Authors: Leah Atwood
Her neck bent and she read the papers. A few seconds later, her eyes shot upward to him. “You don’t accept credit cards?”
“Not for towing.”
She dug through her purse. “I don’t have my checkbook with me. When you drop me off, I can run inside real quick.”
“That’s fine.” His hand went to his mouth, stifling a yawn. Gran’s scare this afternoon zapped his energy. He needed sleep, but first he had to finish this job. Driving forward at a slow acceleration, he felt the pull of Madison’s car behind the truck. “Your car’s out of the mud, but I have to load it on the rollback now. I’ll be done in a few minutes.”
He got back down, loaded her car and took his spot behind the wheel again.
Madison handed him the clipboard. “Here you go.”
He scanned the papers, ensuring all required signatures were there, and stole a glance at her address. She lived on a street at the rear of an older subdivision, a quiet neighborhood, mostly comprised of middle class families. As far as he knew, not too many single people lived there, which caught his curiosity.
Did Madison still live with her parents? Or maybe she was married, but didn’t wear a ring.
None of my business
. He told himself that, but he couldn’t shake the feeling Madison was an answered prayer. Now, to find the guts to ask the needed questions.
“Have you lived in Maryville long?” Pulling fully into the road, he continually checked his side and rearview mirrors.
“All my life except college. You?”
“Since I was six.” The light glaring from her phone caught the window just right and temporarily blinded one eye. “I’m sorry, but would you mind putting your phone away? The light makes it hard to see at night.”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize.” She slid it into a front pocket on her purse. “Where did you live until then?”
“No.” His gaze fixed on the road ahead. Why had he started a conversation with a natural course to those early years he detested? Not that he remembered many details about them, but he would never forget what abandonment felt like. From the corner of his eye, he caught her giving a brief nod, as though she understood further inquiry was not welcomed.
She turned her head and observed him with a blatant stare. “What school did you go to? You look about my age, but I don’t recognize you.”
“Maryville Christian Academy.” Much to his chagrin at the time.
“I went to Maryville High, but I had friends who went to the academy. Do you know Justine Beard?”
“Name sounds familiar.” He twisted his lips, recalling any memory of the girl. “Did she have brown hair and really thick glasses?”
Madison laughed. “Yes, but she’s since graduated to contacts.”
“I didn’t mean any insult—it’s just what I remembered about her. She was two years ahead of me, I think.”
“She’s my age, so that would make you twenty-seven?”
He nodded, then focused on making a sharp right turn. In another minute or two they’d be at her house, and he’d yet to figure out how to ask Madison his huge favor. She came across easy-going, but would that translate into standing in as a fake fiancée?
Her driveway was narrow and too short to pull the wrecker into. Instead, he stopped along the curb and shifted into park.
Tucking her purse under one arm, Madison placed her other hand on the door handle. “I’ll grab a checkbook and be right back.”
The door creaked open, reminding him he needed to lubricate the hinges. “Madison, wait.”
Her head jerked sideways ninety degrees. “What is it? Is there another paper I need to sign?”
“No, nothing like that. Not exactly.” Nervousness tied his tongue. “I have a proposition for you. How would you like to have your bill wiped clean?”
Both of her brows shot to steep arches. “Excuse me?”
He realized his faux pas and rushed to clarify. “An honorable proposal.”
The wrinkles on her forehead deepened. “No thank you. I’ll get my check and pay what I owe.”
Subconsciously, he laid a hand on her arm. “I’m sure I’ve creeped you out, but will you at least hear what I have to say?”
Something in her changed. Her eyes softened and her hand released the handle. “Okay.”
“My grandmother is in the hospital, dying. The doctor told me today, there’s not much he can do except keep her comfortable.”
“I’m sorry, truly I am, but what does this have to do with me?”
“She thinks I’m engaged and wants to meet my fiancée,” he told her, leaving out the crucial element that he was the reason she thought that.
“Are you engaged?”
Her head bobbed in slow motion. “And you want me to stand in as your fake fiancée?”
“Yes.” Leaning an elbow against the door, he drew in a breath.
