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Good Girl Complex: Chapter 20

MACKENZIE

The summer after I graduated high school, I traveled alone in Europe. A present from my parents. I had just walked back to the Colosseum from Vatican City when, in a sort of burst of manic impulsiveness, I marched right past my hotel to the train station. I didn’t know where I was headed. I simply bought a first-class ticket on the next train, which happened to be going to Florence. From there, Bologna. Milan. Then, through Switzerland, France, and Spain. Two days after leaving Italy, I called my hotel to have them send my luggage to Barcelona.

To this day, I don’t know what possessed me. A sudden, urgent need to break free, to get lost. To disrupt the order of my life and prove to myself I was alive and in control of my own destiny. Which is to say I don’t remember deciding to call Cooper, only that one day after Preston shot down my hotel fantasy, two weeks since I’d kissed Cooper and told him never to contact me again, and fifteen minutes after we hang up, he’s standing beside me on the boardwalk staring at the dilapidated exterior of The Beacon Hotel.

“You just … bought it?” Bemused, Cooper rakes a hand through his dark hair.

I’m momentarily distracted by his tanned forearm, his defined biceps. He’s wearing a black T-shirt. Jeans that hang low on his hips. It feels like I’m seeing him for the first time all over again. I hadn’t forgotten what the sight of him does to me, but it’s more potent now that my tolerance has waned. My heart beats faster than usual, my palms are damper, my mouth drier.

“Well, there’s paperwork and due diligence. But if that goes well…”

I’m more nervous now than when I made the offer to Lydia. Than when I showed Preston. For some reason, I need Cooper to be happy for me, and I didn’t realize how much until this moment.

“Can we look around?”

He gives nothing away. Not boredom or disapproval. Not excitement either. We barely said hello and didn’t mention a word about our kisses or our fight. Just Hey, so, um, I’m buying a hotel. What do you think? I have no idea why he even showed up to meet me here.

“Sure,” I say. “The inspector said the ground level is stable. We shouldn’t go upstairs, though.”

Together we tour the property, stepping over storm-tossed furniture and moldy carpets. Some interior rooms are in nearly perfect condition, while beach-view rooms are little more than empty carcasses exposed to the elements, where the walls have collapsed and storm surges long ago sucked everything out to sea. The kitchen looks like it could be up and running tomorrow. The ballroom, more like a setting of a ghost ship horror movie. Outside, the front of the hotel facing the street belies the damage inside, still perfectly intact except for missing roof shingles and overgrown foliage.

“What are your plans for it?” he asks as we peek behind the front desk. An old-fashioned guest book, with the words The Beacon Hotel embossed on its cover with gold lettering, is still tucked on a shelf with the wall of room keys. Some scattered, others still on their hooks.

“The previous owner had one demand: Don’t tear it down and put up an ugly high-rise.”

“I came here all the time as a kid. Evan and I would use the pool, hang out in the beach cabanas until we were chased out. Steph worked here a few summers during high school. I remember all the old hardwood, the brass fixtures.”

“I want to entirely restore it,” I tell him. “Salvage as much as possible. Source vintage antiques for the rest of it.”

He lets out a low whistle. “It’d be expensive. We’re talking about cherry furniture that’ll have to be custom replicated. Handmade light fixtures. There are stone floor tiles and countertops in here they don’t even make anymore except in small batches.”

I nod. “And I already know the electrical is out of code. All the drywall has to come out.”

“But I see it.” He wanders through the lobby toward the grand staircase, where he runs his hand over the intricately carved bannister. “With the right touch, and enough money, it’s got potential.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. Teeming with potential.”

“I know this sounds dumb,” I say, taking a seat at the foot of the stairs, “but when I first set eyes on this place, I had this image in my head. Guests sitting on the veranda in rocking chairs, sipping wine, and watching the tide roll in. I saw it so clearly.”

“It’s not dumb.” Cooper sits beside me.

I feel no animosity from him, as if we’re almost friends again. Except for the same magnetic tug begging me to run my fingers through his hair.

“When I put a salvaged piece of wood on my bench, I don’t have a plan for what it’ll be. I just sit with it. Wait for it to express itself. Then it practically builds itself in my mind, and I’m following along.”

I bite my lip. “My parents aren’t going to be happy about this.”

Lately it doesn’t take much to set my father off. Most of it is work stress, but it seems as if he’s engaged in constant battle about one thing or another. Probably where I get my combative side. Thing is, when the battles end badly, his frustration tends to manifest in being loudly disappointed in me.

“Who the hell cares?” Cooper scoffs.

“Yeah, easy for you to say.”

“I mean it. Since when do you care about what anyone else has to say?”

“You don’t understand how hard it is to get out from under their thumb. They run practically every part of my life.”

“Because you let them.”

“No, but—”

“Look. In the time I’ve known you, you’ve mostly been a stubborn, opinionated pain in the ass.”

I laugh, admitting to myself that most of our conversations have devolved into stalemate arguments. “It’s not my fault you’re always wrong.”

“Watch it, Cabot,” he says with a playfully threatening glare. “Seriously, though. You’ve got your shit together better than most people I know. To hell with your parents approving. Be your own person.”

“You don’t know them.”

