Once In A Lifetime
There was one universal truth in Lucky Harbor, Washington—you could hide a pot of gold in broad daylight and no one would steal it, but you couldn’t hide a secret.
There’d been a lot of secrets in Aubrey Wellington’s colorful life, and nearly all of them had been uncovered and gleefully discussed ad nauseam.
And yet here she was, still in this small Pacific West Coast town she’d grown up in. She didn’t quite know what that said about her other than that she was stubborn as hell.
In any case, she was fairly used to bad days by the time she walked to Lucky Harbor’s only bar and grill, but today had taken the cake. Ted Marshall, ex–town clerk, ex-boss, and also, embarrassingly enough, her ex-lover, was self-publishing his own tell-all. And since he’d ever so thoughtfully given her an advance reading copy, she knew he was planning on informing the entire world that, among other things, she was a bitchy, money-hungry man-eater.
She’d give him the money-hungry part. She was sinking much of her savings into her aunt’s bookstore, the Book & Bean, a sentimental attempt at bringing back the one happy childhood memory she had. The effort was leaving her far too close to broke for comfort. She’d even give him the bitchy part—at least on certain days of the month.
But man-eater? Just because she didn’t believe in happily-ever-afters, or even a happily-for-now, didn’t mean she was a man-eater. She simply didn’t see the need to invite a man all the way into her life when he wouldn’t be staying.
Because they never stayed.
She shrugged off the little voice that said That’s your own fault and entered the Love Shack. Stepping inside the bar and grill was like going back a hundred years into an old western saloon. The walls were a deep, sinful bordello red and lined with old mining tools. The ceiling was covered with exposed beams, and lanterns hung over the scarred bench-style tables, now filled with the late dinner crowd. The air hummed with busy chatter, loud laughter, and music blaring out of the jukebox against the far wall.
Aubrey headed straight for the bar. “Something that’ll make my bad day go away,” she said to the bartender.
Ford Walker smiled and reached for a tumbler. He’d been five years ahead of Aubrey in school, and was one of the nice ones. He’d gone off and achieved fame and fortune racing sailboats around the world, and yet he’d chosen to come back to Lucky Harbor to settle down.
She decided to take heart in that.
He slid her a vodka cranberry. “Satisfaction guaranteed,” he promised.
Aubrey wrapped her fingers around the glass, but before she could bring it to her lips, someone nudged her shoulder.
Ted, the ex-everything.
“Excuse me,” he began before recognition hit and the “Oh, shit” look came into his eyes. He immediately started to move away, but she grabbed his arm.
“Wait,” she said. “I need to talk to you. Did you get my messages?”
“Yeah,” he said. “All twenty-five of them.” Ted had been born with an innate charm that usually did a real good job of hiding the snake that lay beneath it. Even now, he kept his face set in an expression of easy amusement, exuding charisma like a movie star. With a wry smile for anyone watching, he leaned in close. “I didn’t know there were that many different words for asshole.”
“And you still wouldn’t if you’d have called me back even once,” she said through her teeth. “Why are you doing this? Why did you say those things about me in your book?” And in chapter one!” She’d stopped reading after that and maybe had tossed the book, with great satisfaction, into a Dumpster.
Ted shrugged and leaned back. “I need the money.”
“Am I supposed to believe anyone’s going to buy your book?”
“Hey, if the only buyers are Lucky Harbor residents, I still make five grand, baby.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Not even a little bit,” he said. “What’s the big deal, anyway? Everyone writes a book nowadays. And besides, it’s not like you’re known for being an angel.”
Aubrey knew exactly who she was. She even knew why. She didn’t need him to tell her a damn thing about herself. “The big deal is that you’re the one who wronged people,” she said. It was a huge effort to keep her voice down. She wasn’t as good at charm and charisma as he was. “You two-timed me—along with just about every other woman in town, including the mayor’s wife! On top of that, you let her steal fifty grand of the town’s funds—and yet somehow, I’m the bad guy.”
