Authors: Elle Kennedy
Those words on the screen make me squeeze my legs together and put terrible ideas in my head. Which I promptly shove in a box labeled
don’t you dare.
It’s mostly eating scones off the pages of
The Wall Street Journal.
You people are fucked up.
A cackle bursts out of me, and I slap my hand over my mouth before Bonnie hears me and comes rushing in to see what’s so funny. She’s a doll, that one, but she has no concept of boundaries.
What are you doing?
Flirting with some chick I just met.
I walked right into that one.
Still have a boyfriend.
I know he’s just pushing my buttons. Cooper’s thing, I’m learning, is trying to get a rise out of me. I can’t say I hate it, exactly. It’s refreshing to have a friend who gets that part of my personality. And, okay, it’s technically flirting, which is technically frowned upon, but it’s all in good fun.
No matter how many hormonal reactions Cooper elicits in me, I’m not about to leave Pres for the first tattooed bad boy I meet at college.
The next afternoon, I decide to explore the town on my own since my schedule is free. Preston inspired me to try embracing my time at Garnet rather than looking at it like a prison sentence. With that thought in mind, I throw on a flowery summer dress and call a cab.
Avalon Bay is a paradoxical coastal town full of rugged fishermen and multimillionaires. On one side of Main Street are high-end boutiques selling handmade soaps. On the other, pawnshops and tattoo parlors. The boardwalk is quiet on a weekday afternoon. Most of the bars are sparsely populated with sweaty locals propped up on stools watching ESPN with their pals.
I walk farther than the last time I was here and reach a section still devastated by hurricane damage from a couple years ago. Several buildings are under construction. Nearby, a crew works on restoring a restaurant where scaffolding is erected around its exterior. Other businesses have been cordoned off with caution tape and plywood. It’s apparent they haven’t been touched since the storm tore off their roofs and flooded the interiors.
I stop when I come to a quaint late-Victorian-style hotel. It’s white with green trim, and the entire back side of the building had been gutted by storm surge. The hotel’s walls were ripped out, its innards exposed. Old furniture and wrinkled carpets still wait for
the guests that aren’t coming. The weathered sign out front reads
The Beacon Hotel
in gold script font and is broken in two places.
I wonder what happened to the owners that they never rebuilt. And how has no one swooped in to claim the property and restore it to its former glory? This is a prime location.
My phone buzzes a few times with incoming emails, so I stop at an ice cream shop and buy a vanilla cone. Then I settle on the bench out front, scrolling through my inbox one-handed.
The first email is an update from one of my site moderators. She informs me she had to block several users who’d been trolling every post on
, leaving racist and sexist comments. I open the attached screenshots. My jaw drops at the level of vitriol I read in those comments.
I shoot off a quick email:
Good call blocking them.
The next one is an SOS from the guy I hired to oversee
. Apparently, a user is threatening legal action, claiming one of the posts on the site is libelous. I click on the post in question. The writer of it went out with a guy she calls “Ted,” who didn’t disclose he had a micropenis and blindsided her during their first intimate encounter.
I return to my email to skim the letter my admin, Alan, received from some DC law firm with a scary letterhead. I guess the user—butterflykisses44—picked an alias too close to her boyfriend’s real name. Ted is actually Tad, who is suitably outraged, humiliated, and demanding
not only take down the post, but pay him damages because of the emotional distress it’s caused him.
Since the site is a platform and not a publisher, we can’t be sued for the content of our users, but I tell Alan to forward the letter to my own lawyer just in case. Then I shut off my phone and slurp down the rest of my melting ice cream. Just another day in the life of Mackenzie Cabot, CEO.
If I’m being honest with myself, though, lately I’ve been itching
. I love my apps, but nowadays there’s nothing for me to do but say yes or no. Sign here, initial there. Read this email, approve this ad. The real excitement came at the beginning, when I was sitting with my friends and brainstorming features for the apps. Meeting with the developer and programmer and bringing my ideas to life. Creating the marketing campaign to attract users. The launch.
