Generally speaking, I didn’t mind a well-placed hand on my ass.
Loved it, actually. Though, generally speaking, when said hand was on my ass, I wasn’t usually at the grocery store, in broad daylight, in the view of dozens of Starlight Cove’s residents and busybodies. And, generally speaking, the person copping a feel wasn’t old enough to be my grandmother.
“Mabel.” I raised a brow at the woman who stood next to me in all her neon orange glory, her hair a mass of short, gray curls around her head, then glanced to where she had an entire handful of my ass. “Much as I love getting felt up, Aiden and I have a little league practice we need to get to, so can you finish up?”
“What? Oh!” Mabel, Starlight Cove’s gossip, troublemaker, and self-proclaimed news broadcaster, pulled her hand away—much slower than someone who was caught groping another person should have—and a sly smile swept across her mouth. She could’ve been anywhere between sixty-five and eighty-five—I valued my life far too much to ask—and she’d learned a thing or two in that time. Namely, that she didn’t give a single fuck.
“Should I leave you two alone?” my brother asked dryly. Aiden—second oldest of the McKenzies—stood off to the side, arms crossed and brow raised. He hadn’t bothered to change out of his work clothes after leaving the family resort in the very capable hands of our baby sister. He didn’t concern himself with the fact that he was going to look ridiculous in a white button-up and dress pants on the baseball mound as fifteen eight-year-olds ran circles around him and screamed their heads off.
“Hey, I gotta get it where I can,” I said, winking at Mabel as she strolled away with a little shimmy in her step, her gaze still glued to my ass and not what was in front of her.
Aiden rolled his eyes and grabbed two baskets before handing one to me. “We both know ‘getting it’ is the least of your problems.”
I pressed my lips together, not saying a word in response. Getting it? No, that wasn’t a problem. Had never been. It was almost sad how predictable it had all become—I’d bet my entire life savings I’d have at least one number before I left the store.
But being interested in it? That was my problem—recently anyway. Though, ‘my’ was pushing it, considering my dick was the one with the issue. Apparently, he was no longer interested in a mindless escape. No longer at all up—pun abso-fucking-lutely intended—for entertaining the various women in our picturesque pocket of Maine. For some unknown reason, the not-so-little bastard had suddenly become discerning. Discerning, but without an ounce of self-preservation.
Because the one woman it had become obsessed with? She’d just as soon cut it off before she ever played with it.
So, yeah. You could say my dick and I were at a bit of a crossroads, and who knew how long it would be before we were on the same page.
“Get your head in the game, man,” Aiden said, snapping his fingers in front of my face. “It’s no fun to win if it’s not a challenge.”
I focused back on my brother. He looked bored, but I knew better. When it came to competition, he was ruthless—much like the rest of us McKenzies—and he was going to try his hardest to wipe the floor with me. I’d return the favor, of course, especially when a lost bet in this family meant a fallout ranging anywhere from humiliation—there was still video floating around from senior year when I had to naked limbo outside the girls’ locker room for losing at mini golf—to body modification—I was the proud owner of a pierced dick thanks to a not-so-friendly competition with my younger brother, Levi—and everything in between.
“Mabel would have to do a lot more than grab my ass for me to be too distracted to kick yours.”
“Keep dreaming,” Aiden said. “Let’s lay out the rules and get started.”
I scoffed and mumbled, “Of course he’s gotta have a rules.”
“Rules make it so you won’t win on a technicality.”
I blew out a long sigh. “Fine. We’ve got ten minutes to find the best snack and meet back at check out. Then we’ll have the kids do a blind taste test after practice. The team decides who wins.”
“Winner gets bragging rights, obviously,” he said. “But what about the loser?”
We never bet money—besides the fact that none of us were exactly rolling in it, where was the fun in that?—and what ended up on the line varied with each competition, not to mention each competitor. But there was one thing he and I had been struggling with that I absolutely did not want to handle, so it was the obvious choice.
“Loser has to plan and coordinate the fundraiser for new team uniforms.”
Aiden let out a groan and scrubbed a hand down his face.
With a grin, I lifted a shoulder. “If you don’t think you’ll win…”
“Fuck off. Time starts now.” Without waiting for me to respond, he took off to the left with a focused intensity that was pure Aiden.
I turned in the opposite direction, set on doing the same, and nearly plowed down the person who’d been standing directly behind me. I reached out to steady them. “Sorry about—“
But my words caught in my throat when I got a whiff of too-strong perfume, one I was all too familiar with. Unfortunately. Without even looking, I knew exactly who was invading my personal space. Chelsea Dread. Yes, that was seriously her last name, and yes, that should’ve been the biggest red flag in existence warning me away. Alas, teenagers were idiots, and I’d been no exception.
“Oh, Ford!” Chelsea said with false surprise. “Funny running into you here. I feel like I haven’t talked to you in forever!”
“Not nearly long enough,” I mumbled.
Because she’d never been able to read the room, she continued on as if I were interested. “I’ve just been so busy lately, what with the preparations and all. I hope you’re not too upset that I didn’t send you an invitation.”
“An invitation for what?”
She blinked up at me, her face a mask of confusion as if she didn’t understand my question, and breathed out a laugh. “For my wedding, of course.”
I scratched my jaw, squinting one eye as I stared down at her. “Why would I be upset about that?”
She tossed her hair over her shoulder, a cloud of her cloyingly sweet perfume smacking me in the face with the power of a two-by-four, and looked at me with pity. “I just know how hard this must be for you. Seeing me—the one who got away—moving on. Marrying someone else.”
I snorted, not bothering to try and hide it. There was exactly one woman in the world who I couldn’t handle marrying someone else, and it sure as fuck wasn’t my ex-girlfriend from high school who’d set me on my path of singledom thanks to the horror that had been a relationship with her.
“I promise you,” I said, “I am not even slightly upset about this. I’m happy for you and Larry.”
She let out a soft, sympathetic huff and stuck out her bottom lip. “I just love how brave you’re acting about this whole thing.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
She continued on as if I hadn’t spoken. “It must be hard for you to see me moving on like this. Especially when, you know…”
No, I didn’t know, and I didn’t need to. But Chelsea had always known exactly the buttons to push to manipulate me, and I fell right into her trap.