“Hey,” he said. “You were the town clerk’s admin. If anyone should have known what had happened to that money, it was you, babe.”
How had she ever worked for this guy? How had she ever slept with him? Her friend Ali had told her that every woman had at least one notch on her bedpost she secretly regretted. But there was no secret to Aubrey’s regret. She gripped her tumbler so tight that she was surprised it didn’t shatter. “You said things about me that had nothing to do with the money.”
He smiled. “So the book needed a little…titillation.”
Shaking with fury, she stood. “You know what you are?”
“A great guy?”
Her arm bypassed her brain and capped off her no-good very bad day by tossing her vodka cranberry in his smug face.
But though he was indeed at least twenty-five kinds of an asshole, he was also fast as a whip. He ducked, and her drink hit the man on the other side of him.
Straightening, Ted chortled in delight as Aubrey got a look at the man she’d inadvertently drenched. She stopped breathing. Oh, God. Had she really thought her day couldn’t get any worse? Why would she tempt fate by even thinking that? Because of course things had gotten worse. They always did.
Ben McDaniel slowly stood up from his bar stool, dripping vodka from his hair, eyelashes, nose…he was six-feet-plus of hard muscles and brute strength on a body that didn’t carry a single extra ounce of fat. For the past five years, he’d been in and out of a variety of Third World countries, designing and building water systems with the Army Corps of Engineers. His last venture had been for the Department of Defense in Iraq, which Aubrey only knew because Lucky Harbor’s Facebook page was good as gospel.
Ted was already at the door like a thief in the night, the weasel. But not Ben. He swiped his face with his arm, deceptively chill and laid-back.
In truth, he was about as badass as they came.
Aubrey should know; she’d seen him in action. But she managed to meet his gaze. Cool, casual, even. One had to be with Ben: The man could spot weakness a mile away. “I’m sorry,” she said.
She felt herself flush. He’d always seemed to see right through her. And she was pretty sure he’d never cared for her. He had good reason for that, she reminded herself. He just didn’t know the half of it.
“Yes, I am sorry,” she said. Her heart was pounding so loudly she was surprised she could hear herself speak. “Are you okay?”
He ran his fingers through a sexy disorder of sun-streaked brown hair. His eyes were the same color—light milk chocolate marbled with gold caramel. It was hard to make such a warmly colored gaze seem hard, but Ben managed it with no effort at all. “Need to work on your aim,” he said.
“No doubt.” She offered a tight smile. It was all she could do—she hadn’t taken a breath since she’d hit him with the drink. “Again, I’m…sorry.” And with little spots of anxiety dancing in her vision, she backed away, heading straight for the door.
Outside, the night was blessedly cold, tendrils of the icy air brushing her hot cheeks. Lucky Harbor was basically a tiny little bowl sitting on the rocky Washington State coast, walled in by majestic peaks and lush forest. It was all an inky shadow now. Aubrey stood still a moment, hand to her thundering heart. It was still threatening to burst out of her rib cage as she worked on sucking in air so chilly it burned her lungs.
Behind her the door opened again. Panicked that it might be Ben, and not nearly ready for another face-to-face, she hightailed it out of the parking lot. In her three-inch high-heeled boots, she wasn’t exactly stealthy, with the loud click-click-click of her heels, but she was fast. In two minutes, she’d rounded the block and finally slowed some, straining to hear any sounds that didn’t belong to the night.
Damn it. He was following her. She quickened her pace again until she passed a church. The building, like nearly all the buildings in Lucky Harbor, was a restored Victorian from the late 1800s. It was a pale pink with blue-and-white trim and lit from the inside. The front door was wide open and inviting, at least compared to the rest of the night around her.
Aubrey wasn’t a churchgoer. Her surgeon father hadn’t believed in anything other than what could be found in a science book. Cold, hard facts. As a result, churches always held a sort of morbid fascination for her, one she’d never given in to. But with Ben possibly still on her trail, she hurried up the walk and stepped inside. Trying to catch her breath, she turned around to see if she’d been followed.