It was challenging and exciting. It was the most fun I’d ever had.
the part I truly enjoyed, I realize now. The creation, not the maintenance. Not that I hate the sites and want to sell them. I don’t. They’re still mine. Part of my budding empire. But maybe it’s time to brainstorm some new business ideas.
As the sun dips low in the sky, I walk onto the beach and sit on the sand, listening to the waves and watching the seagulls glide against the wind. Behind me, a construction crew is winding down for the day. The noise of drills and saws has ceased.
Mostly zoned out, I don’t notice someone approaching me until he plops down beside me.
“What’s up, princess?”
I jolt in surprise, staring at Cooper, who’s in the process of taking off his shirt and work gloves.
He’s as potent as the night at the bonfire, and I’m pinned by the sight of him. His hair and jeans are covered in sawdust and dirt. His muscular chest and abs are shiny with sweat. This is the first time I’ve seen so much of his ink, which runs up both arms and stretches toward his chest. I lick my lips then inwardly wince at myself. At the person I become when he’s around. Lustful. Irrational. I take those thoughts and tamp them way down in a box labeled
stay the hell out
“Are you stalking me now?” I demand.
“You stroll by my jobsite in”—he gestures, looking me up and down—“some ridiculous ruffle dress thing and all this leg, like, ‘Oh, don’t mind me, boys, I
“That is so exactly how I sound,” I reply, rolling my eyes. “And
what’s wrong with my dress?” I smooth my hands over the hem of the floral print sundress.
“It’s got flowers on it. You’re not a flower person, Mac.”
“Don’t call me Mac.”
“Because it’s a nickname reserved for friends.”
“We are friends. Best friends.” He flashes a crooked smile. “I see you didn’t deny the not being a flower person part.”
He’s right. I’m not usually into girly prints and ruffly sundresses. My style runs toward white tees and worn jeans, or a tank and cutoff shorts when it’s hot out. But every now and then, I like feeling cute. Sue me. Anyway, he’s not allowed to be so presumptuous about my taste in clothing, so I argue just because.
“I happen to love flowers. Especially on clothes. The flashier, the better.”
Cooper rolls his eyes as if he knows I’m lying through my teeth. “You know, you don’t have to work this hard.” He crosses his arms, pulling his knees close to his chest. “I’m pretty easy.”
“I’m sorry, what? Who’s working too hard? You’ve been blowing up my phone talking about scone porn.”
“You’re kinky,” he says, shrugging. “I get it. It’s not my thing, but whatever gets you off.”
Ha. If he only knew. Preston and I have a perfectly fine sex life, but I’m not even sure we have enough spice to be vanilla. In the beginning, I thought maybe sex was supposed to be that way: functional, quick, a tad boring. I was sixteen when I lost my virginity to Pres, and more than a little naïve about that stuff. It was only when I spoke to girlfriends about my lackluster encounters that I realized sex is supposed to be—imagine this—
When I’d very awkwardly broached the subject with Pres, he’d confessed that he hadn’t wanted to scare me off by being “too passionate.” I told him to feel free to step up his game, and our bedroom
activities did get more fun after that. But if I’m being completely honest, it’s been four years now and that passion he’d mentioned still hasn’t made an appearance.
“I shudder to think what’s rattling around in your spank bank,” I say.
“If you’re trying to get me in bed, you can just ask.” Cooper nudges my arm with his elbow. He has this unflappable confidence about him. Arrogant yet charming. Completely self-assured but not overbearing. It’s almost a shame he’s wasting his natural talents on construction. He’d make a hell of a CEO if he had a mind for business.
“This half-assed reverse psychology routine isn’t going to work on me,” I inform him. Because I didn’t make my first million by being easily manipulated. “I’m not going to be goaded into accidentally winding up in bed with some townie stranger because he dared me to.”
Still, his playful smirk and roguish eyes are not lost on me. I’m not immune to broad shoulders and rock-hard abs. Moreover, he’s a bit of a conundrum. Everything I learn about him makes me wonder if what he portrays—the tattoos, the attitude—is all clever camouflage. Hiding what, though? My brain loves puzzles.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead sleeping around with some Garnet clone. I do have an image to protect.”
