Ford Komeke, of the righteous Ford’s Thunderbirds and reigning quiz night king, lounged on his throne and surveyed his conquered enemies. Piper, Shaye and Holly studied him balefully from the opposite side of the pub table.
Sore losers, as usual.
Ford’s wingman and best mate, Ben Harland, slouched next to him, no longer bothering to hide his smirk since his new wife, Kezia, had gone to pay for another round of drinks. Girls’ shout, since they’d come in third place, beaten by Mrs. Taylor’s geriatric team, Oban’s Oracles. Shame.
“You can wipe the grin off your face, brother dearest.” Piper absently rubbed a palm over her baby-bulge. “Or I can lean over and smack it off before Kez is any the wiser.”
Ben elbowed Ford. “What’d I tell you about going easy on the team carrying a hormonal pregnant woman?”
“Nobody carried Piper.” Holly gave Ben the stink-eye. “She helped us get ten out of ten in the Children’s TV and Movies section—of which you lot only scored three points.”
“So you got lucky in one category.” Ben grinned at Piper, his younger sister. “You’re still the looo-sers.”
Ford mentally shook his head. The two oldest Harland siblings bickered constantly, but watch shit get real if someone else crossed the line.
Holly leaned back in her chair, and Ford couldn’t prevent his gaze from skimming down the loose strands of her dark-brown-and-pink hair to the neckline of her top and the soft swell of her breasts. He jerked his chin, resettling his gaze on his half-empty beer.
“Y’know, Ben,” Holly said with saccharine sweetness. “If Shaye is unable to be the second support person when your niece or nephew’s born, Piper will drag you into the delivery room to hold her hand.”
Ben faked a yawn and set down his beer. “No probs. And Ford here can bring his guitar and play soothing music while new daddy West takes photos of Piper’s lady parts experiencing the miracle of birth.”
The three women switched their you men are so dead glares between Ben and Ford.
Ford held up his palms. “Dude, relatives only in the delivery room. You’re on your own.”
A sudden flash of purple to his left caught his attention—Mrs. T. cutting a lavender-scented swath through the pub crowd toward their table. Mrs. Brailsford and Mrs. Randal, two more members of Oban’s Oracles, trailed after her like an elderly bodyguard detail. The intense expression on Mrs. T’s face didn’t sit well in his gut.
“Heads up, bro,” Ford murmured from the side of his mouth. “Incoming drama.”
Ben’s head swivelled. “If that woman asks me one more inappropriate question about my honeymoon, I swear—” His low-pitched voice broke off and he stood. “Mrs. Taylor, you’re looking lovely tonight.”
Mrs. T. stopped at their table and poked Ben’s toe with her walking stick. “Taking charm lessons from our barman, I see. Good for you.”
Shaye jumped up from her chair and grabbed a spare seat. Ben’s youngest sister demonstrated her kind heart by tactfully positioning it on the women’s side of the table, rather than next to Ford and Ben. Mrs. T’s wandering hands on unsuspecting males under the age of forty were legendary.
“Come and have a seat.” Shaye touched the older woman’s arm and guided her to the empty chair. “Ben, get a couple more chairs.”
“Oh, no,” Mrs. Brailsford said. “We won’t disturb you young people for long. Betsy just wanted to have a chat with Ford about her idea.”
Ford sat up straighter. Any Betsy Taylor idea with his name included spelled cluster-fuck in some form. He shot a quick glance at Ben, who met his gaze with a you poor bugger grimace. Last time Betsy had one of her ideas, he and Ben and a few other local guys ended up like suit-wearing-cattle in a bachelor auction. Not an experience he wished to repeat…although the date with Holly had been a bonus.
“That’s right,” Mrs. T. said, now seated beside Shaye. “It’s one of my best ever.”
Her voice rescued Ford from traversing down the awkward memory of his and Holly’s “date.”
No one immediately made curious or approving noises—except for Mrs. T’s mini-coven standing behind her. From the corner of his eye, Ford spotted Holly shrinking into her chair as if she were trying to slither under the table.
