“You realize your wife sucks,” Harley said to West over the smoking barbecue grill, situated in Oban’s community hall’s back yard. “And you’ve effectively handed her your balls on a platter by agreeing to her suggestion that guys should show up at her damn baby shower.”
West grinned over at him and stole the tongs from Harley’s hand to rotate a row of Del’s homemade sausages. “Your balls were on that platter, too, mate. Didn’t see you turning down her invitation.”
“It wasn’t an invitation. It was an order to attend on pain of death.”
“You scared of Piper?” West clicked his tongue. “Wuss.”
“Everyone’s scared of my sister.” Ben handed Harley and West beers from the cooler positioned at the end of the barbecue. Then he snagged another can and tossed it to Ford, who lazed on one of the community hall’s plastic chairs, watching the women buzzing around inside like bumblebees. “Which is why the four of us are out here instead of at my place watching the game.”
Harley glanced over his shoulder, picking Bree’s blonde hair and the pink-floral sarong she wore out of the crowd. All the women had elected to wear some variation of sarong or loose, muumuu style outfit in solidarity with Piper, who bitched incessantly about not being able to fit into her jeans.
Bree managed to make even a simple sarong look classy. And fucking sexy.
He returned to the sizzling barbecue and snatched the tongs from West. “Great way to spend a bloody Saturday afternoon. Looking like a right tool”—Harley stabbed a thumb at the eye-gouging, orange-and-green-print Hawaiian shirt he’d been coerced into wearing—“and missing the Highlanders’ game. Thanks, man.”
“Give him a break, bro,” Ford said from the deckchair, sliding his dark sunglasses up onto his head. “He’s trying to keep his woman happy.” Ford shot them all a shit-eating grin and after a two-second loaded pause, flicked his wrist and made a whip-cracking “ker-chew” sound.
“You wait, Thing One and Thing Two.” West switched his gaze between Harley and Ford. “It’ll be your turn at marriage and daddyhood one day soon.”
Ford dialed up the grin and chuckled, locking his hands behind his neck and stretching out his legs. “Bring it, I’m ready. You ready, Harl?”
Not in a million lifetimes. Harley clicked the tongs together and pointed them at his twin. “I’ll leave marital bliss and reproduction to the professionals. I just wanna get laid.”
Bree’s voice, pitched slightly above the other women, announced that they were going to play one last game—something called Tinkle in the Pot—before dinner. The sound of her voice sent a scorch of heat through him, as if she’d trailed her fingers down his back to cup his ass. The way she had not so long ago.
Yeah. He really did want to get laid—the problem was who he wanted to get laid with.
“Ford says a chick keeps ringing you at the workshop.” Ben popped the tab on his beer. “She’s got an accent that sounds like the woman from that old TV show, The Nanny. Maybe she’s the one?”
Harley grimaced. He’d already returned Sandra’s call—a woman he’d “dated” twice and broken it off with when she recited the names she’d picked out for their four unborn children—and asked her politely…and then not-so-politely…to quit.
“There’s no the one,” he said. “Like I’ve told every woman I’ve ever slept with, I’m like a temporary tattoo—I seem like a good idea at the time, I’ll look good on their bare skin, but eventually, I’ll disappear.” He shook his head and clapped West on the shoulder. “I’m never going to be a daddy like West here.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing, mate.” West transferred the sausages and chops onto a metal tray. “Right, Ben?”
“Absolutely.” Ben toasted Harley with his beer can. “And since you’re the only single dude out of the old gang, it’s our sworn duty to make your life a living hell until you see the light and give us an ‘amen, brothers.’”
Ben had only become daddy to his before-unknown, ten-year-old daughter Jade last year. Since then, he’d married Kezia and had also taken on her ten-year-old daughter Zoe as his own. At first, Ben had floundered with insta-daddy-hood, but he’d quickly found his feet like a champ.
All the props for Ben, but it wouldn’t work for Harley.
