Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(5)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(5)
Jill Shalvis

Aubrey nearly dropped her laptop. “Um…what?” Her heart was thundering, but she was telling herself that they couldn’t know. No one knew. Not even Ben himself.

Leah was looking at her oddly. “The whole tossing-your-drink-in-his-face thing at the Love Shack the other night,” she said.

Oh, that. Aubrey relaxed. “It was an accident. I was aiming for Ted.” She took a side look at Ali because one of the most weaselly, shitty things Ted had done was sleep with both Ali and Aubrey while letting them each think that he was single. And they hadn’t been the only women he’d done that to, either.

Aubrey had recovered quickly because…well, she knew men were jerks.

Ali had been thrown for an emotional loop, and, clearly remembering just that, she smiled grimly. “I hope you ordered a second drink and corrected your error.”

Aubrey shook her head. “I got…discombobulated.”

“You?” Ali asked. “Pissed off, yes. But discombobulated? That’s not like you.”

Yeah, Aubrey was real good at the tough-girl facade. But then again, she’d had a lifetime of practice. “Hard to keep it together when you toss a drink in the wrong guy’s face.”

“And not just any wrong guy,” Leah said with a laugh. “Ben McDaniel. Lucky Harbor’s favorite son. How’d he take it?”

Aubrey shook her head at the memory. “He didn’t even flinch.”

“He wouldn’t,” Leah said. “He’s pretty badass.”

He hadn’t always been like that. In school, he’d been the first to land himself in trouble, but he’d been fun-seeking, not tough as nails and impenetrable. Even through college. Afterward, he’d been an engineer for the city and had led a nice normal life.

Then his wife had died, and he’d taken off like a bat out of hell, living a life of adrenaline and danger as if survivor’s guilt had driven his every move.

“It was his job,” Leah said. “He saw and did things that changed him.”

Ali was watching Aubrey carefully. “Maybe you should try to make it up to him.”

Aubrey could see a certain light—a matchmaking light—in her eyes, so she headed to the door.

“Where you going?” Leah asked.

“Things to do.”

“Or you’re chicken,” Ali called after her with a laugh.

Or that…But the truth was, Aubrey wasn’t chicken. She was realistic. Nothing would, or could, ever happen between her and Ben.

No matter how much she might secretly wish otherwise.

Two minutes later, she was in her car. It was time to face the names on her list. Up first was her sister, Carla.

They weren’t close. Growing up in two separate households had done that. Living with parents who didn’t speak to each other had done that. Carla being told that she had gotten all the brains had done that.

But eight years ago, Carla had needed a favor. She’d found herself needing to be at her job at the same time as she’d needed to sign some documents to accept a very important internship, so she’d asked her look-alike sister to go sign for her.

Aubrey had been working her butt off full-time and trying to keep full-time school hours as well. Busy, exhausted, hungry, and admittedly bitchy, Aubrey had agreed to the favor, even though she’d known it would be a real crunch to get there in time. She’d left a little later than she should have, gotten stuck in traffic, showed up late, and lost Carla the internship.

Carla had been forced to ask their dad to step in, and she still hadn’t forgiven Aubrey.

Sighing at the memory, Aubrey parked at the hospital where Carla worked and asked for her sister at the front desk. Aubrey was kept cooling her heels for twenty-five minutes, though when Carla finally showed up in the reception area in scrubs and a doctor’s coat with a stethoscope around her neck, she seemed genuinely exhausted and surprised. “Hey,” she said. “What’s wrong? Mom?”

“Everything’s fine,” Aubrey said. “I just wanted to talk to you.”

Carla nodded but gave her watch a quick, not-so-discreet glance. “About?”

Aubrey drew a deep breath and then let it go. “Remember the time you asked me for a favor and I screwed it up?”

Carla’s gaze was moving around the room, taking in the people waiting to be called by the hospital’s various departments. “Uh-huh.”

“Well, I want to apologize,” Aubrey said, “and find a way to make it up to you.”

Carla looked at her watch again. “Wait—which time was this again?”

“The one and only time I screwed up,” Aubrey said a little tightly.

Carla’s gaze landed on Aubrey then, looking a little amused now. She pulled a protein bar from her pocket and offered half to Aubrey, but since it looked like cardboard, Aubrey shook her head. “It was when I was supposed to sign those documents for your internship,” Aubrey said. “And I got there late.”

Carla chewed her cardboard bar. “Oh, that’s right. You were probably busy with Mom, having your hair or nails done. That was your life, right? Dressing up and being a beauty queen, while I had to go to the toughest school and study all the time.”

Aubrey had been operating under the assumption that she was the jealous sister. And she was jealous as hell and always had been, because Carla had had it all: brains, the big fancy medical degree, not to mention their father’s pride and adoration. But in feeding her green monster over the years, it’d somehow escaped her attention that Carla might have been jealous as well.

She didn’t know what to make of that.

“I lost the internship,” Carla said, “and had to wait an entire year to get another shot at it. Dad was fit to be tied. He’d set the interview up in the first place. He said—” She broke off, clearly tempering herself.