Mrs. T’s mouth pooched into a sulky frown. Ford sighed. He’d been raised to respect kaumātua, and that respect extended to any other elderly person in his community. And the old lady was mostly a good sort, the kind liberal with her cookie stash on baking day.
“What sort of idea?” Ford asked. “Bake sale? Fun run? Enlisting West to be a strip-o-gram at Shaye’s hen party?” The last suggestion he made with a raised voice since his mate had just arrived with a tray of drinks.
“Dickhead,” West said and set the tray on the table.
“Ford, you’re such a tease. No, no, nothing as salacious as Piper’s hubby getting his gear off.”
Mrs. T. peeled her wrinkled lips apart into a smile that reminded him of Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine. Wiser to keep that opinion firmly stowed in his head.
“The girls and I are sympathetic to the situation you’ve found yourself in,” she continued.
“Situation?” Piper interrupted with a sharp grin. “Have you gone and got yourself knocked up, Ford?”
“Shut it, Pipe.”
Piper grinned and sipped her cranberry juice.
Ignoring the speculative and slightly pitying glances from West and Ben, Ford returned his attention to Mrs. T. “What situation would that be?”
“With both of your best mates married off now, you must be feeling like the bridesmaid but never the bride. So the girls and I will find you a nice woman of your own.”
Simultaneous reactions from around the table included Piper’s and Shaye’s eyes popping open and the rattle of glass as West bumped a beer bottle. Watery, gurgling sounds came from beside him, followed by a couple of sharp coughs. Ben sucking beer down the wrong pipe. And Holly? A dull flush of crimson scoured her cheekbones, and she now seemed really interested in what was under the table.
“A woman, huh?” Ford stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“Not just any woman,” Mrs. T. said. “The girls and I have standards.”
Mrs. T’s announcement didn’t hit him with the shock value she’d hoped for because she was kinda right. He had felt a bit third wheel-ish now West and Ben were married and with Del and Kip, two of his other mates, also not far from the altar. He’d started to think about a woman sharing his bed for longer than her seasonal work lasted.
Only, any woman with the potential to hang around likely wouldn’t deal well with the real Ford Komeke. Not the guitar-playing, deep-as-a-puddle guy with the easy laugh who faced the world every day. But the guy who sometimes woke in sweat-soaked sheets at 2:00 a.m. and stumbled down the brightly lit hallway to the bathroom mirror, where a five-year-old kid with soulless eyes stared back at him. The kid he fooled himself into thinking he’d abandoned in the dingy, Christchurch flat when his Uncle Rob and Auntie Denise had taken him and his twin Harley home to Oban twenty-four years ago. His auntie and uncle who became Mum and Dad.
But while he was a bad bet in the relationships stakes—his DNA meant he was almost guaranteed to screw things up—that didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun.
“Got any one in mind?” he asked.
Slowly, the fact he hadn’t blown off the older woman’s idea sank in, and the others shut up, exchanging rapid-fire glances around the table. Except for Holly. Her jaw muscles bunched with tension as if her molars were clenched together.
Mrs. T. beamed across at him. “I’ve just sent a texted letter to my great-niece on my new phone. She’s a marketing exec in Dunedin. A pretty little red-head.”
“Red-head, huh? Fierce.” Ford stretched his legs under the table, the toes of his boots touching someone else’s feet.
Holly jumped as if he’d goosed her. She shot him a glance the definition of fierce then, as if an internal switch flicked on, realigned her expression to boredom by pretending to study the label on her beer bottle.
“Your idea has some merit,” he added.
“Merit?” Ben echoed next to him. “Bloody hell.”
A thud sounded from under the table, and Ben winced, narrowing his eyes at his youngest sister while rubbing his knee.
“What about internet dating sites?” Shaye asked. “That could work.”
“Yeah, some hundred-kilo guy called Bruce, pretending to be a little blonde who likes piña coladas and getting caught in the rain. Good one, eh, Ford?” Piper snickered into her juice.
Mrs. T. pursed her lips. “Someone would have to vet any potential applicants, someone who knows their way around a computer.”
