Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(7)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(7)
Jill Shalvis

“Yeah,” Ben said. “So?”

“So what I saw back there in the bookstore didn’t feel like it’d be a quick hookup.”

“You’re wrong,” Ben said.

Jack was quiet a moment. “No one would blame you if you went for it again. For love. No one. It’s just…Aubrey Wellington?”

The doubt in his voice pissed Ben off. Which was asinine. No one knew Ben better than Jack—no one alive, anyway. He knew what Ben had gone through after Hannah’s death.

He knew Ben had loved her. The real kind of love. The once-in-a-lifetime, forever kind. For a guy who’d been pretty much dumped by his own parents and dropped at his aunt Dee’s house at the age of twelve, it shouldn’t have been possible for him to feel it at all. But his aunt Dee had mothered him relentlessly. And Jack’s father—before his untimely, heroic death fighting a fire—had been a real dad to Ben. Jack had been a brother. Between the three of them, they’d taught Ben love.

And he’d had it with Hannah—a solid, soul-deep, comfortable love.

But it was long gone now, and while he missed it, he didn’t want to risk it again.

Jack was looking at him, waiting for a response or reaction, and Ben shook his head. “You’re reading too much into things,” he said. “I’m just working at her bookstore.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.” And he one hundred percent meant it.

Okay, maybe ninety percent…

Chapter 5

A few days later, Ben got up early and went for a hard run. He was met at the halfway point—the pier—by Sam Brody. Sam was an old high school buddy. The two of them had landed here in Lucky Harbor under shitty circumstances—Ben because his mom had dumped him and Sam because he’d been sent to yet another foster home.

And though Ben’d had Jack and Dee and a whole bunch of people who cared, none of them had ever quite understood where he’d come from.

Sam had understood.

Sam had come from worse.

They nodded at each other and fell into step, a hard, fast pace that suited the both of them. They didn’t talk. They often never said a word while running. Ben wasn’t a big talker anyway, although next to Sam he looked like Chatty Cathy.

Still, the silence was always comfortable, like an old shoe. Three miles later, on the outskirts of the county, they finally slowed to their usual cool-down pace and headed back.

“How’s it going with the latest boat?” Ben asked. Sam built boats by hand, and his workmanship was amazing.

“It’s going,” Sam said simply. “How’s it going at the bookstore?”

“Just making shelves.”

Sam snorted, the sound managing to convey a sarcastic “Yeah, right” and “Good luck with Aubrey, buddy” all in one.

At the pier, they separated with a fist bump, each to go on with his own day.

After a shower, Ben headed out. He and Jack shared a downtown duplex. Jack was out front walking his 150-pound black and white Great Dane, Kevin. Kevin didn’t like to exert a lot of energy, so they never walked far. And mostly, his favorite walk was to his food bowl and back. But sometimes in the mornings, Kevin liked to check things out—like which dogs had peed near his territory. Kevin did his business, and then he and Jack headed off to the fire station for work.

Ben drove to his aunt Dee’s house. She was working hard at recovering from breast cancer. And though it had kicked her ass, she was now kicking the cancer’s ass. But sometimes she was too tired to take care of herself, and on those days, Ben and Jack took turns doing it for her. It was only fair, since she’d taken care of the both of them for the better part of their lives.

As he’d been doing several times a week, Ben let himself into her place and headed straight for the kitchen, where he’d drum up a nice, protein-rich meal.

But in the kitchen doorway, he stopped short in surprise.

Retired fire marshal Ronald McVane stood flipping sausages at the range top where Ben had created some of his best work.

Dee sat at the table, serenely sipping tea.

When Jack’s dad died, a little part of Dee had died with him. Okay, a big part. In the years since, she’d battled depression and anxiety. Not once in all that time had she dated anyone.

But she was dating now. She was dating Ronald and had been for the past month, very casually. What Ben hadn’t realized was that the casual part of the program had changed, because Ronald was barefoot and his shirt was unbuttoned. And, most telling of all, Dee was still in her bathrobe, with her hair more than a little wild. Not bedhead hair.

Sex hair.

He tried not to shudder at the thought of the only mother figure he’d ever known h**ing s*x.

Dee, reading his mind, smiled sweetly. “Baby, I left you a text that I was doing okay this morning.”

Ronald glanced over at her, a private smile hovering about his mouth.

Dee returned the smile.

And Ben threw up a little in his mouth. “Yeah, well, you didn’t define okay.”

“Not sure you’d have liked my definition,” Dee said, still all sweet-like.

Aw, Christ, Ben thought, and scrubbed a hand over his eyes.

Taking pity on him, Dee laughed, rose, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “How about some breakfast?”

Hell, no. “That’s okay, thanks.” He waved vaguely at the door. “I’ve got a thing—”

“I heard you’re helping Aubrey Wellington get her bookstore ready,” Dee said.

Ben stopped. “How the hell did you hear that already?”

