On her thirtieth birthday, Tabitha realizes she hasn’t much to show for her life since she left military service. Tabitha makes a hasty vow that she will make this the best year of her life, which is a tall order considering her mish-mash of unfulfilling jobs, her stagnant social life, and the crippling PTSD she has to overcome on a near-daily basis. But she thinks she can do it with the help of her beloved service dog, Trinity.
Chris Hobbs, the playful and wild-hearted bad boy of the Semper Fit gym, is Tabitha’s complete opposite. Which is why, despite his habit of dating any woman who bats an eye at him, he's always steered clear of Tabitha, even though they've formed a tight friendship. Especially because of that.
Tabitha’s radar was lit before the woman even entered the store. The way she whipped into the parking space, killed the engine at a crooked angle and jangled the bell over the shop door like it was being throttled. Tabitha had just taken a bite of the Really Big Cookie—a birthday indulgence bought at the community college cafeteria—when the woman marched right up to the front counter and, without so much as hello, slapped down some pictures. “My father’s old Harley has been sitting in the barn for decades,” she declared, out of breath. “And I’m determined to get it going.”
Tabitha closed up her Journal of Invincibility—I am not afraid; I was born to do this. ~Joan of Arc—and tucked it behind the counter, like a mother protecting her young. The woman went on for a bit, while Tabitha tried to chew and swallow her treat. When she was done ranting, she stood there in silence. Eventually, she shook her head. “Don’t you know anything about motorcycles?” Big-breasted, big-hipped, big personality, big, brassy red hair, the customer rested her elbow on the counter and leaned against it, settling in.
“Not much, no.” A hunk of cookie fell from Tabitha’s lips and landed on the front of her Triple M Classics employee T-shirt. She hastily brushed it away and gestured to the shelves that lined the rear of the shop. “I just ring up the merchandise. Keep tabs on the floor when the mechanics are in the back.” She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, but that just prompted images from school this morning, which she didn’t want in her head. Still, with her eyes closed, Tabitha sensed that this wasn’t really about the motorcycle. The woman was upset, possibly grieving. The motorcycle meant something to her and she wanted quick answers because she was searching for a way to ease her pain. Tabitha opened her eyes again, looked past the woman and settled her gaze on Trinity, the little black rescue pit bull who always made her feel better.
“Then get the mechanic. Or, better yet, get the owner. Where’s Delaney Monroe?”
“She’s on an errand.” Tabitha kept her gaze on Trinity, who lay near the stairs that led to Delaney’s apartment. She was catching some zees in the dog bed intended for Delaney’s dog, Wyatt. For about the third time that day Tabitha thought, What am I doing here? I’m not cut out for this.
“Delaney Monroe is who I came to see,” the woman pressed. “I heard she’s an expert on classic bikes. If you work in a bike shop, you should know about bikes. I don’t have time for this.” She straightened up and planted her hands on her hips.
“Delaney’s out. Maybe I can help.”
Tabitha turned to the sound of Nora’s raspy voice.
“I’m Nora. One of the mechanics.” Delaney’s mom had come out of the back room, wiping grease from her fingers with a shop rag. She had a cigarette tucked behind her ear, right where her temples were starting to gray. The rest of her hair was silky black and tied back in a ponytail. Nora was a small woman with a slight build, but the way she carried herself, she might as well have been six feet tall. She wore blue jeans and the same Triple M Classics T-shirt and she locked her fearless, almond-shaped eyes into the irritated gaze of the customer. “Whatcha got?” She nodded at the photographs.
The woman pushed them across the countertop. “This has been in my father’s barn for ages. He recently passed and I’m not sure if it’s worth fixing up.”
Nora went silent while she leafed through the pictures. “An old Harley Panhead,” she murmured. “Sweet. Do you know the year? Looks like a ’49.”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
Tabitha felt a shift in the air as the woman’s demeanor changed, her anger melting away, relief softening her shoulders and her scrunched-up mouth. Crisis averted.
“The window on a Panhead is only ’48 to ’65. The emblem on the gas tank in this shot tells me it’s a ’49.” Nora tapped the top photo with her grease-stained finger.
The woman stuck out her hand, a huge grin on her face. “Nelly Washington. Nice to meet you.”
“Nora.” Nora glanced at Nelly’s hand but didn’t touch her. “My girl owns this place.”
“I’ve heard good things.”
“Damn straight you heard good things. My girl’s the best.”
Nelly gave off a deep belly laugh and used the humor as an excuse to withdraw her unrequited handshake. “Can she fix it up? Make it run?”
