Authors: Elle Kennedy
“No, he’s probably getting into trouble somewhere.” Actually, he’s hustling rich kids out of their trust fund money at the pool tables a few doors down. It’s practically his second job. “Can’t take that kid anywhere.”
“That’s too bad.” Bonnie gives a playful pout.
It’s clear this Bonnie chick is a tiny bottle of fire. She’s got all kinds of mischievous sexual energy bursting out of her.
“We were hoping you had the skinny on the after-party, right, Mac? Somewhere …cozier.”
Mackenzie shoots a conflicted glance at her roommate. I bite back a grin. Now if she refuses, she’s cockblocking her friend.
Tough spot, Mac
. This roommate and I are becoming fast friends. This’ll be easier than I hoped.
“Cozy, huh?” I say.
Mackenzie glances back at me, realizing she never stood a chance at winning our little game. I’d feel bad if I were capable of giving a shit. This chick’s hot, and not a total nightmare, but I haven’t forgotten why I’m here. She’s still only a means to an end.
“I know a place.” It’s too soon to try inviting them back to the house. That’s coming on strong, and I know instinctively it’s not the right strategy on this one. She needs the measured approach. Build a rapport. Become friends. I can be patient when I need to be; let her come to me. The mission is to break up her and Kincaid. For that to work, she has to be invested.
“That doesn’t sound ominous at all.” Mackenzie’s got some bite to her now.
“I’ll text my brother, see if he’s interested in getting into some trouble with us instead of whatever he’s up to. Yeah?”
“I’m game.” Bonnie looks to Mackenzie with
Daddy, can I have a pony
“I don’t know.” Torn, she consults her phone. “It’s almost one in the morning. My boyfriend’s probably home waiting for me to call him.”
“He’ll live,” Bonnie insists. Her pleading tone grows more urgent. “Please?”
“Come on, princess. Live a little.”
Mackenzie wrestles with her better judgment, and there’s a split second when I begin to question myself. That perhaps I’d read her wrong, and she’s not a bored rich girl who needs to let loose. That she’s fully capable of getting up, walking off, and never looking at me twice.
“Fine,” she relents. “An hour, tops.”
Nah, still got it.
I don’t quite know how we got here. I’m with Bonnie, Cooper, and his identical twin Evan, sitting around a glowing bonfire on the sand where the crashing waves and pulsing tide drown out the sounds of the boardwalk. The tiny sparks and embers flicker and float into the warm ocean air. Lights twinkle from behind the sand dunes and reflect off the water.
Clearly I’ve lost my mind. It’s as though someone else hijacked my brain when I agreed to let this stranger drag us into the darkness. Now, as Bonnie cozies up to her bad boy, a growing sense of unease builds inside me. It’s coming from the Cooper-sized space across the flames.
“You’re so full of it,” Bonnie accuses. She’s cross-legged beside me, laughing yet skeptical.
“I shit you not.” Evan puts his hands up in a show of innocence. “Coop’s sitting with this damn goat in the back of the squad car, and it’s scared, thrashing around. Kicks him in the forehead, and Coop starts gushing blood everywhere. So he’s trying to calm the goat down but everything’s all bloody and slippery back there. There’s blood all over him and the goat, the windows. And I’m driving this stolen cop car, the sirens are blaring, lights are flashing and shit.”
I laugh at his crazy description and animated hand gestures. Evan seems more playful than Cooper, who comes off as a bit intense. Their faces are identical, but it’s easy to tell them apart. Evan’s dark hair is cut shorter, his arms devoid of ink.
“And we can hear them on the radio,” Cooper says, his way too attractive face a dance of light and shadow from the fire between us. “They’re all, some damn fool kids stole a goat and a car. Set up a perimeter. Lock down the bridge. So we’re thinking, crap, where are we taking this thing?”
I can’t peel my gaze off his lips. His hands. Those muscular arms. I’m trying to trace the outlines of his tattoos as he gestures through the air. It’s psychological torture. I’m strapped to a chair, my eyes held open, driven mad by images of his dark eyes and crooked smirk. And although Evan literally has the same face, for some reason I’m not responding to
. Not even remotely. Just Cooper.
“We’re thirteen years old and set off a chase through town,” Evan continues, “all because Steph saw this goat chained up in someone’s yard and hopped the fence to liberate it just as the owner comes out with a shotgun. And Coop and I are thinking, aw man, she’s about to get her crazy ass shot over this goat.”
“We jump the fence after her, and I’m smashing the lock with a hammer—”
“You happened to have a hammer with you?” Even my voice sounds strange to me. I’m out of breath because my heart is pumping so fast, though I’ve been sitting the whole time. Perfectly still. Caught in his spell.
“Yeah.” He looks at me like I’m weird for asking. “It’s a cheap lock. You smack it good a couple times on the side, and the little parts inside break apart. So Evan grabs the goat and we’re dodging buckshot, because the owner is drunk off his ass and can’t aim for shit.”
“But where’d the cop car come from?” Bonnie asks.
