Authors: Elle Kennedy
“Who’s the prettiest girl in the world? Is it you? Because I think it’s you! Look at you, you beautiful little angel. I could eat you up, that’s how perfect you are, you pretty girl.”
The litany of baby talk escaping the mouth of my grown-ass twin brother is shameful.
And the object of his adoration is shame
. The newest member of the Hartley household struts around the kitchen like she was just named supreme leader of the pack. Which she basically is. She’s got Evan wrapped around her little paw. Me, I’m not going to fall in love with the first cute face I see.
“Dude,” I warn. “Dial it down a notch. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
“Nah. Look how pretty she is now.” He scoops the puppy off the floor and thrusts her toward me. “Pet her. Feel how soft and silky.”
I dutifully pet her golden fur, which, for the fifty bucks it cost to groom her yesterday, better be soft. Then I swipe the dog from his hands and set her back on the floor.
On which she promptly pees.
“Motherfucker,” I grumble.
Evan instantly becomes a mother hen, grabbing paper towels and
cooing at his new girlfriend as he sops up her pee puddle. “It’s okay, pretty girl. We all have accidents.”
We’re still working out this whole dog-training thing, learning as we go from vet blogs and pet websites. All I know is, in the past seven days I’ve cleaned up more piss and dog shit than I ever intended in my life. That thing’s lucky she’s so cute. Last week, after the vet at the shelter confirmed the dog wasn’t chipped and had probably been abandoned for some time, I didn’t have the heart to stick her in a cage or abandon her again. I might be a bastard, but I’m not without mercy. So the vet gave us some special food to fatten her up, sent us on our way, and now we have a dog.
And a busy day of manual labor, if Evan would quit fawning over his pretty girl.
This morning, I woke up with a fire under my ass to get stuff done. Evan and I have the day off, so I decided, what the hell, there’s never going to be a right time to start getting this house in better shape. It’s the only lousy legacy our family has left. So I shook Evan out of bed early, and we headed to the hardware store to figure out what we would need.
First job on the home renovation list: replacing the roof. It’s not going to be cheap. Digs into my savings quite a bit, but Evan kicked in half with some convincing. At least doing the work ourselves will save us a few grand.
“Come on, we should get started,” I tell my brother. We plan to spend the rest of the day pulling the old roof off, and then tomorrow we’ll lay down the new materials. Shouldn’t take us more than a couple of days if we work fast.
“Let’s go for a quick walk first. It’ll tire her out so she’ll sleep while we work.”
Without awaiting my response, he scoops up the puppy and heads for the back door, where her leash is hanging on a hook.
“Swear to God, if you’re not back in ten minutes, I’m returning her to the shelter.”
“Fuck off. She’s here to stay.”
Sighing, I watch him and the dog scamper down the deck steps toward the sand. Our delivery from the hardware store hasn’t arrived yet, but we could at least be making ourselves useful by prepping the current roof. Unfortunately, Evan’s work ethic isn’t as solid as mine. My brother will find any opportunity to procrastinate.
On the deck, I rest my forearms against the railing and grin when I see the golden retriever make a beeline for the water. There goes her newfound softness. Serves Evan right.
As I wait, I pull out my phone and text Mac.
How about Potato?
Her response is almost instantaneous. Makes my ego swell a bit, knowing I’ve got priority in her texting queue.
Better. I’m saying Daisy.
Can you get any more generic?
Nah babe, I’m one of a kind.
Not your babe.
Whatcha doing right now?
She follows that up with a gun emoji next to a girl’s head emoji. I snicker at my phone.
Worse. I stupidly chose biology for my required science. Why are all the species names in Latin!!! And I forgot how much I hate cell theory! Did you know the cell is the most basic building block of life?
I thought that was sex.
Mackenzie sends an eye roll emoji, then says she has to go because her professor is starting to call on students to answer questions. I don’t envy her.