Like a cowgirl walking into a saloon in an old Western, Delaney pushed open the shop door at that moment. The bell jangled as she strode inside, motorcycle boots thunking over the floor, helmet in her gloved hand. Delaney was taller than her mother by several inches, had the same slender build and dark hair, but in a pixie cut. Wyatt, the wandering white pit bull with the brown eye patch, trotted in next to her, still wearing his Doggles. Delaney slipped the eye protection off her motorcycle-riding companion. Wyatt spotted Trinity on his dog bed and raced over to play. He leaned on his front paws, butt in the air, tail wagging, then jumped backward and spun. When that didn’t work, he danced all around her, flipping his head and poking his muzzle in the air. Trinity, unmoved, looked to Tabitha for instruction.
“Break, Trinity,” Tabitha said, and the dogs were soon twining necks like ponies.
Nora waved at her daughter and shrugged at Nelly. “You’ll need to bring the bike in. See what’s up. Is it dry?”
“Been in the shed. Covered up.” Nelly’s gaze went to Delaney as she neared.
“She means did you drain the carburetor and gas tank,” Delaney clarified, settling her helmet on the counter. “Before you stored it.”
“Oh.” Nelly’s face went straight. “I don’t know, actually. My father is the one who stored it. Once his arthritis got too bad for him to ride.”
“That’ll make a difference,” Delaney continued, like she’d been in on the conversation from the beginning. “That, and how straight the bike was when it was put up.” She glanced at the photos. “A ’49 Panhead. Cool. Bring it in. We’ll take a look.”
“I will definitely do that. Thank you. My father recently passed away. He used to take me on rides on that bike when I was a little girl.” Nelly’s voice grew faraway, wistful. “We’d go to the general store and he’d buy me a grape soda. I loved feeling the wind in my hair.” Nelly waved a hand. “This was before helmet laws. Anyway.” The reminiscent look in Nelly’s eyes slid away and she sniffed deeply. “Are you Delaney?”
“Yes, ma’am. Don’t worry. I’ve never met a Panhead I can’t get going.”
Tabitha stuffed the rest of the cookie in her mouth and tried to sneak away, her lack of motorcycle knowledge no longer an issue. Her shift was over, she was exhausted and she was ready to go home.
“Get back here, Steele.” Delaney grasped the hem of Tabitha’s shirt and pulled her back gently. “You need to take down this lady’s information. The more you listen, the more you’ll learn. Pretty soon you’ll know a Harley Panhead on sight.” Delaney nodded at Tabitha. “She’s still learning.”
“She seems like a nice young lady.” Nelly was all smiles now, like their earlier interaction had never happened.
After Tabitha filled out a capture sheet with Nelly Washington’s information, and the woman had left the shop in an entirely different mood than the one she’d barged in with, Delaney turned to her and said, “What’s going on, Steele? You look ready to lie on the floor and call your dog for Smoosh Time.”
Smoosh Time was Delaney’s slang for the deep pressure therapy Trinity was trained to provide if Tabitha was having a panic attack. It was affectionate rather than sarcastic. Unused to affection, Tabitha liked it and had taken to calling the therapy Smoosh Time herself. Smoosh Time actually sounded really good about now. But Trinity was still on break, chasing Wyatt around the perimeter of the shop. “It’s been a long day.”
“Massage school getting you down?”
“Old Nelly was kinda rough on her,” Nora offered. She slipped the cigarette from behind her ear and stuck it between her lips.
“That’s why she’s learning as much as she can.” Delaney tapped the capture sheet. “That’s all you can do, Steele. I don’t expect you to become a mechanic, unless you want to, but you soak in everything you can while you’re here.” She glanced at her mother. “Don’t you dare light that in here, Nora.”
Nora pulled it from her lips and rolled her eyes. “I’m not. It’s just a prop, okay?”
“How many days has it been?” After some hemming and hawing Delaney clarified, “For real.”
“Half a day,” Nora admitted. “I’d gone two days and then I caved this morning. It’s so hard not to smoke after I eat. Maybe I need to stop eating.”
Delaney shook her head. “You gotta be tough, Nora. Like Tabitha here.”
“I’m not tough.” Tabitha had been enjoying watching the mother-daughter pair interact, despite how rough her day had been so far. They made her wonder what her relationship with her birth mother would’ve been like, if she’d known her. Tabitha’s relationship with Auntie El—the woman who’d raised her and the only mother Tabitha had ever known—was as old-fashioned as it got. Yes, ma’am, No, ma’am, please and thank you, respect your elders and all boundaries clearly drawn and rarely crossed. There was none of this role reversal or sarcastic banter. Life certainly hadn’t been easy, and Tabitha had been handed absolutely nothing. If that didn’t make her tough, nothing would. “Tough is just not my nature.”
