“Is it just me,” said Ben. “Or does Ford’s skin look smoother and his boobs look bigger?”
Ford kept his gaze locked on his beer and flipped Ben a middle finger salute. Flanking Ford at his usual table in Due South, West snickered. Ben dragged over a stool and made himself comfy.
Ford knew the guys would give him shit over his shopping trip with Shaye and Holly that morning. But staring at the plastic bags dumped in the centre of his bed—bags loaded with new shirts and pants and even a tie…well. He’d just needed to get away from his house before he crawled out of his own skin.
“Isn’t Saturday night date night? Aren’t you meant to be home with the missus?” Ford shot his mate a dark look as Ben took a long draw of his beer.
Ben smirked. “She’s the one who sent me down here to pump you for information.”
Ford turned his glare on West, whose idiotic grin didn’t falter for a second. “And haven’t you got your little empire to run?”
“Yup. But I run it so awesomely I can afford to take a break and grill you for the details of your girls’ day out.”
“It wasn’t a bloody girls’ day out.”
Ben snorted. “So they didn’t talk you into a mani-pedi or some man-scaping along with your new wardrobe?”
“Piss off, Harland.”
West and Ben snickered some more and tapped bottles. Yeah, freaking hilarious. Though Ford was man enough to admit he’d given both West and Ben hell when they’d accompanied their own women shopping.
After the grilling about the day in Invers died down, Ben and West exchanged surreptitious glances.
“You wanna pass each other notes, or is one of you going to grow a pair and ask?”
Ben crooked an eyebrow at West. The three of them had been mates for so many years that inquiring what was on their minds was mere formality.
West rotated the beer bottle in his hands. “Had any responses from Kiwi-Match?”
“A couple,” Ford said.
On the far side of the pub, Kip and his fiancée Carly tended bar. Saturday night was always busiest, and since the recently engaged pair were joined at the hip anyway, they seemed to get a kick from working together. One of the local characters, Smitty, thanked them and walked from the bar with a loaded tray, his round of drinks for the noisy bunch clustered behind their table.
“And?” Ben prodded. “Any good?”
“One listed her hobbies as needlepoint, cats, needlepointing cats and her job as a forensic pathologist.”
“Scary. A potential bunny boiler.” Then West grinned. “But was she a hot bunny boiler?”
“Am I that shallow?”
West shrugged. “Beggars can’t be—ow! Hey!”
West glared at Del, still dressed in his chef’s whites, who’d come up from behind and clipped his big brother’s head.
“Ignore his douche-baggery.” Del elbowed West aside and squeezed in beside them. “We talking about Kiwi-Match?”
Ford had already told Holly and Shaye about the cat lady, figuring they’d bug the hell out of him for some nugget of information. He’d also mentioned the e-mail from a girl in Auckland who thought they’d be a good match because she was “also into the whole Rastafarian thing and would love to share a joint.” He didn’t need Holly’s and Shaye’s encouragement to pass on that one. It was the last woman who contacted him that he wouldn’t share. The one who’d asked about his gang affiliations and how much time he’d done.
“Here’s the thing.” He lowered his voice. While he trusted his three best mates, he didn’t want Smitty, pretending he wasn’t eavesdropping, to hear. “The girls reckon I should lose the dreads.”
Various tonal mmmphs and grunts sounded from around their table.
“Obviously, this is not news to any of you,” Ford said.
Del clapped him on the back. “Time for a change.”
“You’re considering it?” West asked.
Ford resisted the urge to dip his head, to hide behind the dreads. An old but telling habit. The hair wasn’t a religious statement or a cultural one. At the very base of his motivations, one he didn’t much like revisiting, was the need to distinguish himself from Harley. While he and his twin weren’t identical, they were obviously brothers. And sometimes, he didn’t want to be known only as Harley Komeke’s twin. The reserved, dull one. The one who’d stayed on Stewart Island, who’d only been overseas a couple of times…and hadn’t much liked it. The poor imitation who hid in Harley’s bold shadow.
“Yeah. I don’t know.” The dreads were just another weight he carried around. He shoved them away from his face. “Maybe.”
Ben leaned on the table. “If it comes to a choice between your hair and having a woman in your bed every night, do yourself a favor, and let Holly at you with her scissors.”
“That simple a choice?”
