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Good Girl Complex: Chapter 12

MACKENZIE

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 Real Housewives 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.

Cooper: How bout Moxie Crimefighter?

Me: I like Jimmy Chew.

Cooper: She’s a girl!

Me: I still think she’s a Daisy.

Cooper: Muttley Crue.

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?

Cooper: What are you up to now?

Me: Class.

Cooper: 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.

Me: Be there in an hour.

For our dog, I tell myself. To make sure he’s taking good care of her.

Uh-huh.

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.”

“I’m impressed.”

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 GirlfriendFails, 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 are 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, poof, 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.”

“Fair.”

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.

His gaze rakes over me in a way that elicits a hot shiver. “Good. I’m taking you out.”


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