Authors: Elle Kennedy
New York Times, USA Today
Wall Street Journal
bestselling author, ELLE KENNEDY grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, Ontario, and is the author of more than forty romantic suspense and contemporary romance novels, including the international bestselling Off-Campus and Briar U series.
Published by Piatkus
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2022 by Elle Kennedy
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Bad Girl Reputation
© 2022 by Elle Kennedy
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
50 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DZ
I’m up to my eyeballs in Jägerbombs. Yesterday, I was married to the blender, pumping out piña coladas and strawberry daiquiris like sweatshop labor. Tonight, it’s vodka Red Bulls and Fireballs. And don’t forget the rosé. These dipshits and their rosé. They’re all slammed against the bar, wall-to-wall pastel linen shirts and three-hundred-dollar haircuts, shouting drink orders at me. It’s too hot for this shit.
In Avalon Bay, the seasons are marked by an endless cycle of exodus and invasion. The way the tides turn in a storm: Summer ends and the churn begins. Sunburned tourists pack up their minivans and sugar-slathered kids and head inland, back to suburbs and cubicles. Replaced by the surge of spray-tanned college brats—the clone armies returning to Garnet College. These are the trust-fund babies whose coastal palaces block out the ocean views for the rest of us scraping by on the change that falls from their pockets.
“Hey, bro, six shots of tequila!” some clone barks, slapping a credit card down on the sticky wet wood of the bar top like I should be impressed. Really, he’s just another typical Garnet fuckhead who walked straight out of a Sperry catalog.
“Remind me why we do this,” I say to Steph as I rack up a line of Jack and Cokes for her at the waitress stand.
She reaches into her bra and lifts each breast so they sit higher and fuller in her black
Joe’s Beachfront Bar
tank top. “The tips, Coop.”
Right. Nothing spends faster than somebody else’s money. Rich kids spitting bills in a game of one-upmanship, all courtesy of Daddy’s credit card.
Weekends on the boardwalk are like Mardi Gras. Tonight is the last Friday before the fall semester at Garnet begins, and that means three days of raging straight to Monday morning, the bars bursting at the seams. We’re practically printing money. Not that I plan to do this forever. I moonlight here on the weekends to save up some extra dough so I can stop working for other people and start being my own boss. Once I’ve got enough saved, my ass is out from behind this bar for good.
“Watch out for yourself,” I warn Steph as she places the drinks on her tray. “Holler if you need me to grab the bat.”
It wouldn’t be the first time I roughed someone up who couldn’t take no for an answer.
Nights like this, there’s a different energy. Humidity so thick you can slather the salty air on like sunscreen. Bodies on bodies, zero inhibitions, and tequila-infused testosterone full of bad intentions.
Fortunately, Steph’s a tough girl. “I can manage.” With a wink she takes the drinks, plasters a smile on her face, and spins around, long black ponytail swinging.
I don’t know how she tolerates it, these dudes pawing all over her. Don’t get me wrong, I get my fair share of female attention. Some get pretty bold, too friendly. But with chicks, you throw them a grin and a shot, they giggle to their friends and leave you alone. Not these guys, though. The crew team douchebags and Greek Row fuckboys. Steph is constantly getting grabbed and groped and having all manner of vulgarities slithered into her ear over the screech of the blaring music. To her credit, she hardly ever punches any of them.
It’s a constant grind. Catering to the seasonal parasites, this invasive species that uses us locals up, sucks us dry, and leaves their garbage behind.
And yet, this town would hardly exist without them.
“Yo! Let me get those shots!” the clone barks again.
I nod, as if to say
Coming right up
, when what I really mean is
This is me ignoring you on purpose
. Instead, a whistle at the other end of the bar catches my attention.
Locals get served first. Without exception. Followed by regulars who tip well, people who are polite, hot women, little old ladies, and then the rest of these overfed jackasses. At the end of the bar, I put down a shot of bourbon for Heidi and pour another for myself. We toss ’em back and I give her a refill.
“What are you doing in here?” I ask, because no self-respecting local is on the boardwalk tonight. Too many clones kill the vibe.
“Dropping off Steph’s keys. Had to run by her place.” Heidi was the prettiest girl in the first grade, and not much has changed since. Even in ratty cutoff shorts and a plain blue crop top, she’s undeniably the hottest woman in this bar. “You closing tonight?”
“Yeah, won’t be outta here till three, probably.”
