DANNY JONES lifted his aching head, blinking away the tears stinging his eyes, mind completely blank as he tried to make sense of what’d just happened.
There was a white blob in his face, so he groggily reached up and pushed it down, only to be confronted with the sight of the cracked windshield and steam rising from the crumpled front of his pickup truck.
Oh shit. It all came back in a single flash, like a switch flipping in his head. He’d been on his way to deliver a gasket to old Mr. Miller, who lived on a farm about half an hour out of town. Danny had been tooling down a dirt back road when he’d rounded a sharp bend and seen the stationary sedan too late.
Even as his heart had launched into his throat and he’d stomped on the brake, his truck was already slamming into the back of the other car. He couldn’t remember the airbag exploding in his face, but from the way his nose was stinging, it’d hit him good. Or had he hit it?
His hands were shaking as he reached down and unclipped the seat belt. His neck was sore, and his whole body felt weird. The door was jammed, so he rammed a shoulder against it to get it open, and then he practically fell out of the cabin when it suddenly gave way. His first few steps away from the truck weren’t exactly steady, but as he forced himself to take a couple of deep breaths, the shock began to wear off and his mind started working again.
The front of the pickup was completely totaled. And as the son of a mechanic, he could say that without a single doubt. He hurried over to the sedan he’d crashed into, the back end crumpled almost into the back seat.
As he approached the front, he could see a figure slouched behind the wheel.
Oh Jesus. What if he’d killed someone? He yanked open the door but then froze in horror. There was blood everywhere. Covering the front of the man’s chest, splattered across the windows and upholstery. Congealing in dark blobs in some places, but dried and cracked where the sun had been blazing down on it on the top of the dash. The man’s dark eyes were open and staring sightlessly ahead, expression twisted into a permanent contortion of fear or pain. The smell was indescribable, and his stomach lurched violently.
Danny stumbled back a step, spinning away from the gruesome sight. It took three tries to yank his phone out of his jeans because his hands were shaking so much. When he finally pulled it free, it dropped from his numb fingers to land in the dirt at his feet.
He cursed, crouching to pick it up, but then he didn’t have the power in his legs to push himself up again. He stayed crouched there, stomach churning with nausea as he dialed 911. He forked a hand into his hair, staring at his shoes as the call connected.
Despite the way his head was spinning, he was almost detached as he requested the county sheriff and explained what had happened in a too-calm voice. When the 911 operator disconnected the call, he shifted back to sit heavily on the ground and then hung his head in between his knees, breathing fast as dizziness wound tighter and tighter around him. He couldn’t get the bloody picture of the dead man out of his head. And the smell—
The sounds of a siren registered, gradually drawing closer, until it was accompanied by the crunch of gravel under tires. Distantly, Danny told himself he should get up, but it was all he could do in that moment to breathe and stay upright.
“Are you okay?” a deep voice asked from above him. A moment later, a hand touched his shoulder. “Are you injured?”
His hands and feet had gone numb, like he was losing contact with his body. He shook his head, sure he was a second away from passing out like that one time he’d been blindsided by a defensive linesman during a football scrimmage back in college. The coach had reamed him later because he hadn’t been paying close enough attention.
“You’re hyperventilating. You need to calm your breathing.” A hand landed on the side of his face and urged his head up. It was a deputy. Not much older than him, with short, dark, wavy hair, deep bronze skin, thick, dark eyelashes, and golden-hazel eyes.
The deputy smiled, reassuring. “Okay, can you breathe with me? In… one, two, three. Out… one, two, three.”
Danny held his gaze, the deputy’s calm and confident stare anchoring him as he breathed slowly several more times while the deputy counted in a deep soothing voice.
Once the dizziness had ebbed away, he closed his eyes.
“Are you okay now?” the deputy asked.
“Not even close,” Danny replied, his voice scratchy as he focused again on the man before him. “But I’m not about to pass out, so that’s a plus.”
The deputy’s smile widened. “Think you can stand?”
Danny nodded, so the deputy held out a hand and helped him to his feet.
“What happened?” The deputy stepped back, resting his hands on his utility belt, like he’d snapped into business mode.
Danny glanced over his shoulder at the wreck. Shit, he’d had that truck since he was seventeen, spent hours under the hood rebuilding the engine. It hadn’t looked like much on the outside, but inside it purred. Would it be worth trying to salvage? It looked like a write-off. Of course, maybe he should have been more concerned about the dead body, not the pickup he’d been driving for six years. The reminder of what he’d seen made acid burn in the back of his throat and he swallowed, refocusing on the deputy.
“I was coming down the road, and when I rounded the bend, the car was just there. I didn’t have time to stop. Slammed right into the back of him. And when I went to check—”
He broke off as his stomach churned hard. He tried to block himself from seeing the image in his mind again. Didn’t work. He got the feeling that it was going to take a lot of drinking or therapy to get rid of the picture now laser-printed into the back of his eyelids.