“Everyone knows their way around a computer nowadays,” Mrs. Brailsford said. “Even you, Betsy.”
Ford’s grip tightened on his beer, the condensation making the glass slippery beneath his fingers. Unfortunately, Mrs. T. did have an ancient desktop one of her grand-nieces or nephews had set up. But like hell would he allow the woman to be let loose on a dating website with him in the crosshairs.
“It has to be Holly,” he said.
Glances zipped back and forth. Holly’s shoulders tucked up toward her ears. He leaned both forearms on the table, noting the flicker of her gaze on the ink swirls sweeping out from under his shirt sleeve. How many times had she seen the black tribal-design tattoos covering his arm and never once blinked? Yet now, she couldn’t seem to drag her eyes away.
More and more interesting.
“The only way I’ll agree to Mrs. T.’s idea is if Holly is in charge.”
Her brown eyes finally met his, but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what went on inside her head. No shocker. While Holly was one of the warmest people he knew, willing to go the extra mile and beyond for the people she loved, the woman was guarded as hell about her emotions. Second only to him, probably.
Since everyone was now focused on him and Holly, like a live audience in front of a political debate, she straightened her spine and propped a smirk on her lush mouth.
“You want me to head this crazy find-Ford-a-woman campaign?”
He rolled his shoulders into a shrug, showed some teeth. “Why not? We’ve been friends long enough for you to know the sort of woman I’m attracted to. What sort of woman might be attracted to me.”
“Perfect.” Mrs. T. rose and grabbed her walking stick. “I’ll leave you lot to sort out the details. Holly, you get onto that internet thing, and we’ll liaise next week at my rinse and set.”
Mrs. T. and the other two ladies disappeared through the crowd to their table.
“Well,” West said, once the women were out of earshot. “Beats the bachelor auction, hands down.” Then he hummed the first few bars of the Mission Impossible theme. “And good luck with the woman hunt, Hol.”
Holly rolled her eyes as more good-natured teasing erupted. Ford kept his laid back to the point of coma grin pinned in place and let the comments roll off him because the only thing that spiked his interest was the sudden disturbance in the force of his and Holly’s friendzone. And if agreeing to Mrs. T’s idea meant he got a chance to understand what kind of disturbance it was?
Ford let Due South’s door hiss shut as he stepped into the chill night air. Behind him, conversation rumbled as the locals made the most of the last hour before West donned his manager persona and kicked them out. Light spilled from the huge picture windows facing Halfmoon Bay. He sniffed, closing his eyes a moment to savor the scent of brine from the sea, beer from a small foaming puddle left on the concrete steps and woodsmoke drifting from chimneys.
Familiarity. Comfort. Home.
Something he’d never take for granted.
He zipped up his battered leather jacket and strode into the night.
He trudged past the darkened windows of the garage workshop, paused and cocked an ear. His dad had a bad habit of forgetting to turn off the tunes at the end of the working day.
The quiet call of morepork-morepork from the little owl hiding in the trees behind the workshop and the hiss of waves tumbling onto the sand broke the night’s silence.
Light shone from the windows of Holly’s house tucked further up the hill. He continued past then doubled back. Maybe she’d thought he wouldn’t notice her slipping away early tonight—but he had. Like a tire pressure sensor registering a dramatic drop, when Holly left his space, he noticed.
So he’d stop by, even though the sensible thing to do would be to text. A sensible but chicken-shit move. A chill raced up and down his spine. He told himself to man up as he hesitated in front of Holly’s front door. After a brief self-wrestle where he stomped on his yellow-bellied soul, Ford knocked.
A few moments passed, and then footsteps padded on the other side. The door opened to Holly, hand on the hip of striped pajama bottoms washed so many times the navy had faded to a mid-blue. Mussed brown and pink hair was flattened on one side of her head, and her tee shirt had a couple of chocolatey smears. Drifting out from the living room behind her came the guitar riff from Supernatural—Holly’s comfort-binge-watch DVD series.
But he was here now, so time to face the music.