“Good evening,” a man said behind her.
She jumped and looked around. He was in his thirties, average height and build, wearing jeans, a cable-knit sweater, and a smile that was as welcoming as the building itself.
But Aubrey didn’t trust welcoming much.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“No, thanks.” Unable to resist, she once again peered outside.
No sign of Ben. That was only a slight relief. She felt like the fly who’d lost track of the spider.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” the man asked. “You seem…troubled.”
She resisted the urge to sigh. She was sure he was very nice, but what was it with the male of the species? Why was it so hard to believe she didn’t need a man’s help? Or a man, period? “Please don’t take this personally, but I’m giving up men. Forever.”
If he was fazed by her abruptness, it didn’t show. Instead, his eyes crinkled in good humor as he slid his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “I’m the pastor here. Pastor Mike,” he said. “A happily married man,” he added with an easy smile.
If that didn’t cap off her evening—realizing she’d been rude to a man of God for having the audacity to be nice to her. “I’m sorry.” It didn’t escape her notice that this was now the second time tonight she’d said those two very foreign words. “My life’s in the toilet today…well, every day this week so far, really.”
His eyes were warm and sympathetic. The opposite, she couldn’t help but note, of the way Ben’s had been.
“We all have rough patches,” he said. “Is there anything I can do?”
She shook her head. “No. It’s all me. I just need to stop making the same mistakes over and over.” She took another peek into the night. The coast seemed clear. “Okay, I’m out. I’m going home to have the stiff drink I missed out on earlier at the bar.”
“What’s your name?” Pastor Mike asked.
She considered lying, but didn’t want to further tempt fate—or God, or whoever was in charge of such things. “Aubrey.”
“You don’t have to be alone, Aubrey,” he said very kindly, managing to sound gentle and in charge at the same time. “You’re in a good place here.”
She didn’t have a chance to reply before he’d gently nudged her into a meeting room where about ten people were seated in a circle.
A woman was standing, wringing her hands. “My name’s Kathy,” she said to the group, “and it’s been an hour since I last craved a drink.”
The entire group said in unison, “Hi, Kathy.”
An AA meeting, Aubrey realized, swallowing what would have been a half-hysterical laugh as Pastor Mike gestured to a few empty chairs. He sat next to her and handed her a pamphlet. One glance told her it was a list of the twelve steps to recovery.
Step one: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Oh, boy. Aubrey could probably get on board with the unmanageable life part, but really, what was she doing here? What would she possibly say to these people if she were asked to speak? Hi, my name is Aubrey, and I’m a bitchaholic?
Kathy began to speak about step eight, about how she was making a list of the people she’d wronged and making amends. After she finished and sat down, a man stood. Ryan, he told them. Ryan talked about something called his fearless moral inventory and how he, too, was working on step eight, making amends to the people he’d wronged.
Aubrey bit her lip. She’d never taken a fearless moral inventory, but it sounded daunting. Nor did she have a list of people she’d wronged, but if she did, it would be long. Horrifyingly long.
Ryan continued to talk with heartbreaking earnestness, and somehow, in spite of herself, she couldn’t help but soak it all in, unbearably moved by his bravery. He’d come back from a military stint overseas angry and withdrawn and had driven his family away. He’d lost his job, his home, everything, until he’d found himself homeless on the street, begging strangers for money to buy booze. He spoke of how much he regretted hurting the people in his life and how he hadn’t been able to obtain forgiveness from them. At least not yet, but he was still trying.
Aubrey found herself truly listening and marveling at his courage. She didn’t even realize that she was so transfixed until Mike gently patted her hand. “You see?” he asked quietly. “It’s never too late.”
Aubrey stared at him, wondering if that could really be true. “You don’t know for sure.”
