Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(15)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(15)
Jill Shalvis

Her father’s laugh.

By the time Aubrey got home, she was feeling the need to put on her ugliest sweats, swipe off all her makeup, and fill a Big Gulp cup with wine.

Make that vodka. She let herself in through the shop and inhaled the scent of freshly cut wood.

Then she heard Ben’s clipped voice.

“Fuck that,” he said. “The guy’s working less than two hours away? At a decent-paying job? And yet he’s not providing for his kids, much less even seeing them? They’re rotting away in that foster home, Luke.”

Aubrey stepped farther inside and found Ben at the far window, facing outside. He held the phone up to his ear with one hand while the other was shoved into his hair, holding it off his forehead. His feet were planted wide, in an aggressive stance that was dialed to pissed-off badass.

“No, I’m not backing off on this,” he said, and then paused, clearly listening. Whatever he heard made him relax and let out a breath. “Say that to my face and we’ll see how pretty your fiancée thinks you still are afterward,” he growled, though now he sounded a whole lot less pissed off.

“At least contact the as**ole,” he said. “Those girls deserve that—yeah, yeah, I look at them and see me. Jesus. Neither of us needs a shrink to know that. But they’re five, Luke. I was twelve, and already knew how it was. These girls, they’re…shit. They have no idea. They need him. Tell the as**ole that. They need him.” He disconnected and shoved his phone in his pocket.

And didn’t move. Just stared out into the night…

Aubrey didn’t know what to do—an unusual feeling for her. She was intruding on a private moment, and yet this was her place. She dropped her purse to give him warning of her presence, and when he still didn’t move—not a single, tense, muscled inch—she realized he’d known she was there all along.

“If you’re looking for an argument,” came his disembodied voice in the low light, “forget it. I’m not in the mood.”

But that was a lie. He was absolutely in the mood for a fight, and that suited her just fine.

Because she was in the mood, too.

Chapter 11

What’s the problem?” Aubrey asked Ben.

“I said I wasn’t in the mood for you, Aubrey.”

Given the conversation she’d just overheard, she decided to cut him a break on the serious ’tude. “I can see that. Maybe you should cut out for the night.”

At that, he turned to her, his gaze narrowing as he took in her face. “What’s the matter?”

Unfortunately, she was still embarrassingly close to tears, so she didn’t dare go there. “Just go home, Ben.”

And to make sure he—or she—didn’t do anything stupid, she left first. She walked to the small back hallway, which opened to an even smaller office space and a very narrow set of stairs that led to her loft.

She took the stairs at a quick pace, closed the door behind her, and stood in the middle of the room. The only light came from the moonlight slanting in through the slats of the window blinds. She didn’t need to hit the light switch to see the four hundred square feet, which consisted of a love seat, a square table and two chairs, a kitchenette, and her one indulgence…a soft, plush bed piled with softer, plusher pillows.

She resisted, barely, the urge to throw herself facedown on it and assume her favorite thinking position.

Meow.

Oh, good. A purpose. Without so much as shedding her coat, she strode over to Gus, who was sitting by his empty bowl, staring at her accusatorily. She poured him a scoop and petted him while he ate.

“You ran away before you decided on colors.”

With a gasp, she whirled. Ben was standing right there. Of course he was. He was in faded, loose jeans and a T-shirt, snug across his chest and arms. He looked a little dusty, a little sweaty, and his eyes glittered with the same temper she felt coursing through her.

“You need a damn bell around your neck,” she said.

He didn’t smile. He simply held out two color samples. “Pick one.”

“There were more than two choices.”

“There’s only two good choices.”

She’d picked out five decent colors, but decided not to push him. “What was your phone call about?”

“What call?”

“The one that pissed you off when I walked in.”

He gave her an assessing look. “Why do you look like you’ve been crying?”

“What was your phone call about?”

“You first,” he said.

She crossed her arms.

He gave her a grim smile. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

She sighed. “I don’t like to talk about it.”

He shook his head. “Listen, maybe I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe I can only guess it has something to do with your list. But have you considered that I might be worried about you?”

“Worried? Whatever for?”

“Maybe you’re involved in something bad or dangerous.”

She looked at him for a beat. His eyes were solemn, his mouth grim. He was serious. Dead serious.

He was worried about her. That had never crossed her mind. “I had dinner with my mother,” she said. See? She could share. She wasn’t always an island. “I ate enough comfort food for three people for a week. Then, for shits and giggles, and because I didn’t feel bad enough about myself, I drove by my father’s house and found him playing in the yard—in a suit, no less—with his new family and a puppy.” She closed her eyes and admitted the most painful part. “And the girls had a dollhouse on the porch.”

“A dollhouse.”

