Clutch custom culture, p.1
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       Clutch (Custom Culture), p.1

           Tess Oliver
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Clutch (Custom Culture)


  Clutch

  (Custom Culture, #2)

  Tess Oliver

  Clutch

  Copyright© 2013 by Tess Oliver

  Cover Design by: Avanti Graphics

  This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

  All Rights are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  Table of Contents

  Cover

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  About the Author

  Other Books

  Strangely Normal

  Chapter 1

  Clutch

  The smug little runt sneered at me over the top of his car, and I wanted to pound him into the ground like a tent stake. I’d been racing my sixty-nine Chevelle all spring, but I’d never made it to the final drag. The twerp climbing into his nitrous pumped Chevy SS had won every heat. His head had grown bloated from it, and it definitely needed some deflating.

  I ducked down and climbed into the custom front seat that had been lowered to accommodate my height. The car creaked and leaned slightly toward the driver’s side. Racing was the only thing that made me regret being so friggin’ tall. I was like a massive paperweight in my Chevy. It definitely gave my paperclip sized opponent an advantage.

  The crystal blue spring sky had muted with the grays and yellows of sunset. The dry Santa Ana winds were strong enough to tilt the palm trees lining the track and carried enough warmth for the spectators to dress as if it was a summer night. Rowdy, the guy who organized the amateur drag racing events, gave me the signal to head to the staging area, and I fired up the engine.

  The four-fifty-four big block roared like a dragon, and I squeezed the steering wheel. “That’s right, Sweetheart. Let’s show them what you’ve got.”

  An impressively large crowd had gathered to watch. Nix’s tall head stood out over the other spectators, but I couldn’t see Scotlyn. She was, no doubt, attached securely to his arm.

  The Christmas tree of lights lit up as I rolled to the starting line. I could see the SS out of the corner of my eye. I really wanted this, and it wasn’t just because my opponent was an irritating gnat. Nix always insisted that I was way too hard on myself, that it was all right not to succeed at everything, but that just didn’t fly in my world. My rigid determination had helped me earn a hell of a lot of money since high school, and, to me, failure of any kind was out of the question. Dray had insisted my need to win these drag races helped me cope with my lack of girlfriend, or as he had so eloquently put it, ‘having no one to fuck.’ The asshole had finally found himself in a relationship, and suddenly, he’d become a goddamn expert. Of course, I’d feel pretty cocky too if I had someone as awesome as Cassie. She was definitely the best thing that had ever happened to Dray.

  I gripped the steering wheel, and the car vibrated anxiously like a racehorse at the starting gate. I glanced into the rearview mirror. The track beneath my rear wheels was watered. The screeching sound of tires and the acrid smell of melting rubber filled the evening air. The three amber lights winked at me before the tree flashed green and my foot flattened the pedal.

  The Chevelle exploded through the cloud of smoke. I could see the flash of yellow paint next to me for a second and then it fell back. My gaze shot up to the rearview mirror as I crossed the line. I would have been pissed as hell if the guy had crashed or blown a tire. I wanted to win this fairly. His car drove up next to mine. I’d won. I waved politely at my opponent. His tires shrieked as he whipped the car around and headed back to the pits.

  Cassie emerged from the line of spectators, her camera hanging around her neck. She tapped the window of the car. I cranked it down, and as I looked up at her, she snapped my picture.

  She held up her camera and squinted into the screen. The tiny silver hoop in her lip danced as she twisted her mouth in disappointment. “Dammit. I really need to be able to get that fleeting moment of emotion when you win a race. It’s gone by the time you stop.”

  “Well, Cass, unless you can figure out a way to lay across the hood with your camera poised as I cross the finish line, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”

  Her eyes opened wide as if she was actually considering it. It was hard to get used to her without her glasses but she’d occasionally taken to wearing contacts because of her new found hobby— photography. And she was damn good at it. She could capture the raw emotion and action in one shot that told you an entire story in one frame. Recently, she’d sold a few photos to magazines, and it seemed her talent only grew with each shot.

  “You can’t strap yourself to my hood, if that’s what you’re thinking, Cass. Maybe I could just try and recreate the look.”

  “Nah, it wouldn’t be real.”

  “Well, if you want to capture that agony of defeat moment, I’m pretty sure my opponent is still wearing it.”

  She laughed. “I did hear some rather unsavory language coming from his car as he sped past.” She looked back toward the spectators. “I’ll climb back through the crowd and find Nix and Scottie. I don’t know if Dray made it or not. He texted me that there was a shitload of traffic on the freeway.”

  “I’ll see you guys in a minute. We’ll have to go back to my place for some pizza and beer. I’m in the mood to celebrate.” I whipped the car around and waved to the line of onlookers who cheered as I rolled past.

  My opponent was already in the pits cursing out some dumbfounded-looking stooge who must have been acting as his mechanic. The guy was as shitty a loser as he was a winner He was definitely the kind of jerk who would blame the mechanic for his loss.