“Especially when what?”
She raised a shoulder. “Just knowing you’re the guy women have lots of fun with before they settle down—God knows you’re perfect for a good time—but you’re definitely not the one they bring home. Not the one they actually keep.”
Her words shouldn’t have stung. Not when they were true. There was no denying my attributes—perpetual flirt, amazing one-night stand, consistent booty call.
Someone’s forever? Not my style.
But she’d said the words as if they were daggers meant to kill. And I had no intention of allowing my ex-girlfriend and all around awful human to walk away from this encounter with the upper hand. So I did what I always did and leaped before I looked.
“I’m sure you have extra plates. Consider this my RSVP for two. I’ll bring my girlfriend.”
Never mind the fact that I didn’t have a girlfriend. Worse, I didn’t even have a bed partner, because my dick hated me and the only woman it was interested in wouldn’t give me the time of day. But that was future Ford’s problem to solve.
Chelsea tipped her head to the side. “Is that what you’re calling one-night stands now?”
I bared my teeth at her in some semblance of a smile. “Careful, you’re starting to sound jealous.”
She breathed out a forced laugh and narrowed her eyes, plastering on a fake smile. A viper ready to strike. “I’m not jealous! Why would I be? I’ve moved on from the one and done stage. I needed someone a bit more…permanent. And we both know that was never and will never be you.”
Along with everyone else in Starlight Cove, I tended to agree with her. But something had shifted in the past couple months. Turned out, nameless bodies weren’t quite as fulfilling at thirty-one as they had been at twenty-one.
“I’ll send you the details.” Chelsea pulled out her phone, and mine pinged with an incoming text. One of the downfalls of small town living—once someone had your number, they had it forever. “Can’t wait to meet this…girlfriend of yours.” With a flutter of her fingers, she turned around and walked out of the store.
Well that was just fucking great.
I didn’t know how the hell I was going to get out of that one, but I had more pressing issues right now. Like beating Aiden’s ass at this bet. I grabbed my phone to check the time, sure I’d blown past the ten minutes by now, but that whole hellish encounter had only lasted six. Still, four minutes wasn’t nearly long enough, which meant I needed to haul ass, get creative, and call in reinforcements.
I dialed my twin’s number as I headed toward the snack aisle. If anyone was going to have a winning idea on what I should grab, it would be Beck, runner of the resort diner, menu planner, and blueberry scone aficionado.
It rang twice, then, “Yeah?”
“I need your help.”
“The clock’s ticking, so I don’t have time to explain. What’s a good snack for eight-year-old kids? And don’t fuck around. I need the best thing you can think of.”
“Yes. Am I being unclear in my directive?” I checked the time again. “And I’m gonna need you to hurry up about it or Aiden’s going to win.”
There was jostling on the other end, and then Aiden’s voice came across the line, “Aiden already won. You’re disqualified for cheating.”
“Cheating! I didn’t—“ I came to an abrupt halt as I turned the corner into an aisle, finding Aiden and Beck standing next to each other, Beck’s phone held out between them.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the cheater now.” Aiden crossed his arms, basket filled with graham crackers, jumbo marshmallows, and about five different candy bars hanging from his forearm. Gourmet s’mores—son of a bitch, that was a fantastic idea. Not exactly the healthiest option, but we were trying to win over a bunch of eight year olds here, not their parents.
“I’m not a cheater,” I said, pocketing my phone.
“No? Did you or did you not call Beck for help?” Aiden asked.
“Did you or did you not fail to mention that as a stipulation in the rules?” I raised a brow, and his jaw ticked.
“Doesn’t matter anyway. Your time is up, and your basket is empty.” He jerked his chin toward it. “Ergo, I win.”
I threw my hand in the air. “This is bullshit. I didn’t even get a chance to shop. Chelsea accosted me the second our time started, and she wouldn’t stop talking. Are my ears bleeding?” I turned my head for them to look. “I feel like they’re bleeding. I’m going to have to take a shower when I get home because her perfume is clinging to me.” I lifted my shirt and took a whiff, wrinkling my nose. “Jesus. I’ve put out fires that haven’t hung around this much. And now you’re telling me that not only do I have to go to her wedding—with a date, by the way—but I also lost the bet, so I have to figure out fundraising too?”
Completely unmoved by my speech, Aiden shrugged. “Pretty much, yeah.”
“Why the hell do you have to go to her wedding?” Beck asked.
“Long story,” I said. “But just know I should win by default after having to be in that woman’s presence for that long. I would’ve rather waxed my entire body than have a conversation with her. Would’ve rather stripped and ran down Main Street naked during a Nor’easter, or eaten a bucket of grasshoppers, or finally allowed Mabel to—”
My words cut off as a flash of yellow caught my eye out the front windows of the store, and my dick woke the fuck up from its slumber.
“Finally allowed Mabel to…?” one of my brothers asked, but I didn’t bother responding.
Quinn Cartwright stood at the bakery cart just outside, her bright yellow dress accentuating every one of her mouthwateringly lush curves. Her golden blonde hair hung in loose waves down to her shoulders, and the sun made it look like a halo around her head.
But she was no angel.
An angel wouldn’t enjoy tormenting me day in and day out. And she did enjoy it. If I didn’t know better, I’d say tormenting me was the sole reason she’d moved back to Starlight Cove after more than a decade away. A decade where I’d finally been able to ignore her siren call and get on with my life. The worst part was, she had no idea the hold she had over me. Or maybe she did, and this was all part of her master plan. To see just how far the gorgeous little demon could push me before I snapped.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket, checking the time, and pressed my lips into a thin line. 5:17 on the dot.
“So fucking predictable,” I muttered.
“Seriously, man? Again? This is starting to get a little creepy…” one of my brothers, again, but I still ignored them, too focused on the pain in my ass who was looking a little too much like sunshine for my liking, considering her level of pleasure seemed to be in direct correlation to how much she could irritate me on any given day.
