Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(13)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(13)
Jill Shalvis

“I’d like.” She stood up, dusted her hands off, and pulled out a stack of paint samples. “I was thinking this one for the walls, and this one as an accent color.”

He spread out the samples and nudged two colors over the top of her choices.

She stared down at them. “Lighter?”

“Yes. It’ll make your space appear bigger.”

“Warmer, too,” she noted.

“You wanted comfy,” he reminded her. “Your word, not mine.”

She stared at his colors for a long moment. “You going to help me paint?”

“I can do it myself,” he said, thinking a little space between them might be warranted.

“I want to be involved.”

Perfect. “Painting’s messy,” he said.

“I’m good at painting.”

He looked at her for a long moment, then shrugged. If she was willing to get burned, why the hell wasn’t he?

“Besides,” she said. “I don’t tend to get messy.”

He smiled, a real one. “Where’s the fun in that?” he asked, and was rewarded by her blush.

The next night, Ben entered the bookstore after closing. He hadn’t necessarily set out to avoid Aubrey.

Okay, he’d totally set out to avoid her.

As a result, he’d managed to go several hours today without thinking about her at all. Which was completely negated by the fact that she’d been starring in his dreams…

Yesterday, he’d pulled up the carpets in the bookstore. He’d swept afterward, but the hardwood had still needed some TLC. But as he looked the place over now, he realized Aubrey had scrubbed the hell out of the floors, getting up years of grime and scuffs. He didn’t know what he’d expected from her, or why he’d assumed she’d have him do as much of the dirty work as possible, but she was working her ass off, and he found that…appealing. Wildly so.

“My aunt loved this place,” she said from behind him. She was in sweats, eyes sleepy, as if maybe he’d woken her up. “I’d come here after school, and she’d have a snack waiting,” she said. “She was always so busy, because she did all the work herself, but she made time for me. No matter what her day looked like. She’d put me in that big, soft chair”—she pointed to a huge overstuffed chair in the corner—“and then she’d bring me a stack of books to read, and for a little while, I’d escape.”

“Escape what?” he asked.

She shrugged as if embarrassed and then looked out at the store. “I want to bring that magic to others.”

He had no idea why his gut tightened, or why in that moment he wanted to give her whatever she needed. “We can do that,” he said.

She turned to him. “We?”

“Your uncle hired me,” he reminded her. “I don’t leave a job just because the customer drives me insane.”

She gave a little smile. “But why is this your job in the first place? Why are you even back in Lucky Harbor?”

Good question. Loaded question. Here felt like…home. Here was where he felt most like himself, but he shrugged. “Maybe I missed it,” he said, testing the waters by saying it out loud.

“Sentimental, Ben? You?”

“You don’t know me,” he said, repeating the words she had said to him. “Or who I am.”

She didn’t smile, but she did nod in acknowledgement. “Is it getting easier?” she asked quietly. “Being here without her?”

He paused. No one ever asked him that. Where he’d been, most people had no idea he’d lost his wife. Only the people here in Lucky Harbor knew it. And the people here tended to tiptoe around the subject, not wanting to upset the grieving widower.

But five years was a long time, and he’d learned that as much as you loved someone, you couldn’t keep her memory alive in your head for five years. Much as you loved someone, her laugh, her smile, her voice…it all faded a little with time. “I’m not on the edge of a cliff, if that’s what you’re asking,” he finally said.

“What are you?”

He shrugged. “Tired, mostly.”

“Given where you’ve been and what you’ve done, I can only imagine,” she said softly.

Uncomfortable with this very real conversation, he turned away and walked the length of the room, pulling out his tape measure. “I bought the wood for the shelving units. I’ll get more for the half wall if you want to go that route.”

“I do,” she said. “I scrubbed the floors, and since I like them scarred, I’m not going to do anything else to them. You’re good at changing the subject, you know that?”

He did know that. She wanted to talk about the past five years, which made her as interested in him as he was in her.

She lifted a shoulder and gestured around her. “A bookstore is my favorite place. It shouldn’t surprise you that I read—a lot. Research a lot. Your last project saved the lives of thousands, providing not only water for farmers and their crops but also giving them a means to keep providing those things on their own for generations to come.”

His brows went up, both surprised and uncomfortable with the close scrutiny. “Are you actually giving me a compliment?”

“Maybe. Just a little bit.”

“Why?”

“Why? What do you mean, why?”

He moved toward her, noting with some amusement that she sucked in a breath but held her own and stood firm.

They bumped. Front to front.

She appeared to stop breathing and tilted her head up, her gaze going to his mouth. “You know why,” she whispered. “Because we’re…attracted to each other.”

“That’s one word for it.” Slowly he lifted a hand, watching her pupils dilate as he reached toward her…

And then past her to the counter, where he flipped open her notebook.

