Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(10)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(10)
Jill Shalvis

The girls were jumping up and down at his side, clapping their hands in uncontained joy and excitement.

The teacher shook her head. “No. This is Craft Corner for ages five to seven.”

Jack, you bastard…

The teacher heaved a put-upon sigh, pulled out a set of keys, and went to a closet. She unlocked a cabinet and gestured to it.

“What’s that?” Ben asked.

“Spare materials.”

He stared at the shelves stocked with things like buckets of glitter glue and popsicle sticks. “What do I do with all this?”

“I don’t care, as long as you keep them busy for an hour and a half.”

And then she was gone.

Ben had once been in a remote area of Somalia with two other engineers when they’d been surrounded by a group of starving rebels. They’d rounded up Ben and his two co-workers, stolen everything they had, beaten the shit out of them for good measure, and left them for dead.

That had been less painful than this—being with a group of twenty kids staring at him with excitement and hope that he was about to do something cool. Because he had nothing. To stall, he dumped out the bucket of popsicle sticks, spread them around. Did the same with the glue.

Pink tugged on the hem of his T-shirt. “So what are we doing, mister? Making something really neat, right?”

“Right.” He shoved things around in the supply cabinet, looking for something—anything—to help him.

“Are we going to do it today?” she asked.

He turned to her, but she appeared to be utterly unconcerned over the long look he gave her, the one that would’ve had a grown man cowering in his boots. She just met his gaze straight on and smiled.

Last year in Thailand, he’d had a group of local teenagers assigned to assist him on a project. They’d been quick studies, smart as hell, and, best of all, resourceful. During their off time, they’d shown Ben how to weave. Baskets, hats, even shoes. An engineer to the bone, Ben had taken their weaving techniques one step further. He’d taught them how to extract lumber from the piles and piles of debris that lay everywhere. What had worked in their favor was the humidity, which made the wet scraps they found thin, malleable, and easy to work with. They’d been able to weave effectively with no tools at all. Using building skills they learned from Ben, they’d made a bunch of aesthetically pleasing baskets. What had started out as a fun project to cure boredom and stimulate the teens had turned into a viable way for them to actually make a living—to trade the baskets for the things they needed to survive. Ben had left there knowing that he’d truly given something back.

He held no such illusions here. These kids weren’t going to remember him or these stupid sticks. But he still had an hour and twenty-eight minutes on the clock, so he had to do something. “Okay, we’re going to make a picture frame.”

“What will we put in the frame?” Pink asked, her cute little face upturned to his.

Good question. They didn’t care about getting a photo printed. These kids had cell phones and iPads and all sorts of shit on which they could bring up a picture at the touch of a thumb. “I meant a collage,” he said. “We’re going to make a collage.”

“What’s that?” someone wanted to know.

“Stuff you collect.”

“What’ll we collect?” another kid asked.

He smiled as the idea came to him.

Five minutes later, he had all the kids in the rec center parking lot, finding “treasures” from his truck. Kendra was cradling a few quarters and Oreos. Another girl had claimed all the chocolate-kiss candy wrappers he’d tossed in the back. One of the other kids had found a baseball cap and a pair of flip-flops; Ben had no idea whom they belonged to. Yet another kid went through the glove compartment, making Ben damn glad he no longer kept condoms in there. But his maintenance records were now officially someone’s art project. Several of the boys had gathered up the rest of his change and were making a mint off of him. One of them held up a ten-dollar bill with a whoop. Ben winced over the loss.

“Hey, this is a pretty napkin,” Pink said of the—surprise—pink napkin she’d found. It had seven digits on it. A few weeks back, a waitress had scribbled down her number and shoved it in Ben’s pocket, and he’d forgotten about it. “Uh…” he said, but Pink was cradling it as though it were gold, so he let it go.

Someone else had found several coffee cups and a parking ticket. Ben winced again. He’d forgotten about that ticket…

An hour and twenty-six minutes later, they were done. Each kid had a frame made by hand out of popsicle sticks, and inside each one was an assemblage of things they’d collected—from his now-clean truck.

Win-win, he thought.

When he’d been relieved by Ms. Uptight Teacher, he headed back to his blissfully empty truck. He slid behind the wheel and started to turn the key when he saw two familiar little redheads walking down the street.

Alone.

Shit. “Don’t do it,” he said to himself. But he put the truck back into park, pocketed his keys, and got out. “Hey.”

Pink, holding her sister’s hand, whipped around. When she caught sight of him, she beamed. “Mr. Teacher!”

“You’re walking home,” he said.

“Well, yeah. But on the next block we run, ’cause that’s where Kelly and the mean dog live.”

He sighed grimly. “Get in.”

She beamed.

Kendra beamed.

And the next thing Ben knew, he’d put them both in his truck, cinched down by seat belts, legs swinging, smiles across their faces.

He pulled up to their foster home and idled a minute. “How long have you lived here?”

They both shrugged. “A while,” Pink declared. “Since all the bad stuff.”

He was afraid to ask, but as it turned out, he didn’t have to. Pink didn’t have a filter. “Our grandma died,” she said. “And our daddy’s up for the big one, so he couldn’t take us to live with him.”

