Home > Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(8)

Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9)(8)
Jill Shalvis

“They’re too young to walk to school alone,” Ben said.

Suzie sent him a mind-your-own-business gaze. “They weren’t alone. There’s five of them, and the others are all older.”

“Someone was throwing rocks at them,” Ben told her. “The others ran ahead.”

The woman heaved out a heavy sigh. “They have to learn to fight their own battles.”

“They’re too young to fight any battles,” Ben said, beginning to get real pissed off.

“I know you,” she said. “You’re dating that bitchy Aubrey Wellington, not that anyone can figure out why. And you went to school with my son Dennis. You took his point-guard spot on the varsity basketball team. I know everyone thinks you’re all that, but you’re not.”

Her son Dennis had been a first-class as**ole, and he’d sucked at basketball, to boot. Ben hadn’t. “The girls,” he said tightly. “Can you drive them to school or not?”

“If you’re so worried about them, do it yourself.”

“I don’t have—”

The door slammed.

“—car seats.” Well, hell. Ben looked down at the two rug rats.

They looked right back, their eyes filled with worry.

“Okay,” he said, making a snap decision. “Let’s go.” Against his better judgment, he loaded them carefully into the backseat of his truck, cinching the seat belts tight to their skinny frames and hoping to God he didn’t get arrested trying to do the right thing.

“Wow,” Pink said, looking around. “This is the coolest truck ever!”

His truck was a twelve-year-old Ford, and, granted, he’d had it lovingly taken care of by Jack when he’d been gone, but it wasn’t cool by any stretch. It was functional, just the way he liked it.

In the backseat, Pink was holding her sister’s hand and kicking her feet, as though her energy couldn’t be contained. “Mister, are you married?”

“It’s Ben,” he reminded her. He pulled cautiously out into the street, not wanting to mess with his precious cargo. “And no, I’m not married.”

“Why not?”

Since responding with “Well, I was married, but she died” wasn’t exactly appropriate, he ignored the question. Not difficult, as Pink had a thousand more questions.

“You spilled your coffee?” she asked.

“Yep.”

“All these tools yours?”

“Yep.” Thankfully, a mile went pretty fast, and in a couple of minutes, he was pulling up to the drop-off lane in front of the elementary school. He started to get out of the truck, but Pink had herself and her sister unbuckled and out the door before he could.

“Thanks, mister!” she yelled back. “I hope you get another cup of coffee!”

Ben nodded and waved, meeting Kendra’s big eyes as she gave him one last look.

She still hadn’t spoken a word.

As soon as the two little redheads vanished inside the school, Ben pulled out his phone and called Luke to give him the lowdown. “What’s up with that foster home?”

“It’s better than most,” came Luke’s surprising answer.

Ben wrestled with that for a moment, knowing that if it hadn’t been for Aunt Dee, he’d have ended up in a situation just like the two girls. Or worse. There were plenty of people who never got to have an Aunt Dee. Like Sam…

“Tell me you’re kidding,” he finally said.

“You have no idea.”

Ben sighed.

“Listen,” Luke said. “The kids are safe; they get a roof over their heads and three squares.”

And what went unsaid…it was more than a lot of kids got. “Shit,” Ben said, and hung up.

He drove himself to the car wash and took care of the spilled coffee situation. He was halfway through a three-egg-and-cheese omelet and a not-so-short stack of pancakes at Eat Me when Luke slid into his booth.

“Just heard that we’re looking for an engineer to work on the new water systems for the county,” Luke said.

Ben looked at him and then kept eating.

“Interested?”

“That was my old job, before I left,” Ben said.

“Duh. They need an overhaul and want you back to head up the team. Are you interested or not?”

Ben shrugged.

“Let me phrase this another way,” Luke said casually. “You are interested.”

Ben’s brows went up. “Is that right?”

“Yes, damn it.”

“Because it’d keep me here in Lucky Harbor?”

“Your aunt and Jack missed you. And Kevin. Kevin missed you, too.”

“Kevin didn’t know me. Jack just got him last year.”

“Whatever, man.”

Ben smiled. “You missed me. Admit it.”

“Shut up.” Luke snatched Ben’s plate of pancakes and pulled it toward him. He doubled the amount of syrup on the plate and dug in. “You should know that you’ve already turned in your résumé.”

“Did I?”

“Yeah. Stole it off your laptop. They expect you to stop by this week.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Smart-ass.”

It was early the next day when Ben pointed his truck in the direction of the bookstore. Halfway there he stopped at a four-way stop and saw a woman standing on the sidewalk in front of a town-house complex. She was staring at a lower unit, looking unsettled and anxious. Normally, this wouldn’t necessarily have caught his interest, but the willowy, well-dressed blonde wasn’t just any woman.

It was Aubrey.

She shook her head, muttered something to herself, and then began walking away. She turned the corner.

There were no cars behind him, so Ben remained there a moment, a little thrown by having seen her look so off her axis not just once, but twice now.

And then, suddenly, she was back, retracing her steps so that she once again stood on the sidewalk staring at the town house.