  Nix and Scotlyn turned heads as they made their way through the crowd. Even in jeans and sweatshirts, they looked as if they’d just walked out of a fashion magazine. Cassie scurried up behind them, her attention caught by something in her camera viewer. She was short and petite, and the big camera around her neck looked heavy enough to pull her over. Her love for photography rivaled my passion for cars, and lately, I’d noticed Dray was slightly jealous of her newfound hobby. Mostly because it drew attention away from him. The three made their way through the mass of people milling about. They reached me as I climbed out of the driver’s seat.

  Nix held out his fist. “Nailed it.”

  “Damn right. I knew the Chevelle could beat that blowhard in his laughing gas amped rust pile. Just needed the right circumstances.” I looked at Scotlyn and smiled. “You can release that death grip on his arm, Scottie. The race is over.”

  A pink blush covered her c
heeks, and she loosened her grip on Nix’s arm. I teased her way too much when she came to the races. They made her nervous as hell—and with good reason. No one would be able to survive the horrors of a deadly car accident and not have a freak-out session when two cars hurtled down a slick track at top speed.

  “Congratulations, Boss,” she said quietly. Most of us had only had the pleasure of hearing her soft, breathy voice for a few months, and even now, she was noticeably quiet when she was stressed or upset about something. Everything about Scotlyn was still so frighteningly vulnerable, it seemed that anything unexpected could send her newly found voice back into the black hole of anguish that had once swallowed it. But as vulnerable as Scotlyn seemed, my best buddy, Nix, the guy who had always reeked confidence, even annoyingly so, when it came to girls, looked so completely susceptible to heartbreak now that it showed up in every one of Cassie’s pictures. Scotlyn was his and that was more than clear, but it was also painfully clear that if Nix ever lost her, he would be shattered beyond repair. It was still hard for me to fathom that the Heartbreak Kid had given away his heart, but Scotlyn was really something. My two best friends had found amazing women. I had girls too, but they were dressed in shiny chrome and had expensive drinking habits— gasoline. I had money and plenty of friends but lately I’d felt my life was seriously lacking. In my quest to focus on business and success, I’d completely ignored my heart.

  Dray came up behind me. “Dude, I missed the whole fucking thing. Damn traffic.” The ugly deep gash next to his eye, a souvenir from his last fight, had almost healed but it was going to leave a gnarly scar. He dropped his arm around Cassie’s shoulder, but she shrugged it off.

  “You smell like Long Beach harbor,” she complained.

  Dray grinned. “Oh come on, you know it turns you on.” He looked back at me. “Can you do it again?”

  “Sorry, my sport doesn’t work like that. One shot is all you’ve got. And there’s no tapping out either.”

  Dray laughed. “Sport? What sport? All you do is sit in your car and drive a straight line for a quarter mile. I need more skill to take a crap.”

  Cassie smacked him on the arm and then winced as she rubbed her hand. “God, do you have to bring up gross stuff like that all the time?” Cassie was crazy about the guy, but sometimes the fact that they were polar opposites was awkwardly obvious.

  Dray held up his hands. “What do you want from me? I work in the shipyard all day. What do you think we talk about? Baking cookies?”

  Cassie tilted her head in annoyance. “So you’re all out there cruising around on your forklifts and talking about bowel movements?”

  He shrugged. “The topic comes up occasionally.” Dray opened his mouth to continue, but Cassie pressed her small hand against his mouth.

  “Just shut up.”

  Dray fell silent. There was nothing more awesome than knowing that my tough, wiry friend, who could lay out a guy twice his size with one punch, could be rendered completely defenseless by a hundred pound girl with coke bottle glasses and an addiction to cheesy romance novels.

  I patted the hood of my car like a cowboy patting his horse’s neck. “Well, I’m pumped about winning. Meet at my house for pizza and beer. I’m buying.”

  ***

  The winds had softened and a perfect, warm California night had fallen over the city. I pulled into my driveway. The bent up Pontiac that I’d put so much time and money into stared sadly back at me. I needed to break it down for parts, but I hadn’t had the stomach to do it yet. I’d planned on selling it for big bucks, but Taylor had driven off in it and totaled it. That impulsive decision had earned her a trip to an aunt’s house in Florida for her last year of high school. Her parents and her brother, my business partner, had decided she was too out of control, but it seemed to me they’d just wanted her out of their hair. I hadn’t gone to see her off, and the guilt of it still pained me. I had steeled myself against my feelings for Taylor so often that it had been easy to pretend I’d agreed with her parents. I was sure she hated me for it. But I knew damn well that I hadn’t gone with her to the airport because I couldn’t bear to say good bye.

  The pizza parlor was on speed dial, along with every other good food place within a twenty mile radius. I pressed the phone to my ear and headed to the door. My mind was on pepperoni and onions and I hadn’t noticed the motorcycle until I nearly fell over it. I looked up toward the house but the front stoop was empty.

  I stared down at the bike as I finished my pizza order. Nix and Dray pulled up to the curb. Dray and Cassie came up the driveway first.

