Chapter 1

 

 

Writteninthestars.com Daily Horoscope.
Pisces.

Today the Pisces woman has life-decisions to make. Consider carefully, pick wisely, but be bold.

 

“We need to find Ford a woman,” Mrs. Taylor said.

In the process of applying nail polish, Holly Parker jerked in response. The tiny brush slipped and Lavender Dreams smeared over the cuticle. Her eyes bugged out at the smirk on Mrs. Taylor’s face as she calmly released this bombshell into Dixie’s living room. Mrs. Dixon—or Dixie, as Holly had called her since forever—poked her head out of the tiny kitchen where she waited for the kettle to boil and rolled her eyes. Holly’s downstairs neighbour and honorary adopted grandma had no doubt heard more outlandish statements from Oban’s resident gossip and self-proclaimed “character”.

Snickers erupted between the other women gathered for a mani-pedi-catch-up. The topics of discussion ranged from the book club’s monthly selection to who Noah-the-cop nearly arrested for drunk and disorderly—that, of course, led to an animated debate about the single men remaining on the Island. Holly had tuned out the chattery white noise. She had real world problems such as the text from her cousin MacKenna to fixate on.

But when Ford’s name came up?

All ears, sweet. All ears.

Glenna reacted first. “Ford’s quite capable of finding his own woman.”

Holly dipped a cotton bud in the polish remover, slanting a glance at the woman beside her. Shaye’s mum appeared more amused than scandalized at the suggestion Ford needed assistance to find a hook up. Shaye, if she hadn’t avoided helping out tonight because of work, couldn’t have kept a poker-face. And since Holly’s bestie was the only person out of the four hundred year-round residents of Stewart Island who suspected she had a crush on Ford Komeke…

Not really a crush. More of a thing. Not even a thing, really. An awareness. She was aware of Ford in a guy way, while he was only aware of her in a mate-who-happened-to-be-a-girl-way. Awareness didn’t equal a crush.

“After witnessing women swoon when Ford plays his guitar, I have to agree. He’s quite a catch,” Mrs. Randal said.

Holly squinched her eyes and focused on reapplying polish, waiting for Mrs. Randal to bring up her latest favourite topic.

In three…two…one…

“Not in the same league as our dear Prince Harry, of course. Wouldn’t it’ve been wonderful if he’d fancied one of our girls while he was here?”

Bingo. Holly turned from Mrs. Taylor’s nails to look at Mrs. Randal, who sat soaking her feet in the portable foot spa waiting her turn for Holly’s famous leg and foot massage. Like Mrs. Taylor, the local elderly women looked forward to the chance to gossip and be fussed over.

“Why,” Mrs. Randal continued, “with your lovely figure and pretty brunette and, er…pink hair—I’m positive I caught him eyeing you up at the quiz night.”

“I don’t think me and the fifth in line to the throne would’ve worked out. He’s a Virgo—fussy, over critical and conservative. Total mismatch, I’m afraid.” Holly recapped the polish with a smile.

Mrs. Randal’s lower lip pooched out.

“Back to Ford,” Mrs. Taylor said. “Underneath that rough and rugged exterior and all that hair”—she wriggled the fingers of her free hand at shoulder level to indicate Ford’s dreadlocks—“is a fine-looking man.”

“Some women like that bad-boy vibe of dreads and ink.” Glenna, who’d just finished Dixie’s manicure, nudged Holly’s arm. “Right, Hol?”

“The man’s no bad boy.” Holly adopted what she hoped was a neutral tone of voice and expression. “He’s a pussycat. As in, cat’s got his tongue.” She shrugged. “Talking to women he doesn’t know is not his strong suit.”

“Maybe not. But if we hand-picked some nice girls for him…” Mrs. Taylor paused for extra drama.

Holly glanced up, catching Dixie making a circular motion by her ear with an index finger. No argument from Holly. When Betsy Taylor latched on to an idea, no matter how crazy-outlandish—take last year’s bachelor auction as a prime example—she got things moving and shaking.

