Authors: Elle Kennedy
His gaze rakes over me in a way that elicits a hot shiver. “Good. I’m taking you out.”
“I’ve always wanted to do one of these,” Mac says, grabbing my arm and tugging me toward some spinning monstrosity a hundred feet in the air.
Is this chick serious? I roll my eyes at her. “If I wanted to get dizzy and choke on my own vomit, I could do that on the ground.”
She spins on me, eyes wide and shining in the multicolored lights. “You’re not chicken, are you, Hartley?”
“Never,” I say, because the inability to back down from a challenge is one of my personality defects.
“Then put your money where your mouth is, chicken man.”
“You’re gonna regret that.” I warn, gesturing for her to lead the way.
The annual boardwalk festival is a highlight of the fall season in Avalon Bay. It’s supposed to commemorate the founding of the town or something, but really, it’s become an excuse to throw a party. Local restaurants bring out their food trucks and vendor stands, bars sling signature cocktails from carts, and midway games and carnival rides cram the boardwalk.
Evan and I used to smoke a bowl with our friends, get smashed, and jump from one ride to the next to see who lost their lunch first. Last couple of years, though, I guess we’ve gotten tired of it.
For some reason, I feel compelled to be the one to introduce Mac to the festival.
The boardwalk is crowded. Carnival jingles compete with live bands playing at three stages spread out through Old Town. The aromas of corn dogs and cotton candy, funnel cakes and turkey legs, waft on the breeze. After the Wave Flinger and Moon Shot, we go down the fifty-foot Avalanche slide and tackle the Gravity Well. All the way, Mac is skipping around with a huge grin on her face. Not an ounce of trepidation. She’s an adventurer, this one. I dig it.
“What next?” she asks as we’re recovering from her latest ride selection. I wouldn’t call myself a wimp, but the daredevil beside me is definitely giving me a run for my money.
“Can we do something chill?” I grumble. “Like, give me five seconds to readjust to gravity.”
She grins. “Something chill? Gee, Grandpa, like what? Should we sit quietly on the Ferris wheel or board that slow little train that goes through the Tunnel of Love?”
“If you’re going into the Tunnel of Love with your grandpa, then you’ve got a whole new set of problems we need to talk about.”
She flips up her middle finger. “How about a cotton candy break, then?”
“Sure.” As we amble toward one of the concession stands, I speak in a conversational tone. “I got a BJ in that tunnel once, you know.”
Rather than look disgusted, her green eyes twinkle with delight. “Really? Tell me everything.”
We stand in line behind a woman who’s trying to wrangle three kids under the age of five. They’re like a litter of puppies, unable to stay still, bouncing around from the sugar highs they’re undoubtedly on.
I drag my tongue over my bottom lip and wink at Mac. “I’ll tell you later. In private.”
We reach the counter, where I buy us two bags of cotton candy. Mac eagerly snatches one, peels off a huge, fluffy piece, and shoves the pink floss into her mouth.
“Soooo good.” Her words are garbled thanks to her completely full mouth.
X-rated images burn a hole in my brain as I watch her suck and slurp on the sugary treat.
My dick thickens against my zipper, making it difficult to concentrate on what she’s babbling about.
“Did you know that cotton candy was invented by a dentist?”
I blink back to reality. “Seriously? Talk about a proactive way to ensure a customer base.”
“Genius,” she agrees.
I reach into the bag and pinch off a piece. The cotton candy melts the moment it touches my tongue, the sweet flavor injecting a rush of nostalgia directly into my blood. I feel like a little kid again. Back when my parents were both around and still somewhat in love. They’d bring me and Evan to the boardwalk, stuff us full of junk food and sugar, and let us go wild. We’d drive home laughing and giddy and feeling like a real family.
By the time Evan and I turned six, their relationship turned combative. Dad started drinking more. Mom looked for attention and validation from other men. They separated, and Evan and I became afterthoughts to booze and sex.
“No,” Mac orders.
I blink again. “No what?”
“You have that look on your face. You’re brooding.”
“I’m not brooding.”
“Yes, you are. Your face is totally saying,
I’m lost in my broody thoughts because I’m SUCH a tortured bad boy
.” She gives me a stern look. “Snap out of it, Hartley. We were discussing some pretty insightful stuff.”
“We were talking about cotton candy.” My tone is dry.
“So? That can be insightful.” She raises one eyebrow, smug. “Did you know scientists are trying to use cotton candy to create artificial blood vessels?”
“That sounds like pure and total horseshit,” I say cheerfully.
