Chapter 3

 

Creating a profile on Kiwi-Match was like being sixteen again and attempting to get his learner drivers’ license with the same testing officer who’d failed him on his first attempt. Only worse, because this was Holly. She’d seen him fail at the “meeting women” thing more than twice.

Her fingers tapped over the keys, brow in cutely concentrated wrinkles.

“This covers all the basics.” Holly clicked her tongue and sat back to study the screen. “Looking to meet women aged twenty-five to thirty-five, relationship not hook-up. You’re twenty-nine, star sign Scorpio, dark brown-blackish hair, brown eyes, about six feet tall, body type athletic, dress style—” Holly scanned him from plaid shirt down the legs of his ripped-knee jeans to the toes of his socks—which oops, had a hole in the big toe.

He wriggled said toe, and she huffed out a sigh, returning to the screen.

“Dress style, casual. Non-smoker, social drinker, never married, no dependents. Occupation, mechanic. Hobbies include rugby, playing the guitar, reading, watching movies, and trivia. All good so far?”

Ford nodded, then his lip curled. “God, I sound boring on paper. Like every other jackass listed.”

“At least your profile will pass the level of a twelve-year-old’s spelling and grammar. Can’t say the same for some of these guys.”

“Women pay attention to that stuff, huh?”

“Betcha ass we do.” Holly clicked around a bit more. “Since you refuse to answer the more personal questions about what you’re looking for in a woman and what your ideal date is, there’s only the photo to go.”

“I’m not refusing to tell you what my ideal date is. I’ll fill it out later,” Ford said. “I just don’t have much experience with the whole dinner and movie thing.”

“That’s because when you eat, you’re one hundred percent focused on food.”

“I like food.”

“And you like movies because it means you don’t have to make conversation.”

Ford made a shooting motion at her. “Bullseye.”

“You’ll have to step up your game if you want to impress.”

“Yeah.” The prospect didn’t fill him with a bunch of feel-good fuzzies. Not, say, like a quick drink in a noisy bar, a movie at the tiny theatre, and afterwards, an invitation to playtime in his bedroom where he could impress. While his conversational skills sucked, he’d better uses for his mouth that women didn’t object to.

“Stop thinking about doing one of your tiny blondes and concentrate.”

Ford glanced up to Holly’s frown.

“And come over here and tell me which of these photos you want me to use—unless you’ve got a better one?” she added.

Ford pulled a face. “Do I look like the type to have a stash of selfies on my phone?”

“You’re the type who bitches whenever you spot a camera aimed in your direction.” She patted the couch cushion next to her. “Which is why I’ve only managed to find three photos to choose from.”

He sat next to her, careful to keep a gap between their thighs.

“First one I saved from the Oban News after the Thunderbirds won the tenth quiz night in a row,” she said.

“I look half pissed.” Ford grimaced.

“True.” Holly clicked, and a second photo appeared. “You and the guys after this year’s Waitangi Day touch rugby game, where we girls righteously kicked your sorry butts.”

He nudged her elbow. “Gloating is beneath you.”

“It so isn’t. What do you think?”

“I’m covered in mud, and my eye is starting to swell from where your elbow accidentally encountered it.”

Holly blew another raspberry. “You want me to add doesn’t take being beaten by a girl well, to your profile?”

“What other photos have you got on that computer? Me as an eight year old, dressed up as a Jedi for Halloween? Or me at fourteen with the science fair trophy? Or maybe dressed in the hired penguin suit at the bachelor auction?”

“Hey, I bid three-fifty on you in that tux. I’m bummed I didn’t get a photo.”

“I’m not. Besides, any woman who wants to meet me because of a tux will get pissy when she sees the real deal.”

“Here’s the real deal, then.”

She clicked, and the last photo appeared, showing him dressed in his grease-smeared coveralls and wearing a cheesy grin, leaning against a ute part way through a clutch repair. Holly stood beside him, her head resting on his shoulder, a brightly colored gift-bag dangling from her fingers. His birthday last year, when she’d surprised him on his morning break with coffee, cake, and the latest Game of Thrones DVD. She’d insisted Ford’s dad take a photo of her and the birthday boy, and she’d wrapped an arm around his waist and leaned in with a cheesy grin of her own.