“Right, of course. Wouldn’t want anyone confusing you for a man of taste.”
He bites back a smile, and in that fleeting look, I see all sorts of bad intentions. I see blurry nights and wild regrets. Heavy breathing. It’s enough to make my pulse spike and my toes go numb.
This guy is dangerous.
“Coop!” someone calls from the jobsite. “You coming to the bar or what?”
He glances over his shoulder. “Go on without me.”
Knowing laughter tickles our backs. I’m glad Cooper’s coworkers can’t see my face because I’m fairly certain I’m blushing.
“Why’d you have to do that?” I grumble.
“Do what? Tell them I’m not going to the bar?”
“Yeah. Now they’re going to think you stayed behind to bang me on the beach or something.”
He gives a deep chuckle. “I guarantee they weren’t thinking that. But now
am. Would you like to bang here, or should we go under the pier?”
“Go to the bar with your little friends,
. You’ll have a better shot of getting laid there than here.”
“Nah. I’m good where I am.” He lifts one hand and rakes it through his dark hair, and I can’t help but stare at his flexing biceps.
“So you guys are fixing up that restaurant?” I force myself to stop gawking at his very sexy muscles. “It looks like a huge job.”
“It is. And once we’re done this one, we have about, oh, half a dozen more buildings to renovate.” He waves that sculpted arm toward the boardwalk, highlighting the destruction left by the hurricane.
“Do you like working in construction?”
He nods slowly. “I do, yeah. Evan and I work for our uncle’s company, so we don’t have to deal with some jackass boss who tries to rip us off or does shoddy work to cut costs. Levi is a good man, fair. And I’ve always been good with my hands.”
I gulp. There’s no overt innuendo in his tone, but I’ll be damned if my gaze doesn’t shift to his hands. They’re strong, big, with long fingers and callused palms. No dirt under his nails, even after a day of manual labor.
“What about you, princess?” He tips his head, curious.
“What about me?”
“This is the second time I’ve walked up to you and seen that look on your face.”
“What look?” Apparently, I just repeat everything he says now. But the intensity in his eyes has triggered a rush of anxiety.
“The look that says you want more.”
“I want more …And what more do I want?”
He continues to study me. “I don’t know. Just
. It’s like … a mixture of boredom, dissatisfaction, frustration, and yearning.”
“That’s a lot of shit packed into one look,” I joke, but my heart is beating faster now, because he’s pretty much summed it up. That’s been my state of mind since I got to college. No, even longer—dare I say, my entire life.
“Am I wrong?” he asks roughly.
Our gazes lock. The urge to confide in him is so strong I have to bite the tip of my tongue to stop myself.
Suddenly, amidst the crashing waves and screeching seagulls, I hear a faint yelping.
“Did you hear that?” I look around for the source of the pained, desperate noise.
Cooper chuckles. “Stop trying to distract me.”
“I’m not. Seriously, don’t you hear it?”
“Hear what? I don’t—”
“Shhh!” I order.
I listen, straining to discern another clue. It’s getting darker, with the lights from the boardwalk overtaking the dwindling dusk. Another yelp rings out, this one louder.
I jump to my feet.
“It’s nothing,” Cooper says, but I ignore him and follow the sound toward the pier. He jogs after me, his voice frazzled as he assures me I’m imagining things.
“I’m not imagining it,” I insist.
And then I see it, the source of the yelps. Beyond the pier, on the jetty, I make out a shape stranded on the rocks as the tide comes in.
Heart pounding, I whirl around to face Cooper. “It’s a dog!”
Before I can blink, Mackenzie tears her dress off.
As in, this chick is actually getting naked.
No, not naked, I realize when she doesn’t remove her bra and underwear. My disappointment over the strip show ending prematurely is dimmed by the fact that she looks pretty goddamn good in a bra and underwear.
But as she runs into the rising tide and is quickly swallowed up to her neck, the rational part of my brain kicks in.
“Mac!” I shout after her. “Get back here, damn it!”
She’s already swimming away.