“What the hell?” he murmured, and pulled over.

Aubrey stood in front of a small, narrow town house, taking mental notes. The place was clearly well taken care of—lovingly so—with flowers lining the windowsills and freshly painted shutters.

You’re not here to notice the care of the building. Drawing a deep breath, she looked at the list in her hand, then back at the town house.

But still, she hesitated. Yesterday she’d have said she had courage in spades, but the truth was that her encounter with the first person on her list hadn’t gone so smoothly, and she was still smarting. What if this one didn’t go any better?

Just do it, she told herself. Like the Nike commercials. She drew in a big breath and started forward—

“What are you up to?” asked an unbearably familiar male voice.

She nearly jumped right out of her skin. Instead, she forced herself to calmly turn.

Ben was in his truck, window down, idling at the curb, dark lenses hiding his eyes from her, looking effortlessly big and badass.

The way she wished she felt.

Chapter 6

Before Aubrey could formulate an articulate answer, Ben turned off the engine and ambled out of the truck.

Damn it. Cursing herself for getting cornered, she narrowed her eyes at him. “What are you doing here?”

“Wondering the same thing about you,” he said calmly. He glanced at the building. “You seem a little fixated on number forty-three. Who lives there?”

“None of your business.”

As if he had all the time in the world, Ben leisurely pulled out his phone and thumbed the screen for a moment. “Huh,” he said, sounding fascinated. Then he lifted his head. “I knew this place was familiar. Mrs. Cappernackle lives here. The school librarian.”

Like she didn’t know. “How did you do that?”

“I have ways,” he said mysteriously. “Didn’t you and she have an incident? What was it?” He paused, thinking, and then nodded. “I remember now. You stole some books from the library, and she busted you for it.”

No. No, no, no, that wasn’t what had happened. Well, not exactly, anyway. “Stop it,” she said. “Go away. Go put in a water system in Nigeria or something.”

He actually smiled. “Already done.”

Show-off.

“Why are you at the home of someone on your list?”

She went still. Shit. He had the memory of an elephant. And he was relentless.

And as nosy as any of the old ladies in town.

“Again,” she managed to say through her teeth, “none of your business.”

“You planning to off the people on that list or what?”

She whipped around to stare at him. He pulled his sunglasses off, and that’s when she saw the light of amusement in his eyes. He was teasing.

Sort of.

Because the smile wasn’t quite real. He didn’t understand her. He was confused by her.

Well, join my club, she thought.

“Because if you are,” he said, shifting closer, lowering his voice to a conspirator’s whisper that shouldn’t be so sexy, but totally was, “then you should be scoping the place out at night, not in broad daylight. And you should be in a vehicle with night-vision and heat-seeking goggles.”

“I’m afraid to ask how you know all this,” she said.

“I’d tell you, but…”

“You’d have to kill me?”

His smile went slightly more real, but his eyes were still laser sharp. “What’s going on, Aubrey?”

She shook her head. What was going on was that she’d lost her mind if she thought she could really pull this off.

A million years ago, or so it seemed now, Mrs. Cappernackle, the high school librarian—the woman who lived in the town house—had tattled on Aubrey. Her claim was that Aubrey’d had sex in the reference section of the library with the principal’s son.

And though Aubrey certainly had been guilty of being in the wrong place with the wrong guy before, she hadn’t been that time, and not with the boy in question, either.

But in spite of her innocence, she’d gotten in big trouble, and because Mrs. Cappernackle falsely claimed she’d stolen books while she was at it, she was suspended. So when a few weeks later Aubrey realized she’d actually forgotten to return a library book she’d legitimately borrowed, she did a really stupid, juvenile thing. She claimed she had returned it but that Mrs. Cappernackle had only said she hadn’t because the librarian had it out for her. Aubrey even managed to produce real tears and must have been convincing enough, because she’d gotten away with it, and Mrs. Cappernackle had been written up by the superintendent.

Mrs. Cappernackle had retired later that same year, and Aubrey had always felt guilty, like she’d had something to do with it.

Now, more than a decade later, Aubrey had the book she’d stolen in her purse. It wasn’t the original, of course, but a new copy from her store. She wanted to hand it over as a peace offering. Or such had been her plan, but it seemed stupid now. “I’m asking you nicely,” she said to Ben, “to go away.”

This was hard for her, very hard, and some of that must have been conveyed, because he studied her with those assessing eyes for one long moment, then nodded and walked back to his truck.

And then he was gone.

She wasn’t hopeful enough to think he’d actually completely vanish from her life, but that he’d left for now was good enough. Drawing in a deep breath, she marched up to the town house and forced herself to knock.

A moment later, Mrs. Cappernackle opened the door. She was tall, thin, and using the cane she’d once wielded to enforce her reign of terror in the library. If you got that cane pointed at your nose, you knew you were in deep trouble. Aubrey’d been at the wrong end of it often enough to vividly remember the bone-quaking, knee-shaking fear it could evoke.

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