Bad things come in threes.
Bree Findlow adjusted a watercolor of Stewart Island’s Mt. Anglem displayed in the window of Bree’s Curios, her gift-shop-come-art-gallery, and tried to keep her eyes off bad thing number one’s butt. Not an easy task since the bad thing in question—Harley Komeke—was a fine example of denim-wrapped temptation. She angled her head farther past the watercolor display and handcrafted, native bird-shaped wood carvings and perved even more.
Harley stood with his back to her outside the building next door where he and his twin brother, Ford, worked with a couple of mates renovating the now-empty space for Oban’s first beauty salon. Though Bree’s soon-to-be-neighbor and friend Holly would tear a strip off anyone she heard uttering the words “beauty salon” out loud.
Harley adjusted the tool belt on his hips, his tee shirt pulling tight across his broad shoulders as he twisted. Tanned, defined biceps flexed as he pulled a hammer from where it hung, smacked it twice in his palm and said something to Ford that made him laugh.
Definite arm porn.
Toward thoughts of porn of any kind—arm or otherwise—was not a direction Bree cared to permit her mind to wander in now that Harley was back in Oban. Bad things happened when he entered into her orbit. Catastrophic things she’d spent years avoiding by being elsewhere when Harley came home to New Zealand. Except on his last visit, five weeks ago for his mother’s funeral, Bree hadn’t had time to make other arrangements. Thank God he was only expected to be here for another few weeks—a month, max.
She crouched, fussing with a small table of paua shell jewellery while slanting a sideways glance at the two men. Ford hadn’t stopped grinning since he and Holly returned from their Christchurch road trip the week before. Bree’s stomach gave a little twinge. Her friends were crazy adorable together, and wedding bells were in the cards.
One Komeke male caught, hook, line and sinker, and the other who’d rather chew off his own hand than wear a ring on it.
Outside, the brothers engaged in a snarly game of rock, paper and scissors.
“Best two out of three.” Harley’s gruff voice feathered over her, popping goosebumps out on her skin.
“No way, you predictable loser,” Ford said. “Rock beats paper every time. Go.”
Harley swore and did an abrupt one-eighty, every inch of his six-foot frame facing Bree crouched in her window display. At least he hadn’t caught her staring at his butt—though wrenching her gaze from the front view was just as difficult.
She rocked back on her heels and stood, smoothing down her skirt and praying the sleek knot she’d tied her hair into that morning hadn’t loosened.
Queen Bee, as the other girls had nicknamed her in high school because of her snarky wit, and anal tendency to try to control everything. She never let her crown slip. Still, she couldn’t resist a quick check of her reflection in one of the framed photographs lining the gallery walls. Blonde hair perfectly slicked into a twist, blue-grey eyes with only a touch of mascara since she didn’t want to emphasize the shadows underneath them caused by restless nights since Harley’s arrival, and strawberry-pink lip gloss that matched the logoed Bree’s Curios tee shirt she wore.
She’d reached the halfway point across her gallery when the bell above the door tinkled. Fixing her expression into one of polite indifference, she turned.
“Brianna.” Harley lounged in the doorway, lips curving in a smile that was the genetic marker of all the Komeke males—open, warm, and with a hint of cheeky intentions. And in Harley’s case, a smile that caused a woman to imagine all sorts of ways for him to keep her warm.
“It was Brianna at art school.” His smile didn’t falter. “You said our friends calling us Bree and Lee sounded too cutesy.”
“The College of Creative Fine Arts & Design was ten years ago, and I’m not pretentious enough to go by Brianna anymore.” God, was that her, enunciating like a stilted school teacher? Tension zig-zagged back and forth across her torso, tightening around her ribcage like a Victorian corset.
A dimple appeared in Harley’s cheek as his grin widened. “Yeah, you are.”
He straightened, stepped onto the polished wooden floor of her gallery. A sprinkling of plaster dust and grit sifted through the air and settled around his battered work boots. Anyone who didn’t know he was a highly successful artist taking a sabbatical from his work would assume he was a chippy—a down-on-his-luck carpenter.
Bree held up a palm. “Stay right there unless you plan to lick my floor clean.”
Harley’s eyelids crinkled over his grey irises—ghost eyes, she’d once teased him.
“Lick the floor, huh?” He advanced another step. More dust drifted down. “What images are swimming around in that pretty head of yours to make the word lick rise to the surface?”
Prickles spread like a heat rash down her spine at the way his full lips formed the word “lick”. What images, indeed. Harley with his mouth on her skin, his tongue tracing liquid fire between her breasts, down her stomach…
Bree angled her chin. “Are you here for a purpose, or just to”—she nearly said poke at me until her brain-to-mouth editor slammed on the brakes—“slack off from work?”
