Holly walked her six o’clock rinse and set, aka Mrs. Taylor, home. Once she’d delivered the woman safely inside her little house, the non-stop inquisition would end. Hopefully.
“You’ll go see him tonight, dear?” Mrs. Taylor slipped off the silk scarf she wore over her tightly permed curls and pierced Holly with a glance. “Like we discussed.”
Holly’s stomach did a couple of half flips at the thought of seeing Ford after this morning’s run-in at the café. “After I’ve reheated dinner for you.”
Mrs. Taylor gripped Holly’s hand. “You’re a good girl.”
Holly kept her lips peeled back in a smile a moment longer. “All part of the service—and I’m not as good as you think.”
How would Mrs. Taylor and her other regulars cope when she moved to Invers?
You’re just a hairdresser, not a life support machine. Like Mum and Dad said before they moved to Christchurch—the world doesn’t revolve around Holly Parker. You’re not indispensable.
After letting go of Holly’s hands, Mrs. Taylor chuckled and picked up her walking stick. “That’s right. You’re the rebellious one of your girlfriends, aren’t you? The odd one out now that four of ‘em have found true love.”
Holly dodged an oncoming bullet by ducking around Mrs. Taylor and heading into her kitchen. She grabbed one of the frozen meals Shaye and Del stocked for all the local oldies and shoved it into the microwave. Catching a glimpse of her wide-eyed reflection in the microwave door, Holly dialled back her expression to mildly amused.
“I’m no rebel, and I swear I’ll dye your hair orange if you try any of that match-making stuff on me.”
Mrs. Taylor cackled like a hyena and sat down at her kitchen table. “As you young ones say, ‘bring it.’”
Holly folded her arms. “You had your crack at me when you set me up with Declan.”
Declan the dickhead, who’d jokingly, but not really, demanded a blow job on their third date. Not that she’d ever told Mrs. Taylor about her asshat great nephew’s behaviour, though knowing how sharp the old lady was, she probably suspected.
Mrs Taylor crinkled her nose, the laugh-lines around her eyes deepening. “The boy’s an idiot. My bad. I know you think you don’t want a man, but nothing would make me—and more importantly, Dixie—happier than to see you settled before we shuffle off this mortal coil.”
Holly slid open the cutlery drawer. “You and Dixie will outlive us all from sheer, bone-headed stubbornness.” She plucked out a knife and fork and dumped them on the table. “Now stop being a meddling pain in the rear and eat your dinner. I need all the focus I can muster in order to convince Ford to go clothes shopping with me and Shaye.”
Mrs. Taylor rearranged her knife and fork. “Make sure you pick out a decent shirt and tie for the boy. Women like a well-dressed man. I’m thinking a nice blue or green that brings out his eyes…”
Five minutes later, Holly escaped into the icy night air. A few hardy tourists braved the foreshore road, ambling along, staring up at the star-laden sky. Star gazing triggered a reminder of her horoscope this morning. Ford’s troubled waters hadn’t been soothed by her tact and flattery. Sheesh. Not that she cared about pumping up the man’s ego, but she knew better.
Ford Komeke had more layers than the average onion. Layers that’d certainly make her cry if he’d peel them open and let her see what festered in the centre. And something did. She’d known that for as long as she’d known him. Something deep down in Ford hurt, something involving the years before he moved to Stewart Island—something he never talked about.
Holly crossed the patch of winter-stunted grass that passed for Ford’s front lawn. Gardening topped the list of Ford’s not gonna happen jobs, and since his single-story house was a rugby toss from the beach, which spread sand every-which-way during a storm, she didn’t blame him. She paused halfway down the concrete path, stopping before she triggered the outside lights. From inside the house drifted the soft twang of a guitar. She angled her neck toward his lit-up living room—he’d forgotten to draw his drapes.
Hunched over in his armchair, Ford strummed his guitar. He’d stripped down to the tank top and shorts he wore when working out. The tank clung to the slabs of heavy muscle either side of his spine, and his dreads swung forward, covering his face. She badly wanted to see his expression as he played, lost in the music, lost in himself. Ford’s fingers danced along the guitar frets, bringing forth notes that twined around her wire-thin nerves and coated them in a gooey softness.
Girl, you are nuts.
Holly moved a jerky step forward and the outside lights flicked on.
Inside, Ford stiffened, his fingers dropping away from the strings. Before he could turn his head and catch her gawping at him, Holly scuttled forward.