Quinn placed her order at the bakery cart—I didn’t have to be a lip reader to know it was a loaf of french bread and three croissants—like she did every Tuesday after work. Didn’t the woman have even an ounce of self-preservation? Didn’t she know she needed to shake up her routine once in a while? Jesus Christ, I thought that was Safety 101.
Despite the fact that this was Starlight Cove—a tiny pocket of paradise on the Maine coast with a crown of forest on one end and a picturesque downtown on the other, where the last serious crime had been a couple of teenagers graffitiing a penis on a public mailbox—she was still a single woman who refused to deviate even a millimeter from her daily schedule. And, sharp as her tongue might be, it wasn’t going to scare off a would-be attacker.
She smiled at Terrance, laughing at whatever the baker said, and something sharp tugged in my chest. That was a look I’d never been on the receiving end of from her. Scorn? Yes. Malice? Definitely. Anger, rage, frustration? Absolutely.
It’d been a fun game we’d been playing since high school when we’d been paired up in nearly every class we’d had together all the way up until we’d competed for valedictorian. And it was something that had started right back up again her first day back in Starlight Cove. I’d been ready to bury the hatchet because I’d never had a problem with her in the first place. Quite the opposite, actually.
She, however, had not been ready to forget about the past.
We’d nearly run into each other as she strolled out of the Post Office. I could see an apology had been on the tip of her tongue, but she’d swallowed it as soon as she’d realized it was me and instead sent a glare in my direction. And my dick, the little bastard, had twitched in my jeans at the attention from her.
That was the beginning of the end for me and why I was currently in the middle of the longest dry spell of my life. My dick had seen her, and it was like Pavlov’s fucking dog, remembering the teenaged fantasies featuring her insane body that I’d jerked off to three…four…five times a day.
And now, despite the fact that we were both adults and I hadn’t seen her in thirteen fucking years, nothing and no one else would do.
My brothers were still talking, trying to get my attention, but just then, she glanced up and our eyes connected. I felt the same zing of awareness I always did when she was around—a zing that said my worthy adversary was here and ready for whatever I could dish out. Ready and willing to give it right back.
She froze for half a second before narrowing her eyes on me, all joy wiped clean from her stupidly beautiful face. Then, gaze still locked on mine, she reached up and scratched her nose. With her middle finger.
A slow smile spread across my face, and I shot her a wink. A wink she returned with a scowl. Goddamn, why was pissing her off more fun than my last dozen dates combined? And why the hell did it get my dick harder, too?
Chuckling under my breath, I watched her storm away, the sway of those thick hips making my mouth water.
Two minutes ago, I’d been lost in a rant, ready to burn this day to the ground. But after that little interaction with Quinn, I felt lighter than I had since stepping foot in the store—even though I’d run into my ex, gotten conned into attending her wedding, and now had to figure out this fundraiser thing on my own.
It probably made me every bit the ass Quinn thought I was, but I couldn’t deny how much I loved that my mere presence got a rise out of the unflappable Dr. Quinn Cartwright.
If there was one thing I hated, it was an overconfident man with small-dick syndrome, and the jackass I was currently working for must’ve had the smallest dick of all.
Unfortunately, if I had any hope of taking over this practice from Dr. Dinsmore—or Dr. Dicknose as I affectionately referred to him—I actually had to play nice, which made dealing with his daily bullshit all the more frustrating.
At best, it was a minor inconvenience I struggled with on the regular. At worst, it had drastic and sometimes catastrophic repercussions for the patients he’d sworn to serve.
Which was the entire reason I was back in my hometown in the first place.
As much as I hated that his female patients had suffered at his hand often enough to file formal complaints, I was just grateful I was finally back and able to clean up some of his messes. And in my short time back, I’d found a metric shit-ton of them.
I knocked on the door to exam room two and stepped inside, greeting his-turned-my patient with a warm smile. “Hi, Jada. How’re you doing today?”
“Hi, Dr. Cartwright.” Uncertainty and defeat hung heavy in her dark eyes as she sat on the exam table, wringing her hands in her lap. Her long black locs were pulled up into a twisted bun on top of her head, and the gold dusted on her cheekbones set off her deep-brown skin. “And I guess that depends on what you’re about to tell me.”
I pulled out the rolling stool and took a seat, setting her chart down on the counter behind me. “Well, I actually have news, so we’re coming out ahead of where you’ve been stuck the past several years.”
Since the closest OB-GYN was a few towns over, Dr. Dicknose had been completing Jada’s yearly exams—same as many of the other women in town. She’d been complaining of painful, irregular periods, weight gain, and unexplained acne for years. And for years, the tiny-dicked weasel had told her that her issues were because she was overweight or just something she had to deal with for being a female.
Even after her complaining of worsening symptoms, which now included her and her husband’s inability to conceive even after more than two years of trying, he still blamed it on the fact that her BMI wasn’t below twenty-five and told her if she just lost some weight, all her problems would be solved.
He’d dismissed her very real pain, brushed it aside as if it were a minor inconvenience. She’d become just another fat girl in his eyes, and he’d treated her issues as if they were the cause rather than a symptom.
I wanted to strangle the jackass, especially when a simple blood test would’ve diagnosed this when she’d first complained of these problems, and she and her husband could’ve been well on their way to a family of three.
I knew her pain all too well—literally—which only made me more frustrated. I’d been given the same runaround while dealing with the same symptoms and the same condition. Had providers brush aside my complaints and not look deeper because I wasn’t a size eight. I’d spent my teenage years and early twenties in misery because no one would take me seriously, and I didn’t have the kind of parents who would advocate for me.
It was what pushed me into medicine in the first place. I hated the idea that women weren’t being heard or treated appropriately because their concerns were ignored.
“Okay.” She nodded, the exam table paper crinkling under her as she shifted. “I’m ready to hear it.”
