Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(6)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(6)
Jill Shalvis

But she backed away from him and turned so he couldn’t see her face. She definitely wasn’t on her game at the moment. In fact, if he wasn’t mistaken, she’d been…crying? Unable to imagine what could have rattled her so badly, much less bring her to tears, he moved closer to take the tool from her, tossing it aside as he turned her to face him. “You’ve been crying.”

She looked away. He put a finger under her chin and brought her face back to his. “You’ve been crying,” he said again.

She blew out a sigh and slapped his hand away. “You’re a man. You’re not supposed to notice,” she said.

He took another step toward her, and he had no idea why. Maybe because those usually razor-sharp hazel eyes were soft now. Soft and maybe even warm. She was vulnerable, and it was bringing out some crazy instinct in him to try to soothe or comfort her. And then there was the fact that he’d clearly affected her. When he’d come close, her breathing had hitched audibly.

Awareness?

Frustration?

Irritation?

A combination of all of them, no doubt, but he’d take it over her usual indifference. “Talk to me, Aubrey.”

She let out a sound that might have been a laugh or a sob, and her eyes went suspiciously shiny. “I just have something in my eye, that’s all.”

He’d spent his formative teenage years under the authority of his aunt Dee, who’d cried at the drop of a hat. He wasn’t fond of a woman’s tears, but they didn’t scare him. He waited her out with a pointed look.

She sucked in a breath and put her hands on his chest. The touch gave him a pure electrical jolt that stunned him stupid. He had no idea where this sexual tension was coming from, but he liked it. He didn’t get a chance to figure it out before she gave him a little nudge that was actually more like a shove.

He didn’t budge, and this time there was no mistaking the sound she made. Pure temper. “You’re breathing on me,” she snapped, and walked by him, shoulder-checking him hard enough to make him smile.

Whatever her problem, she no longer felt like crying—which worked for him.

“I can’t afford you,” she said.

“Your uncle’s paying. Whatever you need.”

That had her step faltering for the briefest second, but she caught herself. Looking touched, she said, “I’m going to pay him back.”

“Not my deal.”

She strode to the makeshift worktable he’d set up. Two sawhorses with a four-by-eight piece of plywood across them. He’d unrolled the set of plans he’d drawn up based on what Mr. Lyons had told him needed to be done. It was a fairly big job, actually, one that would take his mind off his own life for a while. Just what he needed.

Aubrey stared at the plans for a long moment. “This is wrong,” she said, pointing to the shelving. “I want open shelves, four feet tall max, in wide rows. And this.” She dragged her fingers across the half wall that her uncle had suggested to break up the room. “I want it open. And here…” She tapped a long finger on the tiny kitchen area in the back, which she’d started to demolish herself and made a mess of. “I want the half wall here.”

“Half-walled shelves severely limit your product space,” he said. “And without a wall there”—he nudged her finger with his, bringing it to the spot he was indicating—“your store will be noisy. And why do you want the serving area exposed to your customers?”

“Not that it’s any of your business,” she said, “but this is going to be more than a bookstore. It’s going to be a gathering spot, where the lonely can come and make friends, where book clubs and knitting clubs alike can use the space for their meetings, where drinks and goodies can be easily served in comfy chairs and sofas while my customers read.”

“How do you intend to make any money if you let them read here instead of buying?”

She shot him a grim smile that was sheer determination and grit. “Don’t tell me I won’t make it work,” she said. “Because I will.”

He looked down into her face for a long moment, then nodded. “I wouldn’t bet against you.”

She went still, and that’s when he realized how close they were standing to each other. So close that he could see her eyes weren’t just a mix of brown and green; gold swirled in their depths as well. If she’d been wearing any lip color, she’d long ago chewed it off, leaving her full mouth n**ed and bare—and tantalizing.

She was staring at his mouth, too, with an expression that gave nothing away, but he’d have sworn he’d seen the briefest flash of yearning. “Aubrey.”

She blinked, as if coming out of some sort of dream, and cleared her throat as she tapped the plans again. “You’ll have to redo these.”

Shocked at how badly he suddenly wanted to taste her, he shook it off. “Anything else I should know?”

“Yeah.” She crossed her arms. “I need the work done yesterday, but I don’t want the work to be too intrusive on business. And also, it’s probably best if our paths steer clear of each other as much as possible.”

“You trying to piss me off so I’ll keep my distance?” he asked.

“Would it work?”

It sure as hell should. Keeping his distance from Aubrey Wellington was of utmost importance. Wasn’t it? Suddenly he couldn’t remember why that was, exactly.

A tall figure appeared in the open doorway. Jack. He knocked on the doorjamb twice and then propped it up with a broad shoulder. “Ready?” he asked Ben with all his perfection of timing.

The two of them were meeting Luke for dinner. Ben shook off whatever was going on between him and Aubrey, although it took a surprising amount of effort to do so. “Ready,” he said, and without another word grabbed the sweatshirt he’d left draped over the back of a couch.

