Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(3)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(3)
Jill Shalvis

So he’d come home, with no idea what was next.

Polishing off his second bear claw, Ben sucked the sugar off his thumb. Turning to head toward his truck, he stopped short at the realization that someone stood watching him.

Aubrey. When he caught her eye, she said, “It is you,” and dropped the things in her hands.

Her tone of voice had suggested she’d just stepped in dog shit with her fancy high-heeled boots. This didn’t surprise Ben. She’d been two years behind him in school. In those years, he’d either been on the basketball court, trouble-seeking with Jack, or spending time with Hannah.

Aubrey had been the Hot Girl. He didn’t know why, but there’d always been an instinctive mistrust between them, as if they both recognized that they were two kindred souls—troubled souls. He remembered that when she’d first entered high school she’d had more than a few run-ins with the mean girls. Then she became a mean girl. Crouching down, he reached to help her with the stuff she’d dropped.

“I’ve got it,” she snapped, squatting next to him, pushing his hands away. “I’m fine.”

She certainly looked the part of fine. Her long blonde hair was loose and shiny, held back from her face by a pale blue knit cap. A matching scarf was wrapped around her neck and tucked into a white wool coat that covered her from her chin to a few inches above her knees. Leather boots met those knees, leaving some bare skin below the hem of her coat. She looked sophisticated and hot as hell. Certainly perfectly put together. In fact, she was always purposefully put together.

It made him want to ruffle her up. A crazy thought.

Even crazier, she smelled so good he wanted to just sniff her for about five days. Also, he wanted to know what she was wearing beneath that coat. “Where did you come from?” he asked, as no car had pulled up.

“The building.”

There were three storefronts in the building, one of the oldest in town—the flower shop, the bakery, and the bookstore. She hadn’t come out of the flower shop or the bakery, he knew that much. He glanced at the bookstore. “It’s not open yet.”

The windows were no longer boarded up, he realized, and through the glass panes, he could see that the old bookstore was now a new bookstore, as shiny and clean and pretty as the woman before him.

She scooped up a pen and a lipstick, and he grabbed a fallen notebook.

“That’s mine,” she said.

“I wasn’t going to take it, Aubrey,” he said, and then, with no idea of what came over him—maybe her flashing eyes—he held the notebook just out of her reach as he looked at it. It was small and, like Aubrey herself, neat and tidy. Just a regular pad of paper, spiral bound, opened to a page she’d written on.

“Give it to me, Ben.”

The notebook was nothing special, but clearly his holding on to it was making her uncomfortable. If it had been any other woman on the planet, he’d have handed it right over. But he didn’t.

She narrowed her sharp, hazel eyes at him as she waggled impatient fingers. “It’s just my grocery list.”

Grocery list his ass. It was a list of names, and there was a Ben on it. “Is this me?”

“Wow,” she said. “Egocentric much?”

“It says Ben.”

“No, it doesn’t.” She tried to snatch at it again, but if there was one thing that living in Third World countries did for you it was give you quick instincts.

“Look here,” he said, pointing to item number four. “Ben.”

“It’s Ben and Jerry’s. Ice cream,” she informed him. “Shorthand. Give me the damn notepad.”

Hmm. He might’ve been inclined to believe her, except there was that slight panic in her gaze, the one she hadn’t been able to hide quickly enough. Straightening, he skimmed the names and realized he recognized a few. “Cathy Wheaton,” he said, frowning. “Why do I remember that name?”

“You don’t.” Straightening as well, Aubrey tried to crawl up his body to reach the pad.

Ben wasn’t too ashamed to admit he liked that. A lot.

His jacket was open. Frustrated, she fisted a hand in the material of his shirt, right over his heart. “Damn it, Ben—”

“Wait…I remember,” he said, wincing, since she now had a few chest hairs in a tight grip. “Cathy…she was the grade in between us, right? A little skinny? Okay, a lot skinny. Nice girl.”

Keeping her hold of him, Aubrey went still as stone, and Ben watched her carefully. Yeah, he was right about Cathy, and he went back to the list. “Mrs. Cappernackle.” He looked at her again. “The librarian?”

With her free hand, Aubrey pulled her phone from her pocket and looked pointedly at the time.

He ignored this, because once his curiosity was piqued, he was like a dog with a bone, and his curiosity was definitely tweaked. “Sue Henderson.” He paused, thinking. Remembering. “Wasn’t she your neighbor when you were growing up? That bitchy DA who had you arrested when you put food coloring in her pool and turned it green?”

Aubrey’s eyes were fascinating. Hazel fire. “Give. Me. My. List.”

Oh, hell, no, this was just getting good—“Ouch!”

She’d twisted the grip she’d had on his shirt, yanking out the few hairs she’d fisted. She also got a better grip on the pad so that now they were tug-o-warring over it. “You could just tell me what this is about,” he said.

“It’s none of your business,” she said, fighting him. “That’s what it is.”

“But it is my business when you’re carrying around a list with my name on it.”

“You know what? Google the name Ben and see how many there are. Now let go!” she demanded, just as the door to the flower shop opened and a uniformed officer walked out.

Luke, with his impeccable timing, as always. Eyeing the tussle before him, he raised a brow. “What’s up, kids?”