“We’re running with this thing on a leash when a cop corners us, right?” Evan becomes animated, gesturing with a bottle of beer that he brought to the beach with him. “He draws his Taser but there’s three of us and a goat, so he doesn’t know who to aim at. He leaves the door open, so I’m like, screw it, hop in.”
“Evan and I dive in,” Cooper says. “Steph runs to distract the cop. Anyway, so the goat kicks the hell out of me, and I’m back there getting woozy, about to black out, when Evan says, bro, we gotta ditch this car and run.”
“So what happened to the goat?” I demand, now sincerely invested in the fate of this poor animal, but acutely paranoid that everyone notices how out of sorts I am. How hard I’m staring.
“Evan pulls onto this fire road that cuts through the state park and somehow wrestles that thing out of the backseat and takes it into the forest. Leaves me passed out on the ground beside the car so when the cops get there and see me unconscious and covered in blood, looking dead as a doornail, they all start freaking out. They get me in an ambulance, and I wake up in the hospital. In all the confusion, I slip out of there and meet Evan at home like nothing ever happened.”
“They never caught you?” Bonnie hoots with laughter.
“Hell no,” Evan says. “Got away clean.”
“So you left a goat by itself in the woods?” I stare at them, amused yet horrified.
“What the hell else were we supposed to do with it?” Cooper sputters.
“Not that! Oh my God. That poor goat. I’m going to have nightmares about the thing crying alone in the dark forest. Chased down by bobcats or something.”
“See?” Evan smacks his brother’s arm. “This is why we don’t let chicks talk us into playing hero. They’re never satisfied.”
Still, I laugh despite myself. The image of those two tearing through town, barely able to see over the steering wheel, with a frightened goat kicking and bucking around, is too hilarious.
For a while longer, we trade silly stories. About the time Bonnie and her high school cheerleading squad turned a hotel grand staircase into a Slip ’N Slide at a competition in Florida. Or the time a friend and I met some guys when camping with her family and almost burned down the campground with fireworks.
And then, it finally arrives. The moment Bonnie has eagerly awaited all night.
Evan grabs the blanket he got from his car earlier and asks Bonnie if she wants to take a walk. Those two have been making eyes at each other since we came here. Before they walk off, she glances back at me to make sure I’m cool by myself, and I give her a nod.
Because as terrified as I am to be left alone with Cooper, it’s exactly what I want.
“Well, my work here is done,” I inform him, trying to act normal.
He pokes the fire with a stick to move the logs around. “Don’t worry, she’s safe with him. He talks like a delinquent, but Evan’s not a creep or anything.”
“I’m not worried.” I get up and take Evan’s spot in the sand beside Cooper. I shouldn’t, but I’m a glutton for punishment. And I don’t know if it’s him or the intoxicating scent of burning driftwood, but I feel drunk despite only having one beer. “Honestly, neither of you are what I expected. In a good way.”
Uh-oh. That sounded flirty, I realize. My cheeks heat up, and I hope he doesn’t take the comment as a sign of interest.
“Yeah,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m kinda still waiting on an apology for that herpes crack.”
“I plead the fifth.” I bite back a smirk, looking at him from the corner of my eye.
“So that’s how it is, huh?” He arches an eyebrow, challenging me with mock bravado.
I shrug. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Alright. I see. Remember that, Mac. When you had the chance to be the bigger person.”
“Ohhh,” I taunt. “So it’s war now, huh? Sworn enemies to the death?”
“I don’t start shit, I finish it.” He makes a joking tough guy face and kicks some sand at my feet.
“Yeah, real mature.”
“Now about that bet, princess.”
That does me in. With that single mocking nickname, I blink and a terrible sinking awareness becomes undeniable.
And it’s not just his strong, angular face and deep, dark eyes that descend for ages. He also possesses a certain
I don’t give a fuck
quality that gets right at the most susceptible parts of me. In the light of the fire, there’s something almost ominous about him. A knife when the light glints off the blade. Yet he has a magnetism that’s undeniable.
I can’t remember the last time I felt such a visceral attraction to a guy. If ever.
I don’t like it. Not only because I have a boyfriend, but because my pulse is racing and my cheeks are hot, and I hate feeling like I’m not in control of my own body.
“We never did set the stakes,” he muses.
“What do you want, then?” Fair’s fair. If nothing else, I’m a woman of my word.
“You wanna make out?”
I play it cool, but my pulse kicks into a new gear. “What else do you want?”
“I mean, I figured a blowjob was a nonstarter, but if we’re negotiating. …”
Despite myself, I crack a smile. “You’re shameless.”
Somehow he manages to release the tension from the moment, erasing all awkwardness until I’m no longer hyperaware of myself.
“Alright,” he says, a sexy grin tilting his lips. “You drive a hard bargain. I’ll go down on you first.”
“Yeah, I think we’re at an impasse on this one.”
“That right?” He watches me under heavy-lidded eyes. It’s impossible not to feel he’s undressing me in his mind. “Fine. But I’m keeping your marker. You’re going to owe me one.”
