Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(2)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(2)
Jill Shalvis

An AA meeting, Aubrey realized, swallowing what would have been a half-hysterical laugh as Pastor Mike gestured to a few empty chairs. He sat next to her and handed her a pamphlet. One glance told her it was a list of the twelve steps to recovery.

Step one: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

Oh, boy. Aubrey could probably get on board with the unmanageable life part, but really, what was she doing here? What would she possibly say to these people if she were asked to speak? Hi, my name is Aubrey, and I’m a bitchaholic?

Kathy began to speak about step eight, about how she was making a list of the people she’d wronged and making amends. After she finished and sat down, a man stood. Ryan, he told them. Ryan talked about something called his fearless moral inventory and how he, too, was working on step eight, making amends to the people he’d wronged.

Aubrey bit her lip. She’d never taken a fearless moral inventory, but it sounded daunting. Nor did she have a list of people she’d wronged, but if she did, it would be long. Horrifyingly long.

Ryan continued to talk with heartbreaking earnestness, and somehow, in spite of herself, she couldn’t help but soak it all in, unbearably moved by his bravery. He’d come back from a military stint overseas angry and withdrawn and had driven his family away. He’d lost his job, his home, everything, until he’d found himself homeless on the street, begging strangers for money to buy booze. He spoke of how much he regretted hurting the people in his life and how he hadn’t been able to obtain forgiveness from them. At least not yet, but he was still trying.

Aubrey found herself truly listening and marveling at his courage. She didn’t even realize that she was so transfixed until Mike gently patted her hand. “You see?” he asked quietly. “It’s never too late.”

Aubrey stared at him, wondering if that could really be true. “You don’t know for sure.”

“I do.” He said this with such conviction that she had no choice but to believe.

She thought about that as the meeting ended and she walked home to her loft above the Book & Bean. Her aunt Gwen had run the bookstore until her death last year, and her uncle—the building’s owner—hadn’t been able to bring himself to lease the space to anyone else. He was dating someone new these days, but the bookstore was still very sentimental to him.

Then, last month, Aubrey had left her job at the town hall after what she referred to as the Ted Incident. Restless, needing more from her life but not sure what, she’d signed a lease, both as an homage to her aunt Gwen—the bookstore had been a refuge for Aubrey as a troubled teen—and because she was determined to bring the bookstore back to its former glory.

The Book & Bean had been unofficially open for a week now, so it could start bringing in some desperately needed income, and in a month—after some renovations—she had plans to celebrate with a big grand opening party.

She was working on that.

And maybe she should be working on other things as well, such as her karma. That was heavy on her mind now after the AA meeting. Hearing people’s problems and how they were trying to change things up for themselves had been extremely intimate and extremely uncomfortable—and yet somehow inspiring at the same time. She wasn’t an alcoholic, but she had to admit the whole step eight thing had really intrigued her.

Could it be as easy as that, as making a list? Checking it twice? Trying to find out if she could pass on naughty and move on to nice?

Skipping the front entrance of the bookstore, she walked around to the back of the building and let herself in without turning on any lights. Inside, she headed up the narrow stairs to the loft.

Meow.

She flipped on a light and eyed Gus, an old, overweight gray cat who thought he was king of the mountain. She’d inherited him with the store. She knew nothing about cats, and in return, he acted like he knew nothing about humans, so they were even. “Hey,” she said. “How was your evening?”

Gus turned around and presented her with his back.

“You know,” she said, “I understand that some cats actually greet their people when they come home.”

They’d had this talk before, and as always, this prompted no response from Gus.

“A dog would greet me,” she said. “Maybe I should get a dog.”

At this threat, Gus yawned.

Aubrey dropped her purse, hung up her coat, and took her first real breath in the past few hours. The place was tiny but cozy, and it was all hers ever since she’d filled it with an assortment of vintage—a.k.a. garage-sale and thrift-store—furniture. Her favorite part was the dartboard she’d gotten for a buck. It was a great stress reliever, especially when she pictured Ted’s smug face as the bull’s-eye.

Her kitchen table was covered with the drawings she’d made—her ideas for changing the layout of the store below.

Now that the other two storefronts in this building held flourishing businesses—a flower shop and a bakery—she had high hopes her bookstore would do well, too. A pipe dream. She was working against the odds, she knew. After all, this was the age of Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. Most people thought she was crazy for facing off against the digital world. But Aubrey had made a lifelong habit of facing off against the world, so why stop now, right? Besides, there was still a place for print books; she believed that with all her heart. And it was a statement of fact that sales in indie bookstores were up about 8 percent this year.

She was going to take heart in that. She pulled the pamphlet from her pocket and thought about her karma, which undoubtedly could use a little boost. Grabbing the small notepad she used for list making, she began a new list—of people she’d wronged.

Meow, Gus said, bumping her arm.

Reaching down, she stroked his soft fur, which he tolerated even though they both knew he just wanted dinner. She poured him a small cup of the low-calorie dry food the vet had insisted she switch to.

Gus stared at her balefully.

“I promised the doc,” she said.

Huffing out a sigh, Gus heaved himself off to bed.