Dee smiled. “Do you really have to ask? It’s Lucky Harbor, after all. And everyone here loves you so much. They’re all so glad to have you back. You’re a common topic on the Lucky Harbor Facebook page. But about Aubrey—”

“It’s just some bookshelves and renovation stuff,” he said quickly, not wanting to hear from anyone else what a bad idea it was. “That’s it.”

“Hmm,” she said, not commenting on that directly. “I was just going to say, if you need any tools, you know I still have all of Jack senior’s in the garage.”

“Say the rest,” he said.

“What?”

“The part you’re dying to say. That she’s a bad idea for me.”

“Well, of course she is.” She met Ben’s gaze. “But you already know that.”

He blew out a breath. “Yeah.”

“She’s not exactly your type.”

“No one’s been my type.”

“She’s got a reputation.”

“Maybe she’s changed.”

She cocked her head at him. “Well, you’re a big boy now. You’ll have to decide that for yourself.”

“But you don’t like it.”

“I don’t.” She cupped his face. “Baby, no one is ever going to be good enough for you. Not in my eyes. You know that.” She snagged a quick, hard hug and then let him go.

Ben left there like his ass was on fire. He trusted Dee with his life, but it wasn’t her business whom he saw.

Or didn’t see…

Back on the road, he found his zone. He liked Aubrey’s plan for the bookstore, but he couldn’t shut off his engineering brain. He could think of several ways to improve her vision.

Not that she’d thank him for it.

Nope—he’d have to finesse the situation, make her think everything was all her idea. He was playing around with that, working it as he would any puzzle, when two figures dashed out into the street right in front of him. “Jesus.” He stomped on the brakes, and thankfully his truck stopped on a dime.

He couldn’t say the same for his heart.

Or his coffee, which went flying, spilling everywhere.

Out in the middle of the street, the two kids had gone still as statues. Two little girls. He threw the truck into park and ran to them, crouching down to their level. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” one said while the other just stared up at him, eyes as big as saucers. They were clearly twins, maybe five years old, one wearing all pink and the other a mishmash of mismatching colors. They shared the same crazy, wild hair the color of a copper penny, which flew around their thin, angular faces. Stark blue eyes. Skinny as toothpicks.

“What are you doing in the street?” Ben asked, craning his neck, trying to figure out whom they belonged to, but the area was quiet. This was a low-income neighborhood. Yards were neglected, houses were small and close together. There was no one in sight. The hardworking blue-collar class had already left for work.

“We’re supposed to stay on the sidewalk,” the pink one said. “But there’s lots of cracks. We’re sorry, mister.”

When he just looked at her blankly, trying to understand what the hell she meant about the cracks, she pointed at her sister. “Kendra’s afraid of them. The cracks.” She leaned in a little, like she was departing with a state secret. “She thinks trolls live in the cracks, and if she steps on one, they’ll get her.”

Kendra stuck her thumb in her mouth and nodded.

Ben blew out a breath and shuddered to think what might have happened to them if he hadn’t seen them in time. “What’s your name?” he asked Pink.

She opened her mouth, but Kendra pulled on her twin’s sweater and gave her a quick head shake. Pink rolled her lips inward and looked down at her shoes—which were untied. “We’re not supposed to tell strangers our names,” she said softly.

Ben leaned in to tie her shoe for her before realizing that the reason it was untied was because the string had broken off on one side. “That’s a most excellent rule,” he said, straightening, nudging them to the side of the road. “Which house is yours? I’ll see you home.”

“We’re not going home. We’re going to school,” she said.

“By yourselves?” He hated that idea. They were so young, so vulnerable.

“Billy’s supposed to walk us, but he never does,” Pink said. “Sometimes Joey or Nina stays with us, but today they ran ahead real fast ’cause the mean kids were chucking rocks. Kendra couldn’t keep up, so I stayed with her.”

Ben craned his neck and looked around, ready to rumble with whatever little as**ole punk was throwing rocks at these two little girls. He couldn’t believe they were on their own. The elementary school was at least another mile away. Letting out a breath, he scrubbed a hand over his jaw. “I want to talk to your mom.”

“We don’t got one,” Pink said.

Well, if anyone understood that short sentence, it was Ben himself. “Who’s in charge of you?”

Pink bit her lower lip.

Ben crouched down low again, getting as small as he could. Not easy on a six-foot-two frame. “Talk to me, Pink.”

She smiled at the nickname, then sneaked a peek at a house about a hundred yards back, the corner house.

“Come on,” he said, and headed that way.

“But mister, we’ll be late.”

“Ben,” he said. “Call me Ben.”

“Okay. But mister, Suzie don’t like it when we’re late, ’cause then the school calls her and she gets in trouble.”

Then Suzie should have damn well driven them, Ben thought grimly. He walked up the narrow path and rapped his knuckles on the front door.

A fiftyish woman answered, looking harassed. “Yes?” she asked, and then frowned down at the two girls. “Oh, Lord. What did you two do now?”

“They didn’t do anything,” Ben said. “Though I nearly ran them over when they were in the street.”

“In the street!” she gasped and glared them. “What in the world? You know better, both of you! And now you’re going to be late for school!”

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