“Best of a bad bunch,” Ford said.

“It’s not bad. At least you’re smiling.” Then she clicked some more and the photo of the two of them cropped to just him, with only a glimpse of her dark hair draped over his shoulder.

Without Holly in the shot, he looked like a grinning moron.

“There, that’s better.” She clicked back to the open Kiwi Match tab and hit upload. “I just need to confirm your details, and then we wait for all the women to fight over you.”

Tiny nerve endings prickled across Ford’s shoulders. He glanced sideways at Holly, who remained staring at the screen. If he didn’t know better, he’d think there’d been an edge in her tone. An edge ground against the green-eyed monster’s razor-sharp teeth. And if the green-eyed monster stirred at the thought of other women being interested in him, what would happen once a real woman became involved?

Probably nothing, because if he was correct about the jealousy, maybe it simply meant they’d become reliant on each other’s friendship, and she didn’t want that to change. But it could be interesting testing the limitations of that friendship and finding out, once and for all, if there was any escape from the friendzone.

If he even wanted to escape.

Ford propped up his feet on Holly’s coffee table. “Hit send. This is gonna be fun.”

 ***

 Writteninthestars.com Daily Horoscope.
Pisces.

While honesty is the best policy with interactions with friends, sometimes tact and flattery can smooth troubled waters.

 

Waves slapped against the pylons of Oban’s wharf as Holly hurried toward The Great Flat White Café for the girls’ monthly breakfast. The first ferry headed for Bluff on the mainland had left thirty minutes ago, so the wharf had emptied out. With winter in full swing, the busy season’s many watercraft anchoring in Halfmoon Bay harbour had left. Only boats owned by the hardy, year-round residents remained—including Ben’s boat, The Mollymawk, rolling restlessly in the choppy waves of a gathering southerly.

Tugging her scarf higher under her chin, Holly pushed through wind and sea spray to the café door. The girls had made it before her. Piper, Shaye, Kezia and Bree sat in the far corner, the café owner, their friend Erin, scribbling orders on her pad. A sprinkling of customers sat at the high bar table running along one of the picture windows, the view of Due South overlooking the seaweed-strewn beach a drawcard.

Holly stepped inside, the coffee-and-fresh-baking-scented warmth tickling her frozen nose.

Shaye’s head swivelled around, her gaze stabbing double roasting forks into Holly. Yeah, she’d been sorta incommunicado since busting in on Shaye and Del a couple of nights ago. Shaye’s glare advised that Holly would be doing some explaining…soon.

And she would explain, or at least, find a way to deflect her friend’s concern onto other matters. Like setting a wedding date.

After hugs all around, Holly sank into the empty chair next to Bree, who was currently eyeing spilled granules of raw sugar around Piper’s coffee cup. Bree’s fingernail tapped out a restless rhythm on her cup rim, itching, Holly surmised, to sweep the grains away.

“You look tired, Holly. Rough night?” Shaye slid a menu across the table, smiled a smile sweeter than the raw sugar—so sweet it threatened death by diabetes.

“Rough morning. I haven’t had my second coffee.”

Piper held up her index finger. “Excuse me, you don’t get to bitch about caffeine deprivation when I’m only allowed one decent hit a day. And don’t even get me started on rough starts—find me the doctors who say morning sickness is normally limited to the first trimester. Lying bastards.”

Sympathetic murmurings echoed around the table.

Holly scanned the menu—off the hook, for now. After Holly’s flat white arrived and she’d placed her order for French toast with a side of bacon—because nothing soothed a restless night spent tossing and turning over a guy like maple-syrup-drenched bacon—Erin plopped down onto her seat next to Holly.

“Shut up, girls,” Erin said. “Holly’s gonna dish the latest on Ford.”

“I am?”

Stalling was pointless. Kezia, Shaye and Piper leaned forward, eyes expectant. Bree’s elbow bumped Holly’s arm as Bree, too, turned toward Holly.