“I do.” He said this with such conviction that she had no choice but to believe.
She thought about that as the meeting ended and she walked home to her loft above the Book & Bean. Her aunt Gwen had run the bookstore until her death last year, and her uncle—the building’s owner—hadn’t been able to bring himself to lease the space to anyone else. He was dating someone new these days, but the bookstore was still very sentimental to him.
Then, last month, Aubrey had left her job at the town hall after what she referred to as the Ted Incident. Restless, needing more from her life but not sure what, she’d signed a lease, both as an homage to her aunt Gwen—the bookstore had been a refuge for Aubrey as a troubled teen—and because she was determined to bring the bookstore back to its former glory.
The Book & Bean had been unofficially open for a week now, so it could start bringing in some desperately needed income, and in a month—after some renovations—she had plans to celebrate with a big grand opening party.
She was working on that.
And maybe she should be working on other things as well, such as her karma. That was heavy on her mind now after the AA meeting. Hearing people’s problems and how they were trying to change things up for themselves had been extremely intimate and extremely uncomfortable—and yet somehow inspiring at the same time. She wasn’t an alcoholic, but she had to admit the whole step eight thing had really intrigued her.
Could it be as easy as that, as making a list? Checking it twice? Trying to find out if she could pass on naughty and move on to nice?
Skipping the front entrance of the bookstore, she walked around to the back of the building and let herself in without turning on any lights. Inside, she headed up the narrow stairs to the loft.
She flipped on a light and eyed Gus, an old, overweight gray cat who thought he was king of the mountain. She’d inherited him with the store. She knew nothing about cats, and in return, he acted like he knew nothing about humans, so they were even. “Hey,” she said. “How was your evening?”
Gus turned around and presented her with his back.
“You know,” she said, “I understand that some cats actually greet their people when they come home.”
They’d had this talk before, and as always, this prompted no response from Gus.
“A dog would greet me,” she said. “Maybe I should get a dog.”
At this threat, Gus yawned.
Aubrey dropped her purse, hung up her coat, and took her first real breath in the past few hours. The place was tiny but cozy, and it was all hers ever since she’d filled it with an assortment of vintage—a.k.a. garage-sale and thrift-store—furniture. Her favorite part was the dartboard she’d gotten for a buck. It was a great stress reliever, especially when she pictured Ted’s smug face as the bull’s-eye.
Her kitchen table was covered with the drawings she’d made—her ideas for changing the layout of the store below.
Now that the other two storefronts in this building held flourishing businesses—a flower shop and a bakery—she had high hopes her bookstore would do well, too. A pipe dream. She was working against the odds, she knew. After all, this was the age of Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. Most people thought she was crazy for facing off against the digital world. But Aubrey had made a lifelong habit of facing off against the world, so why stop now, right? Besides, there was still a place for print books; she believed that with all her heart. And it was a statement of fact that sales in indie bookstores were up about 8 percent this year.
She was going to take heart in that. She pulled the pamphlet from her pocket and thought about her karma, which undoubtedly could use a little boost. Grabbing the small notepad she used for list making, she began a new list—of people she’d wronged.
Meow, Gus said, bumping her arm.
Reaching down, she stroked his soft fur, which he tolerated even though they both knew he just wanted dinner. She poured him a small cup of the low-calorie dry food the vet had insisted she switch to.
Gus stared at her balefully.
“I promised the doc,” she said.
Huffing out a sigh, Gus heaved himself off to bed.
Aubrey went back to her list. It took her a while, and when she was done, she eyeballed the length of it. Surely it would’ve been a lot easier to simply stand tall and face Ben tonight rather than run into Pastor Mike.
But though Aubrey had a lot of faults, being lazy wasn’t one of them. She was doing this, making amends, come hell or high water.
And there was a good chance she’d face both before this was over.
Kicking off her boots, she leaned back, staring at the list. Specifically at one item in particular.
And he wasn’t on it because she’d tossed her drink in his face.