“The results from your bloodwork came back. Your cholesterol looks great, and you’re active, which is what we love to see. But some of the numbers here prove your symptoms have not been caused by weight and aren’t something you just have to deal with because you’re a woman.” I winked at her. “But you and I both already knew that…”
She breathed out a laugh, her bottom lip quivering as her eyes grew glassy. She cleared her throat a couple times, accepting the tissue I offered her with quiet thanks. Dabbing her eyes, she said, “Sorry about this.” She circled a hand around her face. “I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear that. After years of being told it was nothing—” her voice cracked, but she cleared her throat and continued on “—it’s such a relief to know everything that’s been going on isn’t all in my head.”
With a reassuring smile, I patted her knee. “I’m grateful I’m able to finally get you some answers.”
Clutching the tissue in her hand, she inhaled deeply, then blew it out in a slow exhale. “So, you have a diagnosis?”
“I do.” I nodded and reached back, grabbing the pamphlet I’d brought in and handing it to her. “You have what’s called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. You may have heard it called PCOS. It’s fairly common in women our age, but it is heavily underdiagnosed because…” I huffed out a humorless laugh. “Well, I don’t have to tell you why. In your case, I hope we’ve caught it early enough to avoid any permanent damage. And the good news is it’s manageable. Now, we just need to find the right treatment plan for you…”
By the time I’d walked Jada out of the clinic, it was late, well after closing time. Alicia, our receptionist, was long gone, the front desk empty, and since Dr. Dicknose liked to do anything but work, I assumed he was gone too. Which was too bad, really, considering the high I felt right now, confidence cloaking me as I strode down the hallway, knowing I’d helped a patient he’d been failing for years.
It was just more proof that my move back here to my small hometown was the right one, despite the…less than welcoming reception I’d received from him upon my arrival. One would’ve thought I’d come to tarnish his reputation instead of trying to salvage it. The man was in desperate need of retiring—something he’d be able to do, if only he would accept my offer to purchase the practice.
I turned the corner toward my office and stopped short, nearly running straight into Dr. Dicknose himself as he strolled out of his office. He was an older white guy in his late sixties. He wasn’t overly tall—just under six feet, if I had to guess, since I could look him in the eye if I was wearing heels. Which, considering how much he hated it, I tried to do on a daily basis. He kept himself fairly fit, his white hair the only real tell of his age.
As much as I loathed running into him, I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip by. Since arriving back in Starlight Cove and starting my employment here with the specific intent to eventually own this clinic, I’d tried the calm and pleasant tack. I’d tried befriending him, much as it pained me. I’d tried the we-have-history tack since he was my father’s closest friend. Hell, I’d even tried bribery—not my finest moment, but at least we’d all benefited from catered meals made by the incomparable Beck McKenzie.
None of them had worked.
Apparently it was time for the zero-shits-given tack.
“Oh, good. You’re still here,” I said.
He jingled his keys, barely sparing me a glance. “Not for long. Have a mess you need me to clean up?”
I barely held in my snort of disbelief. The man was so delusional, it was baffling. “Actually, I cleaned up yours. I just finished an appointment with Jada Westing.”
“And you’ve been brushing off her symptoms for years.”
He rolled his eyes, swiping his hand through the air as if her problems were a gnat he could swat away. “She’s overweight and constantly complained about menstruating. Much as I would love to wave a magic wand and not have to deal with the female population’s monthly issues ever again, I’m afraid that’s just not possible. It’s something she’ll have to learn to live with. Surely she’s figured that out at some point in her thirty-five years.”
I huffed out a disbelieving breath, my mouth dropping open as I stared at him. “She’s suffered with undiagnosed PCOS for years because you dismissed her very real pain and couldn’t be bothered to do your job. But don’t worry—I did it for you. I’ve finally got her on a treatment plan, and hopefully it’ll be enough to salvage her ability to have children.”
“Oh, relax. You’re being a bit dramatic, don’t you think? I’m certain her inability to conceive has more to do with her weight than anything else.”
I clenched my hands into fists at my sides. God, what I wouldn’t give to punch this asshole right in his smug face. “I’m not sure if you are purposefully being this obtuse, or if it’s a special ability reserved for me, but let me spell this out for you—my findings just saved this clinic and your ass.”
He snorted. “From what?”
“At worst? A malpractice suit. At best, a PR nightmare. That wouldn’t look great, considering the reason I’m here in the first place.”
That hit the bull’s-eye if the tightening of his thin lips was any indication. “What is it you need, Ms. Cartwright?”
I ground my teeth together at his overemphasis on Ms. instead of Dr., a designation he would have demanded from anyone. “I’m done beating around the bush. We both know there’s only one reason I came back and agreed to work here in the first place. I want to know what it’s going to take for you to finally retire and sell me this practice.”
“To put it bluntly? For hell to freeze over. I have no intention of selling this practice to you, now or ever.”
Anger heated my cheeks, my face flushing. After years in a male-dominated field, I should’ve been used to this. Should’ve been ready to handle anything he lobbed my way. Especially since this man had been a fixture in my life much longer than that. But the truth of the matter was, I never wanted to get used to it.
“You and I both know this clinic would be better off in my hands. And so would your patients,” I said through clenched teeth, trying and failing to tamp down my anger.
“What I know is that this is a small-town family practice, and you are a single woman in her thirties with no prospects on the horizon. What I know is that I will not have my family legacy disparaged and brought down by some kind of feminist revenge plot.”
I barked out a laugh. “Oh my God. Now who’s being dramatic?”
He sniffed and moved to walk past me. “My mind is made up, Ms. Cartwright. The practice is still open to buyers—suitable buyers who understand and embody family values.”
“Lay it out for me in simple terms. What would I need to become a ‘suitable’ buyer?”
He slid a disdainful glance over me from head to toe, dismissing me just as quickly. “Something that isn’t in the cards for you.”
Even knowing in my gut that had been his endgame, it didn’t make hearing it any easier. Whether I had a husband should have been irrelevant when I was the one who had gone to med school. Who’d worked as hard—harder—than any male colleagues in my field to get where I was. Who’d put in the grueling hours, who’d sacrificed for this career. Having someone else’s last name wasn’t suddenly going to boost my credentials.
“You’d sell me the practice if I were married?”
He cleared his throat, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses up his nose and averting his gaze. “That’s what I said, isn’t it? But considering there’s no one on the horizon for you—not a surprise, really—it’s a moot point.”
