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Good Girl Complex: Chapter 21

MACKENZIE

Cooper’s accusation against Preston torments me for the next twenty-four hours. It clouds my mind, poisons my thoughts. I don’t pay a lick of attention during my Monday classes. Instead, I run Cooper’s words over and over again in my head, alternating between anger, uneasiness, and doubt.

For two years everyone in the Bay has seen that asshole screwing everything that moves.

Face it, princess. Your Prince Charming pulls more ass than a barstool.

Was he telling the truth? I have no reason to trust him. He could have made the allegation merely to get under my skin. It’s what he’s good at.

Then again, what reason does he have to lie? Even if I dumped Preston, that doesn’t mean I’d run straight into Cooper’s arms.

Does it?

When I got back to the dorm yesterday after our fight, I had to force myself not to call Preston and lay everything on the line. Ask questions and demand answers. I’m still pissed at him for how he reacted to my hotel. Pissed at the realization that he doesn’t take me seriously as a businesswoman, and at the way he flatly laid out a future that robs me of all agency.

I already had plenty of reasons to question my relationship with Preston before Cooper lobbed those accusations. Now, I’m even more of a mess. My mind is mush, my insides twisted into knots.

I leave the lecture hall with my head down, not stopping to make small talk with any of my classmates. Outside, I inhale the fresh air, now crisp and a bit cooler, as fall begins to make its appearance after an extended summer.

My phone buzzes in my canvas shoulder bag. I reach for it, finding a text from Bonnie asking if I want to meet for lunch. My roommate has the uncanny ability to read my mind, so I tell her I have to study, then find an empty bench in the quad and pull out my laptop.

I need a distraction, an escape from my chaotic thoughts. Making plans for the hotel provides that respite.

For the next few hours, I scour the internet for the resources I need to get started on this project. I make a list of contractors, contacting each one to request a site visit, so they can give me hard estimates about how much it’ll cost to get the building up to code. I research county ordinances and permit regulations. Watch a couple videos about commercial plumbing and electrical installations. Read up on the latest in hurricane-proof construction and pricing insurance policies.

It’s … a lot.

My mother calls as I’m sliding the laptop back in my bag and getting up to stretch my legs. Sitting on a wrought iron bench for three hours did a number on my muscles.

“Mom, hey,” I greet her.

Skipping the pleasantries, she gets right to the point. “Mackenzie, your father and I would like to take you and Preston to dinner this evening—how is seven o’clock?”

I clench my teeth. Their sense of entitlement is grating as hell. She’s acting as if I have a choice in the matter, when we both know that’s not the case.

“I don’t know if Preston is free,” I say tightly. I’ve been avoiding him for two days, ever since he shot down my dreams and told me I was irresponsible and immature.

The memory of his harsh, condescending words reignites my anger at him. No. No way am I bringing him to dinner tonight and risking a huge fight in front of my parents. I’ve already slapped one guy. Best to not make it two.

But my mother throws a wrench in that. “Your father already spoke to Preston. He said he’s happy to join us.”

My mouth falls open in shock. Seriously? They made arrangements with my boyfriend before calling me, their own daughter?

Mom gives me no time to object. “We’ll see you at seven, sweetheart.”

The moment she disconnects, I scramble to call Preston. He answers on the first ring.

“Hey, babe.”

Hey, babe? Is he for real right now? I’ve been ignoring his calls and texts since Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning, when he threatened to show up at my dorm, I texted that I needed some space and would call him when I was ready.

And now he’s hey, babeing me?

Does he not realize how mad I am?

“I’m glad you finally called.” His audible remorse confirms he does recognize my unhappiness. “I know you’re still sore over our little spat, so I was trying to give you some space like you asked.”

“Really?” I say bitterly. “Is that why you agreed to have dinner with my parents without even consulting me?”

“Would you have picked up the phone if I called?” he counters.

Good point.

“Besides, I literally just hung up with your dad. You called before I had a chance to call you first.”

“Fine. Whatever. But I don’t want to go tonight, Preston. After what happened Saturday at the hotel, I really do need that space.”

“I know.” The note of regret in his voice sounds sincere. “I reacted poorly, I can’t deny that. But you have to understand—you threw me for a total loop. The last thing I expected was being told you’d gone and bought a hotel. It was a lot to take in, Mac.”

“I get that. But you spoke to me like I was a disobedient child. Do you even realize how humiliating—” I stop, drawing a calming breath. “No. I don’t want to rehash this right now. We do need to talk, but not now. And I can’t do dinner. I just can’t.”

There’s a brief pause.

“Mackenzie. We both know you’re not going to tell your parents you can’t go.”

Yeah.

He’s got me there.

“Pick me up at quarter to seven,” I mutter.