“What?” Aubrey asked. “He said what?”

“That I’d acted like you.”

Aubrey absorbed the unexpected hit and nodded. “Well, then, I imagine he was quite pleased to know it was me who screwed up and not you.”

Carla’s smile was brittle, and Aubrey wondered if she smiled like that, too. “I never told him,” Carla said. “How could I? I’d gone on and on about how you were changing, how you were maturing. How I could count on you.”

Aubrey winced. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I’d like to make it up to you.”

Carla gave a small laugh. “How? How could you possibly do that?”

“I don’t know,” Aubrey said. “We still look like twins. Maybe you have another conflict of interest, and I could—”

“What? Operate for me? Meet a patient and discuss treatment?”

Aubrey met her sister’s eyes. They were hazel, like her own, magnified slightly from the glasses Carla had worn since grade school. They only added to the smart image.

She wasn’t going to get forgiveness—she could see that now. And she probably didn’t deserve it anyway. “No,” she said quietly. “I can’t do any of those things. We both know that.”

And there was the problem. The big flaw in her grand scheme—and there was always a flaw. She didn’t know how to make things right. And anyway, who would forgive her? She certain didn’t deserve forgiveness. Holding in the despair that this thought brought, she turned to go.

Carla didn’t stop her.

It was dark outside when she got back to the Book & Bean, and she stopped short just outside the door. She’d locked up when she left and turned off the lights.

But the door was unlocked now, and the lights were on. She went still, then pulled out her phone and dialed 911. She didn’t hit SEND, but kept her thumb hovered over CALL. Taking a step inside, she paused. “Hello?”

“Hey.”

The low, slightly rough voice wasn’t what had her heart pumping. That honor went to the fact that there was a man on a ladder in the back of her store.

Ben.

He was in jeans, wearing a tool belt slung low on his hips, his T-shirt clinging to him. He seemed a little irritated, a little sweaty, and just looking at him Aubrey got a whole lot hot and bothered in places that had no business being hot and bothered by this man at all. “What are you doing in here?” she asked.

“I work here.”

“What are you talking about? Get out.”

“Sorry, Sunshine.” He wasn’t even looking at her, but using some sort of long, clawlike tool to pull down a ceiling tile above the wall she’d been working on. And his tool worked way better than hers.

His movements were agile and surprisingly graceful for a guy his size. Not that he was bulky in any way. Nope: That tall, built body was all lean, tough muscle, and it screamed power. And with each subtle movement, his body made it clear that it knew exactly what to do with all that power. “The owner of this building hired me,” he said. “Said you were making a mess of things because your pride was bigger than your wallet.”

This caught her completely off guard, both the insult and the information. “My uncle owns this building,” she said.

He smiled thinly. “Yep. Happy birthday.”

“It’s not my birthday.”

“Then happy you’ve-got-a-great-uncle day.”

She pulled out her phone and punched in her uncle’s number.

“He left on a month-long cruise with Elsie,” Ben said.

Damn it. That was true. He’d just recently started dating again and was seeing Leah’s grandma Elsie. Aubrey tossed her phone and purse aside and went hands on hips, giving off the intimidation vibe that worked with just about everyone. Except, apparently, Ben, who didn’t even take a bit of notice. Instead, he reached down with that claw tool in his hand. “Hold this a minute,” he said.

Was he kidding? “I don’t take orders from you.”

“I imagine not, since you don’t know the meaning of taking orders.”

She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, he gave the tool a very slight jiggle in her direction.

The motion was filled with such authority and innate demand that she walked toward him to take the thing before she even realized her feet were moving. It was heavy, and she let it fall to her side as he pulled himself up with nothing more than his biceps and vanished.

She stared up into the space. “Hey.”

He didn’t answer, and she got worried. “Ben?”

There was a slight rainfall of debris, and then he was back, lowering himself out of the hole like an Avenger, shoulder and arm and back muscles bulging and defined as he dropped lithely to his feet.

She let out a breath.

He brushed off his hands and turned, and then nearly tripped over Gus.

Meow.

“Watch out,” Aubrey said. “He doesn’t like—”

Ben squatted low and stroked the cat. Gus plopped onto his back with a grunt, exposing his belly for a rub.

“—to be touched much,” Aubrey finished, and then rolled her eyes as Gus soaked up Ben’s affection, even sending Aubrey a “be jealous, bee-yotch” look from slitty eyes.

Her cat was a man ho.

When Ben stood again, he looked at Aubrey for the first time. The briefest of frowns flashed on his face. Still dirty, still a little damp, and still complete sex on a stick, he took a step toward her.

Thinking he wanted the tool, she thrust it out at him. But he didn’t take it. Instead, he stepped into her personal space and crowded her both physically and mentally.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Chapter 4

If Ben knew anything about Aubrey Wellington, it was that she was one cool, tough, hard customer. He’d once seen her stare down an entire pack of mean girls at school with no fear—at least none showing. She didn’t back down from much.

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