Authors: Elle Kennedy
She appraises me. Doubtful. Questioning how sincere my interest is.
I raise a brow. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“I’d like to think so,” she says, wary.
“Then talk to me. Let me get to know you.”
She continues to study me. Christ. When she stares into me like this, I feel her picking me apart, working things out. I’ve never felt so exposed in front of another person before. For some reason, it doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should.
“I thought freedom was being self-sufficient,” she finally confesses. “I’m finding out that isn’t exactly true. I know this probably sounds stupid coming from me, but I feel trapped. By expectations and promises. Trying to make everyone else happy. I wish I could be selfish for once. Do what I want, when I want, how I want.”
“So why don’t you?”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Sure it is.” Rich people are always going on about how money is such a burden. That’s only because they don’t know how to use it. They get so caught up in their bullshit, they forget they don’t actually need their dumb friends and stupid country clubs. “Forget ’em.
Someone’s making you miserable? Something is holding you back? Forget ’em and move on.”
Her teeth dig into her bottom lip. “I can’t.”
“Then you don’t want it bad enough.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Of course not. What’s ever been fair? People spend their whole lives complaining about things they’re unwilling to change. At a certain point, either pluck up the courage or shut up.”
Laughter sputters out of her. “Are you telling me to shut up?”
“No, I’m telling you there are plenty of ways that life and circumstances beyond our control conspire to keep us down. The least we can do is get out of our own way.”
“What about you?” She turns on me, pointing the question back in my face. “What do you want right now that you can’t have?”
“To kiss you.”
She narrows her eyes.
I should regret saying that, but I don’t. I mean, what’s stopping me from kissing her, from telling her I want to? Gotta pull the trigger on this thing at some point, right? I’ve clearly got her on the hook. If I don’t commit to this plan now, why am I wasting my time?
So I watch her, trying to discern her reaction through the stone-cold façade of indifference. This chick is implacable. But for a split second, I glimpse the flicker of heat in her gaze as she considers it. Gaming it out. One action begetting another, a cascade effect of consequences.
She licks her lips.
I lean closer. Just a little. Tempting myself. The need to touch her is almost unbearable.
“But then I’d screw up a perfectly good friendship,” I say, because I’ve lost all control of my goddamn mouth. “So I behave myself. It’s still a choice.”
What the hell am I doing? I don’t know what spooked me, but
suddenly I’m giving her an out when I’m supposed to be reeling her
Mac turns back toward the water, resting her arms on the railing. “I admire your honesty.”
Frustration rises inside me as I look at her profile from the corner of my eye. This woman is gorgeous, she’s wearing my shirt and nothing else, and instead of pulling her into my arms and kissing her senseless, I just friend-zoned myself.
For the first time since we hatched this plan, I’m starting to wonder if I’m in over my head.
I wake up in the morning to a text from Cooper. Only I guess Evan must have taken the photo, because it shows Cooper asleep in bed with the puppy snuggled on his chest, her face buried under his chin. It’s fucking adorable. Last night, I thought those two were doomed, but it seems they worked out their differences.
I hope he and Evan decide to keep her. I know the right thing to do is to take the dog to the shelter—I certainly can’t keep her—but my heart is breaking a little at the thought of never seeing her again.
I text a reply to Cooper, and by the time I get out of my second class for the day, I still haven’t received a response. He’s probably working. I tell myself it’s just concern for the dog that causes the pang of disappointment. But who am I kidding? I can’t ignore what happened on his deck last night. The sexual tension nearly spilling over, his rough admission that he wants to kiss me. If he hadn’t pulled back I might have caved in a moment of blind weakness.
I have underestimated Cooper’s allure. That’s my fault—I know better than to be seduced by handsome, half-naked guys who race in to help rescue animals in distress. I just have to be more cautious going forward and keep reminding myself that we’re friends. That’s it. No use getting it twisted.
When my phone buzzes, I eagerly yank it out of my pocket, only to find a message from Preston. Not Cooper.
I banish the second wave of disappointment to the very back of my mind and use my thumbprint to open my lock screen.
Waiting for you in the parking lot.
Right. We’re having lunch off campus today. I’m glad he reminded me, because I was about five minutes away from scarfing down a chicken fiesta wrap from the sandwich shop near the business school.
I slide into Preston’s convertible, and we talk about our classes as he drives us to Avalon Bay. Pres finds some street parking near the boardwalk. My pulse quickens, and I force myself not to look in the direction of the restaurant that Cooper and his uncle are restoring.
I last about 3.5 seconds before I cave. But the jobsite is empty. I guess they’re on their lunch break. Or maybe the crew is on another job today.
Once again, I pretend I’m not disappointed.
“You didn’t tell me what you ended up doing yesterday.” Pres holds my hand as we head toward the sports bar, where we’re meeting some of his friends. “Did you come into town or no?”
“Oh, yeah, I did. I explored the boardwalk and walked down the pier, then watched the sunset on the beach. It was really nice.”