“That’s not going to happen.” Harley shook his head. While his brother had the makings of a more-than-decent dad, Harley suspected he was cut from the same shabby cloth as their biological father. The man who’d run out on his sixteen-year-old girlfriend only months after she’d given birth to twin boys.
The guys just smirked. Assholes.
“Here,” said West. “Go take the snags into the kitchen and dump ‘em in the oven to keep warm, will ya.”
Harley shot a glance at the women who had balloons stuffed under their muumuus and were waddling with a dollar coin between their knees to drop it and “tinkle” into a waiting glass jar. “Are you nuts? I’m not going in there.”
“Pussy.” Ben sipped his beer.
Ford rolled his head toward Harley. “Go ‘round the side to the front entrance and sneak in. They’ll never notice.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Harley picked up the tray of sausages. “It’s all fun and games until some old lady shoves a balloon under your shirt.”
“Be thankful if it’s the only thing an old lady tries to shove under your shirt,” West said with a sly grin. “I’d watch yourself around Mrs. T. Word is she’s looking to be your next benefactor of the arts.”
Harley rebalanced the tray on one hand and shot West a one-fingered salute. To the sound of much laughter, Harley strode away from them and yanked open the gate. A tightness across his shoulders that he’d barely registered earlier loosened. The spicy, delicious aroma of barbecued sausages and chops filled his nose. Sunshine slanted through the trees, creating speckled patterns on the concrete path that intrigued his eye. A brine-touched breeze ruffled his hair. And mates he’d known forever and who knew him—really knew him—that he could be himself with.
His lips curved. Even stuck at a pink-and-blue-themed party with booties made out of tissue paper and classic, unsophisticated fare like barbecued meat, salads and slabs of freshly cut Rewena Maori sourdough bread for dinner, he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Fuck it, but he’d missed home.
Harley came to the end of the path and the narrow sidewalk that led to the main road and Due South. Movement to the right caught his eye. A tall blonde woman striding along the sidewalk.
Bree—his mind automatically supplied. Except it wasn’t.
The immediate similarity ended with blonde hair and slightly taller-than-average height. This woman had none of Bree’s subtly sexy curves and no softness in her bright-blue gaze. He squinted, raking through his memory files. Amy, that was it. Bree’s older sister. He hadn’t seen her since he and Bree were at college together in Christchurch, but she hadn’t changed much.
And behind her, dragging his sneakered feet, a boy. Dark, thick hair with a slight curl in it, dusky skin, elbows tucked close to his sides while he stared at the phone locked in his hand. A boy of mixed blood.
A memory of Amy and her husband picking Bree up from college one day rose in Harley’s mind. He’d only caught a glimpse of Amy’s man, enough to see he was of Maori descent. Explained the kid’s coloring.
Amy and the boy almost walked past him. Then her gaze zipped to the side, and she did a comical double-take, stumbling to a halt. The kid, not watching where he walked, bumped into her.
“Watch out, Mum,” he said. “I nearly dropped my phone.”
Color flushed into two spots high on Amy’s cheeks, spreading down in a crimson stain. Not once did her eyes shift from Harley.
“And you said if I broke the screen on this one you’d—”
“Carter.” Amy wrapped her hand around the boy’s arm.
Carter narrowed his eyes—his grey eyes, Harley noted—at his mother. “What?”
Then the kid glanced from Amy to Harley, studying him briefly with a dismissive oh, it’s just another adult stare before being drawn away by the siren call of his smartphone.
If Harley had used that tone with his birth mother, Pania, or even his adopted mum, Denise, he would’ve received a clip around the ear. He switched his focus to the curve of the boy’s skull, the shape of his jawline, the straight, slightly-on-the-thin-side nose. The same nose that was smack in the middle of his brother’s face—the nose Pania had told Ford was their father’s nose.
Tingles, like a pack of wolf-spiders, swarmed over him. Giant, scurrying legs that galloped down his spine and left his stomach a hollow, churning mess.
While portraits weren’t his speciality, he’d trained his artist’s eye to capture and compare the human form. Plus, he’d started off as a kid by sketching people. His adopted parents, his twin, people on pages torn from glossy magazines and even a few self-portraits.