“It’s not. I read about it once,” she insists. “Cotton candy fibers are, like, super small. They’re the same size as our blood vessels. I don’t remember the exact process, but the basic premise is—cotton candy equals medical breakthrough.”
“Cite your sources.”
“Ohhhh, of course! Some magazine—the most reputable of publications.”
She glares at me. “Why can’t you just accept I’m right?”
“Why can’t you accept you might be wrong?”
“I’m never wrong.”
I start laughing, which causes her to glower harder at me. “I’m convinced you argue just for the sake of arguing,” I inform her.
“I do not.”
I laugh harder. “See! You’re so damn stubborn.”
A tall blonde holding hands with a small boy frowns as she passes by. Mac’s exclamation has brought a flicker of concern to the woman’s eyes.
“It’s okay,” Mac assures her. “We’re best friends.”
“We’re bitter rivals,” I correct. “She’s always yelling at me, ma’am. Please, help me out of this toxic relationship.”
The woman gives us one of those
looks anyone over forty sports when they’re dealing with immature children. Joke’s on her. We’re both in our twenties.
We continue down the boardwalk, stopping to watch some sucker boyfriend hurl darts at a wall of balloons to try to win a massive stuffed animal for his girl. Forty bucks later, he still hasn’t secured the prized panda, and the girlfriend is now spending more time checking me out than cheering him on.
“Can you believe that chick?” Mac says when we walk off. “I swear she was picturing you naked in her mind while her poor boyfriend was bleeding money for her.”
“Jealous?” I flash a grin.
“Nope. Just impressed. You’re hot stuff, Hartley. I don’t think we’ve passed a single girl tonight who hasn’t stopped to drool over you.”
“What can I say? Women like me.” I’m not trying to be arrogant. It’s just a fact. My twin and I are good-looking, and good-looking guys are popular with the ladies. Anyone who says otherwise is damn naïve. When it comes to our basic animal instincts, who we’re sexually drawn to, appearance matters.
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” Mac asks.
“Don’t want one.”
“Ah, I get it. Commitmentphobe.”
“Nah.” I shrug. “I’m just not in the market for one right now. My priorities are elsewhere.”
Our eyes lock for a fleeting, heated moment. I’m seconds away from reexamining the aforementioned priorities when Mac visibly swallows and changes the subject.
“Alright, time for another ride,” she announces. “We’ve been dilly-dallying long enough.”
“Please go easy on me,” I beg.
She simply snorts in response and dashes off in search of our next death-defying adventure.
I stare after her in amusement. And a touch of bewilderment. This girl is something else. Not at all like the other bored clones at Garnet. She doesn’t care how she looks—hair wild, makeup sweating off. She’s spontaneous and free, which makes it that much more confounding why she stays with that jackass Kincaid. What the hell does that guy have that makes him so damn great?
“Explain something to me,” I say, as we approach some enormous bungee thing that slingshots a small, two-person basket of screaming victims nearly two hundred feet in the air.
“If this is you trying to stall, it won’t work.” She marches right up to the ride attendant and hands him our tickets.
“Your boyfriend,” I start, stepping around her to get into the basket first.
The attendant straps me in and starts his spiel that amounts to:
Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle, and if this kills you, we’re not liable.
For the first time tonight, Mac looks nervous as she slides in beside me. “What about him?”
I choose my words carefully. “I mean, I hear things. None of them good. And for a girl who insists she doesn’t want to be her mommy and daddy’s little princess protégé, I’m wondering why you would do the expected thing and settle for another Garnet clone.”
The thick bundle of cords, which will in a moment launch us into the night sky, rises up the ride’s arms that form an obtuse angle above us.
“That’s not really any of your business.” Her expression turns flat, her tone adversarial. I’m touching a nerve.
“Come on, if you two have crazy-good sex or something, just say so. That I understand. Get yours, you know? I’d respect it.”
She looks straight ahead, as if there’s any chance of her ignoring
me in this four-foot-wide tin can. “I’m not having this conversation with you.”
“I know it’s not for the money,” I say. “And the fact that you never talk about him tells me your heart’s not in it.”
“You’re way off.” Mac snaps her gaze to me, lifting a defiant chin. There’s all sorts of fight in her now. “Honestly, I’m embarrassed for you.”
“Oh, is that right, princess?” I can’t help myself. Getting a rise out of her kind of makes me horny. “When’s the last time you touched yourself thinking about him?”
“Fuck off.” Her cheeks turn red. I can see her biting the inside of her cheek as she rolls her eyes.
“Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me he gets you hot and bothered just walking into a room.”
Her pulse is visibly thrumming in her neck. Mac adjusts in her seat, crossing her ankles. As her gaze flicks to mine, she licks her lips and I know she’s thinking the same thing I am.
“There are more important things than chemistry,” she says, and I hear the uncertainty in her voice.
“I bet you’ve been telling yourself that for a long time.” I slant my head. “But maybe you’re not as sure of that as you used to be.”
“And why’s that?”
“Okay,” the attendant announces, “hang on. Counting down from ten. Ready?”
Oh, fuck it.
“I’m calling in your marker,” I tell her.
” The attendant counts down.
“The bet we made, remember? The night we met? Well, I won, and I know what I want as repayment.”
Kiss me,” I say roughly. “Or tell me you still don’t want me.”
“What’s it gonna be, Mackenzie?”
We’re propelled into the air, and for several heart-stopping, stomach-twisting moments, we’re sort of frozen in time. Pinned by the force of the ride as the ground disappears beneath us. A brief, spectacular moment of weightlessness lifts us from our seats and then the tension of the cords releases slightly and we bounce, once, twice, past the highest point. I turn my head and that’s when Mac’s lips find mine.
It’s like an electric shock, a sizzle of heat from her lips straight down to my groin.
She grabs me, finding fistfuls of my hair, kissing me wildly. She tastes like sugar and endless summer nights. I’m hungry for both as my tongue slicks over hers and we soar so high it feels like we might never come down.
Her gasp heats my lips.
I drive the kiss deeper, swallowing her soft moan.
The basket bounces again, slowly descending on our return to earth. We part only to suck in a startled breath, and I have to remember where we are to stop myself from tearing her clothes off. I’m hard and hungry.
“We shouldn’t have done that.” Mac adjusts the straps of her tank top and wipes the smeared lipstick from her lips.
“I’m not sorry,” I tell her. Because I’m not. I’ve wanted to do that for weeks. And it’s all on the table now. We set fire to the pretense, and there’s nowhere to go but forward.
She’s silent when we leave the ride. Maybe I came on too strong. Scared her away.
When I realize she’s leading us toward the exit, I swallow a sigh.
She’s definitely running scared.
“I’ll take you home, if you want,” I offer, following her toward where we parked the truck.
“I want to say goodnight to Daisy first.”
I don’t bother to correct her this time. Guess she won that battle.
“I’ll catch a cab from your place,” she adds.
The entire ride to my house, I’m convinced I’m never going to see her again and I’ve screwed this whole plan. My head is reeling, trying to think of something to say, some way to mitigate the fallout. All I come up with is a dozen ways I want to screw her brains out. Which isn’t helping.
“He grounds me.”
Her quiet statement has me glancing over in surprise. “What?”
“Preston. There are many reasons I’m with him, but that’s a big one. He keeps me grounded.” From the corner of my eye, I see she’s wringing her hands. “Reminds me to be more restrained.”
“Why do you need to be?” My voice is gruff.
“For one, because my dad is in the public eye.”
“So? Your father made that choice. You don’t have to turn yourself into a plastic person because of his life decisions.” I frown at her. “And you don’t have to put up with a boyfriend who keeps you on a leash.”
Her eyes flash. “I’m not on a leash.”
“What do you think ‘restrained’ means?” I say sarcastically.
“I said he reminds me to restrain
. He’s not the one doing
the restraining. Whatever. You don’t get it.” Lips flattening, she fixes her gaze out the passenger window.
“You’re right, I don’t get it. I just spent the past couple hours watching you seek out every wild ride at that festival. You get off on the thrill. You get off on life. There’s fire in you, Mac.”
“Fire,” she echoes dubiously.
“Hell yes. Fire. And you choose to be with someone who puts out the fire? Screw that. You need a man to stoke it.”
“And, what, that man is you?” A sharp edge to her question.
“Didn’t say that. Just saying your current pick is seriously lacking.”
The house is dark when we pull up. Evan said he was getting together with our friends, but maybe they hit up the festival after all. Another silence falls over us as Mac and I walk inside.
I flick the light switch. “Look,” I start. “I don’t regret the kiss—we both wanted it, and you know that. But if this friendship thing is gonna be weird for you now …”
I glance back to see her pressed against the door, looking insanely edible. She doesn’t speak, just tugs the front of my shirt to draw me to her. Before I can blink, she rises on her toes to kiss me.
“Fuck,” I gasp against her greedy mouth.
In response, she lifts her leg around my hip and bites my lip.