At some point I feel my phone buzz in my pocket. By then Cooper and I are knee-deep in an argument over the socioeconomic implications of pastries. I glance at my phone to make sure it isn’t Bonnie asking for a rescue, but it’s just Preston saying he’s home from his poker game.
“No way,” Cooper argues. “Pastries are rich people food. You never see someone making minimum wage popping into a bakery for a box of fucking croissants. We got donuts, cold Pop-Tarts, and maybe a biscuit out of a can or something, but none of that scone shit.”
“A donut is absolutely a pastry. And a donut shop is a kind of bakery.”
“Horseshit. There are five bakeries in this town, and three of them are only open in the summer. What does that tell you?”
“That the population swells during the tourist season, and the overflow shops open to support that demand. It says nothing about the demographics.”
He scoffs, tossing a stick into the fire. “Now you’re talking nonsense.”
Though it sounds like we’re fighting, the subtle turn at the corner of his mouth tells me it’s all in good fun. Arguing is practically a pastime in my house, so I’m quite skilled at it. Not sure where Cooper learned to bicker so well, but he definitely keeps me on my toes. And neither of us take well to admitting defeat.
“You’re not the most annoying clone I’ve ever met,” he says a while later.
Bonnie and Evan still aren’t back. The boardwalk behind us is now mostly quiet in the late hour, and yet I’m not tired. If anything, I feel more energized.
“Clone?” I echo with a wry look. That’s a new one on me.
“What we call the rich folks. Because you’re all the same.” His eyes glint thoughtfully beneath the moonlight. “But maybe you’re not exactly like the rest of them.”
“Not sure if that’s an insulting compliment or a complimentary insult.” It’s my turn to kick a little sand at him.
“No, I mean, you’re not what I expected. You’re chill. Real.” He continues to study me, all the playfulness and pretense forgotten. On his face I see only sincerity. The real Cooper. “Not one of those stuck-up jackasses who has their head up their ass because they love the smell of their own shit so much.”
There’s something in his voice, and it’s more than the surface annoyance with yuppie tourists and rich jerks. It sounds like real pain.
I give him an elbow jab to lighten the mood. “I get it. I’ve grown up with those people. You’d think it gets to a point where you hardly notice it, but nope. Still, they’re not all bad.”
“This boyfriend of yours? What’s his story?”
“Preston,” I supply. “He’s from the area, actually—his family lives down the coast. He goes to Garnet, obviously. Business major.”
“You don’t say.” Cooper dons a sarcastic look.
“He’s not that bad. I don’t think he’s ever even played squash,” I
say for a laugh, but the joke doesn’t land. “He’s a good guy. Not the type who’s a dick to the waiter or that kind of thing.”
Cooper chuckles softly. “You don’t think it’s telling that your answer is basically, he’s nice to the help?”
I sigh. I suppose I don’t know how to talk to a guy I just met about my boyfriend. Especially when Cooper is clearly hostile to our entire upbringing.
“You know, this might shock you, but if you gave him a chance, you might actually get along. We’re not all jackasses,” I point out.
“Nah.” Some light returns to his expression, and I take that as a good sign. “I’m pretty sure you’re the one exception I’ve met, and I’ve lived in the Bay my whole life.”
“Then I’m glad I could demonstrate some redeeming qualities of my people.”
He smiles, shrugging. “We’ll see.”
“Oh, yeah? That sounds suspiciously like an invitation. But you wouldn’t be caught dead making friends with”—I gasp for effect—“a clone, now would you?”
“Not a chance. Call it an experiment. You can be my test subject.”
“And what hypothesis are we testing?”
“Whether a clone can be deprogrammed into a real person.”
I can’t help but laugh. I’ve been doing that a lot tonight. Cooper might have those brooding bad boy looks, but he’s funnier than I expected. I like him.
“So are we really doing this?” I ask.
His tongue drags over his bottom lip in a positively lewd way. “Going down on each other? Hell yeah. Let’s do it.”
More laughter sputters out. “Being friends! I’m asking if we’re going to be friends! Jeez, Hartley, you are way too focused on oral sex, anyone ever tell you that?”
“Firstly, have you looked in the mirror? Jeez—” He halts, looking over at me. “What’s your last name?”
“Cabot,” I say helpfully.
“Jeez, Cabot,” he mimics. “How can I not think about oral sex when I’m sitting next to the hottest woman on the planet?”
A flush rises in my cheeks. Damn it. That rough honesty is wildly sexy.
Gulping, I force my body not to respond to his crudeness or the compliment.
You have a boyfriend, Mackenzie
. I spell it out for my brain. B-O-Y-F-R-I-E-N-D.
Is it bad that I’ve had to remind myself an alarming number of times tonight?
“Secondly,” Cooper continues, “are you sure we’re not gonna hook up?”
He rolls his eyes at me. “Fine, then thirdly—yes, I guess I’ll settle for friendship.”
“How kind of you.”
“Oh God. I’m already reconsidering. I feel like you’re going to be a high-maintenance friend.”
“Bullshit,” he argues. “I’ll be the best friend you’ve ever had. I always go above and beyond what’s expected of me. I mean, I’ve liberated goats for my friends. Can you say the same?”