Even though Garnet has decent scholarship opportunities for locals, I’ve never had any desire to attend college. I don’t see the point. Everything I need to know about construction or woodworking, I can learn from my uncle, online, or in library books. Last year, I took some bookkeeping classes at the community center in town so I could learn to better manage our finances (as meager as they are), but that only cost me a hundred bucks. Why the hell would I ever pay twenty-five grand per
to be told cells are important and that we evolved from apes?
A honk from the front of the house catches my attention. Our order’s here.
Out front, I greet Billy and Jay West with fist bumps and good-natured back slaps. They’re some of the old crew, grew up in the Bay. Though we don’t see much of them these days.
“This ought to be everything you need,” Billy says, opening the tailgate of the pickup truck. We had to buy and borrow some specific tools, get an air compressor and whatnot. On the trailer, he’s got the new shingles on pallets.
“Looks good,” I say, helping him haul things off the truck.
“Dad said there’s no charge on the compressor if you can get it back to him by Monday. And he’s giving you the underlayment and valley flashing at cost.”
“Appreciate it, B,” I say, shaking his hand.
Around the Bay, we watch out for each other. We have our own bartering system—
do me a favor today, I help you out tomorrow
. It’s the only way most of us have survived the storms over the past couple years. You need to be able to rely on your neighbors to come together, support one another; otherwise, this whole town goes to shit.
Billy, Jay, and I unload the trailer in the blistering heat, all three of us drenched in sweat by the time we lift the last pallet. We’re setting it on the ground when Billy’s phone rings, and he wanders off to take the call.
“Hey, Coop.” Jay wipes his brow with the short sleeve of his shirt. “Got a sec?”
“Sure. Let’s grab some water.” We walk over to the cooler on the front porch to pull out a couple bottles of water. It’s blazing out here. Summer refusing to die. “What’s up?”
Jay awkwardly shifts his huge feet. He’s the biggest of the five West boys—six five, over two hundred pounds of solid muscle. Steph calls him the “gentle giant,” which is an apt description. Jay’s a sweet guy, the first person to help someone in need. He doesn’t possess a mean bone in his body.
“Wanted to ask you something.” His cheeks are slowly reddening, and it’s not because of the heat. “You and Heidi …”
I wrinkle my forehead. Definitely not what I expected him to say.
“I heard some rumors about you guys this summer, and uh …” He shrugs. “Wasn’t sure if it’s a thing or not.”
“Oh. Okay. Cool.” He chugs half the bottle before speaking again. “I ran into her at Joe’s the other night.”
I try not to chuckle at his shy expression. I know where he’s going with this now, but he’s taking the long way to get there.
“And how’d that go?” I ask. I haven’t seen Heidi or the girls in several days.
“Fun. It was fun.” He gulps down some more water. “You don’t mind if I ask her out, do ya? Since you two aren’t a thing?”
Jay West is the epitome of the boy next door, and Heidi will eat him alive. If she even gives him a shot to begin with, which I doubt, since I’m fairly sure I’m the only guy in town she’s slept with. She dated some dude for a year in high school, but he didn’t live in the Bay. Heidi’s always had one foot out the door anyway. I’m honestly surprised she hasn’t skipped town yet.
I don’t have the heart to tell Jay she’ll probably turn him down, so I simply clap him on the shoulder and say, “’Course I don’t mind. She’s a great girl—make sure you treat her right.”
“Scout’s honor,” he promises, holding up one hand in the Boy Scout gesture. Of course he was a Scout. Probably earned all his badges too. Meanwhile, Evan and I got kicked out of our troop when we were eight because we tried setting our scout leader’s gear on fire.
“Hey, didn’t realize you boys were here.” Evan comes up with the puppy on a leash, ruefully glancing at all the supplies we’ve unloaded—no thanks to him. “Otherwise I would’ve given you a hand.”
I snort. Yeah right.
“When’d you get a dog?” a delighted Jay asks. He promptly kneels and starts playing with the puppy, who tries to nip his stroking fingers. “What’s his name?”
“Her,” I correct. “And we don’t know yet.”
“My vote is for Kitty, but Coop doesn’t appreciate irony,” Evan pipes up.