Awesome. She’s gonna drown trying to get that mangy stray back to shore.
Grumbling curses under my breath, I strip out of my jeans and shoes and chase after Mackenzie, who has reached the rocks and is now climbing up to the dog. I swim hard against the current, as the waves try to throw me against the pier’s pylons or slam me into the rocks. Finally, I grab on to one of the boulders and haul myself out of the water.
“You’re crazy, you know that?” I growl.
The shivering dog sits anxiously by Mac, who’s attempting to comfort it. “We have to help her,” she tells me.
Shit. This filthy, pathetic thing is just a puppy, but there’s no way
Mackenzie is swimming with it back to shore. I had a hard time myself fighting off the current, and I probably weigh twice as much as Mac.
“Give her to me,” I say with a sigh. When I reach for the dog, she hides behind Mac and almost falls in the water trying to back away from me. “Come on, damn it. It’s me or nothing.”
“It’s okay, little one, he’s not as scary as he looks,” Mac coos to the mutt. Meanwhile I stand there glaring at them both.
The dog continues to hesitate, so finally Mac picks her up and deposits the unhappy wet bundle into my waiting hands. Almost instantly, the frightened animal is clawing and kicking to get away. This is going to be a goddamn nightmare.
Mackenzie pets the dog’s soaked fur in a futile attempt to calm her. “You sure about this?” she asks me. “I can try—”
No chance. The waves would knock the dog right out of her grip and the damn thing would drown while I pulled Mac to shore. Not happening.
“Go,” I order. “I’m right behind you.”
With a nod, she dives and makes for the shore.
Standing on the rocks, I have a little pep talk with the pup. “I’m trying to help you, okay? Do not bite my face off. Let’s get along for the next few minutes. Deal?”
The animal whines and whimpers, which I suppose is the best I’m getting.
As gently as I can, I climb down into the water and hold the dog like a football above the waves as I swim with one arm. The whole time, the damn thing is freaking out thinking I’m trying to kill her or something. She barks and scratches. Tries a few times to wriggle free. With every move she makes, a little more flesh is gouged from my body. As soon as we reach the sand, I let the dog go and it runs straight for Mac, all but diving into her arms.
You’re welcome, traitor.
“You okay?” Mac calls out.
Both of us are breathing heavy after fighting the waves. It’s fully dark now, the only light coming from the boardwalk. Mackenzie isn’t much more than a hazy shape in front of me.
My temper gets the best of me, spilling over as I stalk up to her. “What the
She plants one hand on her bare hip. Her other hand protectively holds the dog. “Seriously?” she exclaims. “You’re mad that I wanted to save a helpless animal? She could have died!”
could have died! You feel that current, sweetheart? That shit could’ve sucked you right out to sea. At least once a year someone drowns down here because they’re a reckless dumbass.”
“I’m not your
,” she grumbles. “And did you really just call me a dumbass?”
“Act like a dumbass, get called a dumbass.” I angrily shake water out of my hair. Doesn’t escape me that the dog is currently doing the same. We’re both feral animals, I suppose.
Mackenzie tightens her hold on her new pet. “I will
apologize for having a heart. I can’t believe you were prepared to let this poor puppy die. Oh my God. I’m friends with a puppy killer.”
My jaw falls open.
Christ, this chick is turning into a handful. I’ve never worked this hard to win over a girl. And yet, despite being mauled half to death for her—and being accused of attempted dog murder—my anger dissolves into a wave of laughter. I double over, dripping sea-water onto the sand as I laugh my ass off.
“Why are you laughing?” she demands.
“You called me a puppy killer,” I manage to croak between laughs. “You’re insane.”
After a second, she breaks out in giggles. The dog’s gaze shifts uncertainly between us as we stand there laughing like a pair of idiots, soaking wet and half naked.
“Fine,” she relents when her giggling fit finally subsides. “I may have been out of line. I know you were just worried for my safety. And thank you for swimming out there to help. I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome.” I hike up the waistband of my jeans. My wet boxers are plastered to my crotch, making it hard to zip up the jeans. “Come on, let’s get our stuff and go back to my place. I need to get changed. You can dry off there and I can give you a ride home.”