“I can see it now,” Mrs. Taylor said. “It’ll be like that TV show where a handsome chap gets to date and snog twenty girls.”

“Gawd. Ford’d hate that,” Holly blurted.

Aw, hell to the no on so many levels.

Apart from his introverted nature and monosyllabic small talk skills, in the three years she’d been back in Oban after completing her hairstylist training in Invercargill, she’d seen Ford date—and she used that term loosely—maybe five women.

Mrs Taylor’s plucked eyebrows shot up then returned to normal as a sly smile appeared on her face. “Is this from experience? Did Ford try getting frisky on your dinner date last year?”

The one Holly scored in the charity auction for three hundred and fifty dollars. She’d told Ford she’d been a mate and had saved him from a fate worse than death by bidding on a “date” with him. The truth? She’d planned to test the boundaries of their friendzone, to see if Ford would look at her in a different light once she’d donned heels and a dress. An utter fail in that department. She’d chickened out on sharing even a hint of her developing and not-at-all-platonic feelings while they’d shared an uncomfortable meal together at Due South’s restaurant with the locals heckling them good-naturedly.

So, the only thing Ford tried was breaking the land speed record in dropping her home afterward.

“Of course not. We’re just friends.” Heat crawled up Holly’s cheeks. “I just know he wouldn’t like being match-made.”

“You want your friend to be happy, don’t you, honey?” Dixie called from the kitchen. “And having a bunch of old biddies pestering him to find a girl is no man’s definition of happy.”

“Who’re you calling ‘old’, Sally Dixon?” Mrs. Taylor waved her off. “You know Ford’s mum would love to see her boys settle down with a couple of nice girls. I’m sure she’ll back me up. Plus, I’ll have a little chat with him. He’ll come around to having a spot of female company.”

Glenna snorted then quickly transformed the sound into a cough. “Betsy, how on earth will you convince any women to come to the remotest town in New Zealand, anyway?”

Mrs. Taylor cackled. “Have you seen the man without his shirt? They’ll come, mark my words.”

“With us on his case, Ford’ll be married off in no time,” Mrs. Randal said from her armchair.

Mrs. Taylor bestowed a queenly smile. “Sometimes, a man doesn’t know what he wants until someone else points it out. Ford needs a woman. We’ll find him one.”

Holly picked up the bottle of clear topcoat. She didn’t dare meet anyone’s eyes in case they guessed the truth. She wasn’t on board with this plan. Not a bit. But Dixie was right. She wanted Ford to be happy—of course she did.

So she’d stuff her thing for Ford in a box, wrap it up tight and heat-seal that sucker with her blow-dryer set on max. The same way she’d sealed up her thing for Ford’s twin brother, Harley, all those years ago.

***

Holly dried bone china cups and saucers and returned them to Dixie’s display cabinet. She emptied the foot spa, stacked all her equipment, and breathed a relieved sigh when Mrs. Taylor and the other women finally left.

Dixie cornered Holly in the kitchen. “I can still do my own dishes once I’ve finished entertaining, you know.”

Holly elected not to bring up the girls’ night Dixie hosted a few months ago, when she’d broken her favourite Royal Albert teacup because the china had slipped from her arthritic fingers. While Dixie was still fiercely independent, there were some things she could no longer do. But the one thing she did do undeniably well was to stand in as Holly’s rock. Never knowing her own grandparents, since her parents had been in their early forties when Holly had unexpectedly arrived, Holly considered Dixie “Nana” in every way that mattered.

“I do know,” Holly said, “But it got me away from Mrs. Randal long enough for her to lose interest in setting me up with Prince Harry.”

“Speaking of set-ups…you sure you don’t want to hook in with the Komeke boy before Mrs Taylor gets on his case?”

Holly held up a palm, pursing her mouth so Dixie wouldn’t notice the grin trying to break through. “I’m not going to hook in with Ford; he’s my friend.”

“Stuck in the friend space, then?”