“We’re still deciding,” I say.
Billy wraps up his call and approaches us. He nods at Evan, who nods back and says, “Billy. How’s things?”
The two share an uneasy look, while I stand there in discomfort. Gentle giant Jay is oblivious to the tension, thoroughly occupied by
the puppy. This is why we don’t see Billy and his brothers anymore. It’s too damn awkward.
But Evan can’t help himself. Always takes it to the next level of awkwardness. “How’s Gen?”
Billy grunts a curt “Fine,” and can’t get his trailer closed up fast enough before he and Jay are practically peeling out of our front yard.
“The hell was that about?” I say to Evan.
“What’s what?” He says this as if I don’t know exactly what goes on in his damn head.
“Thought you weren’t hung up on Genevieve.”
“I’m not.” He brushes me off and goes to the porch, grabbing some water.
“She blew town with barely a heads up,” I remind him. “Trust me, that chick isn’t sitting around worrying about you.”
“I said it’s whatever,” Evan insists. “I was just making conversation.”
“With her brothers? I wouldn’t be surprised if Billy blames you for her running all the way to Charleston. For all I know, he’s been waiting to kick your ass.”
Evan’s ex was the real hellion of our group. We’ve all experimented with the occasional illicit substance, broken a few laws, but Gen was on another level. If it was stupid and stood a chance to kill her, she wanted seconds. And Evan was right there next to her. Allegedly, she left to get her shit together. New place, new life. Who knows if it’s true? If any of the girls still talk to her, they don’t bring it up. Which is all the proof Evan should need that Genevieve West doesn’t give a crap that she tore his fucking heart out.
“You still in love with her?” I ask him.
He takes off his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face. Then he meets my eyes. “I don’t even think about her.”
Yeah right. I know that expression. I wore that same expression every day our dad wasn’t around. Every time our mom walked out
on us for weeks or months at a time. Sometimes he forgets I’m the one person in the world he can’t lie to.
My phone vibrates, momentarily distracting me from my brother’s bullshit. I check the screen to find a text from Mac.
My bio prof just shared with the class that he’s got a dog named Mrs. Puddles. I say we steal the name and never look back.
I can’t stop a chuckle, causing Evan to eye me sharply over the lip of his water bottle.
“What about you?” A bite creeps into his voice.
“What about me?”
“Every time I look over, you’re texting the clone. You two are getting awfully cute.”
“Thought that was the idea, genius. She’s not dumping her boyfriend for some asshole she doesn’t like.”
“What do you text about?” he demands.
“Nothing important.” It’s not a lie. Mostly we argue about names and how to train
dog. Mac has granted herself partial custody and visitation rights. I tell her she’s welcome to chip in for puppy pads and dog food. She demands more photos.
“Uh-huh.” He reads me with narrow eyes. “You’re not catching feelings for the rich bitch, are you?”
“Hey.” Evan can throw all the shit he wants at me, but his anger has nothing to do with Mac. “She didn’t do anything to you. In fact, she’s been perfectly nice. So how about you watch your mouth.”
“Since when do you care?” He steps up to me, getting in my face. “She’s one of them, remember? A clone. Her entitled shithead boyfriend got you fired. Don’t get it twisted which side you’re on.”
“I’m on our side,” I remind him. “Always.”
There’s nothing stronger than my bond with my brother. Period. A girl doesn’t change that. Evan’s just got a thorn in his paw about
everyone who goes to Garnet. Far as he’s concerned, they’re the enemy. It’s an attitude most kids who’ve grown up around here share, and I don’t blame them. I don’t remember the last time a clone did anything but use and abuse us.
When it comes down to it, Mac’s a product of where she comes from, the same as me. That doesn’t mean if we weren’t different people—if we came from similar backgrounds, lived similar lives—I couldn’t see myself liking her. She’s smart, funny, sexy as hell. I’d be an idiot not to admit that.
But we aren’t different people and this isn’t some other life.
In the Bay, we play the cards we’re dealt.