So he knew. Knew the lines and curves and flaws of his face. Recognized when they were duplicated in a child’s features—albeit combined with high cheekbones that could have come only from the kid’s mother.
He didn’t need to see the guilt etched across Amy’s face.
That kid was his son.
Aside from Mrs. Taylor’s comment about the size of West’s wedding tackle determining the sex of their baby-to-be, the baby shower had gone off without a hitch.
Bree smoothed the sarong around her hips, checking it was still knotted securely. Ordered by Shaye to hurry the men along with the barbecue meat, Bree didn’t intend to have a wardrobe malfunction, unlike poor Mrs. Randal, who’d left the ladies’ room with her 60s muumuu tucked into her underwear.
Bree eased through the crowd of giggling, balloon-bellied women and slipped outside. Ben scraped down the barbecue grill while West stood next to him, sipping a beer, and Ford lounged in a deck chair, eyes glued to Holly, who’d volunteered to referee the current party game. Harley was nowhere to be seen.
Ford gave her a chin lift greeting and angled his head at the community hall’s side gate. “If you’re looking for the food, Harely’s taken it around the front.”
“The coward,” she said.
“We all are.” Ben glanced over from the barbecue. “Never get between women vying to win a block of chocolate.” He nodded back toward the way Bree had come. “He’d have dropped it in the kitchen and run.”
“He wasn’t there a moment ago. He’s probably trapped talking to someone out the front; I’ll go chase him up.”
Because the faster they got to eating, the faster the party would be over. She’d thought she could cope. Thought all the little pink and blue tissue paper booties, the tiny onesies and hand-knitted beanies wouldn’t hurt as much as they did.
“Give us a yell when the food’s ready,” West said.
“So you can sneak in, load up a plate, and head outside to safety again?”
He toasted her with his beer can. “That’s the plan.”
She rolled her eyes and headed down the side of the building, spotting Harley at the end of the path, his body slightly angled to the side as if he were talking to someone just around the corner. He still held the tray of barbecued meat—which was probably a cold, greasy selection by now. She strode toward him, calculating the risk of tapping him on the shoulder, which could mean sausages all over the sidewalk, or just calling his name.
Close enough to see the rigid line of his spine, Bree’s slid her glance sideways…to her sister’s pale face. And if her sister’s unexpected visit wasn’t bad enough, for the first time, Amy had brought Carter with her.
Carter—the baby Bree had given to Amy and her husband Paul to raise as their son nine years ago.
A loose, wobbly sensation dropped into the pit of Bree’s stomach, spreading downward, jellifying the joints in her knees and ankles. Blood boomed in her ears, blocking out the distant surf and the scuff of flip-flops on concrete as Harley half turned toward her. The polite mask he must’ve worn while talking to Amy and Carter remained, but his eyes, his beautiful smoke-grey eyes, were steel blades slicing her to ribbons.
Bad things happen in threes…
And this was the biggest, baddest, granddaddy of badness. The thing she’d selfishly prayed would never happen.
“Auntie Bree!” Carter’s still-high-pitched voice pierced the adult’s awkward silence.
Bree’s gaze skipped past Amy, the poster-child for guilt, to her son. The bored out of his mind scowl he’d worn when she’d first spotted him vanished, replaced by a wide, straight smile. The Komeke grin—no braces required from that genetic branch of his family tree.
“You don’t call, you don’t text, you don’t send me extra Candy Crush lives—you just show up on my doorstep expecting food?” Mentally stuffing steel rods into her jellied legs, she ducked around Harley’s bulk and snatched a sausage from the tray. “Here. I know you’ll be hungry.”
“Starving.” Carter stuffed the sausage into his mouth. He chewed a few times then added, “I had a bag of chips on the ferry ride and then ate Mum’s, too, ‘cause she said she felt sick.”