Harley remained silent, watching her in that way he had that made her feel like a lonely and vulnerable teenager again. A steady gaze that spoke of all her secrets he’d once discovered…and his silent dismissal of them.
He dipped his head in a quick nod. “The water’s being turned off next door for the rest of today. Likely some of tomorrow, too. We wondered if we could use your bathroom and water until it’s on again.”
“Of course,” she said, because although the thought of Harley using the tiny bathroom in her apartment upstairs was a cringe-worthy idea—it was easier to agree than explain to Ford and the other guys why she was being unreasonable over such a small request. “Just come through the studio door ‘round back.”
“No tracking dirt through the gallery. Gotcha.”
For a moment, the exchanged words fell away, the only sounds the rhythmic hammering from next door, and the endless wash of waves hissing up Halfmoon Bay beach.
“You okay? You look tired.”
The drop in pitch, the thread of concern in his voice caught Bree off guard. Harley being his normal, confident, charismatic self, she could freeze out. Harley showing simple human compassion melted the edges of the glacier covering the piece of her he’d once frozen then smashed to bits.
She arched a brow. “You’ve woken me at six every morning for the last week with your banging and crashing.”
“Only time the boys can work—before the day jobs. Maybe you should tuck yourself into bed earlier at night?”
“I go to bed at a very reasonable hour. Anyway, for all your reputed charm with women, I would’ve thought you’d have learned never to tell one she looks tired.”
A flash of his straight white teeth. “Still got that stinger, haven’t you, Queenie?”
Before she could invent a cutting quip in return, he rolled his shoulders and pulled a face. “You may want to check the mirror before you come downstairs next time.”
Then he left with a swagger that wasn’t even deliberate. Just the walk of a man who knew who he was, what he was capable of, and who oozed restrained sexuality in every confident stride.
Bree ducked through the wide double doorway at the rear of the gallery, which led into her studio. A long workbench underneath a bank of windows gave the studio an airy feel, plus provided ventilation for when she—or some of the island’s resident artists—used the space. Stocked with blank canvases, paints, brushes and other necessary artistic supplies, the studio also had a tiny darkroom built at one end where she developed her own art—though her mother debated photography being a real art to death.
A wall mirror—placed strategically in the studio so Bree could leave the double doors open while keeping an eye on customers out front—revealed her hair and makeup remained perfect. A sudden panic that her floaty skirt might’ve become hooked in her panties dissipated as she skimmed her hands over her butt. Thank God for small mercies. Her gaze skimmed down, caught on the plain cotton knit covering her right breast. Plain—where an embroidered logo of Bree’s Curios should’ve been. Obviously, the large mug of coffee sipped at her kitchen counter to the piercing shriek of a circular saw hadn’t woken her up enough. Bree slipped her arms out of her tee shirt and yanked it around so she wasn’t wearing it back to front.
She could blame construction for waking her up an hour before her normal rising time. She could blame stress over the financial future of Bree’s Curios for her mind gnawing at the problem instead of easily falling asleep. But the childish desire to stay hidden under her bedcovers with her eyes squeezed tight, praying, wishing, willing that one reckless night with Harley five weeks ago hadn’t happened?
No. She couldn’t blame tiredness and power tools on that. Because before that one slip up, she’d experienced the Harley merry-go-round before. Ten years ago, to be precise. The carousel had been pretty and sparkly and spun her in dizzying circles that felt oh-so-good at the time. Then she’d fallen from it. Fallen hard enough to break her heart.
And after the stupid move of sleeping with him again five weeks ago? Like hell would she ever climb onto that hellish ride a third time.
Harley held a bristle brush and blocked Winsor Red across the blank canvas. He closed an eye and angled his chin. Might as well have upended the canvas and swiped it across an abattoir floor. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Above his head, a floorboard creaked. Piper, moving around upstairs. His mate’s wife—who was also one of Harley’s oldest friends—was making them grilled cheese sandwiches for a late lunch.
“Come and get it while it’s hot, Harl.” Her voice drifted down the stairs into the Westlake’s spare room.
Normally, he’d change before eating with company, but considering he’d only covered half the canvas in red paint the last hour since he’d swapped his tool belt for a brush… Harley swore and yanked on a shirt, then headed upstairs to the wide, open-plan living-dining room.
“Thanks, roomie.” He joined Piper at the table and picked up the sandwich—slightly charcoaled around the crust because Piper couldn’t cook for shit—and took a deliberately big bite.
