Down & Out Chapter One
Candace climbed out of the rattletrap old VW Bug. The car had faded to a pinkish orange, the floorboards had rust holes peeking up at her, and the seat covers had long ago cracked, but the engine ran. Thanks to Ric. What would she do without him?
Her life had gotten so far off track. Would she ever find her way back? She didn’t have time to dwell on that right now. Her new illustrious career waited. Oh, brother.
Sucking in a breath, she strode through the side door at Tow Masters. The round black clock on the dingy white wall indicated it was ten till seven. Now if she could find her cousin. Carl had to still be here. He couldn’t expect her to just jump in feet-first with towing and repos.
She started into Carl’s office and stopped in her tracks. The most beautiful man she’d ever seen sat behind the old gray metal desk. “Uh…” she murmured. “You aren’t my cousin.”
The guy behind the desk grinned, revealing straight, white teeth. “No, ma’am.” He stood and extended his hand. “I’m Josiah Bradley. You must be Carl’s little cousin.”
Candace just stared at the man. She had to look up to see him, not something she often did even when she wasn’t wearing heels. Blond hair peeked out from his white cowboy hat, and his ice-blue eyes twinkled. She’d missed seeing cowboys when she lived in New York. Something about a handsome man in a western hat and tight Wranglers.
After a few seconds, she glanced down at his hand still in hers. Great, the guy would think Carl’s cousin was a loon. She let go.
“Sorry,” she stammered. “I… I expected Carl to be here.”
“Carl contracts with my company, Viper Security, to provide security, and when he hires a newbie, he usually has one of us spend a couple of weeks working with ‘em. Safer than having his staff work doubles.”
“Oh.” Boy, did she sound intelligent.
His eyes roved over her from top to bottom, making her thankful she’d worn the black Donna Karan skirt and Steve Madden heels. Then, after a few seconds, he shook his head. “Excuse me, ma’am, but you’ve never worked in this business, have you?”
“Well….” Josiah said with a chuckle. “I don’t think you want to wear that outfit.”
Her cheeks burned. “What should I wear?”
“Jeans, T-shirt, and tennis shoes would be good.”
“Ahem. Excuse me.”
Candace turned to find a short, chubby, red-headed woman standing behind her. The woman shoved her hands on her ample hips and shook her head. “Great. I’ve gotta call Carl. He can’t stick me with the dark-haired Barbie here and expect this to work out.”
Josiah rounded the desk and placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Beth Anne, give her a chance. She’s never worked for a towing company before.”
In his Wranglers, boots, and oxford shirt, he looked like he’d be more at home on the rodeo circuit than anywhere else. Either that, or onstage, crooning out an old country song.
Nausea rolled through Candace’s gut. Why did she think she could do this job? She didn’t even have a clue how to dress. When she got home in the morning, Carl would get a piece of her mind. He should have warned her. Of course he did tell her she’d be going out on repos, but what did she really expect? Working the night shift dressed like a banker?
“Why don’t you run home and change into some jeans.” Josiah shuffled through some papers on the desk. “Then come back, and we’ll get started.”
Candace’s cheeks flamed. “I — I don’t have any jeans.”
Beth Anne rolled her eyes. “So, Barbie, just what kind of clothes do you have?”
“Please stop calling me that. I have dresses and heels.” No way was she telling this leprechaun she’d had to reduce her entire life to one suitcase, so she’d kept what she thought of as work clothes and a couple of tattered sweats.
Josiah stifled a laugh. “What do you wear in your leisure time?”
“I haven’t had leisure time in over two years. I was a publicist. When I wasn’t working, I was sleeping.”
“It’s okay.” He smiled. “Beth Anne, I’m taking her to get some appropriate clothes, and we’ll return soon.”
“Fine. Just don’t take too long. I don’t want to get stuck working by myself tonight.”
“You’ve got my cell number. If you get a job, call me.”
Beth Anne threw her hands in the air and spun on her heel. “Whatever.”
Candace’s spirit dropped to the soles of her inappropriate shoes. Josiah thought she was too dumb to buy her own clothes, and Beth Anne… Beth Anne already hated her.
She would not cry.
Swallowing back embarrassment, she walked with Josiah to his black Ford dually. He opened the door and helped her inside, and she settled into the leather seats. How would she pay for the clothes? If she charged them, would the bill come in before she got paid? All of the money she had in savings went to pay for her rattlebug and her minuscule apartment.
When they arrived at a small western store, Candace’s heart plummeted. She would never be able to afford clothes in a place like this. How could she tell Josiah she needed to go to Wal-Mart without sounding like a whiny girl?
Josiah took her by the hand and grinned. “Hope you don’t mind, but since you’re back in Texas, you need to look the part.”
“That’s fine, but…Wal-Mart is more my price range.”
“Don’t worry about the money. Can’t have my best friend’s cousin looking so outta place, now, can I?” He winked. “Besides, Carl didn’t tell you how to dress, and since he hired me to train you, I’ll add the cost to his bill.”
She’d pay Carl back. Someday. Buying clothes with a strange man felt wrong, but evidently she couldn’t work in the ones she had.
Fine. She’d make the best of a bad situation and head for the sale racks. No sooner were they inside than a teeny, perky blonde flashed a big smile at Josiah. “Jojo. How can I help you?”
He put a hand on Candace’s shoulder. “My friend here just moved back from New York City. We need to get her some real clothes, boots, hat, and tennis shoes.”
“Sure thing.” She took a quick look up and down Candace. “What size?”
