Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(14)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(14)
Jill Shalvis

“I’m trying!” Tammy said, fumbling with her phone. “Crap! I can never find the damn camera on this thing.”

Aubrey’s smile was feeling more than a little brittle. “It’s on your home page, Mom. Top left app. It says CAMERA.”

“Oh.” Tammy laughed. “Yes. Got it.”

When Tammy finally took the shot and lowered the phone, Aubrey and Carla immediately broke apart.

They ate at the tiny table in the kitchen, practically elbow to elbow.

“Just like old times,” Tammy said. “Remember when you’d come visit, Carla? We’d sit here just like this and talk about school. Hey, we could talk about work!”

“I live my work,” Carla said. “I don’t want to talk about it. How about yours?”

Aubrey watched as Tammy happily told Carla all about the salon and her clients. She remembered every single one, and every single thing they ever told her. It was part of what made her so popular.

“And you?” Carla asked Aubrey. “How are things at your work?”

“You know she’s running her own business now,” Tammy said, voice bursting with pride. “She took over Aunt Gwen’s bookstore.”

“You stopped working for the town hall?” Carla asked, surprised.

“Honey,” Tammy said on a laugh. “Don’t you ever read Facebook? Her boyfriend dumped her and she got fired.”

“Well, not exactly,” Aubrey said to a gaping Carla. “I dumped him and then I quit.” Important difference, at least to her.

There was an awkward silence while everyone processed this.

“A bookstore,” Carla finally said. “I thought those were all going out of business these days.”

“This one’s different,” Aubrey said. “I’m selling digital books, too, and opening the place to all sorts of clubs, like knitting clubs and tea clubs…” She broke off because Carla wasn’t looking impressed.

“How will that sell books?” she asked.

“Because it’s going to be a place where people want to come and hang out. And buy their reading material,” Aubrey said, trying to sound more positive than hopeful. “Don’t you and your fellow surgical residents have a bunch of reading and studying to do? I could give you guys a place to meet and get together, and give you a discount on your materials.”

“A discount,” Tammy said. She loved a good bargain. “Well, isn’t that nice?”

A few minutes later, Carla’s cell phone buzzed. She read a text and stood. “Sorry, I have to get back.” She looked at Aubrey. “I’ll let people know about your store and the discount. We get together on Sunday nights and Wednesday mornings at the ass crack of dawn.”

“My store is closed during those times, so you’d have the store exclusively.”

Carla hesitated. “We meet in the cafeteria now, and it’s not ideal. Their tea sucks.”

“My tea never sucks, and I’ll bring in goodies for you guys from the bakery next door,” Aubrey said.

Carla nodded, and then was gone a few minutes later.

“That was really sweet of you, looking out for your sister like that,” Tammy said. “You have such a big heart, honey.”

Aubrey looked at her as if to say Yeah, right.

“No, it’s true,” Tammy insisted. “Carla may have gotten the brains, but you got all the heart.”

Aubrey laughed. Okay, that she’d heard before, but there was no use in being insulted. Not when her mom meant it as the highest of compliments. Her gaze snagged on a stack of bills in the mess on the table. “How are you doing, Mom? Really?”

“I’m great, honey.”

Aubrey tapped the stack of bills.

Tammy shrugged. “Oh, those,” she said. “Don’t you worry about those. They’ll get paid in good time.”

“I’ve got a little savings left,” Aubrey said. Emphasis on little. “Let me—”

“No, no. I’ve got it, though you’ve proven my point about heart.” Tammy stroked Aubrey’s hair. “You’re still using that stuff I gave you from the salon, right? It’s a miracle worker, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Mom—”

“But you’re not wearing any lipstick.”

“I’m wearing gloss. And I was working.”

“You should always have lipstick on beneath,” Tammy said. “Especially when you’re working. It gives you color and pizzazz.”

“Carla wasn’t wearing any,” Aubrey said, “and you didn’t bug her about it.”

“Yes, well, I’m a little afraid of Carla, to be honest.”

Aubrey laughed.

“Are you telling me she doesn’t scare you?” Tammy asked, smiling.

“She scares the crap out of me,” Aubrey admitted, and they both laughed. And then her mom went back to her favorite topic. “There’s really no reason to slack off on how you look, you know. Even if you’re working your tush off. How many times have I told you: If you look good, then life is good.”

Aubrey suppressed her sigh. “I look fine.”

Tammy looked pained at this. “You know how I feel about that word.”

Fine was reserved for bad hair days. “I’m not on a modeling job, Mom.”

“Well you should be,” Tammy said. “You’d make a fortune. Goodness, you were on such a roll with the beauty contests. You could’ve gone all the way, honey. You could have become a model.”

“I love what I’m doing now,” Aubrey said, shuddering at the memory of her modeling days.

“That’s wonderful,” Tammy told her. “But I’m just saying. You’re so pretty, baby. And your figure! You could have done catalogs. You could have been one of those angels for Victoria’s Secret.”

Aubrey laughed.

“I’m serious!”