She blinked, whipping around to see what he was after, and went from soft and dreamy to pissed off in the blink of an eye. “Hey—”

“You’ve got someone crossed off,” he said, teasing her. “Should I call the police?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Ha-ha.” She snatched back her notebook. “Maybe you can be a funny carpenter and actually get some work done. I need those shelves, like, yesterday.”

“What else do you need?”

She was at the door already but stopped to turn and look at him. “Excuse me?”

“A minute ago, it seemed like you needed a man.”

“I don’t need anyone,” she said. “But if I did, it’d be someone…sweet,” she said pointedly. “Sweet and…beta.”

“Beta,” he repeated.

“That’s right,” she said. “I’m over alpha men. And you, Ben McDaniel, are as alpha as they come.”

Well, she had him there.

Chapter 10

Two days later, Aubrey pulled up to her mom’s house and checked herself out in the rearview mirror. Pale. Serious.

Stressed.

She put on some shiny lip gloss and then smiled—a big fake smile that didn’t reach her eyes. One could fake anything, she knew, including happiness.

She was a pro at that.

But it was important to her that her mom really believe she was happy. Tammy had been through a lot in life—too much. So keeping the smile in place, Aubrey headed up the walk to her mom’s condo. The evening was chilly but gorgeous. Clear and sharp, without a cloud in the sky. The stars lit her way.

She didn’t even have to knock. With uncanny mom radar, Tammy sensed her daughter coming home to the fold and threw open the front door. “My baby!” she squealed with an ear-to-ear grin, yanking Aubrey in close for a tight hug. “Come in! I’ve got chicken frying, and now that you’re here, I’ll make mac and cheese, too, the way you love it, with the crusty bread crumbs and extra cheese on top.”

Comfort food. Once upon a time, Aubrey had lived for such meals. Until the day she’d gone headfirst into puberty and couldn’t fit into her jeans. After that, she’d secretly starved herself, pretending to eat her mom’s food but really feeding it straight into the trash compactor.

Tammy had often expressed her pleasure at passing her “good metabolism” to her own flesh and blood, but the truth was Aubrey had her father’s metabolism. She had to watch every calorie and work her ass off at the gym for every single indulgence she took. “I’m not hungry, Mom.”

“Nonsense! You have to eat. I hope Carla comes tonight.”

“Mom,” Aubrey said slowly, not wanting her to be disappointed, as she always was. “Carla’s not coming.”

“Yes, I am.” Carla came in behind Aubrey, still in scrubs. “But I’ve only got half an hour before I have to be back.”

“Of course!” Tammy said, beaming at her two girls. “Your job’s very important; I know that. Come in!”

Aubrey stepped into the living room. There was a lot of furniture there for the small space, but Tammy didn’t like to throw anything away. And on every end table and coffee table there was…stuff. Candy dishes, frames, knickknacks. It was clustered and crowded, but to Aubrey, it was also home.

Carla had never spent much time here. She looked around now, and though she didn’t say anything, Aubrey knew she was thinking that the place was a hoarder’s dream.

And Aubrey could admit that they pretty much were a reality show waiting to happen.

Carla settled for sitting on a corner of a couch. Aubrey took the other far corner. “So…” She searched for a safe topic. “How are you?”

“Exhausted,” her sister said, leaning back, closing her eyes. “Two straight shifts, and I’m a zombie. Haven’t had time to go food shopping, get my mail, or water my poor plants, much less brush my hair. My neighbors probably think I’m dead.”

Tammy tsked. “Honey, you’ve got to at least brush your hair. What will people think?”

Carla let out a low laugh. “They’ll think I’m not dead after all, but that I do need a hairdresser.”

“I could do those things for you,” Aubrey said to her.

“What?” Carla asked. “Brush my hair? Or tell my neighbors I’m not dead?”

“Get you some groceries. Get your mail.” Aubrey shrugged. “Water your poor plants.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m your sister.”

Carla opened her eyes and looked at her. “Is this about last week?”

“No,” Aubrey said. But it was. A little. She had something to offer, damn it.

“That’s so sweet of you to want to help, Aubrey,” Tammy said. “Look at us, getting along like a real family.”

“We are a real family, Mom,” Aubrey said. She looked at Carla. Tell her, she said with her eyes. Tell her we’re a damn family.

Carla met her gaze, paused, possibly rolled her eyes briefly, and then nodded at her mom. “We are family, Mom. We’re just not always that good at it.”

“Hey, we’re better than some!” Tammy put her hand to her chest and her eyes filled. “No one move, do you hear me? I need a picture of this.” She scrambled through the crap on the coffee table and came up with her phone. “Move closer to each other.”

Aubrey and Carla shared an awkward grimace and then shifted closer.

“Yeah, like that. Perfect! Now hug.” She gestured with one hand, the other holding the phone. “Oh, and smile! Goodness. This isn’t a funeral.”

Aubrey and Carla put their arms around each other, held the uncomfortable pose, and smiled.

And…smiled.

“Mom,” Carla said, a little strained. “Take the picture already.”

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