“I’m not sure. It’s been a long time since I’ve worn jeans.” No way would she tell this munchkin how big her behind was. Not in front of Josiah.
“No worries. Come with me, and we’ll see what we can find.”
By the time they left the store, Candace had several bags of clothes — not that she knew what she’d do with half of them. Where in the world would she ever wear a cowboy hat? And did she really need all of these clothes? Had she stepped into the Twilight Zone?
They arrived back at the shop to Beth Anne’s glare. It did soften a bit when she saw their shopping bags.
“Well at least now you can run if you have to,” she muttered. Then she turned to Josiah. “You and Barbie come on, we’ve got a tip on that repo from the gang-banger.” The woman pulled a gun out of her purse and stuck it into the back of her jeans as she sauntered down the hall toward the exit.
A gang-banger and guns? What had she gotten herself into?
As they climbed into the flatbed truck, Josiah grinned. The girls would give him a laugh or two over the next couple of weeks. Just seeing the look in Candace’s brown eyes when she had to put on the jeans was worth every penny he spent. He would eat the cost of the clothes for the entertainment factor. Why had Carl hired such a girly-girl?
Carl mentioned she hated leaving the City. Her thick black hair and curvaceous figure sure made her nice to look at, but he pitied any guy who got mixed up with a chick like her, who liked the bright lights of the big city. Of course, maybe some men liked that. Not him. He loved his little ranch and calm life.
They pulled up in front of a dilapidated house with peeling paint. An old sofa with stuffing peeking out of multiple holes sat on the porch. A mangy mutt lounged on it.
A crack house? Josiah maneuvered the truck in front of the SUV up for repo. Beth Anne hopped out and checked the VIN. “Lower it, and I’ll start the hook-up. We gotta grab it and run.” Candace followed Beth Anne.
After he had the flatbed tilted, Josiah helped the girls get the Escalade hooked up and pulled onto the flatbed. As he lowered the bed back down, a young Hispanic man came running toward them.
A stream of colorful names for Josiah flowed out of his mouth. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” He screamed another stream of curse words. “That’s my ride.”
Josiah pulled a clipboard out of the truck. “Who are you?”
“Dude, I’m Roach. El Jefe.” The man had a blue bandana tied around his head. He wore a white “wife-beater” tank top, and his pants sagged so low his entire silk-boxer-clad butt hung out. Talk about a stereotype.
“El Jefe, is your name Ramon Gabaldon?”
“Si, this is my ride, man. If you want to live, you’ll put her back.” Gabaldon’s eyes narrowed to slits. “One word, and my posse will take you down.”
“I have a repossession order from your lien holder.” Josiah pulled a copy of the order off the clipboard and handed it to the man. “If you settle things up with them, then once they notify us, you can pick up your vehicle at the yard.”
“No. I don’t think you understand.” Roach pulled out a switchblade and flicked it open. “You’re going to leave my ride alone.”
Josiah pulled out his Glock and leveled it at the man’s head. “No, Jefe, you don’t understand. I’m taking the Escalade, and you’re going to back off.”
Roach laughed, but put the blade up and took a step back. Josiah jumped into the truck, and as he put it in gear, Roach yelled for his gang. What was Carl thinking having two women work the night shift? Beth Anne could pretty well hold her own but from the look on Candace’s face, she was about to pee her panties.
“I’m afraid we have trouble.” Josiah glanced into the rearview mirror. “They’re following us.” If they got out of this alive, he was going to have a long talk with Carl. This was no job for his debutante cousin. Maybe she could push papers or something in the office.
One of the guys roared up to the passenger side on a custom Harley and pointed a pistol at the window. Josiah stuck out his hand and pushed on Candace’s shoulder as he swerved toward the man. “Get down.”
She slid into the floorboard, and Josiah gunned the engine. The big truck would be no match for men on bikes.
“Just keep driving, I’ll call 911.” Beth Anne yelled from the back.
Josiah moved lane to lane as quickly as he could without wrecking the truck and ran a couple of the guys off the road. As they pulled into the tow yard, several gang members roared up and surrounded the truck.
Candace hunkered down in the floorboard of the truck. Why had she taken this job? She really didn’t need to eat. Maybe if she had to do without food for a while she could fit into smaller jeans, like the munchkin at the western store wore.
A gunshot rang out, and Candace vomited.
“Great. Barbie just tossed her cookies.” Beth Anne sighed.
Enough was enough. She wouldn’t put up with the leprechaun’s taunts any longer.
“I’m sorry if I don’t live up to your standards, Dumpling,” she snapped. “I’ve never had anyone shoot at me.”
“Dumpling? You little–”
“Enough, you two. Quit acting like spoiled junior-high girls. If you haven’t realized it, we’re in a little bit of a mess here.”
And if she ever got out of it, Candace would tell Carl he could shove his job. Everyone told her how dangerous New York would be. Right. She never got shot at there.
More shots rang out, and her hands shook. “Thank goodness we’re in the truck. If they don’t shoot the windows, we should be okay. Right?”
Josiah barked out a short laugh. “Don’t know much ‘bout guns, do ya, doll?”
“Not really. I know gun safety, and I’m a good shot, but that’s it.”
“A bullet can go through the metal of the door.” Beth Ann’s tone grew snarkier with each word. “It may or may not have enough force to come all the way inside depending upon the caliber. There’s your education for today, Barbie.”
“Thanks for nothing, Dumpling.”
Sirens sounded in the distance, and Candace prayed the police would arrive in time to save them. She couldn’t die like this, hunkered down in the floor of a flatbed truck with a puke-covered seat. At least she hadn’t peed her pants. Yet.