His bulky silhouette appeared in the door’s frosted glass. Over sensitive, maybe, but she could’ve sworn a couple beats of hesitation passed before he swung it open. She sucked her bottom lip between her teeth, fighting the urge to haul ass home.
Ford’s tone was off. Waaaay off.
Instead of his normal “Hey”, which loosely translated into “I’m stoked you’re here,” this “Hey” was more, “What do you want? I’m busy.”
To divert his attention, Holly held out a plastic container. “I brought a peace offering.”
He filled the doorway, leaning a shoulder against the frame and folding his arms. “Please return to B. Taylor,” he read off the container’s side. “She send you down?”
She couldn’t admit that, yes, Mrs. Taylor had convinced her to stop by tonight rather than sometime tomorrow because Holly McChicken hadn’t wanted to deal with him again. And especially not when he looked at her as if she were a mosquito dive-bombing his head.
She yanked the container back against her belly and jutted out a hip, dousing herself in attitude. “You want the cookies or not? Because I can just as easily drop these off to Piper and West.”
Ford stared at her down his long, straight nose. “My father’s nose, he’d told her once. Harley got his eyes and I got the nose. Can’t remember the bastard, but I’m thankful my nose is the only part of the old man I got.”
“Give me the damn cookies then.” He held out a hand.
Holly hugged the container tighter. “Aren’t you going to invite me in? Maybe I’d like a cookie, too.”
A dimple flashed in Ford’s cheek and his scowl softened. “As if you haven’t already sneaked one on the walk here.”
He turned aside, but didn’t move out of the doorway. Unless she wanted to bump boobs with Ford—which she totally did not, thanks-very-much—she couldn’t get past him and the doorframe without contact. Planned or unplanned? Ford’s face gave nothing away.
Holly exaggeratedly wrinkled her nose and gave his shoulder a shove. It caught him off balance enough to shift him inside the hallway a few inches. “You smell of stinky man-sweat. For God’s sake, hit the shower.”
“About to when you arrived.” Ford raised an arm and pretended to sniff. “And it’s pheromones, baby. Women dig that fresh, sweaty smell.”
Oh, yeah. The ripped muscles flexing in his biceps gave off truckloads of pheromones. Not to mention testosterone.
“Hate to burst your bubble, but you’re at least half an hour past fresh. Seriously, dude. I’m about to asphyxiate from your pit stench.” She fanned her nose, which had the unfortunate effect of enticing more pheromone-loaded, I’m-sexually-available male smell into her nostrils.
Ford chuckled but made no move toward her. Six months ago, hell, even six weeks ago, he’d have teasingly pretended to jam her face into his armpit. Yeah—they were kind of juvenile like that at times. Of all her guy friends in Oban—West, Ben, Kip and now Del—Ford was the most affectionate. He still greeted his mum with a kiss every time he saw her. He’d fling an arm around Shaye’s shoulder, lift the petite Kezia off her feet in a bear hug and ruffle Piper’s short hair if he had a clear escape route to avoid her fist. And he’d done all of those with her, and more.
But something changed after their abortive auction date. It’d been so subtle at first, she almost hadn’t noticed it…almost. While they still ragged each other, still argued passionately over books and movies and which was the best season of Supernatural, their easy physical contact had suddenly become…awkward.
Ford showed her his palms. “Fine. I’ll shower.” Then his forehead creased. “Why are you here again?”
Holly shrugged out of her jacket and hung it on a hallway hook. “The girls nominated me to check out your wardrobe.”
“Your clothes. To see if you’ve anything suitable to meet women in.”
“You’re taking the piss.” The wrinkles in Ford’s forehead grew deeper. “My wardrobe is fine. But go be nosy. Knock yourself out.”
She followed him down the hallway, and he peeled off into his bathroom, flicking the door shut in her face. Nice. His bedroom door was wide open, but she couldn’t…quite…nudge…her sneakered foot over the threshold.
Ford’s room equalled off limits. Meaning, he’d never done a Gandalf and told her not to pass from the mate areas of kitchen, living room and bathroom into his sleeping area but…Holly poked her head around the doorway. His sleeping area with a freaking enormous, king-sized bed.
“Shit-balls. That’s a big bed.” She took a bracing breath and stepped inside Ford’s lair. ‘Cause that’s what it felt like, a lair.