“Wanna come by after?” Heidi pushes up on her toes to lean across the bar.
“Nah, I’m pulling a double tomorrow. Gotta get some sleep.”
She pouts. Playfully at first, then more flippant when she realizes I’m not interested in hooking up tonight. We might’ve indulged in a string of hookups earlier this summer, but making that a regular thing with one of my best friends starts to resemble a relationship, and that’s not where I’m trying to go. I keep hoping she’ll realize that and stop asking.
“Hey. Hey!” The impatient towheaded dude at the other end of the bar tries flagging me. “I swear to God, man, I will toss you a hundred-dollar bill for a fucking shot.”
“You better get back to work,” Heidi says with a sarcastic smile, blowing me a kiss.
I take my sweet time walking over to him. He’s straight off the clone conveyor belt: standard-issue preppy Ken doll with a side part and the best smile dental insurance can buy. Beside him are a couple of factory-made sidekicks whose idea of manual labor is probably having to wipe their own asses.
“Let’s see it,” I dare him.
The clone slaps down a Benjamin. So proud of himself. I pour a single shot of whiskey because I don’t remember what he asked for and slide it to him. He releases the bill to take the glass. I snatch it up and pocket it.
“I ordered six shots,” he says, smug.
“Put down another five hundred and I’ll pour ’em.”
I expect him to whine, throw a fit. Instead he laughs, shaking his finger at me. To him, this is some of that charming local color they come slumming it down here to find. Rich kids love getting rolled.
To my absolute amazement, this knucklehead flicks out five more bills from a wad of cash and lays them on the bar. “The best you got,” he says.
The best this bar keeps in stock is some Johnnie Walker Blue and a tequila I can’t pronounce. Neither is more than five hundred dollars retail for a bottle. So I act impressed and get up on a stool to pull the dusty bottle of tequila from the top shelf because, okay, I did remember what he asked for, and pour them their overpriced shots.
At that, Richie Rich is satisfied and wanders off to a table.
My fellow bartender Lenny gives me the side-eye. I know I shouldn’t encourage this behavior. It only reinforces the idea that we’re for sale, that they own this town. But screw it, I’m not about to be slinging drinks till I’m dead. I’ve got bigger plans.
“What time do you get off?” a female voice purrs from my left side.
I turn slowly, waiting for the punch line. Traditionally, that question is followed by one of two options:
“Because I want you to get
Or, “Because I can’t wait to get
The follow-up is an easy way to determine whether you’re ending up with a woman who’s selfish in the sack or one who loves doling out BJs.
Neither is a particularly original pickup line, but nobody said the clones who swarm the Bay every year were original.
“Well?” the blonde presses, and I realize there’s no cheesy line in store for me.
“Bar closes at two,” I answer easily.
“Hang out with us after you get off,” she urges. She and her friend both have shiny hair, perfect bodies, and skin glowing from a day spent in the sun. They’re cute, but I’m not in the mood for what they’re offering.
“Sorry. Can’t,” I answer. “But you should keep an eye out for someone who looks exactly like me. My twin brother is around here somewhere.” I wave a hand toward the throng of bodies packing the place like sardines in a tin. “I’m sure he’d love to entertain you.”
I say it mostly because I know it’ll annoy Evan. Though on the other hand, maybe he’ll thank me. He might despise the clones, but he doesn’t seem to mind the rich princesses when they’re naked. I swear the dude’s trying to sleep his way through this town. He claims he’s “bored.” I let him believe that I believe him.
“Omigod, there’s two of you?” Almost immediately, both girls become starry-eyed.
I grab a glass and shovel some ice cubes into it. “Yup. His name’s Evan,” I add helpfully. “If you find him, tell him Cooper sent you.”
When they finally wander off, fruity cocktails in hand, I breathe a sigh of relief.
Bartending is such a crap gig.
I push a whiskey on the rocks toward the skinny dude who ordered it, take the cash he hands me. I run a hand through my hair and draw a breath before going to the next customer. For most of the night, the drunken masses manage to keep their shit together. Daryl, the doorman, kicks out anyone he suspects might projectile vomit, while Lenny and I smack away any idiots who get it into their heads to reach behind the bar.
I keep an eye on Steph and the other female servers as they work the crowd. Steph’s got a table full of Garnet dudes salivating over her. She’s smiling, but I know that look. When she tries to walk away, one of them grabs her around the waist.
