige.”

“It’s okay, Eli.” And it seemed as if it was. The air between the guys cleared and Nola could breathe again. Definitely similar to her and her sister. Sure, they’d fought plenty. Still, it was easy to forgive someone you loved even when they made a bonehead move. Because deep down you knew there had been no malice behind it. “We’re okay.”

Nola stared at her hands, clutched tightly in her lap. She felt as if she’d intruded on their bonding. And damn if it didn’t make her like both men just a little more.

Eli stood, abandoning the red leather seat behind his desk to lay his hand on Kaige’s shoulder. It surprised the hell out of her when the bitter man flashed a sense of humor.

“Now get your ass in gear. You’ve got guests to invite to a par-tay.” Kaige grinned as he slapped the other guy on the ass. The dazzling display of his crooked grin, not to mention the blatant affection her temporary teammate demonstrated for his boss, had her drawing a sharp breath.

Ah, hell. She’d better get used to it if she planned to stick around. After all, Cobra was unconventional—in love with both a woman and man. If she was to stay, she’d have to broaden her horizons a bit.

Somehow she thought that might not be such a terrible thing.

“Is there anything else to discuss, then?” Eli leaned forward, eager to shake on their arrangement.

“One thing.” She stood so they were as close to eye-level as possible. It might sound funny, but she wasn’t joking around.

“Uh-oh.” He grinned. “Let’s hear it.”

“If this dirtbag gives me any trouble, I get to kick him in the nuts.” Nola jerked her head toward Kaige.

Super Nova laughed. For one glorious moment, the pure bliss transformed him into something entirely too tempting—a mechanical God who’d be sure to tune her engine just right. When he caught her wide-eyed stare, he stifled the ringing mid-chuckle as if pissed he’d gotten busted finding her amusing.

Nola couldn’t help the barest of smiles she flashed in his direction.

“Deal.” Eli extended his hand and she took it. “Use the rest of the day to get prepared, and we’ll see you back here tomorrow.”

“Will do.”

It surprised her when Kaige Davis held the office door for her as she left. On impulse, she reached into her purse and snagged one of her business cards then tucked it in the breast pocket of his grease-spotted Hot Rods uniform as she squeezed past.

When he simply stared at her, she thought maybe he hadn’t been attempting politeness. No, maybe he was eager to see her taillights. Oh well.