I should’ve known that waking up from a panty-ruining dream—memory, actually—featuring the one person in the world I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anymore was a bad omen for the day to come. And there was no denying today was shaping up to be a complete and utter clusterfuck.
I was juggling twelve thousand things, as per usual, but today, even more attention-demanding obligations were thrown into the mix. The wedding documentary that had been filming at the resort for the past couple months was finally wrapping up. Our beachside cottages were booked solid, even though we were fully entrenched in a Maine winter. And on top of all that, I was in charge of throwing my brother Aiden a party tonight to celebrate the release of book two in his blockbuster trilogy.
A party, by the way, that he knew nothing about. When it came to his pen name, he was touchy, to say the least. Had, in fact, kept it a secret from the rest of our brothers and me for years. But despite his fears of people finding out A.M. Kinsey, erotic fantasy author, and Aiden McKenzie, co-owner of the small-town, family-run Starlight Cove Resort, were one and the same, the reception had been better than even I’d imagined.
I was spread so thin, I was basically Swiss cheese at this point, so I’d stepped out of my comfort zone today and called in reinforcements. It was either ask for help or this party wasn’t going to happen, and that wasn’t an option. But I should’ve known better than to try to delegate anything to the men in my life. Especially when those men happened to be related to me.
Honestly, what good was having five older brothers if you couldn’t boss them around? And what good was bossing them around if they didn’t actually listen and do what you told them to? Some days, wrangling those five overprotective dumbasses was like attempting to corral wild monkeys. Except with monkeys, I had to be nice.
With my brothers? I did not.
Group text titled:
DO NOT INVITE AIDEN TO THIS OR I WILL KILL YOU
with Brady, Beck, Ford, Levi
Where the hell are the supplies I asked you to get?
Asked is stretching it a bit, don’t you think?
That’s not an answer
And I don’t have time for your whining
So cough it up
I got called to a domestic dispute, so I passed it to Levi.
I need a status update
I didn’t have time because I’m already doing all the other shit you told me to do today. I passed it to the twins.
I’m a little busy over here, what with running the diner by myself and all. I told Ford to handle it.
And where tf is Ford?
Because those supplies were supposed to be here an hour ago
Word around town is he’s in the clinic’s parking lot.
Wtf is he doing there?
Making out with his wife in the back seat of his car, apparently.
“For fuck’s sake.” I tossed my phone onto my desk and closed my eyes on a groan, squeezing the hell out of my dick-shaped stress ball—a gift from Starlight Cove’s pervy grandma, Mabel. Squeezed so hard, in fact, my nails dug crescent-shaped divots into the foam, creating craters in their wake. Or more craters, as it were. I went through these things like candy, and I had no doubt this one wouldn’t see the end of the day.
“Fine,” I said to the empty room, sitting up straight and rolling my shoulders back. “I’ll do it myself. I’ll run the inn, I’ll handle the documentary wrap-up, I’ll make sure this party goes off without a fucking hitch. And I’ll do it all without breaking a sweat because I’m the one people go to to get shit done.”
With every word, I gripped the foam peen a little harder, a little more aggressively, my nails digging farther into it, until finally it hit its limit and broke apart into pieces in my palm. Not the first dick I’d destroyed—and definitely wouldn’t be the last.
“Well, that’s just fucking great,” I muttered as I tossed the remnants in the trash before pulling another foam penis from my top drawer.
“Are you already at the talking-to-yourself level of stress today?” Avery—my best friend and Aiden’s better half—popped her head into my office. “It’s not even noon.”
“I was this level of stressed before I even rolled out of bed this morning.”
Her eyebrows hit her hairline, and she strode over to sit on the edge of my desk. “Why, what’s up?”
I had been the only woman around here for so long that this—having actual conversations instead of being on the receiving end of little more than grunts—was entirely new…and actually pretty nice. My brothers’ favorite method of dealing with my bad days was either to steer clear entirely, toss me candy from the doorway like I was a feral animal, or just take care of the problem themselves like the overprotective beasts they were.
God help me, but I loved those idiots.
“Just me handling shit on my own because everyone’s bailing on me.” With the hand currently squeezing the hell out of my new stress ball, I gestured wildly at the piles of work on my desk and the bags of incomplete party supplies stacked in the corner.
“That’s nothing new. This—” she swirled her finger in a way so as to encompass my general being “—is something else. Spill.”
Sometimes I hated how well my bestie knew me, but that was what ten years of friendship did for you. I sank back into my chair and blew a heavy sigh toward the ceiling. “I had a dream about him last night.”
I raised a brow at her. “Him him. Him who shall not be named. Him who’s dead to me.”