The drapes were drawn against the night outside, giving more credence to his décor theme, along with the black duvet cover and dark green walls. On top of a plain wooden dresser were three framed photos—one of his parents and Harley, taken when the brothers were still young enough to smile for the camera without shyness. The other, a ‘56 Ford Thunderbird. His baby which he stored on the mainland. The last photo was taken a few months ago at Ben and Kezia’s wedding. Ford and Ben with their arms around each other’s shoulders, flanked either side by West and Del.
Holly peered into the first drawer—shut it again with a bang. She did not need to see Ford’s boxers and socks. Drawer two revealed a jumble of tee shirts in various shades of black, grey, and white. Sensing another theme, Holly opened the last drawer. Yup, black jeans, blue jeans, black shorts, khaki shorts, black trackpants and navy trackpants.
Across the hall, the shower switched on.
Holly slid open the door to Ford’s built-in wardrobe. A sum total of roughly a dozen coat hangers hung on the rail, most of them empty. One contained a plain pair of black wedding-or-funeral dress pants and a matching, single-breasted suit jacket. She flicked through three collared shirts. The white shirt she remembered from Ben’s wedding, the charcoal short-sleeved one from their “date” and the third—Holly shuddered—a Hawaiian-style shirt with a print mishmash of green palm trees, blue ocean and multi-colored parakeets. Fugly to the max.
“So much worse than I’d imagined.”
She slid the wardrobe door shut and turned to Ford’s unmade, king-sized bed. He was a righty, the left side of the bed covered by the duvet, the right-hand side sheet exposed and rumpled. She edged down the side of the mattress, shooting a quick glance over her shoulder. Watery, hissing sounds from the bathroom continued. Holly perched on the mattress edge, and her butt sunk onto squishy softness.
“Pillow top.” She flopped sideways, oozing onto the puffy mattress as if her bones had suddenly dissolved. As if she were floating on clouds of cotton wool, Holly was pretty sure she flipped into another blissful dimension for a moment. She wriggled into perfect sprawled comfort, snuggled her face into the pillow and inhaled…Ford.
A combination of pine soap with a hint of the abrasive hand-cleaner he kept at home and at the workshop, and those pesky pheromones.
Full body orgasm in three…two…one—
“The hell are you doing?”
Holly snapped upright faster than a sprung possum trap.
Ford stood at the foot of the bed, fists on waist, dark eyes gleaming. Oh—and bare chested, a towel wrapped dangerously low around his hips. She blinked up at the expanse of smooth, tanned skin, the ridges of muscle criss-crossing his stomach, the swirls and geometric patterns of tribal tattoos covering his arm. Nothing she hadn’t seen before during summer swims at the beach. But somehow different from the perspective of lying in the man’s bed.
Holly slithered off the mattress and dragged the duvet over the sheet, smoothing her hands along the wrinkles. “There. A made bed always looks more inviting.”
“Apparently unmade looks even more inviting, Goldilocks.” Ford cocked his head. “Why were you in my bed?” His hand dropped to the towel edge.
Holly had a completely insane urge to yank off the towel and take Ford for a test drive to see if he was not too soft, not too hard but just right.
Bad urges. Certifiably crazy urges.
Plumping up his pillow, Holly mumbled, “Pillow top.”
“Say again?” He took a step closer, bringing all that warm, inked skin that much closer to her crazy urges.
“Pillow top mattress,” she enunciated clearly. “I’ve always wanted to try one.”
Ford’s gaze skipped from her face to her nipples, which, bloody hell, had decided Ford was the big bad wolf after all and stood to attention.
Holly folded her arms across her boobs. “Weren’t you supposed to be slathering off man-sweat?”
Ford rolled a shoulder, but his gaze remained steady. Watchful. Waiting for her to cave and admit she’d been snuffling around his pillow like a cat driven to lust by catnip.
“I forgot to take a change of clothes into the bathroom.”
Holly poked a finger at his dresser. “Plenty of tee shirts and shorts in there.”
Well, duh. Obviously, her brain had blown a few circuits by Ford’s all-but-naked proximity. “Though you might want to update the whole goth-boy-teen-sports-fan look and buy some actual grown-up man clothes.”
His eyebrow twerked up and then settled back into place. “Are you insulting my manhood again today?”
Holly couldn’t prevent a quick slide of her gaze from sculptured pecs to suspicious-bulge-under-towel.
Do not go there, girlfriend, or you’ll start gabbling a before-unknown dialect of elvish.
