Authors: Elle Kennedy
Fifteen minutes later, I jump out of an Uber and scan the sidewalk in front of Sharkey’s Sports Bar. It doesn’t take long to spot him. Evan’s sitting on the curb, looking like a month’s worth of sludge at the bottom of a trash can that’s been left in the rain.
“What happened to you?” I ask, noting the blood smeared on the side of his face, his shirt torn at the shoulder, and hands scraped and swollen. I can smell the alcohol on him from two feet away.
With his arms propped up on his bent knees, he looks exhausted. Defeated, even. He barely raises his head to acknowledge me. When he speaks, his voice is strained and weak. “Can you get me out of here?”
It’s then I realize I’m his last resort. That turning to me for help is more painful than whatever he’s endured tonight and what he needs the most now is grace.
“Yeah.” I bend down to gather one of his arms over my shoulder to help bear his weight. “I’ve got you.”
As we’re getting up, a trio of guys rounds the corner. Wearing their Greek letters on their shirts, they shout something slurred and incoherent as they approach.
“Oh, hey, baby,” one says when his bleary eyes land on me. A
slimy grin appears. “What you got there? Find yourself a gutter stray?”
“Piss off, asshole.” Evan grumbles a half-hearted insult. He can barely stand up straight, leaning on me for balance, but that isn’t enough to deter him from picking a fight apparently. Got to admire his fortitude.
“It’s this fucker again?” The tallest of the frat boys staggers closer, peering at Evan before turning to his buddies. “Look who’s back, boys.”
I level the three guys with a deadly glare. “Leave us alone.”
“Haven’t you had enough, my man?” The third guy comes closer, ducking to meet Evan’s eyes as Evan fights to lift his head. “Thought you were fucking hilarious when you were trying to scam us, huh? Not laughing now, are you? Townie piece of trash.”
My eyes become murderous. I’m tired, cranky, and I’ve got my hands full with Evan. There’s not an ounce of patience left for these idiots.
“Hey, I know you,” the tall one suddenly says, squinting at me.
“I doubt that,” I snap.
“No, I do. I know you. You’re Preston Kincaid’s girlfriend.” He laughs gleefully. “Yeah, you’re Kincaid’s girl. I’m in his frat. I saw you two at some sorority party a while back.”
Strands of unease climb up my throat. Wonderful. The last thing I need is tonight’s activities getting back to Preston. I tighten my grip on Evan and say, “I have no idea who you are, dude. Now, please, get out of our way.”
“Does Kincaid know you’re messing around on him?” His laughter turns maniacal. “And with this piece of shit, no less? Jesus. Women are such trash.”
“Trash,” one of the other guys echoes drunkenly.
When both of them try advancing closer, I’ve officially had enough.
“Back off, motherfuckers.” My voice cracks like a whip off the brick wall of the bar.
“Or what?” mocks the tall one.
With an angry, impatient growl, I shove my hand in my purse and whip out a can of pepper spray, aiming it at the frat bros until they stagger back. “I promise you, I’m crazier than I look. Please test me.”
Somewhere in the distance, a siren blares. It’s enough to spook them. “Man, forget this bitch, let’s get out of there.”
They hurry to pile in a car across the street and flee, tires squealing as they pull a hard U-turn.
“Where the hell did that come from?” Evan manages a faint laugh, still clinging to me with one arm over my shoulder.
“All women are wolverines.”
“I’ve also done a fair bit of solo traveling, which if nothing else has taught me to be prepared for what lurks in the shadows.” With that, I all but drag him to his Jeep and fish his keys out of his pocket. He manages to climb into the passenger seat while I slide behind the wheel.
“I can’t go home,” he says. Eyes closed, his head lulls against the window. Too heavy for his neck.
I adjust the driver’s seat to accommodate my shorter legs. “Okay …Steph and Alana’s house?”
“No. Please.” He speaks in gusts of breath. “Coop can’t find out.”
I’m not sure why or which part he’s referring to, but I understand his desperation. Which leaves me no choice but to bring him back to Tally Hall.
Getting him up to my dorm room on the fourth floor is a challenge, but we make it there in one piece. Once inside, I sit him on the edge of the bathtub to clean him up. A sense of déjà vu hits me. What is it about these Hartley boys, huh?
As I’m wiping the blood from his face with a wet washcloth, I can’t ignore his gaze following my every move. He has some bruising and small cuts, but nothing serious. Just need to dab a little ointment and apply a couple bandages.
“Sore losers,” he says.
“Those guys. I beat them at pool, and they didn’t take it well. Shouldn’t play with money they aren’t prepared to lose.”
“Do you always shark people outnumbered?”
He breathes out a laugh then winces, holding his side. “I thought I had the home field advantage. Turned out there were a few more people holding a grudge than I figured.”