My brain stutters for a second before I wake up and go with it. I grab her thigh, pressing myself between her legs as I kiss her deeper. Her fingers find their way under my shirt.
“God, all these muscles. I can’t even.” Her palms travel to my chest, stroking, then around to my back, nails gently scratching down my spine.
Her eager touch sends all the blood in my body rushing to my groin. I’m gone. Hard. Panting. I want her so badly I can hardly breathe.
A detailed fantasy of bending her over my bed plays behind my clenched eyelids. I’m about to pick her up and throw her over
my shoulder when I hear the sliding glass door shut loudly in the kitchen.
Our mouths break apart.
“Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.” Heidi stands in the kitchen doorway, watching us with a sarcastic smile. “Didn’t know you were back.”
I’m still breathing hard, trying to find my voice.
She walks to the fridge for two handfuls of beers. “Please, as you were. Don’t let me interrupt.”
Heidi winks at me before leaving the way she came.
“I should go.” Immediately Mac is disentangling herself from me, putting distance between us. The dog hasn’t come running, which means Evan has her down at the beach, with Heidi and the rest of the gang.
“That’s my friend Heidi,” I hurry to explain, not wanting Mac to leave. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t know anyone was here.”
“It’s all good. I have to go.”
“Stay. They’re probably all down at the beach. I’ll get Daisy for you.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m going to call a cab.”
“I’ll drive you,” I counter.
She’s out the door, slinking away before I can stop her.
Damn it. “At least let me wait with you.”
She acquiesces to that much, but the moment’s passed. Once again there’s a massive crater between us as we wait in silence, and I get nothing more than a wave goodnight as she’s pulling away.
I drag a hand through my hair and trudge into the house. Fucking hell. One step forward, two steps back.
Story of my life.
In the kitchen, I grab a beer for myself, twist off the cap, and
take a long swig before stepping out onto the deck. Where Heidi is standing. Her arms are free of bottles, so she must have delivered them to the beach and come back to wait for me.
“Hey,” I say roughly.
“Hey.” She leans against the railing, one hand playing with the frayed ends of her denim skirt. “So. You’ve got the clone on the hook.”
“I guess.” I swallow a hasty sip of beer. Truth be told, the plan, the bet, the rules … they were the last thing on my mind back there. My entire world had been reduced to Mackenzie and how good she felt pressed up against me.
“You guess? The chick was looking at you with stars in her eyes. She’s into you.”
Rather than comment, I pivot by saying, “Speaking of people being into other people—Jay West was asking about you.”
She narrows her eyes. “When?”
“A few days ago. Said he hung out with you at a bar or something.”
“Oh, yeah. We ran into him and Kellan at Joe’s.”
I flick up one eyebrow. “He’s gonna ask you out.”
She doesn’t say anything. Just watches me warily.
“Will you turn him down?”
A sigh lodges itself in my throat. I know she wants me to stake my claim, throw myself at her feet, and beg her not to go out with anyone but me. But I’m not going to do that. I told her I didn’t want a relationship when we first hooked up. I hoped it would only be a one-night thing, each of us scratching an itch, and then we’d go back to being friends. But I was naïve. One night led to a few more, and now our friendship is more strained than ever.
“Do whatever you want, Heidi,” I finally say.
“Got it. Thanks for the advice, Coop.” Sarcasm drips from every
word. Then, with a frustrated shake of her head, she stomps down the steps.
I release the breath trapped in my lungs. Chug the rest of my beer. The taste of Mackenzie still lingers on my tongue. Sugar and sex, an addictive combo. I step inside to grab another bottle, hoping the alcohol might help erase the flavor of the woman I’m aching to kiss again.
I join everyone on the beach. I’m relieved—and then ashamed of my relief—when I spot Heidi about ten yards away at the water’s edge, texting on her phone. Maybe reaching out to Jay? But I doubt it. She’s never been attracted to the nice ones. Just the jerks like me.
Around the fire, Steph and Alana are ragging Evan about some girl he hooked up with yesterday, after getting into a fight with her boyfriend. First I’m hearing of either, but Evan’s not particularly forthcoming when it comes to his transgressions. From what I gather, he threw down with some Garnet clones who refused to pay up after he schooled them at the pool hall.
“She came in tonight all moon-eyed, asking where she could track you down,” Alana is telling him.
He pales. “You didn’t give her my number, did you?”
Alana lets him sweat for a few seconds before she and Steph break out in grins. “’Course not. That would go against the friend code.”