I make an on-the-spot executive decision to omit the entire puppy encounter. Not that Pres is the jealous type, but I don’t want it to turn into a whole discussion, especially when I’ve only just arrived at Garnet and we’re doing so well. There’ll be an opportunity to tell him about my friendship with Cooper. At some point. When the time’s right.
“How did your poker game go? You didn’t text me either, now that I think about it.” But I’m also not the jealous type. Having done
the whole long-distance thing, Pres and I are used to the occasional forgotten text or unanswered call. If we got worked up every time one of us didn’t respond until morning, we’d have broken up a long time ago. That’s trust.
“How was the poker game?” echoes Benji Stanton, who overhears my question as Pres and I approach the group. He snickers loudly. “You better watch out for your man. This kid is shit at cards and doesn’t know when to quit.”
“So …not good?” I ask, shooting a teasing smile at Pres.
“Not good at all,” Benji confirms. He’s a business major like Pres. They met when they shared a few classes last year.
Benji’s parents own property in Hilton Head, and his father runs a hedge fund. All of Preston’s friends hail from similar backgrounds. As in disgustingly rich. Finance, real estate, politics—their parents are all members of the billionaires’ club. So far, everyone’s been friendly and welcoming to me. I was nervous at first that they might look at me sideways because I’m a freshman, but I only get positive vibes from Preston’s Garnet friends.
“Don’t listen to him, babe.” Pres kisses the top of my head. “I’m playing the long game.”
A few minutes later, we’re climbing up the stairs. Sharkey’s Sports Bar has two floors, the upper one consisting of tables overlooking the ocean, the lower level offering game tables, a plethora of TVs, and the bar. As a server seats our group at a long high-top near the railing, the guys continue to rag on Preston for being terrible at cards.
“Lock up your good jewelry, Mac,” Seb Marlow advises me. He’s from Florida, where his family is a major defense contractor for the government. It’s all very serious and secret.
I’ d have to kill you
, and all that. Or that’s the line he uses at parties, at least. “He was this close to throwing down his Rolex to buy back into the game.”
Stifling a laugh, I question Pres. “Please tell me he’s joking.”
He shrugs, because the money means nothing to him, and he’s got more watches than he knows what to do with. “How about you try me at pool?” he scoffs at his friends. “That’s a real gentleman’s game.”
Benji looks at Seb and smirks. “Double or nothing?”
Never one to back down from a challenge, Preston is all too eager. “You’re on.”
The guys push back from the table as Preston gives me a parting kiss on the cheek.
“One game,” he says. “Back in a flash.”
“Don’t lose your car,” I warn. “I need a ride back to campus.”
“Don’t worry,” Benji calls over his shoulder. “I got you.”
Pres just rolls his eyes before sauntering after his buddies. Another thing I appreciate about him is that he’s a good sport. I’ve never seen him get bent out of shape over a stupid game, even when his wallet is a little light at the end of the night. Granted, it’s easy to get over losing when there’s a seemingly endless supply of someone else’s money to play with.
“Now that the boys are gone …” Melissa, Benji’s girlfriend, pushes the collection of water glasses aside to lean in toward me and Seb’s girlfriend Chrissy.
I don’t know anything about Melissa other than she sails, and I know even less about Chrissy. I wish I had more in common with these girls other than the size of our parents’ bank accounts.
Truth be told, I don’t have too many female friends. And these past few weeks have confirmed that I still suck at building connections with my female peers. I love Bonnie to bits, but she feels more like a younger sister than a friend. I had girlfriends in high school, but nobody I’d consider a ride-or-die type of friend. The only one who comes closest to being my “best friend” is my old camp friend Sara, who I raised hell with every summer until I turned eighteen. We still text periodically, but she lives in Oregon and it’s been a couple years since I’ve seen her.
My social group now consists of my roommate, my boyfriend, and my boyfriend’s friends, who waste no time bending their heads together to gossip.
“So what did you find out about that Snapchat girl?” Melissa demands.
Chrissy takes a deep breath like she’s about to dive to the bottom of a pool for a pair of Jimmy Choos. “It was some sophomore chick who’s at Garnet on scholarship. I found her roommate’s best friend on Instagram and DMed her. She said her friend told her that her roommate said they met at a boat party and made out.”
“So they only kissed?” Melissa asks, as though she’s disappointed in the answer.
Chrissy shrugs. “Supposedly someone at the boat party walked in on someone getting a BJ. Maybe it was Seb, maybe not. Doesn’t really matter.”
If I’d known my mother in college, I imagine she’d have been a lot like Chrissy. Prim, put together, and unflappable. Not a hair or eyelash out of place. So the fact that she would entertain something as messy as cheating strikes me as antithetical.
“Wait,” I interject, “your boyfriend is cheating on you, and you don’t care?”
The girls both stare at me as though I haven’t been paying attention.
“Two former presidents of the United States and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia were at his father’s birthday party in the Seychelles last year,” Chrissy says flatly. “You don’t break up with guys like Sebastian over something as trifling as infidelity. He’s the man you marry.”
