Authors: Tracey Alvarez
“Hey, that was a great lasagna—smoke alarm or not.” Ben draped his damp dishtowel over a thin wire spanning the wood burner to dry.
He tugged Shaye’s ponytail, and she grinned up at him.
Kez’s lasagna resuscitation skills, I imagine.” Shaye gently elbowed him in the ribs.
Another chest twinge.
What was with that?
“We’d better take off, Jade.” Ben walked to the couch and picked up their jackets. “Kezia’s already told me off once for letting you stay up too late.”
Jade crossed her arms and jutted out her bottom lip. “But I wanna stay.”
“It’s not fair—you said we could play snakes n’ ladders!”
Ben shot Kezia a wild-eyed plea for help.
Ah…the girl had found her courage—
. Standing up to Ben instead of exhibiting her usual sullen, sometimes withdrawn behavior, meant progress. But an overtired meltdown from both parties could damage the tiny forward steps they’d taken today.
Touching Jade’s shoulder, she said in her non-negotiable teacher’s voice, “We’re all tired, Jade. Let’s save snakes n’ ladders for tomorrow.”
Kezia raised her eyebrows. Tilted her jaw.
“Oh. Okay then.” Jade dumped the dishtowel on the dining table and picked up her stuffed dog that she’d named Bolt. “I can come over again tomorrow?”
“You can come over any time,
. As long as you ask Ben first.”
Disaster momentarily averted.
Jade produced a shy smile and walked to Ben’s side. He passed her the jacket and she held out the toy for him to hold. Ben’s gaze collided with hers from across the room.
“Thanks for dinner…and for everything else.”
Her scalp prickled at his slow smile, and as the heat of his gaze dropped to her mouth, her
lips tingled at the attention.
“Zoe and I had fun today. Thank you for inviting us.”
“Thank you, Ben,” Zoe chimed in.
Wasn’t this so polite and good-neighborly? Her hand flexed, itching to smack the smirk off Ben’s face, b
been good neighbors, and now he’d changed everything.
Ben’s smile widened into a predator’s
smile. “You’re more than welcome.”
Kezia left Shaye to see them out, hustling Zoe away for her bedtime routine. Normally, the last thirty minutes before lights out were spent with a story.
She and Zoe took turns reading out loud from whatever Zoe’s latest obsession was—currently, they were re-reading the
series—then they would talk. Silly little chats mothers and daughters had about everything important in an eight, nearly nine-year-old’s world.
This small chunk of time was the most precious part of her day. She’d nearly lost Zoe to leukemia four years ago, and even though remission didn’t mean the vicious
of a disease wouldn’t return, she had to believe they’d beaten it. She believed with the zeal her mamma and
would’ve believed as they knelt with rosary beads clutched in their hands.
She never, ever took Zoe for granted.
Kezia blew a kiss and turned off Zoe’s bedroom light. She stood in the dark hallway, listening to the blissful silence, far away from the city sounds of traffic and bustling humanity. Their house, their little cottage with its mishmash interior decorating of whatever took her and Zoe’s eclectic fancy.
In her early teens, Kezia had visited Stewart Island with her mother. She’d immediately felt a connection with the wild land and the easy pace of life there. Years later, smothered by hurtful memories in Wellington, and the continuing coldness of her in-laws, the Island called to her with a siren’s song. Yes, she’d known moving to Oban was running away, but she desperately needed to begin the next chapter of her life. One where she and Zoe could live quietly and at peace.
With a sigh, Kezia padded into the family room.
Curled up on one end of the sofa with a mug in her hands, Shaye gestured at the coffee table. “I poured you a wine. You looked like you could use it.”
“You’re a blessing.” Kezia scooped up the glass and sank into an armchair. “I do need it.”
Shaye watched her sip the wine over the rim of her mug. “So. How did the trip into Invers go? Is Ben co
ping any better with Jade now? And when did this thing between you and my big brother start?”
Kezia nearly snapped the stem off the wine glass. How on earth had Shaye leaped to that conclusion? Had Ben’s kiss branded her with a scarlet “Ho” on her chest?
“That’s a lot of questions for only two sips of wine.”
Shaye arched her eyebrows. “Pick one to answer. The last will do.”
Kezia shook her head, mentally crossing her fingers behind her back. “There’s no thing.”
“Uh-huh.” Shaye sipped her tea and smirked some more. “What’s with the covert glances and sexual te
nsion so thick I couldn’t cut it with my chef’s knife, then? That’s the definition of a thing.”
“I’m uncomfortable discussing this.” Because di
scussion made it real, and right now, she needed to forget that amazing kiss.
“You were happy to spend hours over-analyzing my charity-auction date with Kip.”
“How’d you figure that?”
“I’m not related to Kip. Ben’s your brother.”
“Pretend he and I aren’t related. That he’s just some good-looking guy who’s giving you the
I wanna lick you all over
eye—ew, hang on…” Shaye’s nose crinkled and she returned her mug to the coffee table. “I don’t want to picture him thinking those kinds of thoughts about you.”
“Which is why there is no
“Bollocks. Regardless of the
squick factor when it comes to my brother’s sex life, there is totally a thing, and I want details, woman. Details!”
Kezia choked out a laugh. Shaye had the heart of a romantic and the tenacity of a terrier playing tug-of-war. She wouldn’t let this drop. “All right, all right. We had a fun time in Invers. Ben and Jade are adjusting to each other. And he kissed me while we made dinner.”
Shaye’s eyes bugged open. “Holy guacamole—what kind of kiss are we talking?”
“The regular kind.” Kezia’s cheeks warmed, and she took another long swallow of wine.
