Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(4)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(4)
Jill Shalvis

By lunchtime she was back to daydreaming about the “bean” part of Book & Bean. Right now she was using a back corner, which was really a storage closet, to make tea and coffee. She wanted to remove the door and wall and replace them with a curved, waist-high counter that would create a coffee and reading niche. She ate a PB&J while perusing the Internet for affordable bar stools for the spot.

But for now, most everything she wanted was out of her budget. She knew she could ask her father for help, but she’d have to choke on her own pride to call him, and she wasn’t good at that.

So instead she’d gone to the local hardware store and bought a book on renovation. She’d read it from beginning to end and thought she could handle some of the easy stuff on her own. She planned to tear out the closet herself, and she’d brought in the crowbar from the back of her car to do just that.

Clearly, it’d be far easier to suck it up and call her dad, but she rarely took the easy route. Her parents had divorced when she’d been ten and her sister, Carla, eight. Her father, William, retired from being an orthopedic surgeon, was a consultant now, but still he had a hard time talking to mere mortals. Not her mom. Tammy was an ex–beauty queen working as a manicurist at the local beauty shop, and she loved to talk. In the divorce, she’d gotten Aubrey, and William had taken the child prodigy, Carla.

An unorthodox custody arrangement, but it’d allowed the divorced couple to stay away from each other and avoid arguments. It’d also alienated Aubrey from her father, who’d recently remarried and had two new daughters now. Plus Carla had followed in his footsteps and was a first-year resident at the hospital, heading toward the same brilliant career path as her dad.

And then there was Aubrey. Living with Tammy had meant that the pressure of an Ivy League school and a medical career were off the table, but there’d been other pressures. Tammy had been the ultimate beauty queen and had turned into a beauty-queen mom, entering Aubrey in every beauty pageant and talent competition she could afford. There’d been many—at least until Aubrey had gotten old enough to put her foot down and refuse to put on one more tiara. She’d been thirteen when that had happened.

That’s when the pressure to be a model had begun, but after a few disastrous auditions, even Tammy had been forced to admit defeat. Not that she’d ever given up impressing upon Aubrey the importance of beauty, the right lipstick color, and posture. Aubrey had taken every dance class known to man and also gone to grace school. Yes, there really was a school for that. Her mother’d had to work two jobs to pay for it all, but she’d been happy to do it. Or so she’d claimed every single night when she’d come home, kick off her shoes, and sag in exhaustion onto the couch.

Sugar, could you make Mama a gin and tonic?

Aubrey had hated those classes. Hated. But her mom had given up so much for her, so she’d done it. She’d learned early how to primp, walk with a thick book on top of her head—even if she’d rather be reading it—and look ready for the camera in fifteen minutes. And in spite of herself, she’d even managed to get a BA degree in liberal studies from an online institution. She had the tuition loans to prove it.

The last time she’d talked to her dad, he’d questioned her as though she were a three-year-old. “A bookstore, Aubrey? In today’s day and age? Why don’t you find a better use of your money—say, like shredding it?”

But she loved books. Maybe she wasn’t exactly a traditional bookworm, but she could quote Robert Louis Stevenson poems, and she loved mysteries. She’d always been a big reader, back from when she’d been a child and had come here after school.

Her aunt would serve her tea and cookies and let Aubrey curl up in a corner and just be free—free of wondering why she wasn’t good enough to be wanted by her own father, free of her mom’s pressure to look perfect and be something she wasn’t. Free of trying to fit in at school and failing. Back then, she’d huddled here in this warm place and inhaled books to escape. She’d started with the classics but had quickly found thrillers and horror, which she still loved to this day.

But back then, being here, being left in peace and quiet…it’d been her idea of heaven.

And maybe, just a little bit, she’d reopened the store hoping for that same safe place to curl up and lick her wounds.

Not exactly the smartest reason to open a bookstore. She knew better than anyone that memories and sentiment didn’t a business plan make, and that a business certainly shouldn’t be run from the heart.

But Aubrey had rarely, if ever, operated from her heart, and it hadn’t gotten her anywhere. Time to try something new. The bookstore was new thing number one.

Her list was number two.

The door to the store opened, and Aubrey smiled a greeting at the woman who entered. “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for some fiction. Historical fiction.”

In one short week, Aubrey had learned that “historical fiction” didn’t usually mean the classics. Instead, it almost always meant the romance section. She pointed the way and, a few minutes later, sold a copy of the Fifty Shades trilogy.

During a late-afternoon lull in business, Aubrey went to work on demolishing the closet wall.

Halfway through, the bell above her door rang. Naturally. Dusting herself off, she moved into view just as another woman came in.

“I’m looking for something to take with me on vacay next week,” she told Aubrey.

“What do you like to read?”

“Oh,” she said, “a little of everything…”

Aubrey knew this also meant the romance section, so she again pointed the way.

The woman leaned in close and whispered, “Do you carry that Fifty Shades book? And maybe…book covers?”

Aubrey was back to attempting to demolish the back wall when the bell rang again.

A woman entered with her three little kids and one of those tiny dogs that looked like a drowned rat in her shoulder bag. The thing was yapping as though his life were in mortal danger.