“Stuck solid. With concrete boots. So I hope they can find Ford a nice girl.”

“Ford doesn’t need a nice girl,” Dixie muttered.

Holly finished wiping down the countertop and stowed the dishcloth. “Don’t forget I’m taking you for your check-up after your rinse and set on Thursday.”

“I’m old, not brain dead.” Dixie rolled her eyes so high they almost disappeared under the soft white hair curling over her forehead. “And seeing the doc will be the highlight of my week. Not much opportunity nowadays to have a chat with a handsome man, even if he is asking about my bowel movements.”

“Oh, jeez.” Holly crossed over and kissed the shorter woman’s cheek. “Please don’t turn into a cougar at your age.”

Dixie grabbed Holly’s shoulder with a surprisingly hard grip and reeled her in for a quick, fierce hug.

Knots like sharpened barbed wire spiked Holly’s gut. How could she even consider MacKenna’s offer? Lasting friendships were filled with hazards and heart-break, easier to keep her distance. Except three people wouldn’t let her pull away so easily—Shaye, Dixie…and Ford.

Dixie let out a spit-filled raspberry then chuckled. “Bad enough Oban has one octogenarian cougar. Just be grateful Betsy doesn’t want Ford for herself.”

Holly mock shuddered and gently extricated herself from Dixie’s hug. “Now that you’ve effectively provided me with the best birth control method known to man, I’d better get this gear back upstairs and hit the sack.”

Dixie’s pale-blue eyes narrowed under crinkly eyelids. “It’s only nine o’clock, girl. You’re nearly twenty-six, not ninety. Go on down to the pub with your friends.”

Holly pasted on a smile. Granted, the thought of going upstairs in the large house that Dixie’s late husband had separated into a two-bedroom apartment above, and a single-bedroom unit below, was unappealing. Maybe Holly should head to Due South and pick over Mrs. Taylor’s crazy idea with her bestie.

“Maybe I will. And I’ll see if Shaye and Del have saved you any of that meatball stroganoff they’re trying out this week.”

“Foreign food—it’ll probably give me gas. Still, that’s something else to talk to the good doctor about.”

Holly snickered and gathered up her equipment. “Goodnight, Dix.”

Twenty minutes later, Holly strolled into Due South—hotel, restaurant and pub, AKA the heart of the tiny Oban township. She glanced through the second set of glass doors leading into the crowded pub, her gaze drawn inextricably to the broad-shouldered man in a long-sleeved black tee shirt leaning on the bar, deep in conversation.

Ford

His shoulder-length dreads swayed as he shook his head. Even through closed doors and the rumble of conversation, Ford’s bark of laughter reverberated through her. He stabbed a finger to emphasize a point, biceps bunching under the soft cotton.

Holly rubbed the warm skin at the base of her throat, blinked as her fingertips registered the rapid thud-thud-thud of her pulse. Then shit-balls—Ford turned.

He did a double take at her hovering like an idiot outside then curled his index finger. His dark-brown eyes softened to melted chocolate, his debate forgotten as one hundred percent of his intensity focused on her. Damn Scorpio, Ford’s pull was like one of the spaceship tractor-beams he loved reading about. Her boot-covered foot shifted half a step forward, as if the flick of the man’s finger tugged on an invisible string.

Ford’s grin spread wider, and he mimed holding a bottle and drinking. Nuh-uh. She couldn’t cope with even a simple beer with him tonight. While many people thought Ford’s quietness was a result of a laid-back nature that bordered on comatose, she knew better. A Scorpio like Ford was a master at hiding his true hyper-intense nature.

She shook her head with a smile and gestured with her thumb toward Due South’s kitchen. Ford gave her an easy shrug and spun back to the bar.

Holly hurried down the hallway to the double swinging doors leading to the restaurant’s kitchen. Dinner rush over, she could bend Shaye’s ear while helping with clean-up, a job she’d often done when waitressing there as a teenager. Now she’d seen Ford, and, sigh, experienced the shivery sensation that meant nothing but trouble, she really needed—

Holly blasted through the swinging doors and…damn.