West held out a palm. “On one hand, women arriving on the island, wanting to bang you senseless…” He flipped over his other hand. “On the other, remain the Bob-Marley-wannabe who isn’t getting laid regularly.”
“The hair’ll grow back,” Ben said. “Unlike your dick, which’ll fall off from lack of action.”
“Assholes.” Ford stood up. “But you’re right. I’ll send Holly a text, see what she’s up to tonight.”
He moved away from the table and dug his phone out of his pocket. As he opened his contacts and selected Holly’s name, he thought about her confession. How she’d voted yes to a haircut. How her cheeks had burned after Shaye interrupted, telling him the vote wasn’t just on losing the dreads but on whether Ford would be hotter without them.
And if Holly thought he’d be hot after a haircut? Then it was definitely time for a change. In more ways than one.
Hair. One hint only…not the musical. You busy tonight?
Ford sent the text.
While he waited for Holly’s reply, he ambled out of the pub and down the hotel corridor to Due South’s reception desk. Denise was bent over her phone, tapping the screen with great concentration. She looked up at the sound of his footsteps, polite-and-professional receptionist mask on.
“Busy night?” he asked.
“No. Everyone’s checked in and happy. I’m just catching up on some paperwork.” She slid her phone, with the online scrabble game showing, under a pile of paper.
“Right.” He leaned on the desk with a grin. “I’ve got this game in the bag after that triple word-score with the Q.”
She patted his cheek. “Cocky bastard. What’re you up to tonight?”
Ford drummed his fingers. “Hoping Holly’ll give me a haircut.”
“That right?” His mum raised an eyebrow. “About time you let that girl sort you out.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my hair; I just thought a change was in order.”
His mum’s red-lipsticked mouth curved into a knowing smirk. “Maybe I wasn’t only talking about your hair.”
“Don’t see what else you could be talking about.” His phone vibrated with an incoming text.
Lady Gaga. Does this mean what I think it means? If so, yes. Get your butt up here. Clack-clack-clack.
“Gotta go. Holly’s going to do me tonight before I change my mind.”
His mum’s cheeks sucked in, and her eyes danced. Oh, to have access to Holly’s scissors right now so he could cut out his tongue.
With a sigh, Ford leaned over the desk and kissed her cheek. “Shut up, Mum.”
“I love you, too. Text me a photo later.”
He smiled at her, a little ache in his chest at the bruised shadows under her eyes. Both his parents worked long hours, and they regularly sent money to family, including Pania, even when she wasn’t asking for it. “Why don’t you close up and head home. Your boss seems to be in a good mood tonight; I’m sure he won’t mind.”
Ford said goodbye and ducked out of the hotel’s main doors without returning to the pub. May as well get it over and done with. He had to admit, he looked forward to seeing Holly again without Shaye running interference.
A light rain misted through the evening air and dripped down the collar of his leather jacket as he walked to Holly’s. He knocked on her door, and a muffled voice yelled from behind it, so he stepped inside. He kicked off his boots and padded barefoot toward the sounds drifting out of her spare room, hesitating in the doorway, nose twitching at the leftover chemical smells.
A swivel chair was positioned in front of wall-mounted mirror. A shelf below it contained a blow dryer and a couple of other hair-styling gadgets. Plus a stack of fashion mags. Holly stood beside her rolling trolley of scissors and clips and shit. Tonight, she wore a close-fitting, blue merino thermal, layered under a short-sleeve top that displayed a tempting slice of cleavage. Her long hair was piled on top of her head with what looked like a chopstick shoved through it. Knowing Holly’s love of Asian cuisine, it likely was a chopstick. Black stretchy pants completed her outfit and complimented the shape of her ass. Not that this was the first time he’d noticed—he was a guy—but after finding her in his bed the night before, now he notice-noticed.
She glanced over at him in the doorway. He remedied the standing-there-like-a-moron by shuffling into the room.
“What changed your mind?” she said by way of greeting, continuing to poke through the tray of torture instruments.
Pass me the scalpel, nurse. His scalp prickled. The idea of lopping off his dreads made him jittery, not the thought of Holly putting her hands on him. On your head, doofus, not any other body part. Let’s get that straight.
“Guess the lot of you are right. It’s time to shake things up a little.”
“I sense a great disturbance in the force.” Her smile lit up the room brighter than the overhead lighting aimed toward the mirror and chair.