Ben craned around to stare at her. “The big one?”

She shrugged again. “I’m not real sure what that means, but he’s very busy doing it because he hasn’t come to see us.”

Ben was pretty sure he knew exactly what it meant. The guy was in prison for murder. Not that Ben was going to explain that to a five-year-old. He got out of the truck, unbuckled them, and waited until they were both inside their house.

While he was still sitting there, Jack called him.

“You’re a shithead,” Ben said in lieu of a greeting.

“You made them clean out your truck?” Jack asked incredulously. “Seriously?”

“So I’m fired, right?” Ben asked hopefully.

Jack laughed. “You’re going to have to do a lot worse than that. And don’t even think about it. I need you there. The kids loved you. But Jesus, figure out a craft that doesn’t involve cleaning out your truck.”

Ben hung up on him and put the truck in gear. On the next street he saw a teenage boy slouched against a fence, a huge mutt on a leash in his hand. He pulled over and rolled down his window. “Kelly?”

The kid sneered. “What’s it to ya?”

Ben smiled at the size of the balls on the little idiot. Then he got out of his truck.

Kelly gulped but stayed in place, straightening, trying to add some height.

Height wasn’t going to help him. Only brains could save him, and Ben had his doubts about even that. “We need to talk.”

Kelly gulped again. “’Bout?”

“Your dog,” Ben said. “You let it terrify any more little kids, especially redheaded ones, and I’ll introduce you to my dog. And my dog eats your dog’s breed for lunch.”

Kelly lost a whole lot of his belligerence but tried to keep his bravado up. “Who are you, the dog police?”

“Worse,” Ben said. “I’m not the police at all.” He leveled the teen with the same stare that hadn’t intimidated Pink much.

It worked on Kelly. The kid nodded like a bobblehead. Ben got back into his truck and called Luke. “What’s up with the girls’ parents?”

“What girls?”

“The two sisters from the foster home. Kendra and…” Shit. He still didn’t know Pink’s real name. “The one who wears pink all the time.”

Luke laughed softly. “The one who wears pink?”

“Yeah,” Ben said impatiently. “From head to toe. You can’t miss her. What’s their story?”

“I don’t know,” Luke said.

“But you could find out.”

“Well, yeah.”

“Call me back when you do.”

Luke paused. “You do remember you don’t like kids, right?”

“It’s all Jack’s fault.”

“Of course,” Luke said without missing a beat. “It’s always Jack’s fault.”

Ben disconnected and then, in need of fortitude, drove to the diner. He hadn’t even gotten out of the truck when he saw the flash of a willowy blonde standing in front of the beauty salon.

Aubrey.

As he watched, she stuffed that damn notepad into her purse, turned, and walked away. Quick, sure steps. Determined. She walked the same way she’d kissed him.

A woman on a mission.

He couldn’t imagine what she was up to, but he’d bet his last dollar it involved her list. The one with his name on it.

Aubrey stopped short, said something to herself, and walked back to the salon. She strode inside, back ramrod straight.

Fascinated, knowing he’d seen this game before, Ben waited. While he did, Luke called back.

“Records on the kids are sealed, so I went to the source,” he said.

“Child services?” Ben asked.

“Lucille.”

Ben had to laugh. If anything had happened in Lucky Harbor that Lucille didn’t know about, it wasn’t worth knowing. “And?”

“She knew their grandmother. The kids’ mom is gone. Their grandmother died, too, in a car wreck. The girls were four at the time and in the car. Minor injuries only. Father’s a mechanic in Seattle.”

“What?” Ben asked. “He’s not in prison?”

“Not according to Lucille.”

Ben absorbed the unexpected shock—and the anger. Also a shock. But he was angry. He was furious. The girls had lost a mother and grandmother, and their prick of a father was working less than two hours away while letting them think he was in prison?

Aubrey came out of the beauty shop. “Gotta go,” he said, and disconnected. He studied Aubrey. She didn’t look devastated this time. She looked…well, he wasn’t sure. He looked her over again and then realized what it was.

She was relieved. There was a lightness to her carriage, and damn if she wasn’t almost smiling as she got into her car, without even looking his way, and drove off.

He had to try damn hard not to follow her.

Chapter 8

When the alarm went off several days later, Aubrey had trouble getting out of bed, and she hit SNOOZE on her alarm clock about four times. Finally, Gus sat on her chest and refused to budge until she promised to feed him immediately.

She’d gone to her mom’s the night before and stayed late. They’d had dinner, and then Aubrey had helped paint Tammy’s bathroom a sunshine yellow for “cheer,” as her mom had called it. Aubrey thought it was okay, but if it’d been her bathroom, she’d need sunglasses to take a shower every morning.

She’d planned to beg off early, but then Carla hadn’t showed up, which had saddened her mom. Carla was invited every week and rarely, if ever, showed up, but it still got to Tammy. So it’d been midnight before Aubrey had gotten home, and she’d been shocked to discover that in her absence, the renovation fairy had finished demolition of the closet area.

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