I cock a brow at him. “Don’t you townies have a saying about shitting where you eat?”
“Yeah, I might have heard that one.”
“You’ve got to diversify.”
“Adapt or die, is that it?”
“Something like that.” Once I’ve got him fixed up, I get him a glass of water and some aspirin and bring him an ice pack. “You can sleep it off in Bonnie’s room,” I offer. “She’s out tonight and I know she won’t mind.”
“She’d better not. I made her come three times that night.”
I choke out a laugh. “How kind of you.” Man, it seems like ages ago that Evan and Bonnie had wandered down the beach together. A day later, she was already chasing after her next conquest. No muss, no fuss between those two.
I prop him on the edge of Bonnie’s bed and proceed to undress him in the most clinical of manners. I try not to stare at his body and compare it to Cooper’s, but it’s difficult. His chest is right there, and yes, it’s as muscular as his brother’s. No tattoos, though. At least until I help him roll over and realize he has a huge one on his back. It’s too dark to make out the ink.
“Thank you,” he says once he’s lying down.
Though he doesn’t offer more than that, I know it’s sincere. Whatever is going on between him and Cooper, it’s enough that turning to me for help was the more attractive option. I take it as a step in the right direction that Evan trusts me this much. Baby steps.
I pat him gently on the head, as if he’s a child with a slight fever. “You’re welcome.”
The next morning, I’m getting ready for class when Evan bursts out of Bonnie’s room with his phone to his ear.
“Yeah, I know, I know. I’m on my way. I said I heard you, fuck.” He’s stumbling around trying to pull his jeans up while rummaging through Bonnie’s room for something. “Ten minutes.”
When I question him with a look, he holds up his fingers to mime dangling keys. Keys! I still have his Jeep keys in my room. I dash off and grab them, then toss them at him. He snatches them easily from the air.
“No,” he says into the phone. “Dude, I’m leaving right now, chill the fuck out.”
I mouth at him, to which Evan nods his head. I hold my hand out for the phone. He’s skeptical at first, then relents.
“Here, the princess wants to talk to you.” This time, instead of a sarcastic sneer, there’s a smile in his eyes. Maybe a plea.
“Hey,” I say, not giving Cooper a chance to cut me off. “I invited Evan out for breakfast but the place was slammed and I lost track of time. I just had to order the soufflé, you know.”
“Breakfast, huh?” He’s wary, of course. As he should be.
But I stick to the story. “Yeah, I thought it’d be a chance for us to chat, you know? A little family time.”
I can practically feel Cooper’s eyes rolling through the phone.
“Whatever. Tell him to get his ass to work.”
“K, smooches, bye,” I sing sweetly, because the more I throw Cooper off balance, the more he’ll accept this completely preposterous premise. Ending the call, I hand the phone back to Evan. “I think he bought it.”
He gives me a look of confused amusement. “You’re a life-saver.”
“I know. Now can I ask why I’m lying to your brother?”
Running his hands through his hair, Evan sighs. He’s the type who hates explaining himself. I get that. But fair’s fair.
“Coop’s already on my case,” he says reluctantly. “If he finds out about last night, he’ll force an intervention on me or some dumb shit.”
“Do you need one?” I know Cooper’s been concerned that Evan is spiraling, but he hasn’t told me any specifics. Judging by last night, I suspect booze and fighting are possible culprits.
“Definitely not,” Evan assures me.
I’m not sure who he’s trying to convince, but it doesn’t work on either of us.
I let out a breath. “Make me a promise.”
He rolls his eyes. It’s these times I forget he and Cooper are two different people.
“I’ll cover for you as long as you’re honest with me. If you won’t talk to Cooper, I’ll feel better if you at least let me keep an eye on you.”
“I don’t need a babysitter.” He punctuates that with a dark scowl.
Yup. I get why they fight so much. Cooper’s overbearing and Evan is an obstinate ass. Together they create a perfect storm.
“I don’t want to be one,” I tell him. “So how about we settle for friends. Deal?”
He licks his lips to smother a grin. It’s almost charming. “Alright, princess. Deal.”
We shake hands. I give it about a fifty-fifty chance that he holds up his end of the bargain. Still, it’s miles from where we started, and I’m smart enough to take what I can get.
Mac’s got yet another inspection at the hotel today, so I take the afternoon off to go there with her. She says it’s so I can translate for her, but I think she’s nervous about what she’s gotten herself into. Can’t blame her. Even if I had boatloads of family money, jumping into something as complex as renovating a hotel—not to mention running the damn thing—would make me a whole lot of anxious too. So as the inspector does his thing, Mac and I hang out on the boardwalk waiting for the verdict.
“I’m starting to think one does not simply buy a condemned hotel,” she says glumly.
I can’t help a smile. “That so?”