“Thanks, Obi-Wan. I’m also tired of you calling me Jar Jar when you’re being a brat.”
She poked out her tongue, stabbing a finger at the chair. “Sit.”
He sat, and she flung a bright-yellow nylon cape around him.
“Really? Is that necessary?”
“You want tiny bits of hair trapped in your clothes forever?”
“I need sunglasses.”
“It’s called color, Mr. I-look-like-a-funeral-director.”
She fastened the cape, the hairs on his neck lifting as her fingers brushed his skin. As quickly as she touched him, Holly moved away again, picking up a pair of scissors from her trolley.
Angling his head away from them, Ford said, “You’re not going to leave me looking like Captain Picard, are you?”
Her lips curved into an evil grin, and she clacked the little silver scissors. “Don’t you trust me, big boy?”
Holly stood behind him, and Ford swallowed past a rapidly constricting throat. “Course I do.”
She captured his attention in the mirror’s reflection, lifting one dreadlock and positioning the scissor blade close to his scalp.
“Good,” she said, and the scissors snicked together.
Prickles raced up and down his spine.
“Because I don’t come into the workshop and tell you how to do your job.”
“Perhaps you should,” he said as the length of hair fell to the floor.
Holly snipped off another dread. Ford’s shoulders hunched under the stupid yellow cape. Jeez, could her smile grow any more smug?
“Dad’s been bitching that you haven’t come around for afternoon smoko much in the last couple of weeks.”
The smug smile slipped a notch. “I’ve been busy. I’ll stop by tomorrow and say hi.” Her eyes cut sideways, away from his.
The scissors clacked, and his scalp continued to tingle as Holly moved around him. He kept his gaze locked on the toes of his crossed ankles, tilting his head to the left or right when instructed.
“Mrs. T. ever try to fix you up again after the Declan disaster?”
The scissors stopped cutting. “No. I made her promise not to. So far, she’s found more promising fish to fry—you, for example.”
“She’s never tried to set you up with Noah or Joe?” His gaze returned to the mirror, a small part of him needing to see her reaction.
“Now why would you dredge up their names?”
Because it burns my ass, wondering if any other guys spark your interest? Couldn’t admit that.
“Bitches always keen to have a doctor put a ring on it.” He tried for his usual teasing sarcasm, but his words sounded stilted and a little jealous to his ears.
She let out a soft snort and scooped up another dread. “Not me. Joe’s not my type.” Snip. “And neither’s the cop. Though, man, Noah has a righteous butt on him and he’s awesome on the rugby field.”
Pushing his buttons, since he and Noah often ended up on opposing teams during their friendly touch games. However, two could play at button pushing. “Not your type?”
“Who is your type?”
Holly’s gaze flicked to his in the reflection, her fingers tugging on his hair hard enough to sting. “No one in Oban, sadly. The remaining bachelors here are safe from me.”
Spots of color burned high on her cheekbones, and she snipped off the next dread with a vicious efficiency that sent an unpleasant, reflex twitch to his balls. A sensible man would take the hint and shut the hell up.
“Tell me, what is your type?”
“I don’t have a type.” She stared fixedly at the dread caught between her fingers.
“I’ve listened to you analyse every potential star-sign combination as well as give an in-depth analyses of why your friends’ relationships are so successful. You must know what you’re looking for in a man?”
She huffed a short burst of air out of her nose. Snip, snip, snip. His head already felt lighter, as if it would just float off his shoulders.
“It’s not like I keep a written list, like Shaye did,” she said finally. “Or have any expectation of finding a Mr. Perfect.”
She deserved to, though. A thought that sneaked down to his gut and hunkered there like a stone gargoyle. He’d never be any woman’s Mr. Perfect. Maybe her Mr. Pretty-Damn-Good—which was light years better than Mr. You’ll-Do-Since-I-Can’t-Have-Your-Brother.
Before he could throw another firecracker into the conversation, she dropped the scissors into the tray. “Time for a shampoo and condition.”
Ford glanced up at the mirror and the tufts of black hair standing up all over his head. Holy shit—he leaned in for a closer look, but Holly slapped his shoulder.
“Yes, you look like an alien in a B-grade sci-fi flick. Withhold judgement for the moment. C’mon.”
He followed her out of the room and across the hall to the bathroom, where she’d scrimped and saved to install a fancy hairdressing chair-sink combo. While he eased down into the chair, Holly turned on the taps and held her fingers under the flow.