“Officer,” Aubrey said, voice cool, eyes cooler, as she jerked the pad from Ben’s fingers. She shoved it into her purse, zipped it, and tugged it higher up on her shoulder. “This man”—she broke off to stab a finger in Ben’s direction, as if there were any question about which man she meant—“is bothering me.”

“Lucky Harbor’s beloved troublemaker Ben McDaniel is bothering you?” Luke grinned. “I could arrest him for you.”

“Could you maybe just shoot him?” she asked hopefully.

Luke’s grin widened as he gave Ben a speculative glance. “Sure, but there’d be a bunch of paperwork, and I hate paperwork. How about I just beat him up a little bit?”

Aubrey looked as though this idea worked for her.

Ben gave her a long, steely look, and she rolled her eyes. “Oh, never mind.” Still hugging her purse to herself, she turned, unlocked the bookstore, and vanished back inside it, slamming the door behind her.

“I thought the store was closed,” Ben said, absently rubbing his chest where he was missing those few hairs.

“It was,” Luke said. “Mr. Lyons is her uncle, and she rented the place from him and reopened the store. She’s gone with a soft opening for now because she needs the income from the store, but she’s wants to have a grand opening when the renovations are finished.”

“How do you know so much?” Ben asked.

“Because I know all. And because Mr. Lyons called. He needs a carpenter, so I gave him your number.”

“Mine?” Ben asked.

Luke shrugged. “Everyone in town knows you’re good with a hammer.”

“Yeah.” Ben’s phone rang, and he looked at the unfamiliar local number.

Luke looked, too. “That’s him,” he said. “Mr. Lyons.”

Ben resisted the urge to do his usual and hit IGNORE. “McDaniel,” he answered.

“Don’t say no yet,” Mr. Lyons immediately said. “I need a carpenter.”

Ben slid Luke a look. “So I’ve heard. I’m not a carpenter. I’m an engineer.”

“You know damn well before you got all dark and mysterious and broody that you were also handy with a set of tools,” Mr. Lyons said.

Luke, who could hear Mr. Lyons’s booming voice, grinned like the Cheshire cat and nodded, pointing at Ben.

Ben flipped him off. An older woman driving down the street rolled down her window and tsked at him. He waved at her in apology but she just waggled her bony finger at him. “Why not hire Jax?” he asked Lyons. “He’s the best carpenter in town.”

“He’s got a line of customers from Lucky Harbor to Seattle, and I don’t want to wait. My niece Aubrey needs help renovating the bookstore, and she needs someone good. That’s you. Now I know damn well she can’t afford you, so I’m paying, in my sweet Gwen’s memory.”

Well, shit.

“Oh, and don’t give Aubrey the bill,” Mr. Lyons said. “I don’t want her worrying about it. She’s going through some stuff, and I want to do this for her. For both my girls.”

Ah, hell, Ben thought, feeling himself soften. He was such a sucker. “You should be asking me for a bid,” he said.

“I trust you.”

Jesus. “You shouldn’t,” Ben said firmly. “You—”

“Just start the damn work, McDaniel. Shelves. Paint. Hang stuff. Move a few walls, whatever she wants. She said something about how the place is too closed-in and dark, so figure it out. I’m going on a month-long cruise with my new girl, Elsie, and I need to know before I leave. You in or not?”

Ben wanted to say no. Hell, no. Being closed up in that bookstore with the beautiful, bitchy Aubrey for days and days? The reality of that didn’t escape him. If he did this, surely one of them would kill the other before the work was done.

“Ben?”

“Yeah,” he said, facing the inevitable. “I’ll do it.”

Whether he’d survive it was another thing entirely.

Chapter 3

Two days later, Audrey opened her bookstore bright and early, much to Gus’s annoyance. He liked to sleep in. Ignoring the curmudgeonly cat’s dirty look, she took a moment to just look around. Despite her efforts, the store was still too closed-in and stuffy. She wanted to open it up by moving shelves back against the walls and adding a coffee and tea station. Definitely an Internet café and a comfortable seating area for a variety of reading and social clubs that she’d host here.

She wanted it more spacious. Sunny. Bright.

And God, please, successful…

Half an hour later, she welcomed her first customers of the day—a van of senior citizens. She’d coaxed the senior center into driving them over here two mornings a week for their book club.

“Hey, chickie,” Mr. Elroy said, leaning heavily on his cane. He was decades past a midlife crisis, but he still managed to be quite the lothario at the senior center. “Which aisle has the sex stuff?”

He meant the how-to manuals. Anticipating him, she’d hidden any and all books on sex on the bottom shelf of the self-help aisle. No one ever went to that aisle. “Sorry,” she said. “Don’t have any.”

“Really? Didn’t anyone ever tell you that sex sells?”

Mr. Wykowski had come in behind Mr. Elroy. “You need a manual?” he asked Mr. Elroy. “All I need is a little blue pill.”

And so went the morning.

When the seniors were gone, a bus full of kids showed up, as Aubrey had also made a deal with the elementary school.

The kids managed to find the sex manuals. Luckily, Aubrey was quick on the uptake and confiscated the explicit reading material before a single book spine got cracked. By the time they left, she was exhausted. In the past week, she’d learned several vital facts. One: Seniors and kids were a lot alike. And two: She wasn’t making enough money for this.

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