“Do you understand how misogynistic that is?”
He scoffed. “I’m not misogynistic! I hired a lady doctor to work at my practice, didn’t I?”
I clenched my teeth over the fact that he had to signify my occupation with lady in front of it. Not misogynistic, my ass. “You hired me because you didn’t have a choice. It was only to counteract the complaints you’ve received from your female patients and because your malpractice insurance was in jeopardy because of it.”
I threw my hands up in frustration. “And it’s fucking ridiculous you can’t see the issue here.”
“I will not be cursed at in my own practice, Ms. Cartwright, so I think we’re done here.” With that, he walked down the hallway toward the front of the clinic and didn’t spare me another glance.
Because I’d never been one known for holding my tongue, I called after him, “It’s Doctor Cartwright, by the way.” And then quieter for just me, I added, “You pompous, self-important, fragile little dickweed.”
I stormed into my office, muttering to myself the whole way. What I desperately wanted to do was stand back and watch Dr. Dicknose burn this practice to the ground and then swoop in to build something from the ashes.
But I couldn’t. Especially when I knew the lack of care his patients were receiving—had been receiving for years. I just had to find another way to make this happen sooner rather than later.
After ditching my white coat on the hook behind my door, I quickly changed into the pair of jeans and blouse I’d brought today, knowing I wouldn’t have time to run back home before heading to the impromptu cupcake festival happening this evening. I had promised Addison McKenzie—youngest McKenzie sibling and Starlight Cove hurricane who was not used to hearing the word no—that I’d attend and support the bachelor auction she’d thrown together for Everly, a resident in need.
Even if Everly wasn’t a friend—which she was—and I wasn’t interested in helping Starlight Cove—which I was—I would have done this for Addison simply because she had to deal with five brothers every day—one of whom was a giant pain in everyone’s ass, mine included. That was worth a heaping dose of sympathy in my book.
I strode down the hallway to make sure Dr. Dicknose had locked up the front when he’d left, but I stopped short when voices greeted me from the reception area.
“What’d you tell her?”
The voice was tinny, as if it was coming over speakerphone, but it was one I’d recognize anywhere, considering it’d haunted my accomplishments for the past thirty-plus years and made my stomach clench at the mere sound. My father and Dr. Dicknose were thick as thieves, even after my parents had retired down to Florida, though that wasn’t a surprise. Assholes tended to flock together.
Dr. Dicknose snorted. “I told her she’d need a husband before I’d ever sell this practice to her. And you and I both know that’ll never happen.”
My dad laughed, the sound burrowing deep inside my heart, poking at the tender bruises he’d never let heal. “Not with the size she’s at. Not to mention, she never got the memo that men don’t want a wife who’s more successful than they are. She’s going to be alone the rest of her—” His words trailed off as Dr. Dicknose walked outside, closing and locking the front door behind him.
I took a deep breath, forcing back the sting of tears. This shouldn’t still hurt. Not after growing up with my father’s special kind of “encouragement.” Not after the years of therapy I’d been through to move past this. To work through this. But the truth was, I wasn’t sure I’d ever numb myself enough not to care.
For years, I’d tried to be the kind of daughter my parents could be proud of, even after it had become clear I’d never be a carbon copy of my mom. Not when I was four inches taller and about a hundred pounds heavier. Not when I’d gravitated toward academics rather than cheerleading. But I’d tried. God, I’d tried.
I’d had a full plate of extracurriculars, volunteered for any and everything I could, graduated as salutatorian. Then gone on to undergrad and med school, and now I was intent on opening my own practice.
But none of it mattered in their eyes because I wasn’t a petite size six like my mom. Because I hadn’t dated the quarterback. Because I’d never been prom queen or on the homecoming court. Because I was in my thirties and hadn’t yet snagged myself a handsome husband.
Because I’d dared to want something more for myself than to be a shadow of my parents’ former selves or someone’s arm candy.
I was nothing more than an embarrassment for them, and they weren’t shy about reminding me every chance they got.
I’d thought I’d be able to come back to Starlight Cove without their constant judgment since they no longer lived here, but I’d failed to account for the ties they still had to this town.
Well, fuck them.
At one time, their words would’ve been enough to send me into a downward spiral that would take me and my therapist months to get out of. Now, they only served to fuel my fire. I grabbed a tissue, dabbing the corners of my eyes and refusing to let any tears fall. Those assholes didn’t deserve them.
But their words, as hateful as they were, were an excellent reminder of why I did what I did. Why I pushed on even when it was difficult. Why I wore my armor like a shield, not letting them see how much they got to me. Why I’d worked so hard to become the woman I was.
I’d been dealing with people like them my whole life, had fought and clawed my way to the top of a male-dominated field without letting anything stand in my way.
I had no intention of changing that now.
My sister was a force to be reckoned with, and this last-minute festival she’d helped Beck throw together was proof enough of that. She’d also somehow talked two dozen eligible bachelors—only three of whom were her brothers—into donating their time for the auction, and she’d enlisted all the unattached parties in town to attend and spend their hard-earned money on us.
Unsurprisingly, Starlight Cove showed up in droves. But that was what this town did when it came to a good cause. And since the proceeds were going to Everly Bowman—a new-ish Starlight Cove transplant and my twin’s complete obsession—in the hope that we’d raise enough money so she could rebuild her vet clinic after a tragic fire, that fit the bill.
On Addison’s orders, Beck and I stood in the grass behind the gazebo as other auctions carried on to the excitement of the crowd. My sister was running this like a military boot camp, barking orders to anyone who would listen—and even those who wouldn’t. She was barely over five feet tall, but she still managed to have grown-ass men eating out of the palm of her hand. Except for Brady and Aiden, anyway. The former had gotten out of this because he was already spoken for, and Luna wouldn’t stand for someone else going on a date with her man. The latter…if I had to guess, I’d say he had something to hang over Addison’s head and threatened to use it if she made him take part in the auction.
Unfortunately, the rest of us McKenzies didn’t have an out.