From his perch in a nook beneath the stairs, Gus, three times the size of the dog, growled low in his throat.

The dog immediately shut up. Probably terrified that the cat was going to sit on him. Aubrey gave Gus a warning look. They’d had this talk. There would be no bitch-slapping the customers, even the four-legged ones.

Gus stalked off all stiff-legged, with his tail swishing in the air. Aubrey reached out and stroked the little dog’s head, and he pushed closer for more.

For just about all her life, she’d wanted a dog, preferably a puppy—one of the big breeds. She’d begged and pleaded her case, but her dad—pre-divorce—had always been firm.

Puppies make noise.

Puppies are messy.

No puppies, he’d always said. Ever. For a while there, Aubrey had actually believed she could get him to change his mind. She’d even rescued a dog once and brought it home, convinced her father wouldn’t be able to turn away a stray.

The puppy had been gone the next day. “The owners came and got him,” her dad had said. “He’s living on a farm in the country.”

After her mom had divorced her dad, Aubrey had gone to work on her mom. Tammy loved dogs and was on board. But they’d lived in a pet-unfriendly building, and that had never changed.

Aubrey had never gotten her puppy.

And now she had a fat, old-man cat named Gus.

Her customer, looking harassed and exhausted, sent the kids to the children’s section and smiled wanly at Aubrey. “What would you recommend for me to read?”

“What do you like?”

“Anything.”

Aubrey nodded. She’d found that this was rarely actually true: In fact, it usually meant that the person wasn’t a reader at all. “What’s the last book you read and enjoyed?” she asked, looking for a hint just in case she was wrong.

“Uh…I can’t remember.”

Nope, not wrong. Aubrey directed her to the latest Nicholas Sparks. After the sale, she went back to the demolition.

The other day, she’d put a bucket of books just outside the store. They were gently used cookbooks, encyclopedias, and miscellaneous nonfiction. The cookbooks had vanished almost immediately. The other books still sat out there, and despite the fact that she had a big FREE sign posted, every day at least one person would stick his or her head in the door and yell, “Are these really free?”

Today it was a twentysomething guy wearing a ski cap, down jacket, bright yellow biker shorts, and round purple sunglasses, à la John Lennon. Mikey had been a couple of years behind Aubrey in school, and by the looks of things, was still a complete stoner.

“Dude,” he said. “Are these books really free?”

“Yep,” she told him.

His brow went up, and he surveyed the store. “So…is everything free?”

“Nope.”

“’Kay. Thanks, dude.”

At the end of the day, Aubrey tallied the sales, got the day’s new arrivals stocked and shelved, and locked up. Seeing the lights still on in the flower shop, she moved down two doors and knocked on the back door.

Ali opened up, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, an apron, and lots of flower petals. She smiled and pulled Aubrey in. “You’re just in time. Leah brought over her leftovers, and I’m about to inhale them all by myself.”

Leah operated the bakery between Aubrey’s bookstore and Ali’s flower shop. She was sitting on the counter near Ali’s work space, licking chocolate off her fingers. “Better hurry,” she said. “Ali wasn’t kidding. There’s two kinds of people here, the quick and the hungry.”

Not needing to be told twice, Aubrey moved toward the bakery box and helped herself to a mini chocolate croissant. No one made them like Leah. “Oh, my God,” she said on a moan after her first bite. “So good. I’ve been tearing up that back wall and am starving.”

“I hate you,” Leah said.

Aubrey felt herself go still and, out of a lifetime habit of hiding her feelings, schooled her features into a cool expression that she knew was often mistaken for bitchiness. “What?”

“You just worked for hours without getting a speck of dirt on you?”

Aubrey looked down at herself. “Well—”

“And your hair is perfect,” Ali broke in, taking in Aubrey’s appearance. “I hate that about you.”

Leah nodded.

Both of them had businesses running in the black, hot-as-hell boyfriends who loved them madly, and their lives on track. And they were jealous. Of her.

It was just about the nicest compliment they could pay her, and she went back to breathing. She should have known they weren’t being mean—neither of them had a mean bone in her body. “Lifelong habit,” she said. “Being perfect.”

Leah laughed and offered another goody from the bakery box. “You could at least get chunky. Or a little dirty, just once in a while.”

“I don’t usually get dirty.”

Ali shook her head. “Back to hating you, Wellington.”

Aubrey smiled now and reached for the last mini croissant at the same time as Ali. “I’ll totally fight you for it,” she said.

Ali grinned. “I could kick your skinny ass, but since the croissant will just go straight to my hips, it’s all yours.”

Aubrey took a bite of the croissant, licked her fingers clean, and then pulled her laptop out of her bag. “I finally got Internet, and I’m trying to decide what to name my Wi-Fi. I’m torn between FBI Security Van and Guy in Your Tree. Any opinions?”

Leah snorted chocolate milk out her nose.

“How about Pay for Your Own Effing Wi-Fi, You Cheap Ass?” Ali asked.

They laughed for a few minutes, cleaned up their croissant crumbs, and then Leah dropped the bomb. “Heard about Ben,” she said.

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