“Yeah, shit. Why the hell am I dreaming about him?” What I really wanted to know was why couldn’t I stop dreaming about him?
She shrugged. “Probably because your vagina has cobwebs for all the use it’s gotten in the past year, and it’s feeling a little nostalgic for good dick.”
I snorted. She wasn’t wrong. “That’s fair. But that can’t be all it is. What do you think it means?”
“Nothing,” she said without hesitation. “It means literally nothing. He means nothing. He’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made, and we need to be done talking about the asshole or I won’t be held liable for shipping him a glitter bomb. Again.”
I bit my lip to stifle a smile, the urge to hug the hell out of her nearly overwhelming. Was there anything better than your best friend’s sustained rage when someone did you wrong? Didn’t matter if it was ten days or ten years ago, that shit was forever. And Avery could hold a grudge like a motherfucking champ…would no doubt take second place in the Grudge Holding Olympics.
Right behind me and my Dead to Me list where he was named Enemy #1.
* * *
Even with a clusterfuck of a day stacked against me, I’d still managed to tackle it all without breaking more than a stress ball. After my angel of a bestie told me she’d handle the stuff at the resort so I could grab the rest of the supplies and start setting up for Aiden’s party, I was golden.
Everyone had shown up on time, and Aiden had been surprised, even though the only outward sign had been a twitch of his eyebrow. I knew his tells. Despite being a man of few words—which was ironic, since he wrote epic romantasy novels—he didn’t have to say a thing for me to see how much this meant to him, especially considering how long he’d kept it a secret.
Besides that, this was turning out to be the best night I’d had in a while. Between throwing Aiden a party with those who loved and supported him and telling the prudish assholes who didn’t to suck my dick and get lost, I was out here, living my best life, cobweb-covered vagina and all.
My brothers and I sat at a large table in One Night Stan’s, Starlight Cove’s local bar, along with their significant others. Levi and I were the only single ones left, the rest of our siblings already paired up and ridiculously, sickeningly in love. They all sat fused to each other as if they’d perish otherwise, while Levi and I exchanged eye rolls when no one else was looking. Which was often since they were so obsessed with each other.
Thank God I had a partner in him. We had a long-standing pact on these nights—never let the other’s glass get too low and be the excuse to bail if we needed it. And after my day, I was thinking I’d definitely need it.
“So, Aiden…” Everly propped her elbow on the table and leaned toward Aiden from her perch on Beck’s lap. “I know book three doesn’t release until later this year, but…”
After several moments of silence, Aiden finally raised a brow in her direction. “But?”
“Well, I mean… Do you think—” Clearing her throat, she glanced away before returning her attention to him. “Would you maybe consider…”
“She wants the book, man,” Beck said without hesitation. “And I want it, too, if you know what I mean.”
“Hey, if they get it, so do we.” Ford leaned forward, gesturing at himself and his wife.
“I would definitely take it,” Quinn agreed with a nod.
Brady’s girlfriend, Luna, brought her drink to her lips and shrugged. “I mean, if you’re giving it out…”
“I’m not giving it out.” Aiden rolled his eyes. “I can’t just give you the book.”
“But can’t you?” Everly asked, hands clasped below her chin in a silent plea.
“If you did, I’d be willing to look the other way on your next speeding ticket,” Brady said, shocking the hell out of me. Since when did the sheriff—aka my eldest, most rule-following, stick-up-his-ass brother—bend the rules just to get his hands on some smut?
Ford cut in, his tone hopeful. “I could build you something? Anything you want. I’ll help with the lighthouse reno on my days off.”
“And you can eat for free whenever,” Beck offered.
“I already eat for free,” Aiden said flatly.
Levi leaned close to me and muttered, “You believe these horny motherfuckers? Jesus.” He shook his head before raising his voice to Aiden. “Shit, man. You’ve got all three of them begging for early smut? I’d maybe cash in on that.”
The conversation continued around the table, with everyone pleading for Aiden’s next book, but I blocked them out as best I could. I loved Aiden, and I was happy for his success. But I was zero percent interested in reading about sex that came directly from my brother’s brain, no matter how hot it supposedly was. I was also zero percent interested in hearing about all the sex my other brothers were having thanks to Aiden’s writing. It was a hard pass all around from me.
So instead of tuning in to them, I turned to Levi, ignoring everyone else as they carried on with their mini smut convention right here at our table. “Did you get Cottage Thirteen all taken care of?”
His shoulders stiffened the slightest bit, his mouth flattening into a thin line. Most people probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but I wasn’t most people. “Yeah.”
I cringed. “Was it that bad inside?”