“I’m pretty sure he’s dead.” His words came out hoarse. “Really dead.”
“I’m sorry you had to see that.” The deputy was looking like he wished he hadn’t seen it himself, lips pressed together and features tense.
“He didn’t die from the accident, did he?” Danny was already certain, but he needed the officer to tell him he hadn’t been responsible for that man’s death.
“No, he was already dead before you hit his car. Probably for half a day at least judging by the dried blood.”
A familiar sweet-sour smell hit his sinuses, and he glanced at the wreck. Danny was momentarily distracted out of his shock. “Smells like—”
Even as the deputy said the word, flames sparked from beneath the hood of Danny’s smashed pickup.
The deputy wrapped both arms around him and they hit the ground, Danny ending up on the bottom as all the air left his body on impact. There was a sudden burst of heat and a deafening boom cracked over them, leaving him instinctively ducking his head into the crook of the deputy’s neck, who’d brought his arms up to cover both their heads. In the seconds after, small, fiery pieces of debris rained down around them.
For a few suspended moments they were frozen, and Danny distantly realized he wasn’t breathing again, this time from almost getting exploded. Wouldn’t that have just made his day? Finally, though, the deputy pushed up on his arms to look down at him, their faces only inches apart.
“Are you okay?” The deputy was breathing hard, and Danny could feel each inhale where their chests were pressed together. His heart was pounding like he’d run five miles.
“What’s your name?” he heard himself ask. Since the guy had just saved him from being barbequed, it seemed like they should be on a first-name basis.
“Jake,” he answered in a low, quiet voice. “Deputy Jake Perez. You?”
“Danny. Daniel Jones. But everyone calls me Danny.”
Silence fell, leaving them staring at each other. He was probably still in shock. They both probably were after that explosion. But all he could focus on was the feel of Jake on top of him and how close their mouths were. Insane, he knew. Some side effect of his shock, or maybe just his brain desperately trying to distract him. And, no lie, Deputy Jake Perez was one hell of a distraction.
Sirens sounded in the distance, and Jake pulled back, putting more space between them. “I need to call this in.”
Jake didn’t wait for an answer but climbed to his feet, dusting off his uniform trousers as he took a few steps away and talked into his radio.
Danny lay there for a few extra seconds, willing his heart rate to settle and his breathing to go back to normal. He’d crashed his pickup, found a gruesomely dead body, then nearly got exploded into itty-bitty pieces. Any surprise he needed a moment? Shit, how had his day gotten so out of control?
A second patrol car pulled up, followed by an ambulance. Danny sat up but stayed where he was, watching as Jake spoke with the other officers from the sheriff’s department. The guy had a quiet air of confidence about him that commanded attention.
The paramedics came over and checked him, but apart from a few bruises caused by the seat belt and airbag, they said he was fine and didn’t need to go to hospital. One of the officers from the second patrol car questioned him about what he’d been doing and how fast he’d been driving and was he distracted and did he see anyone else hanging around. By the time he was done, a third patrol unit accompanied the fire brigade arriving, and they immediately started hosing down the two cars. But by then, the fire had taken hold of both the sedan and his pickup. That was all it took for reality to finally set in.
Hell, his dad was going to be pissed about this.
An automatic answering surge of antagonism swelled within him, borne from long years of dealing with his father’s temper.
Jake came over and sat down next to him, close enough that their shoulders were almost touching.
“My dad’s going to kill me.”
Jake didn’t reply, but his expression shifted into something along the lines of a question. Probably why a grownass twenty-three-year-old guy was so worried about what his daddy thought.
“My family owns the garage in town,” he explained. “I was on my way to deliver an engine part to a customer. It’s in the back of my pickup.”
“Oh,” Jake replied as they both stared at the blackened remains of his truck and few stubborn flames licking up from underneath it.
“Yeah.” He sighed, shoving a hand through his hair.
“I think he’ll just be glad you’re okay,” Jake said, sounding damn sure of that fact. Of course, he didn’t know Grant Jones, son of a bitch that he was. “We’ll need to get an official statement from you, but that can wait until tomorrow. The sheriff said I could give you a lift home.”
He tore his attention away from the burning wreckage to look at Jake.
“If you want,” Jake added. “I can explain to your father that it wasn’t your fault, and you’re lucky to be alive.”
“Thanks.” It wouldn’t help, but he didn’t want to refuse Jake outright and seem like an ungrateful ass.
“Nobody could have avoided this accident, Danny.” Jake’s voice held a resolute note. “Not on a blind bend like that. Not when the car was stationary and right in the middle of the road. You really are lucky that you weren’t killed.”
Jake’s words were like taking a bucket of ice water over the head. “I almost died.”
“But you didn’t.” Jake reached up and gripped his shoulder, immediately anchoring him, effectively smothering the apprehension. How did he do that? “You’re fine, Danny.”
He nodded, forcing himself to breathe before he went and hyperventilated again like an idiot. Once had been more than enough.