She doesn’t say anything, staring at me.
“Yes,” I sigh, “bring the dog.”
The house is dark when we arrive. Neither Evan’s motorcycle nor Jeep are in the drive, and the front door’s locked when Mac and I step onto the wraparound porch. Thankfully, the place isn’t a mess inside. With our friends frequently using our house as a party pad and way station between bars, it tends to get tossed around a lot. Evan and I, for our lack of other social graces, try to keep our home clean, though. We’re not complete animals.
“You can use my shower,” I tell Mac, pointing toward my groundfloor bedroom after I turn on lights and get myself a beer from the fridge. I deserve a drink after my heroic dog-saving efforts. “I’ll find some clothes you can borrow.”
“Thanks.” She carries the dog with her, all cuddled and sleepy in her arms. I told her in the truck that if she wants to leave it here, I’ll take it to the shelter in the morning. Though I’m starting to wonder if I’ll be able to pry it away from her.
When Mac’s in my en suite bathroom, I dig out a clean T-shirt and a pair of jeans Heidi left here ages ago. Or maybe they’re Steph’s. The girls are always leaving their stuff lying around after a party or a day at the beach, and I’ve stopped trying to return them.
I leave the clothes in a neat pile on the bed, then strip out of my wet clothes and throw on a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants.
The steam rolling out from under the bathroom door is unbelievably tempting. I wonder how Mac would react if I stepped into the shower stall, eased up behind her, and reached both hands around to cup her tits.
A groan lodges in my throat. She’d probably saw my balls off with her fingernails, but it might be worth it, just to get to touch her.
“Hello, hello,” my brother calls from the front door.
“In here,” I answer as I head back to the kitchen.
Evan drops his keys on the splintered wood island. He grabs a beer and stands against the fridge. “What’s that smell?”
“Mackenzie and I rescued a stray puppy from the jetty.” Poor thing did kind of stink. Guess I do too now. Awesome.
“She’s here?” A wicked grin spreads across his face as he looks around.
“Well, that was easy. I’m almost disappointed I didn’t get more time to enjoy it.”
“Not what you’re thinking,” I grunt out. “The dog was stuck out on the rocks and we had to get in the water to save it. Told Mackenzie she could come here to clean up, and then I’d take her home.”
“Take her home? Dude. This is your chance. Close the deal.” He shakes his head impatiently. “You helped her rescue a puppy, for chrissake. She is primed.”
“Don’t be a dick.” Something about the way he says that strikes a nerve with me. This scheme isn’t exactly ethical, but we don’t have to be sleazy about it.
“What?” Evan can’t pretend to hide his glee at how well this plan is working. “I’m just saying.”
“Well …” I take a swig of my beer. “Keep it to yourself.”
“Hey,” comes Mac’s hesitant voice.
She walks in, and the sight of her—in my shirt, dark wet hair combed back—brings all sorts of sinful thoughts to my head. She
didn’t put on the jeans, so her legs are bare and tanned and endlessly long.
I want them wrapped around my waist.
“Evan,” she greets my brother, nodding at him as if she knows, somehow, he is up to no good. Unsurprisingly, she’s still carrying the sleeping puppy.
“Welp.” Evan gives her a parting smile as he grabs his beer and pushes off from the fridge. “I’m beat. You kids have fun.”
My brother has no appreciation for subtlety.
“Was it something I said?” she asks dryly.
“Nah. He thinks we’re gonna hook up.” When I lift my arm to run a hand through my damp hair, her eyes grow wide with alarm. My brow furrows. “What?”
“Cooper. You’re hurt.”
I look down, almost forgetting that her precious little pup damn near filleted me alive not an hour ago. Both my arms are covered in red scratches, and there’s a particularly nasty-looking cut on my collarbone.
“Eh. I’m fine,” I assure her. I’m no stranger to cuts and scrapes, and these ones are definitely not the worst I’ve experienced.
“No, you’re not. We need to clean those.”