Levi had already sold his soul to the devil and then gotten the fuck out as soon as possible. That only left Beck and me.
“I’m going to kill Addison for making me do this,” he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest as he split his attention between glaring at our sister and staring out at the crowd, no doubt searching for Everly.
“I figured you’d be a lot less grumpy, considering this is all for your girl.”
“That’s exactly the problem,” he said. “My girl is out there thinking I’m up here for a date. All because Addison decided that was how it was going to be. Apparently she didn’t get the memo that I’m not an eligible bachelor.”
“No one got that memo, man. You aren’t exactly transparent about your and Everly’s…situation.”
“Oh, so it’s my fault Everly’s standing out there thinking I’m selling myself off to the highest bidder, all because I didn’t tell Addison I’m in love with my best friend?”
“I thought I was your best friend.”
He slid his gaze to me, his lips pressed in a thin line, and I didn’t even try to hold in my laugh.
“It’ll be fine,” I said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “She’ll find out soon enough the only thing they’re bidding on is your blueberry scone recipe, and the only woman you’re interested in is her.”
He gestured toward the crowd where Everly stood, looking a bit lost. “And in the meantime, she’s thinking the worst.”
“Nah, man. Going straight to the worst is your wheelhouse, not hers. She’s fine.”
“She better be. I should’ve…”
“What? You were the one who wanted to keep it a secret.”
“That was before I realized Addison’s sole purpose in life was to piss me off.”
“You just now realized that?”
“Oh, relax, Beck,” Addison said from behind us, the eye roll clear in her tone. “Everyone who’s bidding on you knows the only thing they’re getting is your recipe, so your virtue is safe. You can unclench. And I promise Everly will forgive you when you tell her we’re actually raising money for her.” She tucked her clipboard under her arm, planted two hands on his back, and shoved him toward the steps of the gazebo. “Now, get your grumpy ass out there and earn her some money.”
After shooting a scowl at Addison over his shoulder, Beck climbed the steps of the gazebo and walked out to the excitement of the crowd as the auctioneer introduced him, carefully explaining exactly what the bidders would be getting without cluing Everly in on the secret.
“You’re the last one. You ready?” Addison asked without looking up, too busy making notes on her clipboard. She just needed a headset and she’d be totally in her element.
She tapped the corner of the clipboard against my chest. “And that is why you’re my favorite brother today.”
She lifted a single shoulder. “It changes on a whim.”
“I figured Levi would be your favorite right now, considering how much cash his auction brought in.”
She hummed, tipping her head side to side. “Don’t get me wrong—I’m thrilled with his total. But don’t think I don’t know that you two have a bet going about who’ll earn the most tonight. And don’t think I also don’t know that you’ve already lost one bet this week, so you’re certainly not going to lose another.”
I shot her a grin, no longer surprised when my sister knew even the most minuscule goings-on of our family. She was like a bloodhound with any tiny detail, especially if it concerned us. She may have been the youngest, but she mothered us to death. And by that, I meant she bossed us around like she had a doctorate in it.
“It’s a good thing you’ve decided to use your powers for good,” I said.
She nodded once. “I could make your lives a lot worse than I do, it’s true. The five of you should remember that.”
“I am well aware.”
The auctioneer banged the gavel, calling sold for Beck’s offerings, which meant I was up.
“How much do I need to beat?” I asked, stepping up to the back of the gazebo as I cracked my neck, eyes on the prize.
“If you get to a grand, you’re golden.”
“Consider it done.”
If I had to whip off my shirt and pull a little Magic Mike action to make it happen, I was going to have this crowd eating out of the palm of my hand before I walked off the stage. There was no fucking way I was leaving before I hit that grand. Not when the consequence of losing to Levi was another body modification. My dick didn’t need any more jewelry, and I wasn’t interested in getting my nipples pierced.
The auctioneer glanced back, and a grin spread across her face as she gestured me to step forward. “And the last bachelor up for auction tonight is none other than Starlight Cove’s favorite flirt, Ford McKenzie.”
I strolled down the makeshift aisle, one hand in my jeans pocket as I shot a smile at the crowd. This was exactly what I needed. An escape. A distraction. A little something to forget a certain blonde bombshell with curves for days and a smart mouth I wanted to put to better use. The one who’d infiltrated my thoughts and haunted my dreams. Who’d somehow turned my own dick against me like the she-devil siren she was.
Well, no more. I was tired of jackin’ the beanstalk every night, and this was my comeback…the shake-up needed for my dick and me to finally be on speaking terms again.
“You know him best for shooting a salacious grin and a wink your way,” the auctioneer continued, “but he’s also good with his hands, if you know what I mean.”
The crowd whooped, and I played into it, giving them exactly what they wanted. Exactly what they’d come to expect from me.
Bidding started with a frenzy, several women calling out dollar amounts and rocketing the total into the mid-hundreds within seconds. The two who were now locked in a bidding war were stunners—a brunette and a redhead with looks on their faces that said they were all too willing to spend our time horizontal.
And neither one of them did a damn thing for me.
It was official. My dick and I were in an all-out war.
The stubborn fucker couldn’t even muster up a yawn at the women’s enthusiasm, despite the fact that they were both objectively gorgeous.
Well, that was just great. Especially when I needed to sweet-talk whoever won this into joining me at my ex’s wedding. Maybe by that time, my dick would finally agree to be attracted to someone other than the one woman who hated my guts, and I could finally fuck out some of this bottled-up tension.
The bids crept toward a thousand and then slowed. I was so damn close to beating Levi… Maybe now was a good time to take off my shirt? I just needed a little—
“Two thousand dollars!”
I snapped my head in the direction the voice had come from and narrowed my gaze. Even if I hadn’t been able to see her—which I could, plain as day, as she stood wearing jeans that should be illegal, considering what they did for her full ass and those thick thighs I wanted to sink my teeth into, and a black top that swept over her curves and dipped low enough to make my dick perk up, the disloyal bastard—I’d know that voice anywhere.
Quinn, my oldest rival and the woman who loathed me and made it her mission to make my life as difficult as possible, just spent two grand to go on a date with me. She also just took away any chance I had of fucking out this pent-up tension that’d been building up inside me, all thanks to her.