“You are.” Kezia tossed her dark curls over her shoulder and crinkled her nose. “Jesu. I’ve heard nothing from Ben this week other than jokes about Ford and the match-making geriatric gang.”

“And don’t forget, Holly’s in charge of the online side of finding Ford a juicy squeeze,” Shaye supplied, super-helpfully.

“That’s what I heard, too.” Erin took a sip of her coffee and grinned, a cappuccino-foam moustache turning her smile Machiavellian. “Girl, you got your job cut out for you. Now we want to hear every-damn-thing.”

Holly held up her hand. “All right, all right. I’ll dish.”

Throw them a bone or they’d tear her apart—and who knew what they’d find if they stripped off her first layer of defence.

“You could’ve let me twist your arm a little bit. You’re too easy.” Bree stretched out her fingertips to brush the sugar granules toward herself.

Ever the uptight ice queen, Bree would banish Ford to the dungeon at the first crumb he left in her bed. Holly’s stomach knotted, squeezing a stranglehold around the few sips of coffee sloshing there. Picturing Ford in anyone’s bed triggered a spurt of irrational jealousy.

And what better way to squish irrational jealousy than to say yes to her cousin MacKenna?

Yes, she’d move to Invercargill. Yes, she’d go back to her old salon Halo, but this time renting a cutting station, forming her own client base, carving her own career. Yes, she wouldn’t waste any more time pining over the Komeke brothers. 

 “Easy and way too cheap.” Holly dug the tablet out of her tote bag and switched it on. “I should’ve charged for the hour it took to pry enough information out of Ford to make a dating profile.” She opened Kiwi-Match and scrolled through the new profiles until she spotted Ford’s name. “Here he is.”

She turned the tablet around and slid it across the table.

“Holy guacamole, he looks terrifying,” said Shaye.

Kezia winced. “Merda. That’s unfortunate.”

“Like a Neanderthal having a really crap day.” Piper angled her head and squinted. “Though I guess some women will dig the whole caveman vibe.”

Holly snatched the tablet back. “Dammit.”

Instead of a smiling Ford, someone, presumably Ford himself since he was the only other person who knew his account password, had switched out the pictures. This one showed him with the wind blowing his dreads over his face—his scowling, I’m going to stuff that camera down your throat face. She recognized the photo, having seen it in Denise’s scrapbooking album. His mum had dragged out the album to show Holly her progress a few months ago.

“Nice,” said Shaye. “With a photo like that, Ford will definitely attract the wrong kind of woman. But maybe…” Her mouth pursed while she twisted a strand of her ponytail.

They’d been friends since forever, so long that Shaye didn’t need to finish her sentence for Holly to hear the rest of the words. But maybe that’s what you planned.

“Let me have another look.” Piper held out her hand for the tablet.

Holly passed it over, and the sisters proceeded to analyse Ford’s profile, including the fact he’d only had a dozen views on it.

Bells jingled above the café door, and Ford strolled in, all six-foot swaggering male packed into navy coveralls. And okay, the whole sexy, diamond-in-the-rough look with the coverall arms stripped down and tied around his hips, exposing a black tee shirt that outlined his chest muscles worked. Muscles gained from long hours lifting engines out of cars and beating the crap out of the punching bag set up in his spare room.

Ford’s gaze zipped to the women’s table, skipped over Piper, Kezia and Shaye’s shoulder and slammed into Holly. Her heart punched against her ribs, one fierce, unexpected jolt. It resumed a steady thud after Ford twitched his eyebrows up in the universal mate-greeting-mate hello.

He leaned on the service counter, putting in his order with Erin’s barista.

Screw that. And screw Ford’s self-sabotaging photo when the weight of leaving Oban—of leaving people she cared about—weighed her down.

“I’ll be right back,” she said and stood.

Ignoring the other women’s curious glances, Holly strode across the café. Since they were just mates, since she was one-of-the-guys, she punched Ford’s arm, right in the centre of the black koru and hei matau designs inked on his biceps. Ford didn’t flinch, as if her fist had been nothing more than a finger tap.

His dark-brown gaze, the color of rich espresso, slid to hers. Then his mouth kicked up into a grin. “Morning to you, too.”