“Why me?” She inched closer to him, a subtle move that presented him with a whiff of honeysuckles from her hair.
“When you called for a tow tonight, I’d just gotten home from visiting her. She told me before I left that she wanted to meet you, uh, my fiancée.” He met her gaze. “Here’s the big thing. I made up a name a few weeks ago—Maddie. Then, on the same night she asks to meet Maddie, I get a call from you, Madison. I have to believe it was a sign.”
She pursed her lips, tilted her head. “What would this ruse entail?”
“A few visits to the hospital, maybe only one.” He straightened in his seat. “The most important requirement is that you can act like we’re in love. We have to convince her it’s real, even though it’s not.”
“How did she get the idea in the first place that you’re engaged?”
Embarrassed to admit he’d lied, he fought the urge to glance away. “I told her.” The hint of a smile on her face encouraged him. “I know it was wrong, but I wanted to see an extra spark of joy in her.”
To his surprise, Madison laughed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh, but it’s kind of cute you lied to make your Granny happy.”
Archer gave a rueful grin and shrugged. “Gran. I call her Gran.”
“It seems harmless enough, but let me think about it tonight, and I’ll give you an answer tomorrow.”
Relief surged through him. It wasn’t a yes, but close enough. He couldn’t explain why, but in his heart, he knew her answer would be affirmative. “Thank you.”
Lifting the cup to her mouth, Madison breathed in the blissful aroma of her Kona coffee, a gift from Sean from a previous business trip. She had ten minutes to enjoy the brew and check her email before her sister, Anna, picked her up.
After last night, she could have used an entire morning to herself, but her day was crammed with tasks to be completed, both at home and at work. She’d already called the insurance company and an adjuster would be at Archer’s shop by ten this morning. In the meantime, they’d authorized a rental which she would get on her way to work, thanks to Anna.
She flipped open the cover of her tablet and checked her email. Tony had replied, authorizing her new strategy for Franklin’s. Once she got to the office, she’d call Tara and give her a heads-up about the email she would send which outlined the new plan, so she could get a feel for Tara’s response and adjust accordingly.
Another client emailed with a question on their most recent bill. Madison made a note in her calendar to check their file later this morning and get back to them. She had a few more emails to read, but Anna pulled into the driveway several minutes early.
Half of her coffee remained in the cup. She left the table and grabbed a travel mug from the cabinet, then filled it with the coffee from her cup and what was left in the carafe before screwing on the lid.
Anna honked the horn.
“Coming,” Madison yelled out, though Anna wouldn’t hear her from the driveway. Rushing, she threw her tablet into her tote already loaded with her laptop. Juggling her purse, tote, and travel mug, she left the house and struggled to lock the door with her hands full.
“Need some help?” Anna came up behind her, grabbed her keys and locked the door for her.
“Sorry about honking, but Elise was in the middle of one of her epic stories that I didn’t think would ever end.”
“Figured as much.” Madison chuckled. “What was it about this time? Sunday night she told me a thirty minute tale about the blue puppy dog in her wall.”
Anna groaned. “That again? I thought we’d gotten past the blue puppy finally.”
“At least she’s not scared of him anymore.” Madison took her house keys back from her sister and slid into the passenger seat of Anna’s minivan. When Anna sat in the driver’s seat, she continued. “Did you ever figure out where the blue puppy originated from?”
“No, but I still think it has something to do with that television show, although we showed her a picture of that one and she said it wasn’t him.”
“Puppy,” Elise squealed from the second row of seating. “I want a puppy for my birthday.”
“Not this year, sweetheart.” Anna turned the key in the ignition and put the van in reverse. She winked at Madison as she backed out of the driveway and whispered, “Paul filled out adoption papers for a puppy yesterday.”
Madison smiled a silent response so she wouldn’t give away the secret. “Thanks again for picking me up.”
“Anytime.” Anna glanced over. “Which garage is your car at?”
“Reeves Auto Repair.”
“I know that one. They did some work on Paul’s car last year.” At an intersection, Anna stopped. “Is your car fixable?”
“Archer seems to think so, but it will cost a pretty penny.”