“Speaking of the friend code, does it say anything about subjecting your friends to a front-row seat to your slobbery make-out session?” Steph pipes up, gesturing to the culprit in question.
At the far edge of the fire pit, our friend Tate is sprawled on one of our old lounge chairs with a curvy dark-haired chick draped over him like a blanket. He’s got a hand thrust in her hair and his tongue in her mouth, while she rubs herself against him like a cat in heat. They’re oblivious to our presence.
“Shameless,” Evan shouts at the couple with feigned outrage. Then he grins, because my brother’s an exhibitionist himself.
Tate gives his girl’s bottom a playful smack and they stumble to their feet, cheeks flushed and lips swollen. “Coop,” he drawls. “Mind if we head inside and watch some TV?”
I roll my eyes. “Sure. But there’s no TV in my room, so I’d better not find you in there.” I love my friends, but I don’t need them banging on my bed. I just changed the sheets this morning too.
After Tate and the brunette disappear, Alana and Steph bend their heads close and start whispering to each other.
“Share with the group,” Evan mocks, wagging a finger at the girls.
With a look of evil glee, Steph jerks her thumb toward Alana and says, “This bad girl slept with Tate last weekend.”
I lift a brow. “Yeah?”
An unimpressed Evan shrugs. “You finally took a ride on the Tatemobile, huh? Surprised it took you so long.”
My brother makes a good point. From the moment Tate’s family moved to the Bay when we were in junior high, all the local girls went crazy for him. One cocky smile from Tate and they’re hooked.
Alana’s expression reveals not an ounce of shame or regret as she offers her own shrug. “Sort of wish I had done it sooner. Man gives good dick. Great kisser too.”
“He’s not bad,” Evan agrees, and I can’t help myself—I burst out laughing.
“Shit,” I wheeze. “I always forget about that night you guys made out.”
He rolls his eyes. “It was just a kiss.”
“Dude, it lasted like three full minutes.” My mind is now flooded with the vivid images of Evan and Tate sucking each other’s faces off at one of Alana’s house parties when we were sixteen. The girls cheering them on, the guys catcalling. That was a weird night.
“In Ev’s defense, making out with Tate was the only way they
were gonna see me and Genevieve take our tops off—” Alana stops abruptly.
Well, hell. She actually did it. Uttered Genevieve’s name, the Voldemort of our group. I have to assume the girls are still in touch. Steph, Alana, Heidi, and Gen were the fierce foursome.
Evan and I have a habit of reading each other’s minds, but whereas I possess at least some self-restraint, he doesn’t know the meaning of it. So he says, “You guys still talk to her?”
Steph opens her mouth, only to be interrupted by Heidi’s reappearance.
“What’s going on?” she asks, carefully glancing around the group. Then she nods. “Oh. Cooper told you.”
Genevieve is all but forgotten as everyone’s gazes swivel to me. “Told us what?” Steph demands.
I shrug. So, naturally, Heidi doesn’t waste a second filling them in on finding me and Mackenzie wrapped up at the front door.
“Gotta admit, Coop, I didn’t think you’d get this far,” Alana says, lifting a beer in salute. “I’m impressed.”
“I’ve changed my mind, by the way.” Heidi eyes me through the flames. “I’m totally on board with this plan. I cannot wait to see the look on that girl’s face when she realizes what you’ve done.”
“How are you gonna do it?” Steph asks excitedly.
This is the most fun these girls have had since they went ham on some clone’s car after he ran off with Alana’s bikini top while she was sunbathing on the beach.
“Yeah, we have to talk endgame,” Evan says. “It’d be a shame to waste an opportunity.”
“Yes,” Heidi agrees. “You have to get her and Kincaid in the same place, let him see you two together, and then dump her in public. Make it dramatic.” Heidi is in a mood tonight. I know I’m to blame
for it, but I’m not sure how to fix things between us. “Maybe we can throw a party.”
Steph splashes beer on the fire in her eagerness. “Nah, too tame. Has to be on their turf. It’s no fun unless Kincaid is humiliated in front of his own kind.”
“I know where we can get a couple buckets of pig’s blood,” Alana says, which gets the rest of them doubled over laughing.
I laugh with them, playing along. Because a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have given a damn what happened to the random clone girlfriend of a rich punk who crossed me.
But now I’ve gotten to know Mac and … I genuinely like her. She doesn’t deserve their scorn just because she’s connected to a jackass like Kincaid. And after that kiss, I know there’s something real between us, even if she’s afraid of it. I can’t tell these guys I’m having second thoughts, though. They’d tear my ass a new one.