Piper watched him eat the rest of his sandwich with the focus of a prison guard. “I don’t care what load of bollocks West has poured into your ear. You’re not my babysitter, and I don’t need you.” Then her eyes softened. “Though you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”
Harley had shown up at Ryan “West” Westlake’s office at Due South three days ago. It’d taken two nights at Harley’s brother’s place to figure out he was too old for this couch-surfing shit. And with his bro and Holly swapping sexy times between her place and Ford’s, West’s downstairs spare room had sounded pretty damn good. West, luckily, welcomed someone around the house while he was at work, since Piper was due to pop out a mini-me in the near future.
Harley collected his and Piper’s plate, took them to the kitchen and stacked them in the dishwasher. He returned to the table and kissed her head and got swatted for his effort, which only made him laugh.
“Maybe you don’t need me, Pipe. But I need you. I don’t want to be stuck in some rented holiday house alone. People person, remember? Company feeds my artist’s soul.”
That, and being alone unearthed ugly childhood memories.
“Yeah, yeah. So go do your artsy-fartsy stuff, then. Junior and I aren’t going anywhere.” She patted her bulging stomach and smiled at him, a grin that was a thorny reminder of how much he’d missed being a part of his friends’ and family member’s lives during his many years away in New York.
Harley trotted downstairs again. Eyeballed the canvas as if it were a personal affront. And it was. If he didn’t get his act together and come up with something fresh to show Monica Brown, his art dealer—shit would get real—real fast. Shit, meaning he’d sink back into the anonymous pit he’d fought to crawl out of nearly ten years ago.
He crossed the tarpaulin-covered floor to the glass sliding doors. Plenty of light in his room, enough space for the old easel he’d dug out of his dad’s garage, and a generous supply of canvases he’d had shipped here from his favorite supplier. His oils and brushes were arranged on a small sheet of plywood balanced on two sawhorses, which made a serviceable work desk. And other than putting in a morning’s work each day at the new salon with Ford and the guys, Harley had plenty of time to paint.
And yet…nothing churned in his gut and spilled out from his heart onto the canvas. He was empty.
And maybe he was done.
Harley ripped the rectangular canvas off the easel and dumped it against the wall. Spotting his sketch pad on his nightstand, he picked it up and slumped into the armchair positioned by the glass doors. Outside, a pair of kereru perched on a tree branch and stared at him in disdain. One took offense at the movement of his pencil skimming across the page and flew away, the bird’s heavy wings making a distinctive whooping sound as it disappeared into the native bush-covered hill behind West and Piper’s house.
Allowing his mind to wander, Harley sketched the remaining pigeon. The rounded curve of its skull, the slope of its back. Something about the bird’s sleek, feathered wings held close to its body reminded him of Bree’s prissily pulled-up hair that morning.
He dropped his pencil down the page, tracing the line of her jaw, angled defensively as she’d denied being tired. Then the sweep of her eyebrows…the slant of her blue-grey eyes, hooded with passion…her long blonde hair as it tumbled free, draping over the pillow as he looked down on her from above then, lowering his head to nip softly at her lush lower lip—
Three sharp knocks echoed down the hallway from the front door. Harley jumped, so deeply under the pencil’s spell that the tip slipped and scribbled over the page.
“Can you get that?” Piper hollered from somewhere upstairs. “I’m peeing. Again.”
With a shake of his head, Harley stood and strolled out into the hallway. “TMI, pregnant lady.”
“Bite me, asshat,” came the shouted reply.
He chuckled. Man, he’d really missed his old gang. Especially his two surrogate little sisters, Piper and her younger sibling, Shaye. He’d been best mates with West and the two girls’ older brother, Ben, since he and Ford had arrived on Stewart Island as five-year-olds.
Harley opened the door to speak-of-the-devil-herself-in-chef’s-whites, Shaye.
She tossed her ponytail over her shoulder. “Took you long enough. Bree and I nearly dozed off.”
His gaze zipped past Shaye’s shoulder to where Bree stood a step behind. Her eyes widened slightly at the sight of him, and she retreated farther. Make that two steps behind. He kept his lips set in a neutral line as he noticed the embroidered logo on her tee shirt, now returned to its correct position. Seeing her become flustered as he’d pointed out her wardrobe malfunction this morning? Priceless. He’d empty his wallet for the opportunity to ruffle Bree’s sleek-kitty fur up the wrong way again.
As if reading his mind, Bree’s rosy-pink lips parted into a tight smile. “Sorry if we disturbed you. Shaye and I have some last-minute baby shower details to go through with Piper.”