Tempted to hit him again because that grin was all kinds of adorable, Holly fisted her hand on her hip instead. “You have an amazing smile.”

Ford blinked and jerked his head back, his smile flipping into a frown. “Wait a minute—what?”

“The kind of smile some women would crawl over hot coals to have directed at them.”

Ford hooked a finger under the neckline of his tee shirt, dragging it away from his starting-to-redden throat. “Simon, mate, did you spike Holly’s flat white this morning?”

“I’m not complimenting you, dumbass.”

Ford’s gaze switched back to her. “Amazing smile sounds pretty complimentary.”

“A statement of fact. Like West is charming. Or Ben is tall. Or Kip is handsome—”

“Or Si makes the best damn coffee in Oban.” Simon gave a smug stroke to his lumberjack beard and plucked a to-go cup off the top of the espresso machine.

Holly pointed at the barista. “Hell, yeah. You’re the boss.” Then directing her finger back at Ford, she angled it at his nose. “You have a killer smile, which is why we picked out the photo of it for your profile picture.”

“I changed it.”

“I noticed. You look fierce. And not in a good way.”

“The big bad wolf about to take a bite outta Little Red Riding Hood?”

She snorted out a laugh. “You’re no big bad wolf.” The words slipped off her tongue before her brain could get a whoa-wait-a-minute leash on them.

She wasn’t an idiot. Men got touchy if their bad-assery was called into question. In their heads, they were all big bad wolves—all alpha males. But being friends with Ford for the past three years had made her complacent. He was the guy who’d watch the occasional chick flick with her without criticizing every five minutes. The guy who understood there were certain times in the month where she hated everybody and everything and would cry over nothing, especially when said guy would leave a container of real chocolate brownies at her front door.

Ford folded his arms, his gaze chilling to flat polar ice. “That’s how you see me, isn’t it? Harmless Maori fella, good for a laugh and about as threatening as a Labrador.”

A vein pulsed in the side of Ford’s neck, his throat carved into rigid columns of tension.

Holly took half a step back. “I don’t—”

“Yeah, you do. And that’s okay when we’re talking about our mates. With them, with you, I mostly am that guy.” Ford leaned in and dipped his head, making her half-step back disappear. “But with a woman I want in my bed?” He pitched his voice below the hiss and roar of the espresso machine so only she could hear it. “I’m no Labrador, sweet. And any woman convinced she’s getting one by that grinning moron photo will get one hell of a nasty shock.”

Ford dropped change on the counter and grabbed the two to-go coffees. He toasted his coffee toward the five women watching their exchange with interest.

“Enjoy your breakfast, ladies.”

Holly watched the rigid line of Ford’s spine as he walked away and left the café. She returned to the table and plopped down into her seat.

Erin leaned into Holly’s side and gave her arm a gentle nudge. “Were you staring at his butt?”

Holly jerked, steeling herself to meet Erin’s curious gaze.

“No.” Mind blanking to empty white noise, Holly scrambled through a pathetic array of excuses. “I mean—look at his clothes! The dude needs a makeover and then a new profile picture.”

The wrinkle between Erin’s eyebrows smoothed out. “You’re right. Has anyone ever seen Ford in anything other than a tee shirt and jeans?”

Piper leaned forward. “I don’t know if he even owns more than one collared shirt. And the dreads? Hot or not? I say not.”

“Hot,” said Erin and Shaye.

“Not,” countered Bree and Kezia.

All eyes turned to Holly.

“Hol?” said Shaye. “Your turn.”

Holly squirmed in her seat.

But with a woman I decide I want in my bed? I’m no Labrador, sweet.

Obviously, it had been far too long since she’d had a man in her bed.

“Not,” she said. “The dreads hide his really great bone structure.”

“You mean, under the hair he’s a fox,” said Kezia.

Erin drained the last of her coffee. “Even with the hair he makes the eye-candy grade. Totally bangable eye candy, as some lucky woman will find out—if he ever gets a response from Kiwi-Match.” She stood, frowning toward the kitchen. “I’ll go check on our breakfast.”

