Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(11)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(11)
Jill Shalvis

Ben had come back and worked, and standing there alone in her dark store, in the middle of the night, she’d smiled. And been so grateful.

And confused.

How was it she only liked Ben when he wasn’t here, or when he had his tongue in her mouth?

Now, in the light of day, standing in the same spot, she looked around again. Already so many changes had been made. There was little left of Aunt Gwen’s store—except the heart. The heart was here in spades.

Meow.

And Gus the cat.

Her phone buzzed, and she pulled it out of her purse. It was Leah.

“Why are you starting your day without stopping in?”

Leah and Ali had a morning ritual that involved Leah feeding Ali breakfast and Ali putting up a fresh bouquet in Leah’s bakery. “I didn’t know I was part of the equation,” Aubrey said.

“Well, you are. So get your skinny ass over here. I’ve just created a brand-new batch of raspberry Danishes, and Ali’s going to eat them all if you don’t hurry.”

“I don’t have anything to give you in return.”

Meow, Gus said.

“Well, except the cat,” Aubrey said. “And I don’t think you can have a cat in a bakery.”

“I’d take that fat sweetheart in a hot minute if I could,” Leah said.

Aubrey looked down into Gus’s annoyed green eyes and felt her heart squeeze. Nope, even she couldn’t give up the grumpy old man.

“And anyway,” Leah said, “it’s not about what you can give us in return, though you do have books now. I can download right from your website to my e-reader, right?”

“Right,” Aubrey said.

“Well, then, that makes you my new crack. Hurry.” And then she disconnected.

One of the things Aubrey was most proud of was her website, where people could download books to read on any digital device. They could do it from right inside her store or from the comfort of their own homes. She walked out her back door, down the alley about fifteen feet, and into the back door of Leah’s bakery.

Inside the kitchen, Ali was leaning against the workstation, double-fisting Danishes.

“See?” Leah said. “Oh, and be careful when you take one from the box. Sometimes she bites, and I don’t know if she’s had her shots.”

“I’ve totally had my shots,” Ali said. “And anyway, I only bite Luke.”

Aubrey carefully took a Danish, keeping an eye on Ali just in case Leah wasn’t kidding. She took a big bite and then realized both Ali and Leah were looking at her.

“Now,” Ali said to Leah. “Ask her now. While she’s sugar-loading. It’s hard to dodge people when you’re on a sugar high.”

Leah nodded and turned to Aubrey. “So…you’ve been busy.”

“Very,” Aubrey said warily.

“Busy kissing Ben.”

And just like that, Aubrey choked on the Danish.

Leah pushed away from the counter, went to the refrigerator, and poured Aubrey a tall glass of milk.

She drank down the milk. She was no longer choking. Mostly she was stalling for time. “Went down the wrong pipe,” she said.

Ali and Leah were both watching her, waiting, and she sighed and set down the remainder of her Danish. “So this wasn’t really about including me as part of your morning ritual. You wanted to hear the gossip.”

“Actually,” Ali said, “we were hoping for both.”

Leah nudged the Danishes back toward Aubrey. “You always going to be so defensive?”

“Maybe,” Aubrey said, and then caved. “Okay, probably.”

“Listen,” Leah said. “You’re a friend. I think you’re going to be a really good friend. But…”

“But Ben is family,” Aubrey finished. “You’re marrying his cousin. I get that. You’re worried about him.”

“Always,” Leah said. “Even though he’s a big boy, and he’s going to do whatever he wants to do.”

She’d noticed.

“Actually, to be totally honest, we’re a little more worried about you,” Ali said.

This surprised her. “Why?”

“Ben’s not exactly a long-term bet right now,” Ali said.

“And you think I am?”

“Of course,” Ali said. “You had a rough patch and an unfair deal over Asshat Teddy. We both did.”

Leah nodded, and Aubrey realized that what they’d said was true: They were worried—for her. Touched, she set aside her glass. “It really was just a kiss.” Even saying it made her wince a little bit on the inside. First of all, it hadn’t been just a kiss. It’d been the kiss of all kisses. And second, she shouldn’t have allowed it to happen. No matter what she’d told Ben, he was on her list. This meant she had to try to make amends with him, not kiss him. Because when he found out why he was on her list, he wasn’t going to want to kiss her. He was going to want to never see her again…

“I saw the kiss,” Ali said. “I just happened to be outside, on the front sidewalk, talking to Olivia, who runs that very lovely vintage clothing store down the street. And bee-tee-dub, that was no ‘just a kiss’ kiss,” she said. “That was a…wow kiss. I went home and jumped Luke’s bones.”

Aubrey had to laugh. Ali was right: It had been a wow kiss. But it’d also been a fluke. “It’s not happening again,” she insisted, and faced both their doubt and her own. “It can’t.”

A few minutes later, Aubrey was back inside the Book & Bean. She unlocked the door, turned on all the lights, and flipped over her OPEN sign.

Gus, asleep in his bed beneath the stairs, cracked open one eye and meowed at her. The nocturnal creature was annoyed by daylight.

Aubrey went to stand in what would soon be her little service niche. Ben had cleaned up after the demolition, but she went over it, sweeping and dusting to keep the store spotless. When she was done, she stood looking at the place where Ben had pressed her up against his long, leanly muscled, warm body.