  “Whose bike?” Dray asked.

  I shrugged. “I’m not sure. It’s in bad shape. Maybe someone wants it restored.” I glanced around. “Kind of strange for them to just drop it off without a note.”

  Dray slapped me on the shoulder. “Well, solve the mystery later. I’m starved. When is the pizza coming?”

  “Forty-five minutes but I’ve got some chips and beer in the kitchen.” Dray, Cassie and I headed up the front porch steps as Nix and Scotlyn came up the driveway. Nix spotted the bike right away. “I thought you hated working on bikes.”

  “It’s not mine. I don’t know where it came from,” I called to him as I stuck the key in the door.

  “It looks like a beat up version of that bike your brother used to ride.” Dray’s comment hit me like a slap on the back.

  “Shit.” I shoved open the door and stepped inside.

  Barrett stood up from the couch, his eyes wide and framed by dark rings. He shoved his hands deep into the pocket of his jeans, but I hadn’t missed the tremble in his fingers before he’d hidden them. None of my four brothers were as massively built as me, and at six feet, Barrett had been not only the youngest but the smallest of us all. But the younger brother I remembered had had an impressive, muscular build. When we were teenagers, we had surfed a lot, and when Barrett had walked out of the waves with his board, you could hear a collective gasp coming from the lips of every female on the sand.

  “Hey, Jimmy,” the wavering sound of it was sadly consistent with his appearance. The guy in front of me looked like a gray, misty shadow of my brother. His long blond hair hung to his shoulders in greasy tangles. Barrett had always been like Nix, admired, good looking and charming, and just like my best friend, my brother could knock a room silent just by entering it. At this moment, he had certainly knocked my friends mute, but the shocked silence was not from awe. Barrett looked like shit. My kid brother was strung out.

  Our dad had worked three jobs to keep us in shoes, shelter and food, but he’d hardly ever had time for us. Mom had spent her days keeping house and cooking meals. Being the youngest, Barrett had had the least parental attention of any of us. But he’d caught our dad’s attention and ire when he’d gotten expelled from high school for drug possession. Dad had called in a favor from an old navy buddy who owned a crab fishing boat up in Alaska. “Hard work, brutal weather and long hours will keep you out of mischief,” Dad had said as he handed Barrett a hundred dollars and a pair of tall rubber boots.

  “What the hell, Rett? What’s happened? I thought you were out on the Bering Sea?”

  He shrugged nonchalantly, but he seemed ready to jump out of his skin. “Yeah, there’s a funny story behind that.” He looked around at the familiar and unfamiliar faces. “Hey Nix, hey Dray.” It seemed to take all his energy to speak.

  “Good to see you, Rett,” Nix said quietly.

  “Hey, Buddy, missed ya.” There was a slight hitch in Dray’s tone, a hesitation I’d never heard before. Even though Barrett had been almost three years younger than us, he’d hung out with us a lot. He and Dray had always managed to get into trouble together, and they’d grown close because of it.

  An awkward silence followed, and Barrett fidgeted like a nervous kid standing in front of class.

  “You know, Clutch, I think we’re going to head out,” N
ix said suddenly. “We’ve both got to be up early for work.”

  “Yeah, us too,” Dray said.

  My evening of celebration had come to a bad end, and as much as I loved my friends, I was anxious for them to leave. And being good friends, they’d obviously sensed it. “Thanks for watching the race. See you at work tomorrow, Scotlyn.” I walked out onto the porch with them, out of earshot of Barrett.

  Nix turned back to me. “He looks really bad. Call if you need us.”

  Scotlyn stepped toward me and placed her hand on my arm. Her round blue eyes were shiny with tears. “Ibuprofen, hot baths when the chills get bad, and don’t expect him to sleep much. And try not to be too hard on him. I assure you, he’s already being punished.”

  “Thanks.” I watched them walk down the driveway and took a deep breath before returning to the house.

  Barrett leaned up against the door jamb for support.

  I stood speechless for a second, still in shock from his withered appearance. “When was the last time you ate?” I asked finally.

  He pulled one hand from its restraining pocket and combed his long hair back off his face with shaky fingers. “It’s been a few days.”

  “Christ, Rett, a few days?” I had to consciously squash the anger in my tone. Scotlyn was right. It was the last thing he needed at the moment. “I’ve got pizza coming.”

  His face paled at the mention of pizza, and he shook his head. “Don’t think I can keep anything down yet.” The agony in his voice felt like a sledgehammer against my chest.

  “Let me get you to a hospital.”

  The suggestion startled him, and he pushed off the doorjamb. I lunged forward and caught him before he collapsed to the ground. My arms went around him, and his shoulders shook. “No hospitals, Jimmy.” The words cracked out of his throat. “Please, let me stay here. I’ll be out of your way soon, I promise.” His last words shot out on a sob. I hadn’t seen or heard my brother cry since he was twelve and our dog had gotten hit by a car, and the sound of it felt as if a cold, wet shadow had covered me.

 
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