I’m twenty minutes into my Wednesday biology class before I realize it’s Friday and I’m actually sitting in my media culture lecture. Now those
clips on the projection screen make way more sense. I thought maybe they were nervous hallucinations.
Truth is, I haven’t been quite right the past few days. School bores me, and my dissatisfaction over my business is growing. It’s frustrating how little work there is to do on the apps, now that I’ve delegated most of my duties to other people. I need a new project, something big and challenging to sink my teeth into.
To make matters worse, I’m battling this constant feeling that someone is looking over my shoulder. Toeing a knife’s edge. Every time my phone buzzes, it’s a shot of endorphins followed by a rush of adrenaline, guilt, and a pit of nausea in my stomach. I’m an addict, jonesing for the hit despite knowing it’s killing me.
How bout Moxie Crimefighter?
I like Jimmy Chew.
She’s a girl!
I still think she’s a Daisy.
It’s some kind of twisted foreplay. Bickering about puppy names as a form of flirting, every escalation another piece of clothing we’re daring the other to remove in a metaphorical game of strip poker. It’s gotten to be too much. I can’t stop myself, though. Every time he texts me, I say this will be the last time, then I hold my breath, type a reply, hit send, and wait for my next fix.
Why do I do this to myself?
What are you up to now?
Come over after? We’ll take Moon Zappa for a walk on the beach.
Why do I do it? Because Cooper turns my insides out, gets my head messed up. I wake in cold sweats from unbidden dreams of his sculpted body and his soulful eyes. As much as I want to deny it, I’m starting to like him. Which makes me a terrible person. A rotten, horrible girlfriend. Still, I haven’t acted on anything. I’m capable of exerting self-control. Mind over matter and all that.
Be there in an hour.
For our dog
, I tell myself.
To make sure he’s taking good care of her.
Self-control, my butt.
An hour later, I’m at his front door and shit is awkward. I don’t know if it’s me or him or both, but luckily our puppy serves as a much-needed distraction. She jumps at my knees, and I spend the next few minutes entirely focused on petting her, scratching behind her ear and kissing her cute little nose.
It isn’t until we’re some ways down the beach from his house that Cooper nudges my arm.
I glance over. “Huh, what?”
“Something up?” he asks. The beach is empty, so Cooper lets the dog off the leash and tosses a small piece of driftwood for her to fetch.
It isn’t fair. He has just removed his shirt, and now I’m forced to watch him stroll around bare-chested, a pair of worn jeans hanging off his hips. No matter where else I try to divert my eyes, they return to the yummy V that disappears into his waistband. My mouth actually waters like one of Pavlov’s stupid dogs.
“Sorry,” I say. I take the stick from the dog when she brings it to me, then toss it for her again. “Distracted with school stuff.”
It doesn’t take long for us to wear the puppy out and head back to Cooper’s house. He puts his shirt on, a faded Billabong tee so thin it molds to each muscle of his perfect chest. It’s getting harder and harder not to think very un-friend-like thoughts. Which means it’s definitely time for me to go.
Yet when he asks if I want a ride back to my dorm, I find a way to refuse without quite saying no. Instead we end up in his studio, a detached garage on the side of the property that contains table saws, machines, and an array of other tools. There are racks of raw wood on the walls. The floor is covered in sawdust. At the far end of the space, I glimpse several pieces of finished wooden furniture.
“You made these?” I run my hands over a coffee table, a chair, a skinny bookshelf. There’s also a chest of drawers and a pair of end tables. Everything is done in varying finishes, but they all have a modern coastal aesthetic. Clean and simple. Elegant.
“Sort of my side hustle,” he says with obvious pride. “It’s all reclaimed wood. Stuff I find. I break it down to its basic forms, then repurpose it, bring out what it was meant to be.”
He shrugs, brushing off the compliment as though I’m merely being polite.
“No, I mean it. Cooper, you have real talent. You could make serious money off this. I know a dozen of my mom’s friends who would tear through this place like it was a Saks trunk sale, throwing money at you.”