What—and I couldn’t stress this enough—the fuck.
Besides the fact that my parents were no longer here, nothing much had changed in Starlight Cove in the fourteen years I’d been gone. It still had one of the most beautiful beaches I’d ever seen. Everyone in town still knew everyone’s business. And Ford McKenzie was still an insufferable ass…and hotter than any man had a right to be.
And I’d just paid two thousand dollars to go out on a date with him.
Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.
The phrase had started running through my head since the second I’d called out my bid, and it hadn’t let up in the time since. Not when Everly had gasped and asked what I was doing. Not when she’d excused herself to go in search of Beck after I couldn’t come up with a plausible reason why I’d lost my mind. Not when one of Addison’s helpers had come over to collect the ungodly sum of money I’d bid. And it only increased now as my gaze locked with Ford’s from across the park as he stalked toward me.
He looked hot, as usual. Though that was to be expected. I couldn’t recall a single time this man had looked anything less than gorgeous, and it was truly unfair. There should’ve been some kind of rule that your nemesis looked like a haggard old troll rather than a model peeled straight off the pages of a magazine. The bastard hadn’t even had the decency to go through that awkward, cringeworthy stage in fifth grade like the rest of us.
His dark hair, cut close on the sides and longer on top, was in careless disarray. Enough stubble covered his sharp jaw that I definitely never wondered what it would feel like on my skin, and his full lips were curved in their perpetual state of amusement. He wore a pair of threadbare jeans that hugged his ass perfectly—not that I’d been looking—and a T-shirt that showed off the muscles he worked hard for at the fire station and being the handyman at his family’s resort.
Yeah, no. This interaction wasn’t happening. There was no way I was talking to him tonight. He wanted answers. I could see it in the determined set of his eyes, focused on me. But considering I didn’t even know why I’d just done that, I had nothing that would satisfy his curiosity.
I spun around, set on heading straight for my car and getting the hell out of here, but I nearly ran into Mabel in my haste to leave.
“Quinn,” she said, phone pointed in my direction like she was recording. Her phone case was bright pink, large sparkly letters proclaiming Ask me about my favorite toy scrawled across the back. “So glad I caught you! Mind having a quick chat with me for my watchers?”
Mabel and her fucking Facebook Lives. I’d become well acquainted with them since moving back, considering I was renting a room from her and her husband because the rental game in a town this size was abysmal. I’d hoped the reason for my first broadcast would’ve been when the clinic got transferred over to my name, but no. Of course not. It had to be me, looking harried as I attempted to escape the man I just spent a fortune to go on a date with. Like I couldn’t get one by any other means.
Regardless if it was true or not, that was exactly how my parents were going to see it, and I couldn’t wait to hear about it. About how my doing that looked for them. And there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this would get back to them, even all the way in Florida.
And now that fact was going to be forever immortalized on the internet. Fantastic.
“Great!” She smiled sweetly at me, but she wasn’t fooling anyone. She may have been Starlight Cove’s Grandma—if your grandma was a horny old woman—but she was a piranha out for blood. “The viewers at home want to know what your plans are for your date with the devastatingly hunky Ford McKenzie.” She waggled her eyebrows. “The views shot up when word got around about your bid.”
“When word got around—” I pressed my fingers to my temples and closed my eyes. “That was ten minutes ago.”
She shrugged. “Spread like wildfire. It’s not every day we see a pairing like this of two people so volatile together. So tell me, what are you thinking? Going to make him scrub our toilet with his toothbrush?” She tapped her finger on her chin, her expression contemplative. “I wonder if they make a French maid’s costume for men. If they don’t, you could just make him walk around shirtless and—”
“Mabel,” I interrupted, absolutely not needing that visual in my head. I glanced over my shoulder, noticing Ford was far too close for my liking. I needed to get out of here, and I needed to do it quickly. “I’m late for another engagement, so you’ll have to excuse me.”
Without waiting for her to reply, I left her sputtering behind me and took off at a brisk walk. I might’ve been wearing heels, but I’d perfected the no-nonsense walk eons ago. I could run in these things if I needed to. I had half a mind to do just that, but that would only call more attention to me, and I certainly didn’t need that. Especially when Ford was behind me, calling out for me to wait and drawing the gazes of everyone around us. But nope. No. Absolutely not. I was not going to have a conversation with him right now. Not after the day I’d had.
But, like everything with Ford, it didn’t matter what anyone else wanted. When it came down to it, it was all about him.
He grabbed my wrist, his fingers brushing the delicate skin and sending a shiver down my spine, and tugged me to a stop.
“Jesus, woman, are you training for a marathon?” he asked, not even having the decency to be out of breath after jogging to catch up with me. “You have earbuds in or what? I’ve been calling your name.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and sniffed, glancing to the side and planning my escape. “I heard you.”
“Heard me and just decided to, what? Ignore me?”
I glanced up at him—he had to be at least 6’3” because he still towered over me, even when I was wearing heels—and simply raised an eyebrow in response. Because, yeah, clearly that was exactly what I’d been doing.
“What the hell was that all about?” he asked.
“What was what about?” I could play dumb with the best of them.
He huffed out a laugh and gestured behind him to where swarms of Starlight Cove residents still milled about, far too many of them pretending like they weren’t watching us like hawks. “Uh, the whole you just paying as much as my first car to go out on a date with me. If you wanted me so badly, all you had to do was say so. I’m sure we could’ve worked something out.”
I ground my teeth together, my lips pressed in a tight line. “I didn’t come here for you. Everly is my friend, and I promised your sister I’d support this festival.”
“So you decided your best option to do so was to bid on me?”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t flatter yourself. I got here late. You were literally my last option. Now, are we done?”
Without waiting for him to answer, I stalked off, forcing myself to act as dignified as possible and not like I was running away from the big, bad wolf. Except I hadn’t gotten even three feet when my heel caught in a crack on the sidewalk. My ankle rolled, a sharp snap sounded—my shoe, thankfully, and not a bone, though it still hurt like a motherfucker—and I went tumbling backward on a gasp.