“Yup.” She bends to pet Daisy, who’s sitting at her feet. That dog doesn’t leave me alone for a second when we’re home, and then as soon as Mac comes around, she doesn’t know me.
“You can walk away.” From what I understand, the final sale of the property is still pending the completion of this last inspection. Crossing
’s and all that.
“No, I’m committed. It’s just overwhelming, you know? Thinking about everything there is to do. How much I don’t know.”
“So you’ll figure it out.”
She bites her lip. “Right.” Then she nods. Swiftly, decisively. “You’re right. I will figure it out.”
is what I dig about her. Her confidence. The courage. She had an idea and some gumption and went for it. Most people spend their whole lives talking themselves out of their dreams. Point out all the reasons it’s too hard or farfetched. Not Mac.
“When you look at this place, do you still feel the same way as you did when you put the offer in?” I ask.
She smiles, the gleam of ambition fresh in her eyes as she stares at the crumbling building. “Yes.”
“Pull the trigger. Can’t win if you don’t play.”
“That’s the lottery,” she says, nudging my shoulder.
To be honest, I’m glad she asked me here. Even if only for moral support. There isn’t much I can give a girl like Mackenzie Cabot. Nothing she doesn’t already have or can’t get on her own. We all want to feel useful, though. I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I started needing her to need me.
After a couple hours, the inspector comes out with his clipboard and runs down the list with Mac. Most of it we expected, some we didn’t. All of it carries a price tag.
“What’s the bottom line?” Mac asks him after he’s gone over every bullet item line by line.
“It’ll cost ya,” the man says through his overgrown mustache. “That said, there’s no reason this place can’t be operational again. I wish you luck.”
After a handshake, he gives her the paperwork and walks off to his car.
“So?” I prompt, taking Daisy’s leash from her.
She hesitates. Only for a second. Then she smiles wryly. “Guess I better call the bank.”
Gotta admit, it’s kind of hot that she can just call up a few million like placing a bet on the Panthers. She wears it well.
After she gets off the phone, we take a walk on the beach and let Daisy run around a little.
“So listen.” Mac sifts through the sand with her toes, picking out shells that catch her eye. She scoops one up, admires it, then drops it back in the sand. “I know I’m out of my depth here. I’m better at writing checks than rewiring a building.”
“That’s no sweat. I know everyone in ten square miles who does this kind of work.”
“That’s what I mean. You know the area, the people.”
There’s an ask coming, and I can’t imagine what it could be that has her dancing around the subject.
“Spit it out, Cabot.”
She rounds on me, arching an eyebrow. “I want to hire your uncle Levi to do the work.”
I furrow my brow. “What part?”
“All of it. As much as he can handle. Whatever he can’t, I want him to sub-contract out to people he trusts. The guys he’d get to do his mother’s house. Keep it in the family, so to speak.”
“Wow. Okay …” I mean, I’d expected her to pick his brain, maybe. Get some references. Maybe toss him a project or two.
This is …a lot.
“You seem unsure,” Mac observes.
“No, no. I’m not. It’s, uhh …”
“A big commitment?” She’s smiling. Grinning, actually. I think this chick is laughing at me.
“I’m not afraid of commitment, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“Uh-huh,” she says.
“I’ll commit the shit out of you.”
“Good.” Thinking she’s already won, she spins on her toes and
resumes walking. “Then we have a deal. You’ll set up a meeting with Levi so we can discuss scope and an equitable price.”
“Hang on, princess. He’s got other jobs on the books already. I don’t know what kind of time he has. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
“Details.” She waves her hand at me. “All can be negotiated. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
“Okay, I’ll put the offer to him if you keep the cheesy platitudes to yourself.”
Mac picks up a piece of driftwood and tosses it for Daisy. “I make no promises.”
I roll my eyes at her back. This woman is kind of insufferable, but I love it. Somehow, she got under my skin. Even when she’s being obnoxious, I’m still into it.
“Be honest,” I say before I can stop myself. “Does this whole thing even put a dent in the trust fund?”
I hesitate to even guess at a number. At a certain point, all the zeros start to run together. The difference between a hundred million and five hundred million is the difference between swimming to China and New Zealand to a drowning man.
She goes quiet for a second. Then another. An apparent unease steals the humor from her face. “Actually, I can’t touch my trust fund until I’m twenty-five.”
That gives me pause, because how did she buy a hotel, then? I know her parents aren’t giving her the money. She’s been vocal about their lack of approval for her ambitions.
“Unless you’ve been a drug kingpin this whole time—I’d be totally sympathetic if you were—where the hell does a twenty-year-old get that kind of cash?”
“You’re going to think it’s silly,” she says, stopping to stare at the ground.
I’m getting a little nervous. Suddenly, I’m wondering if I’d be
okay if she told me she was a camgirl or something. Or worse, if she asked me to join her essential oils pyramid scheme.