“What season?” he asked.
Tension oozed out of his upper back muscles. Season four wasn’t worst-case scenario, meaning it was safe to engage. “Can I come in?”
Part of him studied her reaction, maybe even a little hopefully, seeing if she gave any reaction to being caught with mussed hair and chocolate crumbs on her shirt. The kind of embarrassed reaction a woman aware of a man who wasn’t her brother or best-fucking-friend-forever might show.
Holly crooked an eyebrow and gave a pointed glance over her shoulder. “You better have a damn good reason for dragging me away from my guys.”
Not even a blush as her bare breasts shifted under her tee shirt. His gaze dropped—straight to the men’s woolly rugby socks on her feet.
Oh yeah. The cement confines of friendzone had him good and locked down. Obviously, his overactive imagination had been called into play earlier.
“I need a reason to hang out with you now?”
He stepped into her hallway, skin prickling as he caught the whiff of dark chocolate on her breath and her flowery shower gel that cost over ten bucks a bottle. Insane—but he had to admit the flowery stuff, combined with her naturally appealing female scent, made for a taste-encouraging combo.
Holly turned away from him with a loud pfffft sound and strolled into her living room. Ford shut the front door and followed, finding her already draped over her sofa.
She snatched up the remote from her coffee table. “No changing channels.”
Ford peeled off his jacket and tossed it onto the armchair. The lights burned brightly in the adjoining kitchen, including the desk lamp beside Holly’s laptop. The glittering scales of a Pisces fish print on the wall sparkled in the lamplight and highlighted the row of family photos atop a small bookshelf. Framed photos of her older brothers and sisters, posed grins of her nieces’ and nephews’ school portraits, and one—only one—of Holly and her parents. A picture of a pig-tailed kid in shorts and flip-flops, taken at the nearby Ulva Island Bird Sanctuary. Holly’s parents had their arms around each other, while Holly stood in front, her eyes squinting a little in the sunlight.
Had she ever noticed how her parents appeared to be looking slightly off to the side? How neither of them laid a hand on her shoulder to show their solidarity as a family? Ford sank into the armchair next to the sofa. Projecting his own botched-up issues onto other people. He had to kick the habit.
He leaned forward and snatched a chunk of dark chocolate off the plate, used it to point in her direction. “You knew about Mrs. T’s batshit idea.”
“Yup. I knew.” Holly hit the remote’s pause button and crossed her sock-covered ankles.
Ford shoved the chocolate into his mouth, crunched, swallowed.
Holly’s eyes narrowed. “You’re meant to suck it and savor it, you chocolate plebeian.”
“So you keep telling me.” He ran the tip of his tongue around his teeth. “Why didn’t you give me a heads up?”
“Maybe I wanted to see you squirm—though I didn’t see much squirming. That led me to the conclusion you don’t think the idea’s batshit at all.”
“A man has nee—”
A small cushion smacked into his head and cut off the rest of the word.
“Hey. You have a problem with me going on a few dates? ‘Cause you sure seemed happy to fix me up at the pub.”
Holly snatched another chunk of chocolate. She nibbled a corner then let it rest on her lower lip. She pulled the chunk from her mouth, and the tip of her tongue swept out and licked the spot of melted sweetness.
Damn. His cock twitched.
Ford dropped the cushion into his lap and all casual like, rested his hands on top. “What’s bugging you?”
She bit the chunk in half and sucked, cheeks hollowing under her killer bone structure, studying him with eyes close in color to the chocolate she nibbled on. His skin tingled, and goddammit, his cock hardened further.
“I just don’t want you hurt, sweet.” Holly sat up, sliding one of her long legs under her butt and leaning forward. “Some of the women on dating sites only want one thing.”
“Please say long hours of sweaty sex.” Ford twitched his eyebrows and grinned.
Holly rolled her eyes. “After that, they’ll want a ring on it at some point.”
“Ah.” Ford adjusted the pillow, stretching out his legs. “You know, I don’t have a commitment phobia…unlike my brother.”
