“SO HAVE you signed the contract?”
Chandler Scott groaned, pressing his ice-cold beer bottle against his forehead. “No. I haven’t.”
“What?” Tom huffed sharply. “Dude, come on.”
“Tom, back off.” Mark’s tone was low and calm, soothing even against the background noise of chatter and country music.
“Back off?” Tom’s voice didn’t have quite the same effect. “The whole shop is waiting on him. If he don’t sign, then none of us are going to be on the show.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to be on the show,” Mark growled.
“Maybe?” Chandler lowered his beer bottle and exhaled. “There’s no ‘maybe’ about it. Fuck that show.”
Tom slammed his own drink down, making Chandler and Mark jump. “Are you serious? This is a huge opportunity for all of us. One of my buddies was on a show like this last year, and he gets calls every fucking day from people wanting to hire him. They’re throwing money at him.”
Chandler gritted his teeth. He’d come here to get a nice buzz so he could think over this whole situation without the day’s stress knotting his muscles and churning his stomach. Tom was… not helping.
“Look,” he said after a moment. “I’m not saying no. I just need to think about it.”
“What is there to think about?” Tom threw up his hands. “Nothing’s even gonna change except there’ll be cameras all over the shop.”
Chandler shuddered. The cameras had already been installed so the network could film the garage at work. If the entire shop didn’t sign the contract to be on the show, then the footage would be used for a few montages of shops that didn’t make the cut. Everyone, including Chandler, had already signed releases authorizing that much.
But the show itself? Two entire seasons—possibly more—of cameras in their faces and ridiculous challenges as they competed with another garage to build outlandish vehicles and restore barely salvageable cars? Everyone had signed except Chandler. And if he didn’t sign, the show didn’t go on, because the producers had emphatically stated from the beginning that he wasn’t optional. No Chandler? No show.
From day one, he’d been told it was because he was the best mechanic they’d seen in all their auditions. That he could work miracles on engines, transmissions, and even body work. Chandler had been flattered—he took tremendous pride in his skills—but he wasn’t fooled. They didn’t want him because of what he could do with his hands. They wanted him because he and Jim, the shop’s owner, couldn’t go more than a few days without an explosive screaming match. That would be fantastic for ratings, and they all knew it. Especially Jim—from the moment the cameras had been set up in the shop, he’d cranked things up and made sure the two of them struck sparks off each other at every possible turn.
In the bar, as Tom and Mark watched him silently, Chandler took another deep swallow of beer. Guilt mixed with frustration in his stomach. The whole shop was counting on him to come through with this. Everyone knew this kind of exposure would be spectacular, and it might be the ticket each one of them needed to get the hell out of that toxic garage and this stupid one-horse town.
But this monkey had been tired of dancing even before the TV show had been a possibility. Chandler had written and rewritten his two weeks’ notice a few dozen times. Each time, he’d chickened out, though, because he had no other prospects.
And now the pressure was on. The producers had backed him into a corner this morning. It was Tuesday, and he had until the following Monday to sign the contract, or the cameras, the crew, and this massive opportunity were leaving and never coming back. The ultimatum was no secret, either, and for the rest of the day, his coworkers and his bastard of a boss had been on his ass to sign already.
A gentle nudge on his insole shook him out of his thoughts. He shifted his gaze toward Mark, who offered a slight smile as he ran the toe of his sneaker up the side of Chandler’s ankle. Chandler had long ago mastered the art of not shivering or squirming when Mark subtly touched him in public, but it was a struggle tonight. Right about now, he needed to go somewhere and not think about all this TV show nonsense, and the man sitting across from him was just the distraction he needed.
And also one of the few reasons he was still hemming and hawing about this show. Why he still worked in that hellish place at all. Leaving the garage meant leaving town, which meant leaving Mark behind. They were… well, he wasn’t even sure what they were. Friends with benefits? Fuck buddies who happened to be friends? Nothing serious enough to entertain the idea of taking Mark with him when he left, but addictive enough he didn’t want to leave him behind.
That wasn’t the only reason Chandler stayed at the damn shop, though. If he left, and if the TV show fell through, everyone knew—and reminded Chandler constantly—that the garage wasn’t long for this world. The economy and some corporate shops creeping into their territory had left the garage foundering. If it went under, Jim was screwed.
And if Jim was screwed, so was Mark… his son.
Chandler pressed back against Mark’s foot. Staying at the garage meant Mark’s family stayed afloat, and Mark—weighed down by crippling student-loan debt—had a place to live until he found a paycheck that would keep him fed and make a dent in those loans.
Tom drummed his fingers beside his beer bottle, and Chandler realized his coworker had been glaring at him.
Clearing his throat, he played with the label on his drink. “I don’t know. I’m just not sure I want cameras in my face whenever Jim and I get into it.”
Tom rolled his eyes. “Jim’s on all our asses all the time. Just do your job and let him bitch.”
Mark fidgeted, his foot still against Chandler’s. “That’s easy for you to say.” He gestured at Chandler. “Dad’s a lot tougher on him than anyone else.”
“That’s bullshit,” Tom muttered into his beer.
Chandler’s chest tightened. Mark’s lips thinned. They met each other’s gazes, and the way Mark subtly shook his head said nothing if not let it go.
Chandler didn’t argue. Tom was one of the few people who could stand Jim, and he was also one of the loudest cheerleaders for the show. Like everyone else, he wanted the opportunities the network promised them. Enough money to boost them into higher tax brackets. Exposure. Job offers. Tickets out of this godforsaken place.
