“SCREW IT! Everyone can go to hell!” A door slammed somewhere in the front of Reid’s Auto Shop and was followed by a stomping frenzy worthy of a brontosaurus. There was more cursing, this time in a mangled Spanish, and then Zig returned to her tried and true favorites. “Fucking shit!”

One of the young mechanics—probably Eli—mumbled something, but it was hard to hear through the cinder block walls, despite the open double doors that led to the main shop. Hunkered over a ’71 Norton Commando, Deacon tightened down another gauge, counted to five, and grinned when Zig groaned loudly.

“Shit! He’s supposed to be at Angel’s fixing something.” Her dramatic sigh was worthy of a hippo in love with a crocodile prince. “I already owe him two bucks when I get my allowance this week.”

“Maybe if you throw yourself onto the mercy of the court.” Abe, Eli’s boyfriend and fellow mechanic chortled. The beefy young man passed the open door, carrying a box of parts to the car he’d been working on. “You’d think you’d learn.”

The oncoming storm muffled most of what they were saying, but Deacon figured Zig needed to vent a bit of steam before she made her way to the back of the shop, where he was working. Eli and Abe would hear her out, but neither of them would offer up much in the way of how to fix what was wrong. They’d make sympathetic murmurs, and when Zig reached a point where she was willing to listen, she’d come find him.

In a lot of ways, the auto shop was her home away from home… well, one of them. Lang’s bookstore, a few doors down, got a lot of Zig traffic as well. She earned money at the auto shop doing the odd job and then turned around and handed her hard-earned cash to the book store to satisfy her reading addiction. But as close as she was to Lang, she always sought out Deacon when life threw her a curveball.

Reid’s was busy with a constant flow of customers and cars that needed work. He’d brought on a few more mechanics, made Eli and Abe senior technicians, and hired a retired librarian named Mabel to man the front desk and answer calls. Mabel’s prim and proper exterior masked a woman with the heart and mouth of a pirate, and she ran the place as tightly as though she were the captain of a ship. She kept the sales books in order and warmed up the reception area with endless coffee and bright chatter.

All the growth in the front of the shop meant Deacon could concentrate on the work he did in the long bay attached to the back of the building.

As much as cars were the foundation of Reid’s success, his love of restoring and customizing classic motorcycles satisfied his soul. He loved the research as much as he did the tinkering and consulting with a bike’s owner on its specs and looks. Most of all he loved the relative solitude of the workroom of his own shop and bringing life back to beautiful machines.

The stomping continued and then stopped at the door, but Deacon focused on the bike and reached for one of the filters he brought with him from the front office. In the years since he’d adopted his niece and married his husband, Lang, he’d learned a few things about how to handle Zig, especially since she was more like him than her deceased mother. Where his sister would take the easy way out of things or con someone else into taking the blame, Zig met life head-on, ready to do battle with any and all obstacles.

Even the ones she should walk away from.

Deacon had learned a lot of hard lessons, some in prison for receiving stolen goods or in the rough, mean Long Beach neighborhoods where he and Zig grew up, but the most difficult thing he’d ever done was walk away from everything he knew and move to Half Moon Bay to start his life over.

The little girl standing at the double doors that connected the auto bays to the long receiving bay he’d converted to a cycle shop was worth every agonizing moment and every dollar he’d spent to make the move. He knew it the moment he picked her up from her foster home and put her into the sidecar of his motorcycle, and he vowed to be as perfect of a dad as he could, although he knew he’d fuck it up something fierce along the way.

He had, no question about it, but she kept coming back to him, and she held on tight when the world got too sharp and she grew brittle. They’d come a long way together and went even further when Lang joined their family. Still, it was hard to look into Zig’s enormous too-adult green eyes and not see the little girl who’d once needed a nightlight to fall asleep.

“You heard me, right?” Zig muttered, a bit of challenge in her voice. “And I hate that the swear jar’s back. Sometimes I just want to say bad things.”

At eleven and a half, Zig was getting tall. She was a coltish stretch of golden-skinned, smart-mouthed young girl on the verge of womanhood, and it broke Deacon’s heart a little bit to find the top of her head was getting a lot closer to his chin with every passing day. He’d been weak-willed one hot afternoon a few weeks ago and agreed to let Zig shave the underside of her head. He helped her parse out the line and then took a pair of clippers to her soft tumble of caramel curls. Lang came home to what he thought was a dead poodle on the kitchen floor and a sobbing Zig now shorn around her ears and filled with instant regret.

The tears lasted for an hour, and after two bowls of ice cream, Lang helped her even the line out while they both shot evil glares at Deacon as he sat quietly at the kitchen table, refusing to point out that the clippers and mane cut were Zig’s idea. He mentioned that no one could actually see her shaved skull under the wealth of hair she still had left, but the response he got was less than friendly.

A trip to the movies and a dinner at Zig’s favorite pizza place soon smoothed over that particular bump in the road.

Deacon stayed silent and waited Zig out. Her heavy boots were speckled from mud, and her Crossroads Gin gray hoodie was nearly soaked through from the storm raging outside of the bay’s rolling doors. She’d worn a black Reid’s Auto Shop shirt into school with a pair of the ugliest pink camo cargo capris ever made, but he took one look at her that morning and decided it wasn’t a battle he needed to fight.