Harley stepped aside, waving them in. “No worries. I was just mucking around.”
“Oooh. Can I see?” Shaye plucked the sketch pad from his hand before Harley was even aware he still held the damn thing.
“Wait—” A little late to tag on the disclaimer that his doodles were as private as entries in a secret journal.
“Awww, a kereru.” Shaye studied the two sketches.
Moving alongside Shaye, Bree directed a cool stare onto the page. Her shoulders stiffened, eyes narrowing into dangerously thin slits.
“Who’s the woman?” Shaye glanced up with a frown. “She looks familiar, but…”
Bree’s gaze clearly displayed a homicidal urge to freeze his nuts off. Yeah, yeah. He got it. She wasn’t the only one who didn’t want their friends discovering that the excruciating politeness they’d shown each other while socializing was a cover up of the ooops-a-fucking-daisy incident of sleeping together last month.
Harley’s blood pressure rocketed, heartbeat booming in his eardrums. He slid the pad from Shaye’s hands and tucked it under his arm. “It’s Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother from Maori legend. I’m thinking about doing a mural on the outside wall of Dad and Ford’s workshop.” A bloody brilliant on-the-spot lie that had arrived in a flash of inspiration.
“What a most excellent idea,” Shaye said. “That wall could sure use a facelift.”
Bree adopted her usual did someone fart in here? nose crinkle, which she wore whenever he was around. “Aren’t you supposed to be working on a new collection?” she asked. “Or are you still blocked up?”
Should it surprise him that even though he and Bree had exchanged less than a dozen sentences in the last week, she knew his muse had abandoned him for a warmer climate? Nope. First rule of living on New Zealand’s third-largest island—news, especially tasty, gossipy news, travelled wicked fast. Almost as fast as it did in certain circles in the New York art scene.
“You make it sound as if I’m constipated. Or are you implying that something is blocking my ass—my head, for instance?”
For the first time since he’d been back, Bree shot him a smile that reached her baby blues. “You said it, not me.”
Shaye nudged Bree with an elbow. “Play nice, kiddies.” Then she turned her sous chef’s gaze on Harley—and trust him, as sweet as Shaye Harland was, in her kitchen she was a force to be reckoned with. “We don’t want to upset the crazy pregnant lady.”
“I heard that,” Piper yelled from somewhere upstairs. “And you better have brought cookies—lots of cookies for the crazy pregnant lady.”
“See?” Shaye lowered her voice to a whisper. “Hormones.” Then, with the familiarity of someone who’d once offered him a taste of mud-pie when she’d been eight, Shaye patted his cheek. “If you’re stuck, Harl, why don’t you find yourself a new muse and try something completely different. Take a walk on the wild side.”
“Says the woman whose motto is ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’,” said Bree.
Shaye gave an exaggerated sniff. “Like you aren’t ten times worse than me on a bad day, sister. The only thing wild in you is the animal-print bra and panties you picked up at Flirt last time we went shopping.”
“Really?” Harley just…couldn’t…help himself. “That does sound kinda outrageous.” And very, very hot. He positively would not think about whether the animal print was leopard spots, zebra stripes or bloody snake scales, or how the fabric clung to her curves.
“Wild is overrated,” Bree said. “I’m happy being boring.”
A tinge of pink blossomed on her high cheekbones, and a faint crease appeared between her eyebrows.
“Boring is the one thing you’re not,” he said.
Her gaze flicked to his and then darted aside. Shaye, intuitive to people’s feelings as always, slid an arm around Bree’s waist.
“He’s right. You’re not boring, hon, just a little…”
“Repressed?” Harley supplied helpfully.
“I was going to say, in need of a good orgasm,” Shaye said. “And then I thought, that’s a little crass.”
“Yet you went there.” Bree extracted herself from Shaye’s side. “I should be grateful Mr. Big-Shot-Artist didn’t.”
No need. Because they both knew he’d given her more than one earth-shattering orgasm not so long ago. The details were a little hazy as he’d been half plastered at the time, but he remembered she’d cried out his name—at volume—on at least three different occasions.
So he showed his palms and switched on his A-grade smile. “I have the right to remain silent, since anything I’m dumb enough to say now will be held against me. Have fun planning your party, ladies.”
Bree gave him one final blistering glare and strode down the hallway.
“Think about what I said.” Shaye tapped his chest with her index finger. “Find a new muse. One without double-D cups and the instincts of a Great White like the women you normally bed. Someone like the Papatuanuku in your sketch.”
Then, before he could open his mouth to reply, she winked and walked away.
Copyright © 2016 by Tracey Alvarez.