“Relax,” she instructed. “Pretend you’re West—he loves my scalp massages.”
Ford eased backwards, muscles knotted tight. “I didn’t need to know that.”
Warm water spilled over his head, and he closed his eyes, since staring up her nose was probably rude.
“Tell me your list.”
The water disappeared, followed by a clunk as she dropped the spray head into the sink. Then slurp-squeaky noises sounded, and the air filled with the scent of coconut and flowery stuff. Moments later, her palm slicked over his scalp, the shampoo a cool contrast to the previous warm water. A shiver worked its way down his spine to settle at the base. The pads of her fingers raked from forehead to nape, swirling and digging in with just the right amount of pressure to render him boneless. In about ten seconds flat. Okay, now he understood why West loved her scalp massages. She paused, and Ford thought he might’ve let out a soft moan.
“Kind-hearted, I guess. Fun to be with.”
Huh? Ford cracked open an eye. A mission, considering all his muscles had dissolved into Silly Putty.
Holly stared past him toward the open doorway. “I wouldn’t complain about a Dean Winchester look-alike, either.”
Oh right, her guy list.
“You realize he’s all but a serial killer? Not to mention, ah, fictional.”
“Whatever.” She cranked up the tap and punished his scalp with a blast of cold water before it warmed to a more pleasant temperature. “Ooops.”
After rinsing out the shampoo, she turned off the tap again. “Conditioner now, lots of conditioner.”
More squirty and, somehow sexy, squishy sounds. Something was seriously wrong with him. She’d clearly said “conditioner” yet all he’d heard was “lube, baby. L.U.B.E.” He shifted on the seat, thankful for the cape, which hid a multitude of sins…and one very inappropriate hard-on.
“Loyal.” Her fingers worked more magic with the lube—damn—conditioner. “Someone who won’t hurt or leave me.”
“Sounds like a description of a golden Labrador.” The words popped out of him before the crack of vulnerability in her words had time to penetrate his thick skull.
Shit. Too late to take it back.
Her fingers stopped the lazy circling on his head. He wondered if he’d any hair left to speak of, or if the laser-hot glare she probably aimed at his scalp had singed it.
“The dog versus wolf thing again? Really?” Another blast of cold water rained down on his head. This time, she didn’t mix it with the warm. “Men. Always with this alpha crap.”
She swiped a hand over his head—not gently—and then returned the spray head to the sink. A pause, then a towel dropped onto his face. “Dry off your hair a bit, then go back to the chair.” Footsteps tapped smartly away. “And put the towel in the washing machine once you’re done.”
Ford wrangled his arms out of the cape and rubbed the towel on his head. Then with a sigh, he stood and tossed the towel into Holly’s washing machine. So she wanted a kind, fun-to-be-with, movie-star-handsome, loyal guy who’d never leave her? Admittedly, he missed the mark on a few of those qualities. But wouldn’t hurt or leave her?
He trailed into the spare room, slumped into the chair and pretended he didn’t notice the stiffness worked into the line of her spine. He’d never deliberately hurt her, that was for certain. He’d rather slam his nuts in a car door. But he also knew Holly well enough to spot the danger in falling for her, and in knowing that, the possibility of inadvertently hurting her came into play.
Which meant it was safer for them both not to push the issue.
Except not pushing was contrary to his nature and probably the prime reason he copped his share of punishment as a kid. He didn’t know when to quit.
Holly walked behind him, her breasts passing temptingly close to his jaw and immediately undoing his every good intention of not getting turned on again. She dragged the comb through his hair, made what he guessed was a small sound of satisfaction at the lack of resistance.
“I should forget this dating someone from off island thing.” Ford glanced sideways, got an eyeful of Holly’s palm-full-sized breast.
“Why?” She drew a clump of his hair between her fingers and snipped with her scissors. “Gonna try your luck with Erin or Bree after all?”
Was that a sliver of jealousy wedged under her tone?
Beneath the cape, Ford laced his fingers over his stomach and forced his shoulders to relax.
“Nope.” Gaze locked on Holly’s reflection as she fussed and snipped, he added, “I’m thinking you and I should hook up—”
The scissors paused, blades frozen wide apart. Forget wolf or Labrador, he had the verbal pizazz of a moose.
Hook-up, you moron?