Holly flinched. A tiny movement—a jerk of her chin upward, a flash of some indefinable emotion flickering through her eyes. Enough to remind him of the reasons he’d tried to smother the spark of attraction toward Holly these last three years. While she probably thought she’d done a bang-up job of hiding her emotions toward Harley, now a hot-shot artist in New York, Ford knew better. He’d witnessed the whole blushing giggles and walk-past-their-house stalker moves, the just-happen-to-be-at-Russell’s-at-the-same-time coincidences and dreamy stares when Holly thought Harley couldn’t see her. Granted, she’d been a teenager at the time, but it was still one of the many reasons he and Holly were better off as just friends. The other biggest reason being, he didn’t want her hurt either.
“I got no problem settling down with the right woman.” He paused, waiting until her gaze, which for a few moments skipped around anywhere but on his face, returned to him. “But I won’t settle.”
Settle for being the second-best brother to get a shot with Holly. Second-best anything.
“That narrows down your dating pool,” she said.
“Yeah, it does.” He scratched a thumbnail along the cushion’s plump edge. Scowled at the thin line of grease still remaining under his nail. “Me being a prize catch and all.”
Holly pulled an exaggerated lip pooch. “Aw, sweet. You want me to tell you what a big, strong, sexy beast you are to make you feel a widdle better?”
She snickered and pointed a finger. “Bitch.”
Since his groin had settled down after the ice-water-dousing reminder of Holly’s crush on his twin, Ford threw the cushion back at her.
“I want you to tell me you’ll help with this online hook-up thing,” he said.
“You really want to try find a woman this way?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, there are not many single women on the island.”
“Erin’s single. And pretty. And she feeds your caffeine addiction.” She tucked the cushion under her head, wriggling to get comfortable.
“True. Don’t think she’s ever forgiven me for the whole fake spider in her lunchbox prank.”
“Like you, holding a grudge is one of her super-powers.”
“That, and she bosses me around like a little sister.”
“No chemistry, then?”
“Damn.” Holly ran her fingers down a lock of hair, separated it into three strands and started to braid. “Tarryn?”
The bad-ass Department of Conservation worker who’d arrived in Oban a year or so ago. Still a newcomer, so far as Island-time was concerned.
“You kidding?” Ford stole another chocolate chunk. “She’d eat me alive.”
“There is that. What about Bree?”
“Queen Bee? You made me watch Frozen, against my better judgement.”
Holly laughed and nudged her sock-covered toe against the hand he had draped over the armchair. “Remember a few days later, you called her Elsa by mistake? Gawd, I’m sure actual razor-sharp icicles shot out of her eyes and speared your nuts to the wall.”
She laughed again, and Ford felt the corners of his mouth turn up. He scrubbed a hand down his jaw and chuckled with her. “So you admit I need to cast the net a bit wider than Oban.”
Holly stopped giggling, her lips thinning into a terse line before easing into neutral. She lifted a delicate shoulder. “Maybe you were right before. I do know what sort of woman you’re attracted to.”
He arched his eyebrows and Holly cut him a pointed look.
“Short, blonde, big tits, on a working holiday.”
Ah. So she’d noticed. Well, he couldn’t deny it, but he sure as hell wouldn’t discuss his type with her. How his “type” was deliberately her polar opposite.
He crooked an eyebrow and waited, playing the struck-dumb-male card. On any other woman, this wouldn’t be an act—he didn’t have an innate charm gene like his mate West or Kip, Due South’s barman. But Holly was different. She didn’t fill his silences with non-stop chatter. She didn’t interrupt when he spoke, and she didn’t finish his sentences if he took too long saying them.
Again, she waited him out, toying with the thin braid she’d woven into her hair, watching him from beneath lowered lashes. His heart gave a hard kick before it dropped like a rock into his gut. Before he could tell her he’d changed his mind and would stick to the occasional blonde on holiday, she picked up the small laptop from the coffee table.
She opened it, sliding him an indecipherable glance. “Let’s find you a woman then, sweet.”
Copyright © 2015 by Tracey Alvarez
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