Aubrey went back to her list. It took her a while, and when she was done, she eyeballed the length of it. Surely it would’ve been a lot easier to simply stand tall and face Ben tonight rather than run into Pastor Mike.

But though Aubrey had a lot of faults, being lazy wasn’t one of them. She was doing this, making amends, come hell or high water.

And there was a good chance she’d face both before this was over.

Kicking off her boots, she leaned back, staring at the list. Specifically at one item in particular.

Ben.

And he wasn’t on it because she’d tossed her drink in his face.

Chapter 2

It was early when Ben walked out of Lucky Harbor’s deliciously warm bakery and into the icy morning. His breath crystallized in front of his face as he took a bite from his fresh bear claw.

As close to heaven as he was going to get.

He glanced back inside the big picture window to wave his thanks, but pastry chef Leah currently had her arms and lips entangled with her fiancé, who happened to be Ben’s cousin Jack.

Jack looked to be pretty busy himself, with his tongue down Leah’s throat. Turning his back to the window, Ben watched the morning instead as he ate his bear claw. Tendrils of fog had glided in off the water, lingering in long, silvery fingers.

After a few minutes, the bakery door opened behind him, and then Jack was standing at his side. He was in uniform for work, which meant that every woman driving down the street slowed down to get a look at him in his firefighter gear.

“Why are you dressed?” Ben asked.

“Because when I’m naked, I actually cause riots,” Jack said, sliding on his sunglasses.

“You know what I mean.” Not too long ago, Jack had made the change from firefighting to being the fire marshal, and he no longer suited up to respond to calls.

Jack shrugged. “I’m working a shift today for Ian, who’s down with the flu.” He pulled his own breakfast choice out of a bakery bag.

Ben took one look at the cheese croissant and shook his head. “Pussy breakfast.”

Unperturbed by this, Jack stuffed it into his mouth. “You’re just still grumpy because a pretty lady tossed her drink in your face last night.”

Ben didn’t react to this, because Jack was watching him carefully, and Jack, unlike anyone else, could read Ben like a book. But yeah, Aubrey had nailed him—and not in a good way.

Not that he wanted the sexy-as-hell blonde to nail him. Well, okay, maybe she’d occasionally done just that in a few of his late-night fantasies, but that was it. Fantasy. Because the reality was that he and Aubrey wouldn’t mix well. He liked quiet, serene, calm. Aubrey didn’t know the meaning of any of those things.

“It was an accident,” he finally said.

“Oh, I know that,” Jack said. “Just checking to see if you know it, too.”

Ben looked at his watch. “Luke’s late.”

The three of them had been tight since age twelve, when Ben’s mom, unable to take care of him any longer, had dropped him on her sister’s doorstep—Jack’s mom, Dee Harper. Luke had lived next door. The three boys had spent their teen years terrorizing the neighborhood and giving Ben’s aunt Dee lots of gray hair.

“Luke’s not late,” Jack said. “He’s here. He’s in the flower shop trying to get into Ali’s back pocket. Guess that’s what you do when you’re engaged.”

Ben didn’t say anything to this, and Jack blew out a breath. “Sorry.”

Ben shook his head. “Been a long time.”

“Yeah,” Jack said. “But some things never stop hurting.”

Maybe not. But it really had been forever ago that Ben had been engaged and then married. He and Hannah had had a solid marriage.

Until she’d died five years ago.

Ben went after his second bear claw while Jack looked down at his vibrating phone. “Shit. I’ve gotta go. Tell Luke he’s an as**ole.”

“Will do.” When he was alone again, Ben washed down his breakfast with icy cold chocolate milk. You drink too much caffeine, Leah had told him, all bossy and sweet at the same time, handing him the milk instead of a mug of coffee.

He planned to stop at the convenience store next for that coffee, and she’d never know. It was early, not close to seven yet, but Ben liked early. Fewer people. Quiet air. Or maybe that was just Lucky Harbor. Either way, he found he was nearly content—coffee would probably tip the scales all the way to content. The feeling felt…odd, like he was wearing an ill-fitting coat, so, as he did with all uncomfortable emotions, he shoved it aside.

A few snowflakes floated lazily out of the low, dense clouds. One block over, the Pacific Ocean carved into the harbor, which was surrounded by rugged, three-story-high bluffs teeming with the untouched forestland that was the Olympic Mountains. Around him, the oak-lined streets were strung with white lights, shining brightly through the morning gloom. Peaceful. Still.

A month ago, he’d been in the Middle East, elbows deep in a project to rebuild a water system for a war-torn land. Before that, he’d been in Haiti. And before that, Africa. And before that…Indonesia? Hell, it might have been another planet for all he remembered. It was all rolling together.

He went to places after disaster hit, whether man-made or natural, and he saw people at their very worst moments. Sometimes he changed lives, sometimes he improved them, but at some point over the past five years he’d become numb to it. So much so that when he’d gone to check out a new job site at the wrong place, only to have the right place blown to bits by a suicide bomber just before he got there, he’d finally realized something.

He didn’t always have to be the guy on the front line. He could design and plan water systems for devastated countries from anywhere. Hell, he could become a consultant instead. Five years of wading knee deep in crap, both figuratively and literally, was enough for anyone. He didn’t want to be in the right hellhole next time.

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