Piper rested her laced hands on her baby bump. “Then we’re agreed. Underneath the coveralls and crusty Captain Jack Sparrow dreads hides a sex god begging for an intervention.” She dipped her chin at Holly. “I nominate you to convince him to lose the hair, and you and baby sis to take him shopping for some decent clothes.”

“He won’t listen to me.”

“You’ll figure out how to make him listen.” Shaye shot Holly an evil smile. “You want him to find a woman, right? To fall in love?”

Holly kept her gaze steady on her friend. Showing no weakness, no chink in the armour. “Yes, I do. That’s exactly what I want.”

Because then she’d kill two birds with one stone. Kill off the guilt-bird for moving away, and kill off the what-if bird and stop it twittering nonsense in her ear about her and Ford.

***

 “What’s got your panties in a wad?”

Ford looked up at his dad from the Toyota where he’d been pounding the shit out the engine mount, trying to get a bolt loose. Oh. And to work off some frustration. Holly’s face as she’d nailed shut the exit from the friendzone with one statement kept popping into his head. He smacked the wrench on the engine mount for good measure and uncoiled from his crouched position.

His dad leaned against the workbench that ran the length of the workshop, struggling to keep a straight face as he drained the last of the coffee Ford had brought back. “Those mean girls picking on you again? Want me to go tell them to lay off?”

After growing up in Oban, Ford shouldn’t be surprised at how fast news travelled.

“Which one was it?” he asked.

“Del texted first. Shaye blabbed the moment she hit the kitchen.” His dad tossed the disposable cup into the trash. “Followed by West. Expect there’ll be another from Ben once Kezia gets hold of him after she’s finished teaching.”

Ford rubbed the back of his wrist across his forehead. “I’m a bloody laughing stock.”

“You’re a public service. Giving people something to focus on other than their own boring little lives.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“My life’s not boring. Not while I’ve got your mother keeping me entertained every night.”

“Not touching that. So not touching that.”

His dad chuckled, and some of the tension oozed out of Ford’s tense muscles. His parents’ rock-solid marriage gave him hope. Their strength both separately and together had forged him through the fire of his childhood into the man he was today.

His dad circled around the Toyota and plonked a stool beside the back door. He sat and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, his grease-smeared fingers laced together. Something on Ford’s face must’ve clued his dad in to a dark current eddying under the surface. Rob Komeke had a bullshit detector that was finely tuned to his two adopted sons.

“Isn’t Graham coming in for the Subaru at two?” Ford jerked his chin behind him to the station wagon his dad was refitting with new brake pads.

“Yep. And it can wait. Time for a little man-to-man kōrero.”

“Since when has one of your man-to-man talks been little?” Ford shook his head so his dreads covered the smile inching onto his mouth.

His dad’s kōreros were known to go on for a while, especially if he or Harley had been caught pulling some dumb shit they couldn’t weasel out of. Less of that now he and his brother were more mature…and Harley rarely came home. But still. When Rob Komeke wanted to talk, all joking aside, there was only one acceptable response…shut up and listen.

Ford leaned a hip against the Toyota and put on his let me hear it face.

“This hare-brained scheme of Mrs. T.’s. You on board with it?” his dad asked.

“Don’t see the harm in letting her try to fix me up.” Ford rolled his shoulders under the loose cotton of his coveralls. “It won’t take her long to fixate on something else once she fails.”

“You reckon? Fixate on something else when her rep as Oban’s answer to Cupid is at stake?”

“She’s no Cupid.”

“She’s taking credit for all four of your mates—don’t give me that look, I know she’s delusional—but it keeps the old girl happy, thinking she’s had something to do with this spate of blossoming romances these last couple of years.”

“Blossoming romances?” Ford’s lip curled. “Jeez, dad, read any good Mills and Boon’s lately?”

“Says my son who’s just signed on Kiwi-Match.”

“Heard about that, too, did you?”

His dad’s forehead crumpled, dark eyebrows gathering into a V. “Yeah. And I heard you gave Hol a hard time at the café.”