“Think of it less as insulting and more of a strong suggestion that you come shopping with me and Shaye this weekend.”
Ford folded his arms. “Huh.”
“It’ll be fun.” Holly went for wheedling smile number one.
Ford’s lips twisted at the same time his nose crinkled. Oh, she knew that look. That I’d rather lick the toilet bowl than be dragged into retail stores with a couple of women look.
“It’s to your benefit to look halfway presentable for the lay-dees.”
“You realize I don’t give a toss about clothes, unlike, say, West or my brother.”
“Your color choices of black, grey or navy back up that statement.”
Ford yanked open the middle dresser drawer, trapping Holly between his big, naked-ish body and the nightstand.
“West and your brother aren’t trying to find a woman,” she said. “Speaking of which, maybe Harley could set you up with one of the Barbie dolls he’s always being photographed with.”
She totally blamed the naked-ish-ness for her tongue flaming out of control.
The glimmer of amusement on Ford’s face froze into polished granite. “I’m not so fucking pathetic that I’d be interested in my brother’s cast offs.” His words were cool and delivered in measured tones, but Holly’s skin prickled with a rash of goose bumps.
They often had a laugh over the women Harley was photographed with, making up outlandish stories about the silicon-enhanced blonde poured into a transparent evening gown, or the duck-pouting red-head posed with Harley at a crowded gallery opening night. Why the harsh reaction?
“I didn’t mean…”
Ford dragged out a shirt, shoved the drawer closed then opened the one below it for a pair of pants. Every breath of fresh air disappeared from the room, leaving only the musky scent of Ford and the choppy sounds of her breathing. Waaaay too intimate for her liking. And since in Ford-speak the subject was now closed until further notice…
She angled her chin. “Fine. Find your own Barbie. Take her out on a date with your Hawaiian shirt and your trackies. Just don’t bust my ass when your sorry self ends up a meme posted to Oban’s Facebook page.”
Then, because Ford was a block-headed, unreasonable male who wouldn’t budge out of her way—he could blame his astrological moon in Taurus for that—Holly ninja-rolled down his amazingly soft mattress and scrambled to the floor on his other side.
After straightening her rumpled top, she gave him a Queen Bitch glare. “And FYI? Three out of us five girls think you should cut off the dreads.”
Ford kneed the second drawer closed, the towel on his hips slipping even more dangerously low. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Because you’d look better without them.”
Dumbass, she added silently. Dumbass who didn’t have a clue he was damn hot. Dumbass who didn’t realize he could have his own harem of Barbie-doll-women if he’d a mind to.
Ford leaned a hip against the dresser. “Let me get this straight. You came here tonight to criticize my clothes and tell me to get a haircut?”
“It’s called tough love. Deal with it.”
“Tough. Love.” The way he said the words sent little tingles of lust-laced fire down through her belly and into her core.
“Take it or leave it. But the offer’s there. Both for the clothes shopping and the haircut.”
“It’s taken me years to grow these dreads.”
“And it takes seconds to get a woman out of her panties if she decides to hop into your bed—which she’s more likely to do if she knows she won’t get a dreadlock up her nose doing the horizontal mambo.”
Gusts of laughter rolled out of Ford, and he smacked a palm against his flat stomach. More of those little, lusty tingles zipped through her—how had she never realized what a sexy laugh the man had?
Ford gathered up his clothes in one hand, laughter tapering down to intermittent chuckles. “Can’t say I’ve ever had that problem before, but I’ll take your suggestions under advisement.”
“Yeah, you do that.” Holly backed up to the door. “I’ll leave you to eat your cookies and finish showering.” So she could return home to a shower of her own…a cold one.
“Holly?” His deep voice brewed with undercurrents she had no hope of deciphering.
Good old mysterious Scorpio. What you saw was never what you got.
“I’ll go shopping with you.”
“Good.” Her hands developed a weird tremble as she felt behind her for the doorframe and ducked into the hallway.
Holly paused, then, mentally hauling up her big-girl panties, pasted on a neutral smile and poked her head around the doorway. “Yeah?”
“Just out of interest…which way did you vote?”
“Maybe if you don’t bitch like a little girl during our shopping trip, I’ll tell you.”
Ford’s familiar wide grin reappeared, though this time, something a little more predatory gleamed beneath it. Something that said, Baby, I know exactly which way you voted.
“I’ll see myself out,” she said.
And Holly McChicken fled down the hallway.
Copyright © 2015 by Tracey Alvarez
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