Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(12)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(12)
Jill Shalvis

“No.” Hell, no.

He gave an almost smile, as if that had been the answer he’d expected, and yet there was a flash of something else as well. She dismissed it, because there could be no way he wanted to talk about it, either.

Another man came up behind Ben in the doorway. “Knock, knock,” he said, rapping his knuckles on the doorjamb. “Am I interrupting?”

“Pastor Mike.” Aubrey immediately looked around herself guiltily, as if she’d been caught doing something wrong. She stopped herself and added a mental head slap. Good Lord, woman, get a grip. “No, you’re not interrupting anything. How can I help you? Do you need a book?”

“No, I don’t need a book,” he said. “But thank you.”

Aubrey didn’t know what to make of this. People came here for books. Or, in Ben’s case, to drive her crazy.

“I just wanted to see how you were doing,” Pastor Mike said, his smile casual. Easy.

“I’m…” She didn’t dare look at Ben. “Good. Thank you.” She had no idea why he was really here. Were there AA rules she didn’t know about? She hadn’t signed up for anything. She’d been careful not to make any commitments that night. She hadn’t wanted anyone getting into her business.

And she especially didn’t want Ben getting into her business.

Mike looked at Ben and held out a hand. “Good to see you home safe. There were lots of candles lit for you. Your aunt Dee lit one every week.”

Ben shook Mike’s hand. “She likes to hedge all her bets.”

The pastor smiled. “It worked. Heard you were sticking around this time. You helping our girl out?”

Ben’s mouth quirked at the “our girl.” “Yeah. So you and Aubrey are close?” he asked Pastor Mike.

Aubrey jumped in before Pastor Mike could give her secret away, on purpose or otherwise. “Yeah, we’re close,” she said, moving toward Ben. “We’re…buddies.” She tried to nudge him out the door—to no avail, of course. The big lug couldn’t be budged.

“What are you doing?” he asked, effortlessly resisting her efforts.

“You’ve. Got. To. Go.”

“Do I?”

“Yes!” She flashed a we’re-all-family-here smile over her shoulder to Mike. “He was just saying he had to go,” she told the pastor. “He’s a big sinner, you know. Maybe you should go with him. Keep him from sinning further today.”

Pastor Mike laughed. Why he was laughing Aubrey had no idea, because this wasn’t funny.

“I don’t have to go,” Ben said. “I’ve got all day.”

Great. He had all day. “No, really. You’re a busy guy, so—”

“I’m all yours,” he said easily.

Oh, for God’s sake.

“Aubrey,” Mike said gently.

“Just a minute, Pastor.” She gave up trying to shove Ben out the door and went hands on hips, blowing a strand of hair from her face. She gave him a dirty look before turning back to Mike.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “I can’t stay. I really did just want to see how you were doing, or if you needed anything.”

Oh. Well, that was a little sweet, she could admit. “I don’t. I’m fine, thank you.”

Mike looked as though he knew better than to believe that, but he didn’t argue with her. He simply nodded. “You know where to find me if you need anything.”

And with that, he was gone.

“So,” Ben said into the silence. “You and Pastor Mike. You’re…buddies.”

“Yep.”

“From…?” he asked.

She gave him a look. “Maybe I go to church every Sunday.”

He flashed a heart-stopping grin, and she sighed. “Yeah, that was probably a stretch, believing I’m actually good enough to go to church.”

His smile faded as his gaze touched over her features. “Good’s way overrated,” he said. “But you’re doing okay, I’d say.”

The combination of that and the way he was looking at her had her heart squeezing uncomfortably, so she took a few steps back. “What are you even doing here?”

“I work here,” he reminded her.

She sighed. “And thanks for that, by the way. It’s really amazing how much you got done last night. It looks good.”

He nodded in acceptance. “My turn to ask a question now,” he said, and pushed off the wall, closing the distance between them.

“Uh…okay. But maybe we should set limits—”

“No limits. Here’s my question. When are you going to tell me what’s going on with you?”

Oh, boy. “That’s a pretty widely scoped question.”

“You’re right,” he said. “Let me narrow it down for you. Start with the list, and why you’re going around town talking to people. Did you become a Jehovah’s Witness or something?”

That startled a laugh out of her. “I think that’s two questions.”

His eyes warmed a little. “And?”

“And…no. I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness.”

Chapter 9

Ben laughed, and when he did, Aubrey took another step back—right into the wall. She frowned at him as though it were his fault, which made him want to laugh again. Instead he studied her, a little surprised to realize that she was truly flustered by him.

This was fascinating. He knew it wasn’t often that she allowed her feelings to show. Hell, he’d have said it wasn’t often that she actually felt anything. She was one tough, smooth cookie. She always had been, all through school, even when she faced off against the mean girls or the stupid guys who thought she’d put out just because of how she looked.

She’d gotten even tougher. Inscrutable.