“Not hook up, per se.” Per se? The moose face-palmed and loped off in disgust. “I mean, go out somewhere. Because we know each other well and there’d be none of that ‘What’s your favourite food’ and stuff…”
Thank God, he finally ran out of words since his tongue had apparently developed the urge to flap like washing in a strong wind.
“Like a date?” she asked. “Wasn’t our last date embarrassing enough?”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
She resumed cutting, avoiding his gaze in the mirror. “You said a grand total of five sentences while we ate dinner, three of them regarding condiments.”
“We had an audience.”
Composed of Mrs. Taylor and her church cronies. Not to mention West, who’d leered at them every five minutes with a thumbs up or a wink. Plus half a dozen other locals, who’d decided to eat at Due South that night.
“You don’t want to hook up or date me.”
The comb scraped painfully on his scalp. He winced but manned up and ignored it. She shot a glance at him, her eyes glittering chips of ice.
“We’re friends. Only friends.”
She jerked away, although he’d made no move to touch her. Sneakers squeaked on the polished wood floor as Holly shuffled behind him.
“There’s no attraction, no spark?”
“Nope. Zip. Nada.”
“And when I kissed you goodnight after our date?” Actually, he’d chickened out at the last moment and bussed her cheek instead of kissing the bejesus out of her like he’d wanted to…
“Brotherly and all manner of awkward, Ford, and you know it.”
But the scissors bumped and trembled against his nape as she trimmed the hair there, and he caught the flash of movement as she checked out his face in the mirror.
By literally pinning his tongue down with his teeth, Ford kept his mouth from uttering anything further as she continued to work.
Rain hissed relentlessly against the window. He’d get soaked walking home, because Holly letting him hang out until the weather eased wasn’t likely.
Finally, she tossed the scissors on the tray and picked up a brush. She whisked it around his shoulders to remove any stray hairs then reached for the small hand mirror. Ford gave his new look only a brief glance. Yep, short hair again. But still the same scar just above his right ear where Harley had clipped him with a Tonka truck when they were kids, same shit-brown eyes telling him he’d screwed things up and same mouth that’d gushed like a teenage girl.
“Okay?” she asked.
“Looks good.” He stood and tugged at the neckline of the cape until it peeled off. Crumpling it in a loose ball, he tossed it on the chair and faced her. She’d grabbed the broom from the corner.
“Let me do that.” He reached for it.
She jerked the broom away. “It’s no problem.” Words as stiff as the wooden handle and the length of her spine.
Temper still brightened her eyes, but something else now shimmered there.
Did she think he was messing with her? Ha, ha, Hol—we should hook up…but nah, punked ya. Or maybe she’d punked him. Had he imagined the chemistry bubbling between them at a slow boil? Like he’d once imagined that he made thirteen-year-old Holly blush and stammer, not his twin.
He got it.
He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed—not having attended a fancy art college like Harley had—but he got it, just the same. So what if Holly lied about being attracted to him? He’d been attracted to women without any intention of starting something. Sounded as if Holly and he were in sync with the attraction-but-no-can-do-relationship-crap.
Holly white-knuckled the broom handle and spoke to his collarbone. “So, um, Bree would probably take a couple of new photos for you for Kiwi-Match if you asked nicely. Get her to take one of you with your guitar.” Her gaze flicked to his chin, and her lips tugged up in a caricature of a smile. “Bitches be liking a rock god.”
Not all, evidently. When Ford didn’t laugh, Holly shoved the broom aimlessly at the sprinkling of dark hair at her feet.
He dug into his jeans pocket and removed his wallet, dragging out a pair of twenties.
Her eyes flew wide. “Put that away. You’re not paying me.”
He tossed the notes on top of the trolley. “I don’t want any special mates’ rates. I’m paying.”
“Fine.” Flurries of hair flew over the floor.
“I’ll see you ‘round.” Ford slunk down the hallway, the silence expanding thickly behind him.
Outside, he zipped up his leather jacket, raindrops pinging like shotgun pellets into his face. He jogged down the road, pausing at the corner to look up at Holly’s house. He ran his hand through his hair, the short strands now plastered to his scalp.
Ford’s stomach performed a slow barrel roll. He could argue the “mates only” rule was her idea, but what if he’d lost more than just hair this time?
Copyright © 2015 by Tracey Alvarez
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