Closer to her sister, Bree gave Amy’s face a quick once over. Pinched mouth, clenched jaw, inexpertly applied make up—plus dark circles under her slightly puffy eyes. Something other than seasickness was going on with big sis.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Amy said in an automated robot voice. She never once removed her wary gaze from Harley. As if she expected at any second he’d lunge for the kid in a kidnapping attempt.
Kidnapping any kid would be the last thing on his agenda. She could’ve reassured her sister that much if Carter hadn’t been glued to Amy’s side. Harley had made it clear, before she’d even slept with him all those years ago, that he’d rather become a monk than father a kid. Her gut shrivelled and cramped. Not that it excused Bree lying by omission—but she’d gladly take the role of villain since it meant Carter was being raised by two loving, capable parents.
“Hey.” A slight edge to the male voice behind her.
Ford stood at his twin’s side, a hand clamped on Harley’s shoulder, his gaze moving in tiny twitches between Bree, Amy, Carter and back to Harley.
“Amy. Long time, no see,” Ford said, since apparently Harley had forgotten how to speak. Or was so furious, he chose not to. “And this is…?”
Carter took another bite of sausage, and ignoring his mother’s commandment, said, “I’m Carter, and I like Samurai Dawn, too.”
Ford glanced down at his tee shirt, pulling it away from his chest. “What level are you on, mate?”
“Just reached seven.”
“Good one.” Ford displayed an everything’s cool smile, which was almost believable, except for the whitened knuckles gripping Harley’s shoulder. “My bro here couldn’t even get to level three. What say you come inside with us, give him some pointers while we reheat the sausages?”
Carter glanced at his mother, who nodded and forced her quivering mouth into a permissive smile.
“Go ahead, baby. I’ll come in after I’ve had a quick talk with Auntie Bree.”
“Muuuum. Stop calling me baby.” Carter’s tone clearly said death was imminent from maternal humiliation. He shoved the last of the sausage into his mouth and hoisted his backpack higher onto his shoulder.
Bree kept her eyes on the sliver of Halfmoon Bay Harbor visible at the end of the road as Carter walked to his unbeknownst uncle and father. Her nape hairs tingled and lifted. Without turning, she could feel Harley’s gaze on her, the heat of it burning two singe marks down her spine.
She knew the moment Harley disappeared into the community hall, as Amy burst into noisy, heart-wrenching sobs. Bree wrapped her arms around her older sister and hugged her. Amy shook and clung and finally her tears dried to snivels. She pulled away, digging into her voluminous handbag to extract a box of tissues.
Bree pressed her lips together. A box? That implied she was packing more than the usual Mum supply of tissues to clear up the spills and snot produced by the average nine-year-old.
Amy honked into the tissue and then a second one before dumping both into her bag. “You must be wondering why we’re here.”
Considering the efforts she and Amy had gone to, in order to keep Carter from visiting “Auntie Bree” on Stewart Island over the years, yes. “Knowing you were coming would’ve been useful.”
“Also useful, a heads up that Harley was in Oban when you texted to tell me Mum was on her way up to Christchurch.” Amy grimaced. “Never mind, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it. I’ve been a little…distracted.”
Bree gestured to the steps leading up to the hall, and they sat down.
“What’s going on?” Bree kept her voice low and calm, instead of at the oh my god what am I going to do level she wanted to break into. The kind of pitch that would cause dogs to bark hysterically.
The look on Harley’s face…
Bree clenched her jaw and concentrated on her sister’s hunched posture.
“Paul and I haven’t been getting on so well lately,” Amy said softly. “And then Christine turned up and announced she was moving in with us until she found her own place.” Amy’s chin trembled, and she shot Bree a red-eyed plea. “It was all too much, you know?”
“Paul wanted her gone, huh? Christine never approved of him.” Bree squeezed her sister’s hand. “No one could blame him for not wanting his mother-in-law in his face for God knows how long.”
“No, no, no. It was me who didn’t want her to stay. Paul insisted she could, said Christine was whānau and he’d hope that if it were his parents who needed a place to stay…We ended up having a massive fight about me and Carter coming last on his list of priorities. I told him I was taking Carter away for a few days, and do you know what he said?” A hiccupping snort flew from Amy’s lips, and she clamped a palm over her mouth for a moment before she went on. “That some time apart from each other might be good. He probably wants a divorce.”