But then he’d kissed her. He’d had her in his arms, and he knew damn well she’d been feeling plenty.

So had he.

But today it was more than lust. He was making her nervous, and he decided he liked that, too, much more than he should.

Mostly because she made him a whole hell of a lot of things, including—of all the ridiculous possibilities—jealous of a happily married pastor. He had to wonder what the connection was between Mike and Aubrey. The list?

And why did he care so much? The answer to that was unsettling, to say the least. She was getting under his skin—big-time.

He shouldn’t have kissed her.

She was wearing a pretty dress, some silky forest green wraparound thing that hugged her curves and brought out her eyes.

And Christ, how it was that he was noticing such shit, he had no idea. She was a job to him right now, nothing more, nothing less.

Which didn’t explain why he couldn’t take his eyes off her mile-long legs when she turned and put some distance between them. She walked to the open space between the last row of bookshelves and the closet he’d removed and then squatted down and began to set out a bunch of squares.

A layout, he realized as she arranged them. She was working on a layout now that she had the funding she’d so desperately needed.

He looked around and realized something else. After he’d made a bit of a mess last night, she’d swept up. Dusted. And gotten rid of the last of the shit lying around from the old bookstore. She’d been working hard.

Really hard, he realized, getting a closer look at her, seeing the signs of exhaustion beneath her eyes and in the tightness of her mouth. Exhaustion and worry. “You’ve been busy,” he said.

“Why do you sound surprised? It’s my store.”

He didn’t know why he was surprised, exactly. “I guess I don’t see you as the local friendly merchant type,” he said.

“Should I even ask how you do see me?”

He knew better than to touch that one.

At his silence, she made a low sound of annoyance. “You don’t know me, Ben,” she said, making him feel like an ass as she went back to her little squares, toeing some things around, giving off an I’m-very-busy vibe.

But he did know her. Or he was starting to. He knew how very much this store seemed to mean to her. Knew that whatever that list was, it, too, meant a lot.

And he knew she kissed and tasted like heaven on earth.

Not that she wanted to hear any of those things from him. “Are you sure you want things so open?” he asked, and she jumped, clearly startled to realize he was right behind her now, looking over her shoulder down at the arrangement.

“I want to encourage socializing,” she said stiffly. “I want people to have a place to go.” She didn’t look at him. “I want people to feel comfortable hanging out here so they won’t be alone.”

This made his heart squeeze, because he thought maybe she was the one who felt alone. “Why do you think people are so alone?” he finally asked, sincerely curious.

“Everyone’s alone at some point.” She glanced back at him. “You know that.”

Because he’d lost Hannah. Holding her gaze, he gave a slow nod. “And you think a bookstore can make people feel…not alone?”

“I think having a place to go can help.”

“Getting unlonely isn’t about a physical place,” he said.

“Well, I know that.” Breaking eye contact, she once again went back to her layout. “But it’s a start.”

He watched her play with the arrangement of the squares for another moment. “Why such a wide path between the seating areas?” he asked. “You could have more merchandise in here if you close it up, even a little.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah? Care to share?”

“I’m going to be hosting bingo night. And the knitting club. And the cookie and book exchange. And, I hope, a whole bunch of other stuff. A lot of that includes seniors, and they need the extra space to maneuver with canes and wheelchairs and things. The other day, Mr. Elroy took out an entire book display with his cane and then blamed in on Mr. Wykowski. They nearly came to blows, like a couple of twenty-year-olds, but Lucille stepped in, telling them they couldn’t have any cookies if they didn’t zip it.”

Ben smiled. “Remember the time that you danced at the senior center and put three seniors into cardiac arrest?”

“Near cardiac arrest,” she said, correcting him. “And it was a beauty pageant. I wasn’t dancing. I was baton twirling for the talent competition.”

He fought a smile and lost. “Whatever you say, Sunshine.” He stepped into her space then, all the more amused when she went still, like Bambi in the headlights, unsure of whether to move clear, or stand firm.

She stood firm.

He pushed the squares around a bit. “How about this? You get an extra wall, which we’d make a half wall, as you wanted. That divides up the space so you can have two different groups at the same time and yet still gives you an open feel. Also, if you make the wall a shelving unit, you acquire additional product display or storage space.”

She stared down at the squares for a long moment, saying nothing.

“Or not,” he said with a shrug. “Your space.”

“No, it’s…good. You’re good.”

“Sometimes.”

Her gaze jerked to his, and for a moment, hunger and yearning was heavy in the air between them.

Then she rolled her eyes. “And so modest, too.”

He smiled, then pulled back the edge of the carpet, revealing what he’d discovered last night—hardwood floors beneath.

“Oh, my God,” she said, and dropped to her knees, bending low to see the wood more closely. “Score!”

He eyed the way her dress pulled tight over her perfect ass and said, “Definitely.” He tore his gaze off her. “I’ll pull up the carpet for you tonight if you’d like.”

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