“Yeah, well.” He hides his face while putting away tools and rearranging his workbench, as if he needs to keep his hands busy. “Without the capital to quit my day job, I don’t have time to churn out the kind of volume I’d need to turn it into any kind of sustainable business. I sell a few things here and there. Make a little extra cash we can use to fix up the house. It’s just a hobby.”
I plant one hand on my hip. “You have to let me buy something.”
Before I can blink, he walks over and throws a drop cloth over the pieces. He won’t meet my eyes as he warns, “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” I say blankly.
“Don’t do that. The second you start looking at me as a project, this”—he gestures between us—“stops working. I don’t need your help. I didn’t show you this to get money out of you.”
“I know.” I grab his arm, forcing him to look at me. “This isn’t charity. You’re not a pity case, Cooper. I consider it an investment in an undiscovered talent.”
He snorts softly.
“Seriously. When you blow up, I’m going to tell everyone I got there first. Rich girls love being trendsetters.”
He studies me, his dark eyes searching. He has an intensity about him, a natural aura that’s both magnetic and dangerous. The more I tell myself to keep my distance, the closer I’m drawn in.
Finally, a reluctant smile surfaces. “Fucking clones.”
“Good. You think about a fair price for the coffee table and chairs. The furniture we have in the dorm is hideous, anyway. Bonnie
and I were going to shop for something but got sidetracked with school.”
I hop up to sit on a nearby worktable, swinging my legs beneath me. I know I should go, but I enjoy this guy’s company far too much.
It’s becoming a real problem.
Cooper’s still watching me, his expression indecipherable. His gaze jerks away from mine when he gets a text. He pulls out his phone, and whatever he reads makes him laugh to himself.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. My friend Steph just sent a funny post to our group chat. Here, look.” He joins me on the table. It takes absolutely no effort for him to haul his big body up and plant his butt beside me.
I lean toward him to look at his phone, trying valiantly not to notice how good he smells. A combination of spice, sawdust, and the ocean—which isn’t a scent that springs to mind when you think of aphrodisiacs and pheromones, and yet it makes me light-headed and tingly.
Oddly enough, his open chat thread shows a screenshot of none other than my website. This particular post is from
, an anecdote about a girl who goes home with a guy late one night after meeting at a bar. They sleep together, but after he’s fallen asleep, she realizes she’s started her period and doesn’t have a tampon or pad. So she goes rummaging through his apartment to see if there are any in one of the bathrooms. The first bathroom is devoid of menstrual products, so she has no choice but to creep into the second bedroom and sneak into the en suite bathroom. She finds a box of tampons under the sink just as someone walks in on her. It’s the guy’s mom, wielding a lamp as a weapon because she thinks she’s being robbed. She’s screaming like a banshee, demanding to know why this nearly naked girl in a T-shirt and underwear is rifling through her bathroom at four in the morning.
“Can you even imagine?” Cooper grins. “Kinda makes me glad my mom isn’t around.”
I should probably tell him that I’m the brains behind the site he’s laughing over. But I don’t have the heart to say,
Yeah, I own this website. Launched it and made my first million while I was still in high school. But tell me more about your struggling furniture business
. What a jerk that would make me.
I don’t brag about my success in general, but it feels extra wrong to say something now. So I address his mom comment, asking, “Where is she?”
“No idea.” There’s a sting in his voice. Hurt and anger.
I’m realizing I’ve touched a nerve and am scurrying to think of how to change the subject when he releases a ragged breath and keeps talking.
“She was barely around when Evan and I were kids. Coming and going with a different guy every couple of months. She’d take off one day, then show up unexpected looking for money.” He shrugs. “Shelley Hartley was never any kind of mother.”
The burden he’s carried—still carries—is obvious in the drop of his broad shoulders, the crease of his forehead as he picks at frays on his jeans.
“I’m sorry,” I say earnestly. “What about your dad?”