I frown at her. “You’d marry someone you know is cheating on you?”
She doesn’t answer, just looks at me, blinking. Is an expectation of monogamy so banal and old-fashioned? I thought I was fairly
open-minded, but apparently my beliefs about love and romance are scandalous.
“It’s hardly even considered cheating,” Melissa scoffs, waving a dismissive hand. “Seb hooked up with a scholarship chick? Who cares. Now, if it was a wifey, that’s a whole other story. A real reason to worry.”
“A wifey?” I echo.
Chrissy gives me a condescending look. “For men like Seb and Benji and Preston, there are two kinds of women. A wifey and a Marilyn. The ones you marry, and the ones you screw.”
Can’t you screw the one you marry? Or marry the one you screw?
I swallow the questions. Because what’s the point?
“Don’t worry,” Melissa says. She reaches across the table to put her hand on mine, in what she must think is a comforting gesture. “You’re definitely wifey material. Preston knows that. All you need to worry about is locking that down and getting the ring. Everything else is …” She glances at Chrissy for the word. “Extracurricular.”
That is the most depressing relationship advice I’ve ever heard. These women have their own family money and small empires—they don’t need strategic marital alliances. So why do they sell themselves into loveless arrangements?
When I marry Preston one day, it won’t be for money or family connections. Our vows won’t include a caveat that cheating is tolerated as long as the stock price is up.
“I wouldn’t want to live that way,” I tell them. “If a relationship isn’t built on love and mutual respect, what’s the point?”
Melissa regards me with a patronizing tilt to her head and a faintly pouting lip. “Oh, sweetie, everyone thinks that way at first. But eventually, we have to start being more realistic.”
Chrissy says nothing, but her cold, impassive expression strikes something inside me. It’s fleeting and undefined, but it unsettles my stomach.
All I know is, I don’t ever want to reach the point where I view infidelity as “extracurricular.”
Later, when Preston’s driving me back to Tally Hall, I broach the subject. Since Melissa and Chrissy didn’t swear me to secrecy, I don’t feel bad asking, “Did you know that Melissa and Chrissy think Seb’s cheating on Chrissy?”
He doesn’t flinch, changing gears as he takes us down the winding roads around the edge of campus. “I had a feeling.”
I fight a frown. “Is it true?”
“I haven’t asked,” he says. Then, after a few seconds, “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Whether Preston was at that boat party or knows of the particular incident is irrelevant. He wouldn’t throw his friend under the bus if he didn’t believe it was possible. Which tells me everything I need to know.
“She isn’t even mad about it.” I shake my head in disbelief. “Either of them, actually. Cost of doing business, as far as they’re concerned.”
“I figured.” Pres pulls up to the parking lot outside my dorm. He takes off his sunglasses and looks me in the eyes. “There’ve been whispers for a few weeks. Seb and Chrissy have chosen to ignore it, best that I can tell. Honestly, it’s not unusual.”
“Cheating isn’t unusual?” To me, cheating is so insulting. It says to your partner: I don’t love you enough to be faithful, and I don’t respect you enough to let you go. It’s the worst kind of trap.
He shrugs. “For some people.”
“Let’s not be those people,” I implore him.
“We’re not.” Preston leans over the center console. He cups the side of my face and kisses me softly. When he pulls back, his pale blue eyes shine with confidence. “I’d be a complete fool to jeopardize our relationship, babe. I know wife material when I see it.”
I think he’s saying it as a compliment, but the fact that he uses Melissa’s exact phrasing brings a queasy feeling to my gut. If I’m the wifey, does that mean he has a Marilyn? Or multiple Marilyns?
Frustration rises in my throat. I hate that Melissa and Chrissy planted this nasty seed of suspicion in my head.
“I’m wife material, huh?” I tease, trying to tamp down my unease. “Why’s that?”
“Hmmm, well …” His lips travel along my cheek toward my ear, where he gives the lobe a teasing nibble. “Because you’re hot. And smart. Good head on your shoulders. Hot, of course. You’re loyal. You’re hot. Annoying how much you argue sometimes—”
“Hey,” I protest.
“—but you don’t fight back on the important stuff,” he finishes. “We have similar goals about what we want out of life. Oh, and did I mention you’re hot?”
His lips brush mine again. I kiss him back, albeit a bit distracted. The list he’d recited was really sweet. So sweet that guilt is prickling at my throat now, because I guess that makes
the asshole with this whole Cooper thing.
Friendship isn’t cheating, even if the other party is attractive, but maybe it’s cheating adjacent?
No. Of course not. Text messages aren’t adultery. It’s not like we’re sending each other nudes and describing our sexual fantasies. And after last night, Cooper and I both have a clear idea where the line is. More than ever, I know better than to cross it.
I’m walking to my dorm when a text pops up from the devil himself. It’s accompanied by a picture of Evan and the puppy playing fetch on the beach.
Change of plans. She’s moving in.