“Son of a—”
“Jesus.” Ford lurched forward, catching me before I could fall to the ground, his thick arms wrapping around my waist to steady me. “You all right?”
“I’m fine.” Ignoring the feel of his solid body against mine, I jerked away from him and reached down, snatching my broken heel off my foot.
And then I attempted to march off with as much grace as I could muster while wearing only one shoe. Which, admittedly, wasn’t a whole lot. Especially when I put weight on my rolled ankle and gasped at the pain that shot up my leg, reaching out to steady myself on the nearest object.
Which just so happened to be Ford’s chest.
It was firm and warm, solid and steady, his heart thrumming a fast rhythm beneath my hand. I yanked it back as if I’d been burned, but I couldn’t move away because even the slightest pressure on my foot caused me to gasp in pain.
“Yeah, that’s not happening.” He stepped in front of me, blocking my path. The expression on his face was calm and casual, as if nothing in the world bothered him, but his posture was anything but. His shoulders were stiff, and a muscle ticked in his jaw as he stared at me. “In my arms or over my shoulder? Your choice.”
I huffed out a disbelieving laugh as I stared up at him, carefully balancing on one foot. “You’re not going to carry me,” I said, gesturing to myself, which only made him scowl.
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
“I’m fine.” I tried hard to hide the grimace that crossed my face when I applied the barest weight on my left ankle, but he saw it.
He raised an eyebrow, and I wanted to slap that insufferable smirk right off his stupid, handsome face. “Last chance, kitten.”
“Oh my God, do not call me— Hey!”
Before I could even get the words out, Ford scooped me into his arms—one at my back and the other below my knees—with as much ease as if I were a couple bags of groceries and started strolling toward the parking lot.
“I gave you the option. Next time, be a little quicker on the uptake. You’re normally snappier than this.” He glanced down at me, his full lips quirked up at the side. “I’ve got you flustered, don’t I? You can admit it.”
I shoved against his chest, ignoring the soft feel of his T-shirt and the firmness of his chest beneath it. “Put me down!”
He tipped his head to the side. “Did you prefer over my shoulder? You should’ve just said so.”
“I prefer not being carried at all. I can walk, you jackass.”
“Oh, so I didn’t just witness you roll your ankle?”
“No. You didn’t.”
His brows lifted, and he stared down at me with something that looked an awful lot like admiration. “Goddamn, woman, I can almost feel the threads of history rewriting themselves just because you declared it so.”
“Shut up already and put me down.”
“Put you down,” he repeated flatly.
“So you can, what? Walk?”
“Are you telling me that if I put you down, you’ll be able to hustle your sweet ass to your car again like your pants are on fire?”
“I was not—” I cut off, grinding my molars together as I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Being calm and collected was my wheelhouse. It was literally in my job description. And yet, every ounce of that flew out the window whenever I was in this man’s presence. “Yes,” I bit out. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Without a second to allow me to acclimate myself, he stopped and set me down, then raised a brow as if to say, let’s see it, then. I steeled my shoulders, preparing myself to hustle away as fast as humanly possible. But I didn’t make it half a step before I stumbled, the pain in my left ankle ricocheting up my calf and stealing the breath straight from my lungs.
I gasped. “Motherfuc—”
“That’s what I thought. Up you go.”
This time, he didn’t carry me in his arms. Nope, now I hung upside down over his shoulder, being hauled away like a sack of potatoes and feeling about as sexy as one. I pressed my hands against his lower back and pushed away, snapping my head up and glancing behind us. Probably one of my worst ideas tonight, and that was saying something.
I could’ve gone my whole life being blissfully unaware of the dozen or more people who stood with their gazes locked on us, mouths agape, as they watched Ford cart me off, over his shoulder. One of those people was, of course, Mabel, her phone trained in our direction and a huge smile on her face.
“Are you serious right now?” I hissed to Ford, then pinched his side for good measure. “People can see us.”
He rumbled out a low laugh, the sound reverberating through my body and tightening my nipples into stiff peaks. “A little lower, kitten.”
“You’re a jackass.”
He shrugged, like he wasn’t carrying a fully grown woman over his shoulder. “A jackass who’s making sure you get to your car okay.”
He strolled easily across the parking lot, holding me to him with his hand cupped against my upper thigh, his thumb enticingly close to a place that hadn’t felt another’s touch in longer than I wanted to admit.
That was the only reason this flurry of butterflies erupted in my stomach at the chaste touch. The only reason my downstairs suddenly perked up after a hibernation long enough to make even the fiercest grizzly bear jealous.
“Ford McKenzie,” I spat in the sternest voice I could muster. “Put me down right this second.”
He hummed low in his throat—a sound I wasn’t sure I would’ve heard if I hadn’t been pressed up against him. “I love when you say my name like that, kitten.”
“Then next time I’ll just call you Assho—”
Before I could get the rest of the word out, he bent at the waist and set me on my feet. With his hands on my hips, he steadied me, his eyes boring into mine. Despite the smirk on his mouth, his brow was creased, his eyes wary as he watched me. As if he was…concerned?
Tension hummed between us with nowhere to go. Not when my car was at my back and Ford was so close I could hardly breathe. Except I had to, which meant I sucked in a lungful of his frustratingly delicious scent, all crisp and clean and warm, and I absolutely was not thinking about what it’d be like to press my nose into his neck and inhale straight from the source.
He stepped forward, and my breath caught in my throat. What was he doing? Why was he so close that I could feel the heat coming off his body, and why the hell did I like it so much?
As I was locked in the prison of his gaze, unable to look away, he reached around me and opened my car door. Then he plucked the broken shoe from my hand and tossed it onto the passenger’s seat before he brought his attention back to me. I could’ve sworn his gaze dropped to my lips, but it was over in a millisecond and then his eyes were focused on mine once again.
A beat passed where neither of us said anything. Was I even breathing? Who the hell knew.
Then he broke the spell when he opened his insufferable mouth and sent any ounce of attraction that had boiled up back into the depths of hell right where it belonged. “You let me know about that date, kitten. I can’t wait.”