If only it were that easy.
Sighing, Chandler brought the bottle up to his lips again.
Tom swore and pushed his own beer away. “I’m gonna go take a leak.” He shoved his chair back, got up, and stalked across the thinly crowded bar.
“Hurry back,” Chandler muttered.
Mark laughed quietly. He glanced in the direction Tom had gone, then faced Chandler again. “Listen, between you and me? If you do sign, I don’t think any of us will be in this for very long. Probably not even a whole season.”
“What?” Chandler blinked. “The contract explicitly says at least two seasons with the option for more.”
“I know.” Mark nodded. “But that’s assuming the show doesn’t get canceled or the network doesn’t give Dad’s garage the boot.”
Chandler studied him. “You think it’ll get canceled? They seem pretty optimistic after that last garage-versus-garage show they did.”
“I don’t think the show will get canceled, but I think it’s pretty obvious what the network is doing.”
Chandler cocked his head. “What do you mean?”
“They’re pitting three garages against each other this time. Shows like this, it’s almost always one-on-one.” Mark absently swirled his beer like a glass of wine. “My guess? They’re going to keep us on just long enough to get some controversy going. I mean, Dad’s a loudmouthed, racist, homophobic jackass. He’ll fire off his mouth, it’ll stir people up, and people will demand that the network either kick him off or cancel the show. So they’ll boot our garage about halfway through the season, after the scandal puts the show on more people’s radars, and continue with the two shops that are left.”
Chandler tapped his fingers on his beer bottle. “You think so?”
“Well….” Mark laughed humorlessly. “I hope so, anyway.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just mentally trying to make a bad thing better. God knows my family needs the money from the show.”
“Don’t.” Mark leaned a little closer. “They’re putting you in a shitty position. And I don’t want you to feel like you have to do the show. If you don’t, we’ll be okay.”
“How?” Chandler asked softly. “Your dad doesn’t know anything except that garage. How’s a guy supposed to start over when he’s been working in the same place since he was twelve?”
Mark snorted. “He should’ve thought of that before he turned into the kind of asshole who gets ratings.”
Chandler thumbed the label on his beer bottle. “Hypothetically, if the show doesn’t happen and the garage goes under….” He struggled to hold Mark’s gaze. “What will you do?”
Mark broke eye contact and stared into his own drink. “I don’t know. I really don’t. If I could get a handle on my loans, maybe….” He was quiet for a moment. Then he shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Chandler’s heart sank. Mark was miserable and they both knew it. A worthless degree. A hopeless amount of debt. No jobs in sight except managing his dad’s garage. To add insult to injury, he had no choice but to be deep, deep in the closet. If Jim even suspected his son was gay, Mark would be unemployed and out on the street so fast his head would spin. The man had said as much.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, Chandler sat back. “There’s got to be something else we can do besides getting cornered into this show.”
“You got any ideas?”
Chandler thought for a moment. Then, before he could stop himself, he said, “What if we just get the fuck out of this town and go someplace else?”
Mark stiffened. “Someplace else? And what do you mean, ‘we’?”
Heat rushed into Chandler’s cheeks. “I mean, we could be roommates or something. Pool our money. Go… I don’t know, somewhere with better prospects than this place. Besides, aren’t the other two garages in the same town? There’s got to be gigs there. Maybe we should go there.”
Mark’s shoulders slumped just slightly. “With what? We’re both broke.”
“I know but—” Chandler glanced toward the restroom. Tom was on his way back to the table. “It was just a thought. Tom’s coming back, though.”
Mark nodded, but said nothing.
Admittedly, Chandler was glad his obnoxious coworker had returned before the conversation went too far off the rails. He felt like an idiot for even suggesting out loud that he and Mark take off somewhere together. It was a stupid idea. Mark would never go for it, not even as roommates. They both knew what this was—Chandler was Mark’s secret rebellion. Not just a gay lover, but one of Jim’s own employees. It was a “fuck you” from both of them to Jim.
Most of the time, Chandler was okay with that. The sex was pretty hot, and Mark was a nice guy—they’d been friends since they were kids, lovers since Mark returned from college two years ago. Sometimes, though, he hated it. He didn’t resent Mark, but he resented the hell out of their circumstances. It was hard not to wonder what things could have been like between them if….
Don’t go there, dude. Not tonight.
He sighed and took another long swallow of beer. Yeah. Not tonight. He felt shitty enough. No point pouring salt on the wound by reminding himself he could have Mark, but not the way he wanted him.
That’s what you get for falling for the boss’s kid, idiot.
Everyone at Jim Irving’s garage is gung ho about Wrench Wars, a new reality show featuring mechanics. Everyone, that is, except talented mechanic Chandler Scott, the sole employee who has refused to sign the contract. The rest of the mechanics are pressuring him, too, because without Chandler—and his volatile interactions with his boss—no one’s getting on the show.
His one ally is Jim’s son, Mark, who’s stuck working for his dad until he pays down his student loans or finds better work elsewhere—and who's been Chandler's secret lover for a while.
Then a playful tryst in the garage blows up in their faces, giving the network ammo to blackmail Chandler by threatening to out Mark to his father. Now Chandler is backed into a corner, and Mark needs to decide how far he’s willing to go to protect the man who's been sharing his bed…and may have stolen his heart.
This 24,000 word novella was previously published.