He was pretty good at picking his battles now, mostly because a lot of it didn’t matter. As long as he wasn’t raising an asshole kid, Deacon figured he was doing okay.

“I’ve got reasons.” She fired off her opening volley and kept her voice down to a whisper so soft that he almost couldn’t hear it over the rain. “Good ones.”

“Huh.” Deacon allowed himself that small noise in the pregnant pause of doubt before she began the mad scramble of words and indignant outrage over some slight she’d been given. “Pass me that socket over there on the bench.”

Zig brought the tool over, along with a few lemon drops she snagged from the candy jar he kept on the work bench. She popped a couple into Deacon’s open mouth, settled down on one of the shop’s stools, and hooked her feet into the metal ring above its wheels. Deacon knew his daughter well enough to know she was struggling with how to package whatever she needed to say as her gaze drifted out to watch the sheets of rain that poured off the tin roof of the bay.

After a few minutes, Zig sighed and mumbled, “Mrs. Bryant wants us to do a presentation on our family’s holiday traditions, like what our first Christmas or whatever was like and what we remember from it.”

That was not what Deacon expected to hear.

“It’s stupid, and it sucks. Not everybody’s got money,” she snapped. “Mom sucked. And not like you were around. I didn’t have shit back then. You know.”

“Well, shit, kiddo.” Deacon huffed out a breath, straightened up, and reached over to ruffle Zig’s hair. “We can do something. It’s not going to be that bad.”

Zig clamped her lips in tight, turned her face away, and refused to look at him. She clenched the stool’s leather cushion, dimpling it deeply, and her knuckles turned white. A sheen flashed over her eyes, a brief watering before she blinked and hid her unshed tears.

They’d both come from shit. There was no denying that. They’d been born into squalor, and Deacon’s path was set toward ruin nearly at birth. His mother taught him how to shoplift, how to shove Styrofoam flats of pork chops and hamburger down the back of his loose jeans, his hoodie tugged low to hide the bulge tucked against his spine. At seven he learned to “shop” on his own and bring what he lifted back to whatever hellhole she’d found for them to squat in. Too many of his holidays were spent in food kitchens or ratty hotels, where he ran the hot water in the bathroom on full force and hoped it would be enough to cook a Cup Noodles for dinner.

His first real Thanksgiving meal was in juvie, and he punched one of the other guys in the face just to take his slice of pumpkin pie. He knew his mother hadn’t been much better for his younger sister, and Deanna did even less for her daughter. She let Zig’s life disintegrate around her while she chased another hit of whatever drug she could get her hands on.

Deacon wouldn’t sugarcoat Zig’s life before foster care. He knew exactly what Zig had lived through, and he worked to help her overcome her mistrust of people. She pulled a lot of crap because she’d only had herself to depend on, but she’d stopped hoarding canned goods around her bedroom and didn’t lead with her fists anymore when she was challenged by someone at school.

She was learning to walk away when something wasn’t worth it and to go full in when it was… a hell of a lot sooner than Deacon ever had. Denying what she’d gone through when Deanna was alive would have been erasing the struggles she’d fought through, and Deacon knew in his gut it was better to point out that she’d come through it and was a better person than it was to sweep it all under the rug and pretend it never happened—especially since there were still nights when he was woken up by her insensible cries. He still spent hours holding her, reassuring her that he would always be there to protect her, and rocking her gently until the dawn turned the creamy walls of her bedroom a blush pink.

“We didn’t do jack for Christmas, or Halloween even. Like, all the kids at school would come back after vacation, and they had all this cool shit or they went someplace. We didn’t do that.” She still ducked her head down and couldn’t look at him. “One time I stole a Barbie doll from the box they put toys in for poor kids, and I hid it from Mom. But when school started, I brought it with me to show what I got for Christmas. So I could pretend, you know? I don’t want to tell Mrs. Bryant that. I don’t want her to know about back then.”

“I can talk to her and—”

“No! Then you’ve got to explain. It’s just… this sucks.” She finally looked up, her face wet with tears. Her bottom lip trembled, and Deacon reached for her, but Zig shook him off. “Why was Mom such a shit? Why didn’t you come get me sooner?”

If Zig had picked up a chisel and stabbed him in the heart, she couldn’t have hurt him more than she did with the words she flung at him. Deacon gathered her up in his arms and expected a fight, but Zig surprised him and flung herself at him in a desperate lunge. He held her tightly and rocked her back and forth while he smoothed her hair as she sobbed. Her slender body shook as she worked out her pain and frustration, and her tears soaked his shirt. His heart broke for what must have been the thousandth time since he’d first learned that his sister died and left a little girl behind to wallow in the ashes of her broken, fucked-up life.

“I hate Mom. I’m glad she’s dead. I hate her so much.” She caught her breath and exhaled in stuttering jerks into his chest. “I just want to be normal, Dad.”

“Well then, you’re shit out of luck, baby girl.” Deacon sighed, kissed the top of her head, and whispered, “You’re never going to be normal. You can’t be, because you’re already pretty fucking special.”