Anna’s brows shot up before crossing the road. “Archer?”
“Archer Reeves. The shop’s owner.”
“What?” Madison took a sip of coffee.
“Your face lit when you mentioned his name.”
She looked at her cup and frowned. “It’s nothing like that.”
Wrinkles formed on Anna’s forehead. “What exactly happened last night?”
The seat belt dug into her shoulder when she shifted. “He asked me if I’d pretend to be his fiancée.”
“What?” Anna’s head jerked.
“It’s completely innocent, honest.” Madison stole a glance at Elise, and thankfully her niece was absorbed in a picture book. “His grandmother is dying, and to make her happy, he told her he’s engaged, but now she wants to meet his fiancée.”
“I happened to be there when he needed someone.” Shrugging, Madison continued. “At first I thought it was an odd request, but he seems like a nice guy—I don’t see the harm in helping him out.”
“I don’t know, Sis. Sounds rather strange to me.”
“One visit to the hospital to make an old lady happy. What could possibly go wrong?” When Anna’s face twisted into an expression of doubt, Madison backed off. “Besides, it’s not like I’ve given him an answer yet. I said I’d call him today.”
“Just promise me you’ll be careful, okay?”
“Pinky promise.” She crooked her smallest finger, and they laughed.
The knotted muscles of her neck refused to relax. After a long day of work, Madison sat in her rental sedan outside of Reeves Auto Repair. All the bays were closed, but she could see her car on a lift through one of the windows.
On the other side of the garage was a customer waiting area with floor to ceiling mirrors that looked remarkably clean for an auto center. A few vinyl banners hung at the top and two signs on the door respectively announced the hours and forms of payment accepted.
But no note that credit cards aren’t accepted for tows.
She had a folded check in her wallet ready to hand Archer. All day, to the detriment of her work, she’d thought about Archer’s proposition. Tempting as it was to save a few hundred dollars, she knew what her decision had to be.
Archer appeared in the doorway, dressed in faded jeans, black boots and a gray shirt. From her vantage point in the car his left cheek seemed to have a spot of grease on it, but it could have been a shadow. He squinted his eyes, peered her way. Recognition struck his features, followed by confusion.
Why was she still sitting in the car? Now that she’d been spotted, she had no choice except to get out or risk looking silly—which she already felt. By nature, she wasn’t a shy person, but something about Archer made her self-conscious. Sure, he was a good looking man, even if his light brown hair needed a trim. And absolutely he had the most gorgeous and expressive gray eyes she’d ever seen and couldn’t help wishing for a daylight view of them last night.
However, she’d been around men more attractive than him without the effect of butterflies in her stomach. She’d even met numerous celebrities when they’d stopped by the station, the latest of which was Bryce Landry, and none of them had elicited such a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe it was Anna’s warning that had her off kilter.
Seeming to discern her reticence, Archer hung by the door. He’d been cordial when he’d called earlier to tell her the adjuster had come by and to set the time for a meeting tonight. After several moments passed and she didn’t get out, he waved to her then ventured back into the building.
“This isn’t a big deal,” she chanted to herself.
Unbuoyed by her pep talk, she inhaled a calming breath and held it for three seconds before releasing it. She opened the car door and slid one leg out, then the other.
See, nothing hard about it.
Amused at her inner dialogue, she grinned, and the self-imposed barrier dissolved.
She stood and straightened her shoulders, walked with confidence to the entrance. Did she knock or walk right in? Business hours were over two hours ago, and Archer obviously knew she was there. Raising her hand, she was about to rap on the glass when the door opened.
“Hi.” A curious mix of confidence and hesitancy colored his voice. “Come in.”
“Thanks for waiting around for me.” She took a discreet survey of the place—she’d had the good fortune not to patronize many auto garages, but Archer’s appeared well-kept. Various certifications, awards and licenses hung on the wall.
One caught her eye. “You’re a chamber of commerce member?”
“Yes.” His gaze followed her line of vision. “Only since last month.”
“That explains why I’ve never seen you at the meetings.” A song on the radio cut into her thoughts. “Do you do any advertising?”
His face twisted. “A little in the paper, but mostly word of mouth.”