Prickles sped up and down his spine. Prickles like stinging nettles that left a sore spot he couldn’t quite reach. He masked his reaction with a brief flash of a grin. “Aw, c’mon. She started it.”

Instead of laughing, his dad straightened. Added a don’t bullshit another bullshitter stare—the one that, as a kid, would’ve made Ford spill his guts within the next twenty silent seconds.

Ford shifted his weight, scratched the back of his neck and kept his gaze locked on the stained concrete under his work boots. “I changed the photo on the dating profile we made last night.”

“Uh huh.”

“Holly was just letting me know she didn’t like it.”

“She’s hands-on in finding you a girlfriend, then?”

Ford shoved his fists into his coverall pockets, his short, clipped nails digging into his palm. Don’t think about Holly’s hands on anything.

“Yeah.”

“Sensible. No woman knows you better. Except maybe your mother, but I’m guessing you don’t want her interfering.” A smile cracked the edges of his dad’s mouth. “Though there may come a time when you’ll ask for her opinion, just the same.”

“Hell freezing over have any meaning?”

His dad chuckled then fell silent. A soft click and whirr sounded from the corner stereo as the next disc slotted into place, and Bob Marley’s voice throbbed through the speakers. 

“Denise always had a spooky sixth sense about you boys. Right from the first time she met you and Harley when you were only three months old. Pania gave Harley to me and you to Denise the moment we walked into the house. My sister was never one for polite chitchat. ‘Mind your nephews,’ she said. ‘I’m going out for a smoke.’ Denise didn’t tell me until a few years after you came to us that she knew then, hugging your squirming little body with only a wet and dirty nappy on, that you and Harley were meant to be ours.”

Ford’s throat lining glued together, so he coughed to clear it. “Yeah. Worked out well for everyone, all things considered.”

Bob Marley wailed, and a seagull waddling past the open door of the workshop threw back its head and squawked.

His dad nodded. “She’s raised you right, hasn’t she? But don’t think for a moment that because you’re out of nappies you don’t still belong to her.”

Maybe Denise Komeke hadn’t given birth to him like Pania had, but she was the only woman Ford called “Mum.” He ducked his head, bending to pick up his wrench. “I’m still not discussing my sex life with either of you.”

His dad snorted and stood. “Sex life? What sex life? You haven’t gotten laid in months.” Then he cut Ford a sly glance. “Unless there’s something other than movie marathons going on at Holly’s house?”

“Way outta line.” Ford crouched by the Toyota again, white-knuckling the wrench. “We’re friends.”

His dad’s grunted “Uh-huh” was not at all repentant. He picked up the stool with both hands, his fingers tight on either side of the metal seat. “Pania called the other night.”

A flash frost swallowed up the hot, tingly feeling the mention of Holly had stirred in his gut. The only time his birth mother called was when she wanted something. Whether it was to reminisce, garner sympathy or, more likely, ask for money, he didn’t want to know. Pania had stopped contacting him years ago.

“After drug money, was she?”

“Says she’s got herself clean. This time.”

Ford shook his head, glaring at the engine mount. “How much did you send her?”

“Five hundred. For groceries and stuff. Plus another five into her landlord’s account.”

Ford bit down on his back teeth, staring straight ahead at the ute’s silver panels. “I’ll transfer a grand into your account tonight.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Yeah. I do.” His dad had cleared up his younger sister’s messes for years. Messes that included Ford and his brother. Bitterness coated his tongue, but he swallowed it. “She’s my responsibility.” As much as he skimmed over that part of his whakapapa, his ties to his birth mother weren’t that easy to sever. “And Harley’s. I’ll send him an e-mail later.”

“Pocket change to your brother.”

“Yeah. Down-the-back-of-the-couch money.” He plastered on a grin for his dad’s benefit, though he had no intention of bugging Harley for money. Ford had some pride.

“All right, then.” His dad returned the stool under the workbench and rubbed his hands together. “Sure you don’t want my two cents worth on finding romance?”

Ford set the wrench onto the prick of a bolt. Didn’t bother looking up to the grin he knew would be on his dad’s face. “Piss off and let me get back to work.”

 

Copyright © 2015 by Tracey Alvarez

 

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