At just the thought, her lips tingled in memory of their kiss. And if she was being honest, other parts tingled, too. In the bright light of day, she couldn’t imagine what the hell she’d been thinking to slide her hands up his chest and into his silky hair and pull his head down to hers for more.

Okay, so she hadn’t been thinking…

It’d been a mistake, albeit a delicious one, and she needed to move on. She was good at that—moving on. And she’d proven it with the first success on her list. Smiling just thinking about it, she pulled the notebook from her purse, then took out a pen.

And then, with a smile she couldn’t contain if she’d tried, she very carefully, very purposefully, crossed off number three.

Melissa.

Back in high school, the two of them had been rivals who’d gotten off on one-upping each other. Melissa had been pretty and funny and incredibly charismatic, and whenever she’d set her mind on a guy, she’d gotten him.

Even when Aubrey had wanted him.

Aubrey’d had the fattest crush on one guy in particular. Ben, of course. It didn’t matter that he had a longtime high school sweetheart; she’d still yearned and burned for him. Secretly, of course. She hated to remember those days, when she’d been a lowly freshman, garnering a lot of unwanted attention from the junior and senior boys because of her looks. This had, in turn, made her a target for the popular girls, of course. Hannah being one of them. One time Aubrey had been in the school parking lot, surrounded by a couple of aggressive, obnoxious boys. Ben had chased them off, and Hannah had been with him.

“She asks for that attention, Ben,” Hannah had said when a grateful Aubrey had started to walk away.

The humiliation of that had burned deep, but it was chased away by Ben’s defense of her.

“No girl asks for that, Hannah,” he’d said.

Aubrey had never forgotten it. It’d been the start of her terribly painful crush, that one moment of kindness, and she’d hated, hated, that he’d been with Hannah.

In any case, Melissa had sensed Aubrey’s crush and loved to torment her about it. One summer night Melissa had a bonfire on the hidden beach past the pier, a spot only teenagers and the homeless ever bothered to hike to. Melissa had brought some alcohol that she’d pilfered from her parents and had plied Hannah with it until she’d fallen asleep by the fire. Melissa had then sat down next to Ben and pulled out every trick in Aubrey’s own arsenal. The I’m-so-cold accidental snuggle. The scared-of-the-dark accidental snuggle. The wow-you’re-really-strong accidental snuggle. By the time Melissa had moved on to the there’s-a-big-bug! accidental snuggle, Ben was cranky from fending Melissa off, and Aubrey was cranky knowing she wasn’t going to get a shot at Ben herself.

So she’d one-upped Melissa.

She’d dared everyone to go rock climbing on the cliffs and jump into the water—a stupid, dangerous stunt. She’d been neck and neck with Melissa all the way up to the top. They’d been neck and neck at the jump into the water, too. Aubrey had landed safely.

Not Melissa. A wave had slammed her up against a rock, and she’d broken her arm. They’d dumped her at the hospital and deserted her, not wanting to get in trouble for the illegal bonfire, the alcohol, or the cliff jumping.

Melissa had been treated and then cited for public intoxication and reckless endangerment.

Aubrey had gotten off scot-free.

She’d have written it off as a silly, juvenile stunt, but Melissa had been on course to play softball at a junior college. But with her arm requiring two surgeries, she’d been dropped from the team.

She’d never gone to college.

Aubrey’s path had crossed Melissa’s a few times here and there. After all, Tammy worked at the same salon. But Aubrey and Melissa had never talked about that night, which had changed Melissa’s life forever. But this morning, Aubrey had driven by the salon and got lucky, finding Melissa there early working on stock, and she brought up the past for the first time in all these years.

Melissa had told Aubrey that not too long after she’d broken her arm, her parents had cut her off because of her partying ways. It’d been a wake-up call. She’d gotten herself together, gone to beauty school, and was now running her own hair salon. She swore up and down that she was actually grateful for the path she’d ended up on. And happy.

Happy…

Aubrey shook her head in marvel. But Melissa had been sincere. She’d hugged Aubrey and told her to come in for a cut sometime and they’d talk about old times.

“Wow, she smiles.”

Aubrey stifled her startled shriek. Ben stood in the doorway, propping up the doorjamb with a broad shoulder, arms crossed over his chest. A casual pose.

But there was nothing casual about the assessing look he was giving her. “I smile plenty,” she said, irritated at herself. Just the sight of him used to remind her of her mistakes. Now the sight of him reminded her that he’d kissed her.

And he kissed amazingly…

That knowledge was damned distracting. She needed to find a way to get rid of it, but she couldn’t. She thought about it every waking moment. And also during her sleeping moments, what few there’d been.

Meow.

Gus had gotten up for Ben. He never got up for Aubrey, but there he was, on all four legs, rubbing up against Ben as though he were catnip.

She was beginning to see how it was that Ben might have gotten cat hair on his pants.

Ben crouched low and gave the cat an allover body rub that had Gus rolling in ecstasy on the floor, the low, loud rumble of his rarely heard purr filling the room.

She rolled her eyes and then realized Ben was looking at her, really looking at her, and she went on guard. “We going to talk about it?” he finally asked, straightening.

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