“Ever think about running an ad on the radio?”
“Out of my budget range.”
Madison’s pulse drummed—Archer couldn’t possibly know the challenge he’d just initiated. “It’s much more affordable than you might think.”
“The dollar menu is too expensive for me right now.”
“Oh.” A frown tugged at her lips.
The right half of Archer’s mouth curled into a wry smile. “I’m giving you a hard time, but honestly, I’ve not much considered a radio ad. My clientele are mostly from word of mouth and repeat customers.”
She pulled out a business card from her purse. “If you’re ever interested, give me a call at the office.”
Archer examined the glossy card. “
Madison Nichols, Advertising Specialist
. You work for WEFH?”
“Good station, and what we play here during the day. I like that they keep it local.”
His words landed on her heart. After the conversation with Sean last night, she’d spent more than a few passing thoughts wondering if she should be aiming for loftier goals, but no matter how often she went there, she concluded she was satisfied where she was. “That’s part of what I love about it. The owner believes in giving back to the community and being involved. He’s had multiple opportunities to sell out, but he won’t.” An amused grin spread over Archer’s face, and Madison ducked her head, embarrassed by her passionate speech. “Sorry.”
“No worry. Too many people these days gripe about their employer, so it’s refreshing to hear opposite that.”
“Did you have a chance to look at my car yet?” she asked, redirecting the conversation.
“Yes, and it’s what I thought.” He moved to a desk at the rear of the room and picked up a paper. “Here’s a quote of the cost, along with a breakdown of your responsibility and that of your insurance company.”
She accepted the paper and carefully read through the notes and numbers. “What now?”
“If everything is to your liking, sign the line at the bottom.”
“I wouldn’t exactly say it’s to my liking, but I don’t see that I have a choice.” Grabbing a pen with her free hand, she set the paper on the desk and started to sign.
“You can take it to any repair shop. You’re not obligated to have me do the repair.”
Her head rose quickly, just in time to see his pinched features before he brought them under control, and she realized he’d misconstrued her words. “Oh no, I was joking about it not to my liking. I meant I won’t like spending the money no matter who I hire.”
She finished signing then dated the paper. “Anything else?”
Archer shook his head. He picked up the service ticket and made a copy of it. “The parts are on order and will arrive Monday. I should have it finished by Tuesday afternoon at the latest.”
Silence fell between them. Official business had been completed, but the role of fake fiancée lingered between them.
The check burned a hole in her wallet, and she was convinced she felt its heat through her purse and clothing. She withdrew it and handed the paper to Archer. “Here’s the payment for last night.”
His face fell as his fingers closed over the check. “Thank you. I knew asking you was a long shot, but I had to try. I appreciate you taking the time to consider it.”
“No explanation necessary. I understand. Promise.” The smile on his face was so obviously forced, it hurt her heart.
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t pretend to be your fiancée.”
“You gave me a check for payment. I thought that…” His forehead furrowed, bringing several creases.
“I’ve thought about this all day, much more than I should have.” She gripped the top of a chair. “I have a soft spot for grandparents, so I’ll help you out, but wouldn’t feel right accepting any type of payment or trade-off.”
His eyes widened with relief and surprise. “This means a lot to me. You have no idea.”
“When do you want me to meet her?”
“Soon. Do you have plans next weekend?”
“It’s my last free one for a while.” Weddings and anniversaries loomed ahead in the upcoming weeks.
She toyed with an idea that popped into her mind. Why hadn’t she thought of it earlier today? She didn’t know Archer well, but she got a good vibe from him, and they’d always be in a public setting. They’d shared a pleasant enough conversation in the truck—surely they could enjoy an evening out together.
“Would you mind coming to the hospital next Saturday morning?”
“That’s fine. What time?”
“Is nine okay?”
“Perfect.” She shifted her weight. Was now the time?
“We need a back story.”
Not the time.
“You know, how we met, how I proposed, all that fun stuff.” Archer sat behind the desk and grabbed a pen and a piece of paper.
Realizing the conversation could take a while, Madison sat in the other seat. “How detailed do we need to be?”