“Hey,” Aubrey called after him. “You never answered me.”

“Because I don’t answer to you, Sunshine.” But yeah, he knew he’d work early and late to avoid as much interaction with her as possible.

Jack watched Ben shut the bookstore front door and then check to make sure it was locked. “Huh,” he said.

“Huh what?”

“Nothing,” Jack said.

“It’s something.”

“Okay. You’ve been back a month and you’re already bored?”

Ben shrugged.

“’Cause if you are,” Jack said, “I need help.”

“With what?”

“As fire marshal, I inherited all these pet projects for town council and the like. And in all the monthly meetings, everyone always says they’ll help, but then they don’t answer my calls.”

“What do you need?”

“Everything. There’s the senior center—”

“Pass,” Ben said quickly. “Those old ladies are sexually depraved miscreants.”

“Afraid of Lucille?”

Lucille was a gazillion years old, and there were rumors that she’d been the first person to inhabit Lucky Harbor, around the time of the dinosaur age. She was still in town, running an art gallery and the gossip mill with equal fervor. “Hell, yeah, I’m afraid of her,” Ben said.

“Me, too,” Jack admitted. “Okay, no to the senior center. How about a project at the rec center? It’s called Craft Corner.” He smiled. “Should be right up your alley. You supervise after-school crafts twice a week.”

“Crafts?” Ben asked in disbelief. “Do I look like a crafts kind of guy to you?”

Jack grinned. “You’re a builder at heart, man. Figure it out. The kids really need someone, and you’ve got a lot of knowledge to impart.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And the principal of the school is a really hot, single brunette. How long has it been since you had a hot woman look at you?”

About three minutes… “Maybe,” Ben said noncommittally.

Commercial Row was lined with shops, including the requisite grocery store, post office, and gas station. A few patches of snow and more than a few patches of ice lingered here and there from the last storm. With the dark had come an icy chill that had Ben shoving his hands in his pockets. The temperature tended to drop the moment the sun did.

When Jack spoke next, his voice was void of his usual good humor. “So. Aubrey Wellington? Really? You sure about that?”

“What about her?”

“You know what. She’s trouble with a capital T.”

Yeah, Jack was right. Ben already knew.

“Tell me you got that,” Jack said.

“I got that.”

There was a full minute of silence between them as they continued to walk toward the Love Shack. But then Jack, who’d never been real good at leaving anything alone, said, “There was something in the air between you two.”

“Animosity?” Ben asked.

Jack laughed. “Not exactly.”

“What, then?”

Jack shrugged, but Ben knew this wasn’t necessarily an I-don’t-know shrug. Because Jack knew.

Ben knew, too. But he held his tongue. It was natural for him to do so, and plus, as an added bonus, it drove Jack wild. Jack couldn’t handle silences any more than he could handle leaving things alone.

And sure enough, after another minute, Jack started whistling. He couldn’t whistle worth shit, and he was completely tone-deaf—which meant that hearing him whistle was far better than hearing him sing. But still, Ben wasn’t in the mood for either. Especially since Jack only sang when he was being obnoxious. It was his own special brand of torture.

“Spit it out,” Ben said.

Jack shook his head. “Nothing to spit out.”

Ben looked at him, but Jack went silent. It was a first.

“I’m just working on the bookstore,” Ben finally said.

Jack blew on his hands and shoved them into his front pockets as they continued to walk.

“You know damn well her uncle hired me,” Ben said.

Jack nodded and squared his shoulders against the evening’s wind.

“And we’re not even going to be in the shop at the same time,” Ben said.

Jack snorted.

“Damn it.” Impressed that his own techniques had been used against him—and that it’d worked—Ben caved like a cheap suitcase. “Okay, so there was a weird vibe between us. But it’s nothing.”

“It was way more than nothing,” Jack said. “The two of you practically melted the place down.” He paused. “Do I need to give you the birds-and-the-bees talk?”

At that, Ben had to laugh. “Shut up. I lost my cherry two years before you did.”

“Yeah, well, you were a real ho back then.”

This was true. Ben had discovered women early. And then in high school, he’d tangled with the pretty, smart, and funny Hannah, and he’d fallen hard. He’d drawn her over to the dark side, and she’d loved it. Right up until she’d dumped him just before college.

Two years later, they’d run into each other at a party. She’d grown up a lot, and so had he. They’d gotten back together, and he’d put a ring on her finger so as not to lose her again. Then he’d lost her anyway when a drunk driver had crossed the center line and hit her car head-on.

He’d not gone back to his bad boy ways. Instead, he’d quit his nine-to-five engineering desk job and gone off the grid with the Army Corps and then the DOD.

As if reading his mind, Jack’s smile faded. “It’s been a while for you. With a woman.”

Yeah, it’d been a while. But not as long as Jack thought. “I’ve been with women since Hannah.”

If this was news to Jack, he didn’t show it. “Just hookups.”

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