“Come on, let me drive you home.” Jake got to his feet first and then reached down a hand for Danny to grip, pulling him upright with ease.
As they crossed toward where the patrol cars were parked, Jake waved to Sheriff Hayes, who came over to intercept them. The sheriff was good friends with his father; they’d gone to high school together. In fact, Sheriff Hayes had basically been like an uncle to him, ever since he was born.
“You okay, Daniel?”
“Yes, sir, thanks. Better than my truck ended up.”
“Never you mind that. Let me know if your old man gives you grief over it. I’ll set him straight.” The sheriff scuffed his hair and flashed an affectionate smile, like Danny was a ten-year-old. “Get on, now. Deputy Perez will see you home.”
“Thanks,” he murmured in reply, but the sheriff had already turned away to speak with someone else.
There’d been a couple of times in his teenage years when he’d ended up on the sheriff’s doorstep after a massive blowout with his dad. But those days were long past. He’d reached a point where he mostly viewed everything his dad said and did with a detached kind of apathy. Unless it was directed at his mom. That he refused to sit by and watch any longer.
The usual acid of regret smoldered in his veins at the fact he’d had to come back to work in his dad’s garage after finishing his business studies on a football scholarship at college in Houston. He’d made a life for himself in the city, had a great job as an assistant manager at a popular bar, been happy, had plans that didn’t include the backward-ass small town he’d grown up in. Sure, his dad had always expected him to take over the family business one day, but he’d just worked up the courage to tell his dad to go to hell when he’d gotten the phone call.
Breast cancer. He could still hear the waver in his mom’s voice as she’d tried to make out like it wasn’t a big a deal. He’d known then and there Everness was the only place he was going because his dad was incapable of giving his mom the kind of love and support she’d needed to get through the cancer. He honestly didn’t care about fixing cars, but of course he’d ended up back in the garage the day he’d gotten into town, and it didn’t look like he was leaving anytime soon.
He’d initially figured he’d stay as long as his mom needed him—a few months at the most. She was in remission, yet he still didn’t feel like he could up and leave. The type of cancer she had, it was likely to return. Months or years, the doctors couldn’t say. Eventually it would kill her; they were almost certain. His mom hadn’t wanted to get a mastectomy and decided to risk it returning. While Danny had strongly disagreed with her, he’d stayed silent and let her make the choice.
His dad had dealt with it all by not dealing with it all—pretended like everything was fine and it was just a small inconvenience. Some days Danny didn’t know how he and the asshole had the same DNA. More than once he’d secretly hoped his mom had cheated on his dad and the guy wasn’t even his real father. Yet beneath all the resentment, there was still a small, stupid part of him who was ten years old and wanted to make his dad proud. Just once. Have a real father-son moment. Of course, if his dad ever found out he was gay, he’d get disowned faster than the airbag that’d so recently exploded in his face.
Coming back to Everness and half living in this weird performance where he wasn’t really himself was only making bitterness dig deeper and deeper into him. Sometimes he imagined doing it—telling his dad, throwing it in his face—just to cut the final tie to the man who’d made his childhood one disappointment after another. But he couldn’t do that to his mom, not when she needed him.
“You know the sheriff pretty well, then?” Jake asked as they resumed their walk toward his patrol car.
“Family friend,” he murmured in return.
“Small towns,” Jake commented with a smile and shake of his head.
Now that he mentioned it, Danny knew everyone who worked in the Everness sheriff’s office and had never seen Jake before.
“You must be new in town,” he said once they’d climbed into the patrol car.
“Started two weeks back.” Jake turned over the engine and then backed out and around the other two police cruisers, before turning on the dirt road.
“You moved to Everness?” he clarified, not quite able to believe it. Usually people moved away from Everness, not the other way around. “By choice?”
Jake gave a laugh—low, deep, and kind of sexy. It made Danny take a second look at him and realize with a jolt in his chest that the guy was really hot.
“There was a job opening and I took it. I’m from Dallas. I was looking for a change in pace.” There seemed to be a hitch to Jake’s words, and his expression took on a serious edge. But it was gone in another second as Jake cut him a quick smile. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Bet you’re regretting it now.” The four and a half years he’d spent living in Houston had been awesome. If he’d had a choice—if his mom hadn’t gotten sick—he would have stayed in the city, no doubt about it.
“I’m definitely not regretting it today.”
Danny turned to look at him in surprise, catching the way Jake’s gaze roamed over him, leaving his pulse skipping and his body warming. Was the guy actually flirting with him?
He cleared his throat and turned his attention forward, no idea what to say in return. He’d only had one kind-of serious boyfriend in college, and that whole gaydar thing he was supposed to have continuously failed him. “If you take a right up here, the garage is on the next block.”
He glanced at Jake, studying his profile as the guy concentrated on the road. The rest of the trip went by in silence. But it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. It was the kind of silence that held just a hint of anticipation, leaving Danny feeling like he was standing on the edge of a ledge and debating whether to jump.