“I really don’t think that’s the case.” Amy must be both blind and deaf not to realize how much her husband adored her and Carter. In fact, Paul Tahere had been the tipping factor in the decision that a terrified, grieving nineteen-year-old Bree had to make when she discovered she was pregnant shortly after Harley had left the country.
Amy’s eyes filled. “I’ve screwed up everything by coming here. I just couldn’t back down since Paul practically insisted I leave, so I called a taxi to take us to the airport and tried not to think further than staying with my little sis.” She turned her tear-streaked face toward Bree. “But Harley guessed. I saw it on his face the moment he spotted Carter. What are we going do, Bee-bee? He’ll take Carter away from m-m-me.” She dissolved into more heart-wrenching whimpers.
Bree slid her arm around Amy’s shoulders. “Nobody’s going to take your son”—And God, some days it still hurt like a bastard to say the word—“away from you and Paul.”
“You told me.” Amy sniffed. “You told me when you found out you were pregnant that the father was out of the picture. He didn’t love you, and he definitely wouldn’t want this baby.”
Bones filled with lead, Bree dropped her arm from her sister and laced her fingers tightly in her lap. “It was true then, and it’s still true now.”
“Well, the way Harley looked at Carter scared me,” Amy whispered. “Because I think he was looking at you in the same way—possessively.”
Bree patted her sister’s hand and stood. “That’s where you’re mistaken; trust me. Harley will be furious at me for keeping Carter a secret, but as for Carter…”
Bree’s voice trailed away, remembering the furrows on her son’s brow as he’d eyed up Harley. Four years ago, when Carter had turned five, the three adults had told him in a matter-of-fact way that while Auntie Bree had given birth to him, he’d been whangai—informally adopted in the Maori tradition—and Amy and Paul were his mum and dad. Carter, the most amazing kid ever, had only shrugged and said, “Okay. But can I still call you Auntie Bree? Otherwise, my brain will forget.”
So much easier for him than for Bree.
“Harley won’t tell him, will he? We haven’t told Carter his father’s name yet, only that he was an artist like you.” Amy stood, too, dropping her sunglasses over her puffy eyes.
“I don’t think so. The one thing Komeke men are good at is keeping their mouths shut. But we’d better go inside.”
Bree looped her arm through Amy’s and led her into the hall.
The two tables piled with food were surrounded with women filling plates and chattering. The noise level dropped once Mrs. Taylor and her posse of elderly gossips noted their entrance, but Bree angled her chin and strolled across the floor to Carter, who stood sandwiched between Harley and Ford. Harley held a half-filled plate while the boy added another little savoury mince pie onto it.
The sight of both of them, heads close together, her son and the man she’d once had silly, girlish dreams of loving forever, made Bree’s heart pound hard enough to burst from her chest. Amy called Carter’s name, and the boy looked over his shoulder, the action mirrored by Harley.
“Mum, they said I could eat as much as I want.” Then, before Amy could reply, Carter’s gaze flicked to Bree. “Harley’s an artist like you—I asked when I saw the paint under his fingernails.”
Bree pasted on a smile, suddenly conscious that the room had fallen silent.
“He’s gonna look at my Manga drawings.”
Her mouth parchment dry, Bree swallowed carefully. “That’s great.”
Carter studied her for a moment longer, and then his gaze slipped sideways, dancing over the bulk of the man beside him, his nose scrunching as if he’d had a sudden, mystical revelation. “You said my birth father is an artist…”
Bree wanted the ground to open up and devour her whole. Not because she was embarrassed by the question she guessed was coming, but because she’d rather die than see him broken hearted by Harley’s rejection.
But her son, her beautiful, brave son, who she only had the right now to call nephew, wouldn’t have his curiosity denied.
“Auntie Bree?” Carter asked. “Is he my dad?”