Fortunately, she works up the nerve to spit it out before my imagination really takes off.
“You remember that time you showed me the funny boyfriend story? The one where the girl was looking for tampons in her date’s mom’s bathroom?”
My eyebrows fly up. What does that have to do with anything?
“I built that website.
. Which spun off to
“Wait, for real?”
She shrugs. “Yeah.”
Holy shit. “And you made all this money from that?”
Another embarrassed shrug. It confuses me, because what is she so shy about?
“Mackenzie, that’s badass,” I inform her.
“You don’t think it’s stupid?” She looks at me with these big, hopeful green eyes. I’m not sure if I should feel like a dick that she thought I’d judge her for this.
“Hell no. I’m impressed. When I was twenty, I was still burning mac and cheese.” I mean, I’m
burning mac and cheese.
“My parents hate it.” Her voice grows sour. As it does every time the subject comes up, but more so lately. “You’d think I got a tattoo on my forehead or something. They keep waiting for me to ‘grow out of it.’” She makes angry air quotes, kicking sand. “They don’t get it.”
“What’s not to get? Their daughter can’t even rent a car yet but she’s already a self-made millionaire.”
“They’re embarrassed. They think it’s crass and silly high school nonsense. And, whatever, maybe it is. But what’s so wrong with that if it makes people laugh, you know? Far as they’re concerned, my business is a distraction. All they want for me is to frame a respectable
degree and marry rich, so I can be like Mom and sit on charity boards. It’s about appearances. It’s all fashion to them.”
“See, that sounds dumb as hell.” I shake my head, because I truly don’t get it. Rich people buying status symbols to impress other rich people who bought the same status symbols to impress them. A vicious cycle of waste and pretension. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars to a university just for looks? Fuck that noise.”
“I didn’t even want to go to Garnet—it was the only way they’d support my gap year so I could have the time to build my apps and expand the business. But since I got here, all I’ve been thinking about is tackling a new challenge, finding a new business venture that excites me as much as my websites did when I was first launching them.”
“Well, you know what I think? Do you, and to hell what everyone else thinks.”
“Easier said than done,” she says with that familiar tone of trepidation.
Daisy brings us a small hermit crab hiding in its shell, which Mac takes and sets back in the sand before finding another stick to throw instead.
“Yeah, so what?” Where she’s concerned, her parents have always been a daunting obstacle to realizing what she really wants out of life. For someone with every advantage, that’s bullshit. She’s stronger than that. “If you want it bad enough, fight for it. Take the bruises. What’s the worst they can do, cut you off? If you’re honest with them about how much this all means to you and they still don’t support your dreams, how much are you really going to miss them?”
She lets out a soft sigh. “Honestly, sometimes I wonder if they love me at all. Most of the time, I’m a prop or a piece on a board in their larger game of strategy. I’m plastic to them.”
“I could bore the hell out of you with crappy family stories,” I tell her. “So I get that. It’s not the same, but trust me, I get feeling
alone and unloved. Always trying to fill that void with something, anything else. I can almost forgive my dad for being a mean bastard, you know? He had an addiction. It turned everything he touched to shit. Eventually killed him. I wasn’t even that sad about it, except then all we had left was our mom. For a while, anyway, but then she split too. The two of them couldn’t get away from us fast enough.” My throat closes up. “I’ve spent so much time scared that I’ll turn into one of them. Afraid no matter what I do, I’m fighting against the current and I’ll end up dead or a deadbeat.”
I’ve never said those words out loud before.
It’s terrifying how much Mac brings out of me. How much I want her to know me. It’s terrifying how I don’t feel in control of my heart that’s racing to catch her. To keep her. Worried that at any moment she might come to her senses and ditch my ass.
“Hey.” Then she takes my hand, and all I can think is that I’d stand in traffic for this girl. “Let’s make a pact: We won’t let each other become our parents. The buddy system never fails.”
“Deal.” It’s so corny I half manage a laugh. “Seriously, though. Don’t waste this moment. If your heart’s telling you to follow something—go for it. Don’t let anyone hold you back, because life is too damn short. Build your empire. Slay dragons.”
“You should put that on a T-shirt.”
Daisy comes back, curling around Mac’s feet. Guess she finally ran herself ragged. I put her on the leash as Mac and I sit in the sand. A comfortable silence falls between us. I don’t understand how she manages to instill equal parts chaos and peace inside me. When we’re arguing, sometimes I want to throttle her. She drives me mad. She does crazy shit like climbing metal ladders during lightning storms. And then suddenly we have moments like this, where we’re sitting side by side, quiet, lost in our own thoughts yet completely
in tune. Connected. I don’t know what it means. Why we can yell at each other one second, and be totally at peace the next. Maybe it just means we’re both nuts.
Or maybe it means I’m falling for her.