My eyes narrow. It’s the same guy I took for six bills.
I’m damn near over the bar when her eyes find mine. As if she knows what’s about to happen, she shakes her head. Then she slyly disentwines herself from the handsy prick and comes back to the waitress stand.
“Want me to toss ’em?” I ask her.
“Nah. I can handle them.”
“I know. But you don’t have to. I pulled six hundred from those dumbasses. I’ll split it with you. Let me get rid of them.”
“It’s all good. Just get me three Coronas and two Jäg—”
“Do not even say it.” My whole body winces at the word. If I never have to smell that vile black shit ever again, it’ll be too soon. “I gotta get some nose plugs.”
“It’s like you’ve got shellshock,” she laughs, watching me suffer through these pours.
“I should be getting hazard pay.” I finish up and push the drinks to her. “Seriously, though, if those guys can’t keep their hands to themselves, I’m coming over there.”
“I’m fine. But, man, I wish they’d just leave. I don’t know who’s worse tonight—Mr. Grabby Hands, or that senior on the patio who’s
crying about his daddy reneging on his promise to buy him a yacht for graduation.”
Steph waltzes off with a sigh and a full tray of drinks.
For the better part of an hour, I don’t look up. The room is so dense the faces blur into a smudge of flesh, and all I do is pour and slide credit cards until I’m in a trance, barely aware of my actions.
The next time I check on Steph, it’s to see Richie Rich trying to persuade her to dance with him. She’s like a boxer, bobbing and weaving to get away from the dude. I can’t make out her exact words, but it’s easy to guess—
I’m working, please let me get back to work, I can’t dance with you, I’m working
She’s trying to remain courteous, but her blazing eyes tell me she’s fed up.
“Len,” I call, nodding toward the unfolding scene. “Gimme a sec.”
He nods back. We take care of our own.
I stride over, knowing I pose a menacing picture. I’m six two, haven’t shaved in days, and my hair could use a trim. Hopefully I look menacing enough to deter these bros from doing something stupid.
“Everything okay here?” I inquire when I reach the group. My tone says I know it’s not and he’d better stop or I’m going to toss him out on his ass.
“Fuck off, carnie,” one of them cracks.
The insult rolls right off me. I’m used to it.
I raise a brow. “I’m not leaving unless my colleague tells me to go.” I look pointedly at Richie Rich’s hand, which is latched onto Steph’s arm. “She didn’t sign up to get groped by rich boys.”
The guy has the sense to remove his hand. Steph uses the opportunity to clamber to my side.
“See? All good.” He sneers at me. “No distressed damsels requiring rescue.”
“Make sure to keep it that way.” I punctuate the warning with a sneer of my own. “And keep your hands to yourself.”
Steph and I are about to head off when a glass breaks.
No matter how loud a room, how full to the brim with sound-dampening bodies, a glass shatters on the floor and, in the immediate seconds after, you can hear a hummingbird’s wings flutter two counties away.
Every head turns. One of Richie Rich’s buddies, who’d dropped the glass, is blinking innocently when I meet his gaze.
“Oops,” he says.
Laughter and applause crush the momentary silence. Then conversation bubbles up again, and the collective attention of the bar returns to its previously intoxicated amusements.
“Fuck’s sake,” Steph mutters under her breath. “Go back to the bar, Coop. I got this.”
She marches off with an annoyed frown, while the douche crew dismisses us from their holy presence and proceeds to chat loudly and laugh amongst themselves.
“All good?” Lenny asks when I return.
I glance back toward the group, frowning when I notice their leader is no longer with them. Where the hell did he go?
“No,” I say slowly. “I don’t think it’s good. Give me another sec.”
Once again, I leave Lenny to man the battle stations alone while I duck out from behind the bar to find Steph. I head toward the back, figuring she went for a broom to sweep up the glass.
That’s when I hear, “Get
I throw myself around the corner, my jaw tightening when I spot Richie Rich’s pastel polo. He has Steph cornered at the end of the short, narrow hall where the supply closet is located. When she tries to dip around him, he steps in her way, grabbing her wrist. His other hand slides downward and attempts to cup her ass.
Nah, screw this.
I charge forward and yank him by his collar. A second later, I lay his ass flat out on the sticky floor.
“Get out,” I growl.
“Cooper.” Steph grabs me, even as gratitude shines in her eyes. I know she appreciates the save.