Del had Shaye trapped against one of the stainless steel counters, his hands tangled in her ponytail, tongue halfway down her throat by the look of it. Shaye’s chef cap lay crumpled on the floor, and between them and Holly lay a sauce-covered meatball. Convenient ammunition in a food fight if the stain on Del’s hip was any indication.

“Let me guess.” Holly smirked as the twosome jumped apart. “Shaye, you choked on one of tonight’s special, and Del heroically offered to suck it out of your throat. What a guy.”

Del recovered first and grinned, unwinding himself from Shaye’s embrace. “Nothing slips by you, does it?”

Shaye smoothed the front of her chef’s jacket, face a shade similar to her raspberry-glazed cheesecake.

“We…got into a bit of a discussion, and Del…” Shaye slanted a look at her fiancé and more color flushed into her cheeks.

“Suggested something inappropriate in order to trigger a food fight, which led to inappropriate foreplay?”

“In a nutshell,” Del said.

Shaye nudged his ribs and gave him a little shove to the side, ducking past. “Clean up on aisle three.” Then she switched her attention to Holly, her brow crinkling. “You okay? Wanna grab us a table out front? I’ll be done in ten—Hollywood can finish up in here.”

The way her friend said Del’s nickname clenched like a stone casing around Holly’s heart. Neither Shaye nor Del would hesitate giving up their sexy-time if they thought Holly needed her friend. But it was obvious how Shaye would rather spend her evening. And why not? Del was her Mr. Perfect, whereas, she was just good ol’ Hol. The girl who’d always needed Shaye more than the other way around.

Holly shook her head and forced her lips into a smile.

“Nah, I’m good.”

Because she didn’t want to be that friend. The one who made a gun gesture to the head in her friend’s “look at my engagement ring” photo.

“I stopped in to see about some meals for Dixie. Her freezer’s running a bit low.”

“I’ll get Del to take ‘round some in the morning.” Shaye’s eyebrow twitched up. “Sure you’re okay? We can talk if you—”

“I’m fine, Shaye-Shaye. Go home and boink your man’s brains out.”

The mention of boinking did the trick. Shaye’s eyes went dreamy. “He is very boinkable.”

“Ugh. Too many gross mind pictures in my head today. I’m off home to rinse my mind out with an hour of TV zombie carnage. Reminder—girl’s breakfast at Erin’s on Saturday, seven-thirty, sharp.” Holly made the I’m watching you gesture with her middle two fingers. “Be late and I’ll spread nasty rumors about the size of your fiancé’s package.”

“I heard that.” Del’s voice came from the kitchen’s walk-in pantry. “And they’ll all know you’re lying.”

Holly blew Shaye a kiss and made a quick exit back the way she’d come.

***

 Holly’s phone buzzed with an incoming text as she walked home. Cowardly avoiding Ford out front, she’d taken a longer detour around the rear of Due South, so he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of her hurrying past the pub’s picture windows.

She slid her phone out of her jacket pocket and scanned the one-line message from Ford.

Where do you go to my lovely?

First step in the little game they played. Choose a song title to open with, no clues, one point if you could name the artist, bonus points for the year the song came out. Ford, being a musician and a trivia savant, nearly always won.

Dude with a big-ass Tom Selleck moustache—Peter Somebody. That’s worth half a point. My turn. “Never can say goodbye.”

She hit send, stumbling over a sidewalk crack as her song title selection sank in. Smoke curled out of chimneys, drifting into the night air with crisp, winter scents of home and cosy hours spent in front of the fire. Holly hunched her shoulders under her down-filled jacket and kept walking. Another text came in.

Jackson 5 1971, Gloria Gaynor 1975, or The Communards 1987—too easy. Why’d u bail? Would’ve sprung for a beer.

How could she admit that seeing him tonight would cloud her judgement about a phone call she needed to make?

PMSing. She tapped out. In full bitch mode.