“Regular, as in a quick peck on the cheek to say thanks for a nice day out?”
“Were tongues involved?”
“Shaye!” Now her face was hot enough to sauté on.
Shaye laughed so hard she snorted tea down the front of her shirt. “Seriously, Kez? You haven’t been near a guy since you arrived in Oban—and from what you’ve told me, you haven’t been near any men since Callum died—so a kiss is a big deal. And as an almost re-virgin-ised twenty-four-year-old, let me sigh wistfully over this one regular kiss, okay?”
ised? That’s not a word.”
“Evasion, Ms. School Teacher. C’mon, tell me.
“It was on the lips.” Kezia’s voice sounded prim and snooty in her ears; it’d been
sooo long since she’d been in the conversational hot seat involving a man. “I’m not talking about tongues or any other body parts with you. It was a nice kiss.”
“Ah-ha! That’s how the cheese sauce got burned. You guys got so into a smoking-hot kiss—”
“No, no. The sauce burned later.”
“Completely missing the point,
Kez! Stop torturing me. Now”—Shaye jabbed a finger at her—“did your heart beat faster?”
“Oh, good Lord.” Kezia face-palmed, wishing for a way to escape
Shaye’s merciless guerrilla warfare.
“Just answer the question, sister.”
“Yes. My heart beat faster.”
“Did your toes curl?”
“Yes. Inside my Donkey slippers, there may have been some toe curling.”
Shaye sat up straight. “A guy gives you a heart-beating, toe-curling kiss and you’re wearing your old Donkey slippers?
Kez, what were you thinking?”
Kezia shrugged. She hadn’t been thinking about her choice in footwear, that was for sure.
“Anyway,” Shaye continued. “Was he a good kisser? Please tell me he wasn’t like my last date, who whipped his tongue around my mouth as if he were beating cream?”
Kezia forced her mind to remain blank. If her thoughts slid back to the kiss, she might embarrass he
rself more—by gushing like a teenager. “No, nothing like that. He’s a good kisser.”
“On a scale of one to ten, pick a number.”
“You’re relentless, aren’t you?”
Shaye just grinned.
“Six,” she said.
“Knowing how unforthcoming you’ve been so far, I’m calling it as an eight.”
“Seven point five, max.”
Shaye twirled her ponytail around a finger. “Not too shabby—though plenty of room for improvement next time.”
Momentarily caught up in the teasing banter, Kezia froze, her stomach plummeting. “There won’t be a next time.”
“Why not?” Shaye said.
“Lots of reasons.” Solid reasons. Ones she should write on
notes to stick on her mirror as a daily mantra.
“What logical reasons can you have since he’s a good kisser, he makes your heart beat faster”—Shaye tagged off two fingers and moved to the third—“your toes curled, plus you scored the kiss a seven point five. Anything over a five is worth a second round.”
“I’m not in a position to get involved with anyone right now.”
Shaye threw up her hands with an exaggerated eye roll. “You’re in the perfect position,
Kez. You love your job, and you have a strong support network with friends who consider you family. You also have a happy, healthy daughter who thinks Ben is pretty cool—she’s delusional, of course, but she’s only eight. What’s the problem?”
“It can’t lead to anything but heartbreak, and I have to think of Zoe. If I let her, she’ll fall in love with the idea of having Ben as a daddy—and Jade as a sister—the sister she’s always wanted.”
She took a fortifying sip of wine, because dammit, knowing her one shot at a happy family died with Callum
. Letting her daughter down when she wished out loud for a new daddy and a little sister or brother hurt like hell. “You and I both know it’s an impossible dream.”
“Yeah, Ben does suck at relationships that don’t have an expiry date.”
Kezia grimaced. “I’ve been here less than a year and figured that out.”
“He lasted with Jules for a couple of months,” Shaye offered optimistically.
“Because he didn’t want to fire her as his safety diver.”
“You’re right. Fudge. Then Jules took off and Ben hasn’t seen anyone since.”
Kezia’s heart gave a traitorous little skip.
heart. “That you know of.”
Shaye cocked her head. “Sweetie, are you sure this is all about Zoe? Maybe you’re just a little scared it wouldn’t only be your daughter who could fall for him?”
Could she fall for a man like Ben? A man who obviously didn’t want kids in his life, a man who skipped from one short-term fling to another? A man with a hot body but a cold heart? She could never fall in love with a man like Ben, but she didn’t want to hurt Shaye’s feelings.
“I fell in love with an undependable man once b
efore. I’m not foolish enough to do it twice.”
Shaye frowned. “Ben’s dependable.”
“He’s your brother.” Kezia sighed, running the tip of her finger around her wine glass. “Of course
can depend on him. But a woman silly enough to want more, when he’s only capable of a bit of short-term fun…?” She let the question hang.
Shaye nodded. “Guess you’re right.”
Yes. She was right. The only thing dependable about falling in love with Ben Harland would be the shattered heart at the end of the fall.
Ten days, ten nights. Two hundred and forty hours until freedom.
Ben hung up the phone and dropped his head into his hands. Everyone was either at work or busy. He’d arranged with Shaye’s friend, Holly, to watch Jade this morning, but now Holly was sick—and he didn’t need the kid catching something contagious. Ford might watch her—if Ben could bribe his mate to stop tinkering with his cars for a few hours. Nah. Ford with his dreadlocks and tatts would freak out the kid, though the man was as dangerous as a kitten.
“Why can’t I come with you?” Jade scraped the last spoonful of cocoa-puffs from her bowl. A fine ring of brown-stained milk lined her lips.
Ben pinched the bridge of his nose. “I already told you, I can’t take kids out on my boat when I’ve got clients.”