“Yeah, like…I don’t know.” She gestured with a hand to waist height. “About this big. I had one when I was little, but when my parents divorced, somehow it got in with my sister’s stuff. When I asked my dad for it back, he said it was Carla’s.” She laughed a little at herself. “It’s dumb how much I loved and missed that thing.”

“Why didn’t you ask your sister for it back?”

“Because what if she loved it as much as I did?” Aubrey shook her head. “My mom felt really bad, but she couldn’t afford to buy me one.” She hated that memory and wished she’d never said anything. “It’s silly, letting that get to me. It wasn’t mine. It was a new one, a brand-new one, all pretty wood and fancy.”

And unused…

Shaking it off, she said, “Your turn.”

He just looked at her for a long beat. “You didn’t say why you’ve been crying.”

“Does it really matter?”

“You wouldn’t think so,” he said softly, coming close. He stroked a strand of hair from her temple, tucking it behind her ear. “And I’m not all that thrilled to tell you, but it does. Matter.”

She closed her eyes. Not to savor his touch. Because it wasn’t his touch she was reacting to, she assured herself. Anyone’s touch would have reached her tonight.

Okay, that was a big fat lie.

“When I was growing up,” she said softly, eyes still closed, “there was no playing in the yard with my dad, and he certainly never would have done so in his suit. He might’ve gotten dirty. And a puppy…well, I was more likely to take a spaceship to the moon than be allowed to have a pet.”

“Ah,” he said quietly. “Daddy issues.”

Her eyes flew open, but there was no mockery in his face. Instead, he let out a long, slow breath. “I nearly hit two kids who ran out in the street in front of my truck last week,” he said.

“Oh, my God.”

“Yeah. Twin five-year-old girls. They were walking to school.”

“Alone?” she asked.

“Well, not after I found them.”

She felt her heart melt over this big tough guy facing an emotion as sweet as protectiveness for two little girls he didn’t even know.

“They’re foster kids,” he said. “And their foster mother is supposedly one of the better ones, but…” He shoved his hand through his hair and shook his head. “I saw them again later when I worked Craft Corner—”

“Wait,” she said, stopping him. “You’re working Craft Corner?”

He scowled. “Yeah. So?”

She smiled. “You’re working Craft Corner,” she said again, and laughed. “I’d like to see that. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Grumpy-Ass working with little kids.”

“Now, see, how is it that everyone but me knew it was little kids? Jack conned me into it,” he admitted.

She laughed again.

“Not funny.”

“You being conned into anything is pretty funny.”

“You think I’m impenetrable?”

“I think you’re a fortress.”

He blew out a breath, but didn’t deny it. “Pink told me their mom is dead and their dad’s in jail for the big one.”

She was beginning to see why this had gotten to him. “Murder?” she asked.

“That’s what I assumed. I had Luke run them.”

“And?”

“And mom is dead, but their dad’s working at an auto shop in Seattle.”

She gaped at him. “That f**ker.”

“My thought exactly.”

He looked extremely pissed off again. Unusual for him, but she understood now and ached for the girls and him. “I didn’t have the greatest childhood,” she said quietly. “But I know it could’ve been so much worse.” She met his gaze, knowing that his childhood had been worse, maybe as bad as the girls’. After all, his dad was rumored to be in jail, too, and his mom had just dropped him off one day at his cousin Jack’s and had never come back for him. She couldn’t even imagine the ways that haunted him. “I know you had it rough,” she said softly.

He met her gaze and then stepped into her a little bit more, so they were sharing air. “I don’t feel like talking anymore.”

His voice and proximity gave her a whole-body shiver. “Sure. What do you feel like doing?” she asked.

He just looked at her, eyes blazing.

“No,” she said, lifting a hand, not sure if she was warding him off or really just trying to keep herself in check. “I meant what I said earlier.”

He caught her hand in his. “When you said you didn’t need a man, but if you did it wouldn’t be me?” he asked. “When you said you wanted sweet? And…beta?” This last was said with more than a hint of mockery.

“That’s right,” she said, standing by her words, however stupid they sounded now. “Beta.”

They were toe-to-toe now, and their bodies brushed. His was tough as nails. Hard. Warm.

Strong.

Male.

He smelled like freshly cut wood and like whatever soap he’d used. Like overheated man.

And everything within her tightened in desperate need, just to be…taken. To let go. To forget, just for an hour…

“You’d better say it again,” he said very quietly.

“What?”

“That you don’t want me.” He gave a slow shake of his head. “Because you’re looking at me like I’m dinner and you haven’t eaten all day.”

She let out a shaky breath, and her br**sts brushed his chest.

His eyes darkened, but he didn’t move. “Aubrey. Say it.”

“I said I don’t need a man,” she said softly. “Need and want are two different things. I don’t need a man.” She blew out a breath. “But I want one. I want you. Damn it.” She was so on edge that she was already trembling, dying for his first touch. For the taste of him.

For the oblivion she knew he’d bring.

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