Sad thing was, Tammy was serious. And she could have no idea, but Aubrey had given modeling a try. There’d been some lowbrow modeling, which had led to some lowerbrow modeling, which had led to some things that Aubrey tried very hard not to think about, though she had managed to pay for most of her college tuition that way. “Modeling isn’t for me,” she said firmly.

Tammy sighed. “If you say so.”

“I do.”

“I just want you to be taken care of,” Tammy said.

“I’m perfectly taken care of, Mom. By myself.”

Tammy smiled. “Oh, I know. You’re so strong, Aubrey. So independent. I know you’ve had to be. Sometimes I worry we did the wrong thing, your dad and I, splitting you two up like we did the furniture and silver.”

“You did what you had to,” Aubrey said.

“For me,” Tammy agreed. “I loved you both so much, but your father and I…we were on track to kill each other. I just figured the best thing was to split everything up, including you girls. And when it worked out so well, your sister with your daddy and you with me, it just got easy to not switch around so often.”

“Or at all,” Aubrey said mildly.

Tammy sighed. “Or at all.”

“Dad wasn’t much for following the rules.”

“Your daddy isn’t the only one at fault,” Tammy said softly. “I know it hurt you that he didn’t have much time for you, but he was so busy working at the hospital, and his work was so important. Your sister is so much better suited to that life. I always meant to get me another man so you’d have a father figure, but that never really worked out.”

“Mom, it’s fine. It’s all water under the bridge.”

“Well, now, that’s what I’ve always thought,” Tammy said. “You were so popular at school.”

More like notorious…

“You had boyfriends. And you dated in college. You always seemed to have a date.”

Aubrey loved her mom, she truly did, but Aubrey had gone to college in Seattle while working at various admin jobs. Not very far away in the scheme of things, but since Tammy rarely—if ever—left Lucky Harbor, Aubrey might as well have been on the moon. In all honesty, Tammy had no idea what Aubrey’s college life had been like.

“And then you got that fancy job at the town hall. I thought for sure you’d find yourself a fancy man to go with it and finally give me grandchildren.”

“Mom—”

“No, honey, let me finish. Every job you’ve ever had, you excelled at. Anything you’ve ever wanted, you got for yourself. You’re so capable. So strong. But you’re acting like…what do they say? An island.”

Every once in a while, a shockingly deep and wise kernel of wisdom came out of her mom’s mouth. “There’s nothing wrong with relying on myself,” she said in response. She couldn’t be disappointed in someone else that way. “I’m really okay, Mom. I promise.”

“Well, I have eyes in my head, don’t I? I can see that you’re good. But it’s okay to let someone in sometimes, you know. Being independent and strong and having to do everything yourself is one thing. But you shouldn’t have to be all on your own, always. You can let people in, let down your guard. Have more friends. Be less stressed…”

Aubrey smiled. “I’m not stressed. I love the store. And I’m not alone, either. I have you.”

“Aw, honey.” Tammy’s eyes went shiny, and she tilted her head back and blinked rapidly while waving a hand near her face. “Don’t you dare make me cry—I’m not wearing waterproof mascara today.”

Aubrey left her mom’s place feeling like a stuffed sausage—reminiscent of a time years ago when she’d felt that way every night. She took the long way back to the shop, by way of the bluffs—which actually wasn’t on her way home at all. It was at least ten miles out of her way.

The houses up here were expensive. Ritzy. Gorgeous.

Her dad lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in a huge, sprawling two-story house he’d had built to spec a few years ago, designed for his second wife.

Aubrey didn’t pull all the way down to the end of the street; she didn’t want to give herself away. Feeling like a ridiculous stalker, she eyed the lit-up house and felt her pulse kick. On the big front porch, with all the pretty hanging lights, sat a huge dollhouse. A big, perfect, gorgeous, fancy, clearly outrageously expensive dollhouse.

And it was forgotten on the porch, looking a little wet from the elements and dirty.

Her heart squeezed. Not hers, she told herself. Not anything like hers.

Hers had been much smaller, made of cheap plastic and cardboard. But she’d loved it. She’d loved it so much. Somehow it’d gotten lost in the divorce shuffle and subsequent move, and she’d mourned its loss more than the loss of her family’s togetherness. How silly was that?

But seeing this perfect dollhouse, neglected, unloved, brought it all back. That’s how she’d felt after the divorce, too. Neglected. Unloved.

Suddenly there was activity in the yard, which was lit by the house and porch lights, and she went still as stone, as though that would make her invisible.

But the three occupants on the frozen grass didn’t so much as turn her way or pay the slightest bit of attention to her.

It was her dad and Aubrey’s two half sisters, Brittney and Katrina, ages four and six. They were in matching dresses and wool coats. Her dad was in a suit and overcoat, looking neat and unruffled as ever, and they were all chasing around after a little puppy.

Aubrey felt sucker punched in the gut. She actually bent over with the pain, her hands on the steering wheel, her mouth open and gaping as though she were a hooked fish.

A dollhouse and a puppy. They had her dollhouse and her puppy. Okay, okay, not hers. But she felt as if part of her had just been stolen. Peals of laughter were coming from her half sisters, and then a sound she didn’t recognize at first.

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