“I don’t have to know them. I know you.” He turns to face me fully, leveling me with serious eyes. “Mac, you are a force to be reckoned with. You don’t take shit, you take names. Don’t forget that.”

Damn it. Fucking damn it.

“Why do you have to do that?” I mutter, getting to my feet. I can’t control my muscles. I have to move, find some air.

“Do what?” He gets up, following me as I pace the room.

“Be so…” I gesture incoherently in his direction. “Like that.”

“You’ve lost me.”

It’s easier when he’s being a dick. Flirting, coming on strong. Arguing with me and calling me princess. It’s easier to dismiss him as just another hot guy with too much attitude, someone not to be taken seriously. Then he’s all sweet and kind and gets my head messed up. Drags my heart into it, kicking and screaming.

“Don’t be nice to me,” I blurt out in frustration. “It’s confusing.”

“Yeah, well, I was a little confused when you were scraping your nails down my back, but hey, I went with it.”

“Good,” I say, spinning to point at him. “Do that. That I can work with. I handle you better when you’re a prick.”

“So that’s what it is? You’re afraid to give a damn because then you can’t keep lying to yourself about us?”

“There is no us,” I shoot back. “We kissed. Big deal.”

“Twice, princess.”

“And it went so well we didn’t talk for two weeks.”

“Hey, you called me.” Defiant, he stares me down. A dare.

“And I see now it was a mistake.”

Gritting my teeth, I stalk forward, my sights set on the arched doorway leading to the exit. But that requires walking past Cooper, who reaches for my waist before I can sidestep him.

In the blink of an eye I’m in his arms, pressed tight against his chest. I feel every warm, solid inch of him against my body. Silence descends as he tips his head to look down at me. My breath catches. I forget who I was before I met him. In this bubble, in this quiet place where no one will find us, we can be entirely ourselves.

“Well…” I whisper, waiting for him to say something, do something. Anything. The anticipation is killing me, and I think he knows it.

“You can leave anytime you want,” he says roughly.

“I know.” Still, my feet don’t move. My heart beats a barrage against my rib cage. I’m suffocating, but all I want to do is sink deeper into his arms.

I shiver when his thumb lightly caresses my side over the thin fabric of my loose white shirt. Then the light touch becomes strong fingers curling over my hip, and my knees wobble. I’m smoke in his arms. I don’t feel solid.

“What are we doing, Mac?” His deep, dark eyes penetrate me.

“I thought you knew.”

Urgently, his lips cover mine. His fingers bite into my hip as mine snake into his hair and pull him toward me. The kiss is hungry, desperate. When his tongue prods at the seam of my lips, seeking entry, I whimper quietly and give him what he wants. Our tongues meet and I nearly keel over again.

“It’s okay, I got you,” Cooper whispers, and before I know what’s happening, I’m off my feet, legs wrapped around him.

He walks us backward until I’m pressed into the exposed concrete of a cracked wall. He’s hard against me. I can’t fight the wave of insistent arousal that compels me to grind myself against him, seeking the friction that will unleash this knot of repressed longing that’s sat taut inside me for weeks. This isn’t me. I’m not the girl who loses her mind over a guy, who gets tangled up in midafternoon interludes of semi-public, semi-sexual exploits. And yet here we are, mouths fused, bodies straining to get closer.

“Fuck,” he groans. His hands find their way under my shirt, callused fingers dipping beneath the cups of my bra.

The moment he teases my nipples, it’s like someone’s opened the curtains in a pitch-black room. Startling as blinding sunlight pouring through.

“I can’t,” I whisper against his lips.

Right away Cooper pulls back and sets me on my feet. “What’s wrong?”

His lips are wet, swollen. His hair wild. A dozen fantasies rush through my mind as I struggle to slow my breathing. The wall at my back is the only thing keeping me upright.

“I still have a boyfriend,” I say as an apology. Because although I might not be happy with Preston at the moment, we haven’t officially broken up.

“Are you serious?” Cooper storms away before turning to stare at me with exasperation. “Wake up, Mackenzie.” He throws his hands up. “You’re a smart girl. How are you this blind?”

My eyebrows crash together in confusion. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Your boyfriend is cheating on you,” he spits out.

“What?”

“I asked around. For two years, everyone in the Bay has seen that asshole screwing everything that moves.”

An angry scowl twists my mouth. “You’re lying.”

He’s picked the wrong girl if he thinks I’m falling for such an obvious ploy. He’s only saying this because he wants to get in my pants, to make me furious enough at Preston that I’ll give in to the undeniable attraction between us. Well, Cooper doesn’t even know Preston. If he did, he’d understand that Pres is the last one who’d be running around with random hookups.

“You’d love it if I was.” Cooper approaches me, visibly seething. I’m not sure which one of us is more pissed off at this point. “Face it, princess. Your Prince Charming pulls more ass than a barstool.”

Something comes over me.

Blind, hot rage.

I slap him. Hard. So hard my hand stings.

The crack echoes through the empty hotel.

At first he just stares at me. Shocked. Angry.

Then a low, mocking laugh slides out of his throat. “You know what, Mac? Believe me or don’t believe me.” He chuckles again. A raspy, dark warning. “Either way, I’ll be the one watching smugly from the sidelines when you’re finally hit with a dose of reality.”


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