With that, she marches me to the bathroom and, despite my protestations, forces my ass down on the closed lid of the toilet. The puppy is promptly deposited in my claw-foot bathtub, where she curls up and sleeps while Mackenzie rifles through my cabinets for the first aid kit.
“I can do this myself,” I tell her as she sets out a bottle of alcohol and cotton swabs.
“Are you going to be difficult?” She eyes me with a raised brow. The earnest conviction on her face is cute, in a stubborn
shut up and take your medicine
sort of way.
“Good. Now take off your shirt.”
A grin tugs on my lips. “This was your plan all along? To get me naked?”
“Yes, Cooper. I broke into an animal shelter, stole a puppy, placed it in a perilous situation, swam out to rescue it myself—so as to not raise your suspicions that it was I, in fact, who trapped the dog on the jetty—then telepathically ordered the dog to scratch you up. All so I could see your perfect pecs.” She finishes with a snort.
“Extreme actions,” I agree. “But I get it. My pecs
perfect. They’re transcendent.”
“So’s your ego.”
I make a slow, deliberate show of removing my shirt. Despite her mocking, my bare chest elicits a response. Her breath hitches, and then she averts her gaze, pretending to focus on opening the rubbing alcohol.
I hide a smile and sit back as she begins to clean the wounds on my arm.
“Is it just the two of you here?” she asks curiously.
“Yeah. Evan and I grew up in this house. My great-grandparents built it after they got married. Grandparents lived here after them and so on.”
It was. Now it’s falling apart. Roof needs replacing. Foundation is cracking from beach erosion. The siding has seen one too many storms, and the floors are worn and warped. Nothing I couldn’t fix if only I had the time and money, but isn’t that always the story? Whole damn town full of
s. And just like that, I remember why I’m sitting here letting some clone’s girlfriend run her hands all over my bare chest.
“There,” she says, touching my arm. “All better.”
“Thanks.” My voice sounds a bit gravelly.
“No problem.” Hers sounds slightly hoarse.
I find myself momentarily caught in her bright green eyes. Taunted by the flashes of her almost-naked body as the hem of my shirt rises on her thighs. Her warm palm against my skin. The thrumming in her neck that tells me she’s not indifferent to me either.
I could do it. Take her by the hips, coax her into straddling me. Shove my hand through her hair and pull her mouth to mine in a blistering kiss. I’m not supposed to sleep with her unless she initiates, but if the chemistry sizzling between us is any indication, I suspect she won’t stop with a kiss. It’ll be a kiss that leads to the bed that leads to getting balls deep inside her. She’ll dump Kincaid faster than you can say
. I win. Mission accomplished.
But where’s the fun in that?
“Now,” I say, “about your friend.”
Mackenzie blinks, as if snapping out of the same lust stupor I’d fallen into.
We draw a warm bubble bath for the puppy and put her in. She’s a completely different animal all of a sudden. The drowned rat becomes a small golden retriever, splashing around and playing with a bottle of shampoo that falls into the tub. Poor thing is all skin and bones, lost or abandoned by its mother, and she didn’t have a collar when we found her. The shelter will have to figure out if she’s chipped or not.
After we scrub the dog clean and dry her off, I set out a bowl of water in the kitchen and feed her some cut up turkey franks. Not ideal, but it’s the best we have under the circumstances. While the pup eats, I leave the door open and step out to the back deck. The temperature’s cooled off, and the ocean breeze is blowing in off the water. Out on the horizon, a tiny blip of a boat’s bow lights flickers as it travels.
“You know …” Mac comes beside me.
I’m acutely aware of her, every nerve attuned in her direction. This chick barely glances at me and I’m half hard. It’s very annoying.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she finishes.
“And why’s that?”
“I think you know why.” Her voice is soft, measured. She’s testing me as much as herself.
“You don’t seem like the kind of girl who does anything she doesn’t want to.” I turn to meet her eyes. In my limited experience, Mackenzie is stubborn. Not the type to get pushed around. I’m under no illusion that she’s here because I’m so damn clever.
“You’d be surprised,” she says ruefully.