His reply. Roger that then. Backing away slowly…see u at quiz night. Buy u beer if Madame B’ovaries win.

Holly shoved her phone into her pocket. It’d be a red-letter day when Madame B’ovaries beat reigning champs Ford’s Thunderbirds.

The lights were out downstairs at Dixie’s when Holly unlocked her front door and stepped inside. She kicked off her boots and left them where they landed on the hallway floor. Then she padded into her living room, stripped off her jacket and tossed it on her couch. The day’s dishes cluttered up her sink, but Holly avoided them and headed to the fridge. She poured herself half a glass of pinot, narrowed her eyes, shrugged and added another quarter. It’d been a three-quarter-pinot kind of day.

First, a long day at her full-time job at Russell’s grocery store, dealing with dawdling customers who couldn’t choose between brands of loo papers, plus having to issue the same “yes, isn’t Stewart Island beautiful” chitchat to tourists who’d stopped in for supplies. Add to that her boss Carolyn once again starting a sugar-free diet and acting as if a giant weta had crawled up her butt. Then Holly’d busted a gut to get home for her five o’clock trim appointment—West—but he’d had some sort of Due-South-manager emergency and didn’t arrive until five-twenty, which meant her five-thirty highlights—Bree—was pissed. Then Holly’s cousin MacKenna called while Holly had scarfed down a sandwich before Dixie’s girls’ night. Things had rapidly gone pear-shaped.

Holly transferred her wine glass to the coffee table then stretched out on her ugly but comfy floral couch. She opened her phone’s address book and stared at her cousin’s name.

MacKenna was the closest blood relative Holly had to a sister who wasn’t her sister. Physically, they couldn’t be more different. While Holly was a little above average height at five foot seven, MacKenna was short—or stunningly petite, as Mac preferred. Holly had brown eyes and dark-brown hair, which she brightened up with a colorful stripe, because otherwise, boring. Mac had seaweed-green eyes and honey-blonde hair. Holly would’ve hated her petite, Barbie-doll cousin, except no one could possibly hate MacKenna—at least, not until they got to know her and discovered the tiny, cute blonde with dimples and a smile for everyone had the iron will of an army drill sergeant.

  They were tight. Unlike, sadly, the relationship Holly had with her actual sister, who’d been married with a baby by the time Holly hit her teens. Mac, who was only two years older, had taken up the slack at family reunions and Christmas holidays spent on the Island. Together, they’d plotted their future careers—MacKenna as a fashion designer, Holly as a hairstylist to the stars.

Okay, so they’d been a little idealistic.

While MacKenna now owned the bridal-shop-slash-wedding-planning-business Next Stop, Vegas, it was hardly cutting edge fashion in Invercargill, New Zealand’s southernmost city. But Mac had been there for Holly during her years of stylist training, and it had been Mac who put in a good word with the owner of the hair salon, Halo, who’d then offered Holly an apprenticeship.

Holly sighed and hit the “call” button.

“Don’t say anything, just listen,” she said after her cousin answered.

Holly closed her eyes and breathed in the Stewart Island night. Silence broken only by the faint hiss of waves breaking in the distance and the haunting cry of the little morepork owl, who’d claimed the tree outside her window as his personal stage.

“I have Shaye to consider. And more than her, Dixie. I’ll have to find someone who can move in here and keep an eye on her.”

Mac still didn’t speak.

Holly licked her lips. And then there was Ford. Poker games, movie marathons, rugby analysis, rides on his trail bike, hanging out at the garage bugging him…maybe a little fan-girling on the nights he played guitar at the pub.

That would be done. Finished.

But the offer MacKenna had set up for Holly…the chance for her to return to what she loved full time. Making people feel good about themselves, AKA styling hair. The opportunity just came with a steep price tag.

“Tell me again,” Holly said, fingers tightening so hard on the phone she wondered if they’d bruise. “All the reasons why I should move to Invercargill with you in eight weeks’ time?”

 

Copyright © 2015 by Tracey Alvarez

 

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