Today, Tomorrow and Always (Phenomenal Fate #3) by Tessa Bailey

Tucker swerved into the clearing and skidded to a stop, throwing the Impala into park.

Big crowd tonight.

There was a local guy racing against a rival town. The rivalry was mainly football related, but in West Virginia the gridiron angst spawned side-rivalries in everything from barbeque joints to churches. And now drag racing.

The stretch of road ran about half a mile to the finish line, before it turned toward the river. College-aged kids and some older high schoolers—no doubt there without their parents’ permission—lined the strip of asphalt. Half-empty six-packs dangled from fingers, cigarette smoke curled against the black backdrop of sky and stars.

Ignoring the fact that at twenty-six, he was getting too old for this shit, Tucker lit his cigar and tucked it into his mouth, swinging his husky frame out of the vehicle and executing a dramatic bow. When he straightened, mostly everyone had quieted. That, or they were digging in their pockets for cash, getting ready to hand it over. “Ready to race, motherfuckers?”

He didn’t react to the rowdy cheers, just held his palms out, flourishing his fingers up and back in the international symbol for gimme.

“Local boy is the favorite. Four to one odds. Who wants to play?” Tucker walked through his audience like a Baptist preacher taking the Sunday offering, money being slapped into his palms, bass from the blaring Shop Boyz remix punctuating his steps. Eyebrow Piercing was putting twenty on the underdog. Purple Lipstick wagered five on the local kid. And on and on he went, memorizing each bet and mentally tabulating his cut of each. “Now!” Having reached the end of the crowd, Tucker turned and addressed them all with a stern look. “I assume both racers have an up-to-date competition license.”

Blank looks all around.

“Ah, I’m just fucking with you.” He ashed his cigar, threw the laughing youngsters a wink. “Gentlemen, start your engines and pull up to the starting line.”

There was something almost romantic about headlights cutting through the bleak country black of the deserted road. Voices buzzing with nerves. Girls hiding their faces in their boyfriend’s jacket collars. People this age thought they were immortal. Life was an infinite resource to them. There weren’t a lot of adults at drag races, because once you’ve reached a certain number of years, you’ve witnessed tragedy. How fragile life could be.

Tucker was stuck somewhere in the middle, unable to dislodge himself.

He liked the adrenaline, the excitement, the risk. Fine, even the romantic, forbidden quality of doing something illegal on a Saturday night. But there was a part of him that questioned why. Or if maybe he’d just convinced himself he preferred the buzz and relative stardom that came with running the drag races, because adulthood was going to be a disappointment.

Why grow up at all? What was waiting for him there?

His father’s well-known oddities notwithstanding, Tucker was slightly overweight, a mechanic, a jokester, not that pretty to look at. He’d never had a girlfriend. Women tended to give him a pat on the head, then work their way toward greener pastures. Toward guys with college degrees or a foot in the door of a family business. No questionable DNA or missing mothers. And hell, now he’d just gotten to a point where he lacked so much confidence with women, he didn’t even bother trying to get past the jokes to something deeper. The rejections had worn his self-assurance thin.

So here he stood, in the middle of a dark road, cigar smoke obscuring his vision just slightly. Enough that the young folks looked like something imagined. The crowd would be different next year. The girls would start wearing different kinds of clothes, the guys would be buying a new brand of jeans, the music would change. But Tucker wouldn’t. He didn’t know how to walk from one side of the road to the other. How to go forward when so many things seemed to be holding him back.

Forcing a smile onto his face, Tucker pulled a bandana from his back pocket and held it up, waiting for everyone’s attention. “All right, kiddies. Let’s have a clean race.” He eyed the audience. “First one to shotgun a beer doubles their odds.” A rusty chuckle escaped him as every guy in attendance scrambled to puncture a can, foam spraying everywhere, girls laughing. And those sounds carried into the night sky as Tucker boomed, “Three, two, one—”

Tires shrieked and the two souped-up cars shot forward, roaring past Tucker. He turned without hurry and pulled on his cigar, waiting for the victor to be declared so he could divvy up the winnings. The races didn’t usually take more than twenty seconds and he tended to go home with at least three hundred bucks. Come to think of it, that hourly rate made him better paid than a big shot lawyer—