Sensitive was Tabitha’s nature, for good or bad. The armor she lacked had never been very useful, not until she joined the navy and her main job in Afghanistan was to protect her chaplain from harm. She’d been pretty good at smelling trouble, hearing things nobody else heard, seeing things nobody else saw. Some had even jokingly called her Radar, after the character from M*A*S*H. It made her good at her job, despite the fact that she hadn’t been able to prevent the IED that had got her chaplain hurt, and despite the fact that the skill was kind of useless, and often counterintuitive, in everyday life.
“You’re tough-ish, Tabitha,” Nora agreed. “Which means you got potential. Just gotta stand up for yourself with lippy women like Nelly.”
“Spill it, Steele.” Delaney shot her mother a silencing look. “What’s going on?”
“You were right, Sarge,” Tabitha admitted. She hadn’t planned on discussing her day, but there was just something about Delaney, the woman she’d met at Camp Leatherneck years ago. The woman who’d helped her keep her head straight during that awful day when an IED had taken out her convoy. “It’s massage school.”
“What about it?”
“It’s the student exchanges.” Tabitha drew a deep breath. “We have to swap with our classmates once a week to practice the strokes we learn in class. At first, I was doing really well. Everyone loved my massages and said that I just had that magic touch. But then…well… I’m doing something wrong. I’m not…massaging right.” Tabitha bit down on her lower lip.
“How can you not massage right?” Nora spoke around the unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. “Aren’t you just squirting lotion on each other? How hard can that be?”
“No. We’re not just squirting lotion. It’s a lot more than that.” Tabitha was used to Nora’s directness at this point, and did her best to not let Delaney’s mother get under her skin. “You have to learn all the bones and muscles and physiology. Plus all the strokes. There’s a lot of science. You have to learn about how the body moves and how everything works together. And then you have to massage in such a way that you’re helping people. And right now, I’m not helping anyone.” Just like she hadn’t been able to help Nelly Washington with her Panhead. Tabitha wasn’t helping anyone, anywhere.
She was an impostor in every aspect of her own life.
Nora pulled a Zippo from her pocket and flipped it open. “How do you know?” She ran her thumb over the wheel, making a clicking sound with the lighting mechanism without actually bringing the flame to life.
“I’m…” Tabitha sighed and faced the blank expressions of the women. “I’m giving the men erections.”
A round of silence passed.
“I’ve done it three times now, to three different men. So it’s not like a one-off. I’m doing something wrong.”
“Man,” Delaney said, shaking her head. “It’s always the quiet ones.”
Wyatt gave off a loud woof and everyone burst into laughter.
“Well.” Nora stuck the cigarette behind her ear and jammed the lighter in the front pocket of her jeans. “Au contraire, but I bet those men think you’re doing something right.”
“We’re definitely not supposed to get erections,” Tabitha insisted. All three men had reacted differently. Todd—young, indifferent, thought massage therapy would be an easy career field—had pretended it didn’t happen. Frank—in his forties, quiet, deliberate—had been embarrassed and would no longer make eye contact with Tabitha in class. Corbin—a loud twentysomething who called everyone dude—had eyed his own erection with detached interest and announced, “You’re doing something wrong, dude.”
Delaney shook her head. “Men are just like that. The wind blows and their dicks get hard. I wouldn’t be so down on yourself.”
“I already struggle with the science. Like right now we’re learning all the bones, with all their divots and ridges and stuff. It’s excruciating and not coming easily to me,” Tabitha said. “And now I’m screwing up the massages. I’m starting to think I’m just not cut out for it.” Just like I’m not cut out for this bike shop, she didn’t add. She already knew Delaney had given her the job out of pity. No need to shine a spotlight.
“Sounds like the bones are coming easily to you,” Nora muttered as she collected today’s paperwork from the counter and started to file it away. “You’ll be the most requested massage girl in the county. I don’t see what the big problem is.”
Delaney stifled a laugh. “Don’t listen to her. Ask Red about it later. We have the Halloween party, remember?”
The party. Tabitha died a little inside. “Right. The party. Tonight.” But Delaney was right. Tonight she could ask Constance, “Red” for short, the famous massager of humans and dogs alike, about the erections. See what advice she had to give. She’d been the one to talk Tabitha into massage school in the first place, claiming Tabitha had a gift for connecting with people. She was connecting, all right. Just not in the way she meant to.
Delaney grinned and slapped her on the shoulder. “Go home and get some Smoosh Time with your dog, Steele. Rest up. We’ll figure out the boners later.”
Excerpted from Becoming Family by Elysia Whisler. Copyright © 2022 by Elysia Whisler. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.