Back at Tally Hall, I steam a suitable dress my mom won’t side-eye and make myself presentable. I decide on a navy boatneck that’s just on the slutty side of modest. My silent protest against having my evening hijacked. As soon as Preston picks me up from my dorm, he suggests I put on a cardigan.

I sit in silence on the drive over to the fancy new steakhouse near campus. Preston is smart enough not to push me to talk.

At the restaurant, we’re given a private room, thanks to my dad’s assistant calling ahead. On the way in, Dad does his usual grip-and-grin with voters, then poses for a picture with the manager that’ll end up framed on the wall and run in the local paper tomorrow. Even dinner becomes a major affair when my father shows up, all because his ego isn’t content to anonymously eat out with his family. Meanwhile, my mother stands to the side, hands clasped politely in front of her, a plastic smile on her face. I can’t tell if she still loves this stuff or if the Botox means she feels nothing anymore.

Beside me, Preston has stars in his eyes.

Through cocktails and appetizers, my father goes on about some new spending bill. I can’t find it in me to even feign interest as I push my beet salad around my plate. Preston engages him with an eagerness that, for some reason tonight, is getting on my last nerve. I’d always appreciated Preston’s ability to chat up my parents, take some of the burden off me at these things. They love him, so bringing him along keeps them in a good mood. But right now, I’m finding him incredibly annoying.

For a fleeting moment I consider plucking up the courage to break the news to my parents—Guess what! I bought a hotel! But as Mom starts on how she can’t wait until I get more involved with her charities, I’m convinced they won’t react any better than Preston did.

“I was hoping you’d let me take Mackenzie along to Europe this summer,” Preston says as the entrées arrive. “My father’s finally bowed to the pressure and agreed to take my mother shopping for a new vacation home. We’re sailing the yacht along the coast from Spain to Greece.”

This is news to me. I’m pretty sure there’s been no recent discussion of my summer plans, and even if there has been, that was before I had a hotel to restore. Preston knows damn well I can’t leave Avalon Bay this summer.

Or maybe he’s confident he can talk his immature, irresponsible, wife-material girlfriend into not going through with the purchase.

Bitterness coats my throat. I gulp it down with a bite of my lemon and garlic infused sole.

“Doesn’t that sound marvelous,” my mom says, with the slightest edge to her voice.

One of her greatest resentments over her husband’s career—not that she hasn’t enjoyed the privilege of being a congressman’s wife—is her enforced poverty of only two domestic vacation homes when all her friends are always skipping off to their private chalets in Zermatt or villas in Mallorca. Dad says it isn’t a good look for them to flaunt their wealth while on the taxpayers’ dime—even if the vast majority of the family money comes from inheritance and the corporation my father stepped down from to run for office, though he still sits on the board. But attention invites questions, and Dad hates those.

“She does put up with a lot from him,” Preston jokes, grinning at my mother. “So does this one.” He nods at me and finds my hand under the table to squeeze.

I shrug his hand off and reach for my water glass instead.

My patience is at an all-time low. I used to be so good at tuning out these conversations. Blowing them off as harmless banter to keep my parents happy. As long as Preston kept them entertained and everyone got along, my life was infinitely easier. Now, it seems the status quo isn’t doing it for me anymore.

“What are your plans after graduation next year?” my dad asks Preston. He’s barely said two words to me all night. As if I’m an excuse to see their real child.

“My father wants me at his bank’s headquarters in Atlanta.”

“That’ll be quite the change of pace,” Dad says, cutting into his bloody steak.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge. I intend to learn everything about the family business from the bottom up. How the mail gets processed to acquisitions and mergers.”

“To how the regulations get passed,” my father adds. “We should set something up for next term. Have you at the Capitol. There are some important pieces of legislation up for committee—it’d be an invaluable learning experience to sit in on those hearings. See how the sausage gets made, as it were.”

“Sounds great,” Preston says, beaming. “I’d appreciate that, sir.”

Never once has my father offered to have me out to Washington for a take-your-daughter-to-work day. The only time I ever stepped foot inside the Capitol building was for a photo op. When Dad was sworn in, I was ushered into a room with the other freshman families, posed, and was promptly shoved out the door. The other ne’er-do-well congressional kids and I ended up running amok through the bars and clubs of DC, until some senator’s kid started roughing up a diplomat brat and it turned into a showdown between Secret Service and foreign security forces.

“It’s a shame you and Mackenzie only have one year together at Garnet before you’ll be separated again. But I know you’ll make it work,” Mom chimes in.

“Actually,” Preston says, “Mackenzie will be joining me in Atlanta.”

I will?

“Garnet offers a full online curriculum to finish her degree so she won’t have to transfer schools,” he continues. “It’s only a short flight from Atlanta if she should need to visit campus for any reason.”