“Dead. Died in a drunk driving accident when we were twelve, though not before racking up a mountain of credit card debt that somehow became our problem.” Cooper picks up a chisel, handles it a moment, then absently scratches at the plywood surface of the table. “The only things either of our parents ever gave us were liabilities.” Then with a sudden ferocity, he stabs the chisel straight into the wood. “But I’ll be damned if I end up like them. Rather throw myself off a bridge.”
I swallow. He’s a bit scary sometimes. Not threatening, exactly. Unpredictable, wired with the kinetic potential of the demons that
torment his mind. Cooper Hartley has depths that are dark and treacherous, and that reckless part of me—the impulses I keep buried deep—wants nothing more than to dive in and explore.
It’s just one more reason I’m finding myself in over my head.
I wrap my hand over his. “For what it’s worth,” I tell him, because right now he needs a friend to say they hear him, they understand, “I don’t think you’re anything like them. You’re hardworking, talented, smart. You have ambition. Trust me, that’s more than most people have going for them. A guy with a little bit of luck and a lot of initiative can make his life anything he wants.”
“Easy for you to say. How many ponies did your parents buy for your birthdays?” He lobs a sarcastic jab my way, and I know it’s because I’m the only target in the room.
I offer a rueful smile. “I’m lucky if I can get past my own mother’s assistant when I call. My birthday cards are issued by their personal staffs. My report cards and permission slips were signed by employees.”
“Fair tradeoff for getting everything you’ve ever wanted by snapping your fingers.”
“Is that really what you think?” I shake my head at him. “Yes, I’m extremely fortunate to have been born into a wealthy family. But money becomes an excuse for everything. It becomes a wall between all of us. Because you’ve gotten one thing right—we
clones. From the day I was born, my parents have groomed me to be like them. They don’t think of me as an individual with my own thoughts and opinions. I’m a prop. I swear, sometimes I wonder if I was only born to help my father’s political aspirations.”
Cooper gives me a questioning look.
“My father is a US Congressman,” I explain. “And everyone knows voters prefer candidates with families. At least that’s what the pollsters say. So,
, here I am. Born and bred for campaign photo ops. Built to smile pretty for the camera and say nice things about
Daddy at fundraisers. And I did it, all of it, without question or complaint. Because I hoped one day it would make them love me.” A bitter laugh pops out. “Honestly, though, I don’t think they’d notice if I were replaced with a totally different daughter. Recast in my own life. They’re not all that interested in me as a person.”
It’s the first time I’ve vented all this out loud. The first time I’ve let anyone into this part of me. I mean, yeah, I’ve confided in Preston plenty of times, but not so unfiltered. The two of us come from the same sphere. It’s normal to him, and he has no complaints about his lot in life. And why would he? He’s a man. He gets to run the family empire someday. Me? I have to keep my aspirations on the down-low so my parents don’t realize I have no intention of being a quiet housewife when I finally grow out of “my teenage trifles.”
They think my websites are a complete waste of time. “A passing folly,” as my mother kept referring to it during the gap year I had to fight tooth and nail for. When I’d proudly told my dad that my bank account had officially reached seven figures, he’d scoffed. Said a million bucks was a drop in the bucket. Compared to the hundreds of millions his company nets every quarter, I suppose my earnings seem pitiful. But he could’ve at least pretended to be proud of me.
Cooper regards me in silence for several long beats. Then, as if a daydream evaporates in his mind, his intense eyes refocus on me. “Alright. I’ll grant you that having emotionally absent parents isn’t much better than physically absent ones.”
I laugh. “So where does that leave the scorecard in the tournament of childhood trauma?”
“Yeah, I’ve still got you beat by a mile, but you’re on the board.”
We exchange knowing grins at the futility of such arguments. It wasn’t my intention to turn the discussion into a competition—I’d never make light of the pain Cooper has suffered—but I guess I
was holding in a bit more frustration than I’d realized. It all sort of spilled out.
“Hey, you got any plans tonight?” he asks as he gets to his feet.
I hesitate. I should check with Preston, see if he’s doing anything with the guys tonight.
Instead, I say, “No.”
Because where Cooper’s concerned, my better judgment has gone to hell.