What the fuck?

I gawk at Preston, but he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. My parents, too, are oblivious to my rising distress.

“That is an excellent solution,” Dad tells Preston.

Mom nods in complete agreement.

Why am I even here if my participation in the conversation, in my life, is entirely superfluous? I’m little more than an ornament, a piece of furniture they move from room to room. These are my parents. My boyfriend. The people who, ostensibly, care the most about me in the world.

Yet I feel completely invisible. And not for the first time.

As they chatter through the main course, oblivious to my existential crisis, I suddenly see the next five, ten, twenty years of my life closing in on me.

Less a future than a threat.

More a sentence than an opportunity.

But then it occurs to me. I’m not a child anymore. I don’t have to be here. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing holding me in this seat. My mind wanders back to that lunch with Preston’s friends, how the girls were so accepting of Seb’s apparent forays into extracurricular fellatio. And then later, the way Preston so easily forgave me for my own indiscretion. The clues align themselves and the picture becomes clear.

So fucking clear.

Pushing my plate away, I toss my napkin on the table and scrape my chair back.

My mother looks up, frowning slightly.

“I’m sorry,” I announce to the table. “I have to go.”

Without a second of hesitation, I bolt for the door before anyone has a chance to protest. Outside the restaurant, I try to camouflage in the shrubbery near the valet stand as I hurriedly call for a cab, but my hiding spot sucks and Preston spots me the moment he stalks outside.

“What the hell was that?” he demands.

I draw a slow breath. “I don’t want to argue with you. Go back inside, Pres. I’m done here.”

“Keep your voice down.” Shushing me, he grabs my elbow and drags me around the corner, out of earshot, like I’m a child getting scolded. “What the hell has gotten into you?”

I yank my arm from his grasp. “I can’t do this anymore. You, them—all of it. I’m so over it I’m bursting with apathy. That, in there, was me spending my very last fuck.”

“Have you completely lost your mind?” Preston stares at me, incensed. “That’s what this is—this tantrum, the hotel nonsense. It’s stress. The stress of freshman year is getting to you. You’re cracking under the pressure.” He starts nodding. “I understand. We can get you help, send you to a spa or something. I’m sure we can make arrangements with the dean to finish your semester—”

“A spa?” I can’t help it. I erupt, laughing in his face. In this moment, I don’t think he’s ever known me less.

He narrows his eyes at my mocking laughter.

“This isn’t stress. It’s clarity.” My humor fading, I meet his gaze. “You’re cheating on me, Preston.”

He frowns. “And who told you that?”

That’s his response? If I’d doubted it before, I’m not doubting it now. He can’t even be bothered to muster up a denial?

“Are you saying it’s not true?” I challenge. “That you aren’t just like your buddy Sebastian, sleeping around with girls that aren’t ‘wife material’ while pledging his undying love to Chrissy? Chrissy, who doesn’t even care that he’s sleeping around.” I shake my head incredulously. “Look me in the eye and tell me you’re not like that.”

“I’m not like that.”

But he doesn’t look me in the eye.

I bark out a harsh laugh. “That’s why you weren’t at all disturbed by Seb’s actions, right, Preston? Because you’re exactly like him. And you know what’s funny? I’m not even mad. I should be,” I tell him, because there’s plenty of anger from all the ways he’s disrespected me tonight. “I should be pissed. But I realized tonight that I don’t care anymore.”

“You can’t break up with me,” he says sternly, as if he’s telling me I can’t have candy because it’ll rot my teeth.

“I am. I did.”

“Forget whatever it is you think I’ve done. That’s just extracurricular bullshit—”

There’s that word again.

“It has nothing to do with our relationship. I love you, Mackenzie. And you love me too.”

For years, I’ve confused what we had for love. I do love Preston. Or at least I did, at some point. It started that way. I’m sure of it. But we were never in love. I mistook boredom for comfort and comfort for romance. Because I didn’t know what true passion was. I didn’t know what I was missing, how it’s supposed to feel when you can’t contain yourself, when desire for another person consumes you so completely, when your appreciation and affection for them is total and unconditional.

“Stop it, Mackenzie.” Oops. Now he’s pissed. I might be sent to my room with no dessert. “You’re throwing a temper tantrum and it isn’t cute. Come back inside. Apologize to your parents. We’ll forget this whole thing ever happened.”

“You don’t get it. I’ve made up my mind. I’m done.”

“No, you’re not.”

I didn’t want to resort to the nuclear option, but he’s given me no choice. “There’s someone else.”

“What the fuck? Who?” he snaps, anger reddening his face.

My cab pulls up to the curb. Thank God.

“You don’t get to know,” I say coolly. “And now I’m leaving. Don’t follow me.”

For the first time tonight, he listens.


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