I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was, considering our estranged father had been holed up in it for a decade without any outside contact until Aiden finally kicked him out last month.
I ignored the pit that opened up in my stomach, guilt niggling at the thought of renting out what had been his home for ten years, because that emotion didn’t have any place here. He certainly didn’t deserve my guilt. Logically, I knew he didn’t deserve anything from me. From us. But my heart wasn’t so easy to convince.
“It was fine.” Levi took a pull from his beer. “It’ll be ready for guests next weekend.”
I shoved down the whisper in the back of my mind that wondered if that was a good idea and ignored it entirely. “Good, because we’re going to need it. We’re still booking out months in advance. I was worried about reservations waning during our slow months, but so far, that’s not the case.”
“Not when we have a famous smut author on the premises.” Levi tipped his beer bottle toward Aiden, who was caught up in conversation with the rest of our siblings.
“That’s definitely helped,” I agreed. “But I still want to have something on the back burner for when—if—this interest and attention die down. I don’t want us to be struggling for money again because we don’t have any reservations coming in. I’m brainstorming some articles to pitch…see if we can get some more buzz about the resort. And I’m going to look into getting the ice rink back up and running. I’m not sure I can get it done this season, but—”
A roar of laughter went up around us, cutting me off, and Levi and I glanced at the rest of the table, dismissing them just as quickly before moving our attention back to each other.
“All we talk about anymore is work shit,” he said. “We’re pathetic.”
He wasn’t wrong.
Before I could respond, Mabel strolled up to our table, her smile bright, and rested her hands on the back of Aiden’s chair. With her nose unapologetically in everyone’s business, the older woman was Starlight Cove’s surrogate grandmother…and sex toy dealer. It was quite the combo, but it worked for her. “So proud of you, Aiden,” she said. “And I can’t believe our little town produced two famous people! A New York Times best-selling author and a pro hockey player. Can you even believe it?”
I was so distracted by the I like big balls and I cannot lie sweatshirt she wore that it took a moment for her words to register. As soon as they did, I stiffened, all my muscles seizing at just the roundabout reference to him.
“Speaking of,” Mabel said, pulling a copy of the Starlight Cove Gazette from her purse and dropping it on the table between Aiden and me. “Did everyone see the news?”
I glanced over at the newspaper, my entire body going cold as I scanned the headline.
Hockey Pro to Return to Starlight Cove after Team Confirms He’s out for Season
This could not be happening. Not now. Not ever.
Avery was shooting me worried glances, but I couldn’t acknowledge her. Couldn’t do anything but try to maintain my facade. The last thing I needed was my brothers—Levi, especially—sniffing out my reaction, because they’d lose their collective shit.
Without checking to see if Levi needed another drink, I pushed to stand and made my way toward the bar. I needed some help forgetting about this whole fucking day. Just as I stepped up to the bar, a loud cheer went up in the crowd. I glanced over my shoulder, figuring the commotion was coming from our table because once you got Mabel talking about spicy books, all bets were off. But everyone’s attention—and I meant everyone—was on the door.
And the man who’d just walked through it.
He stood in the doorway, his ice-blue eyes already on me, as if he didn’t have five dozen people surrounding him, all vying for his attention. I froze when our gazes collided, my stomach bottoming out at the same time my heart leaped into a pounding gallop, the thrum of it whoosh-whoosh-whooshing in my ears.
Standing a head above most of the patrons in the bar, he wore a navy hoodie and a pair of worn, buttery-soft jeans I knew from experience molded to his thick thighs and made his ass look fantastic. His light-brown hair was shorter than it’d been the last time I’d seen him more than a year ago, now cropped close and so different from the chaotic mess I was used to. Stubble dusted his sharp jaw, and lips I’d long since memorized the shape of kicked up on the side in that insufferable smirk I hated how much I loved.
Before I could tamp it down, a toe-curling flush swept over me from head to toe and all the neglected places in between as my nerve endings came alive with awareness. I knew exactly what those lips and that scruff would feel like across my collarbone, between my breasts, against my inner thighs…
And I fucking hated that I did.
Hated, too, that my body was already readying itself for him, despite my brain reminding it we were absolutely not doing that again.
But reminding myself did fuck all for the swarm of butterflies that had erupted in my stomach at the mere sight of him. Counteracting them was useless. I’d been having the same reaction to him for more than half my life, and I’d gotten damn good at hiding it in those early years.
Something I desperately needed to tap into now. Because what I wasn’t going to do was show the man who didn’t give a damn about me just how fucking much his absence hurt.
No matter how much I pretended otherwise.
For the past ten years, I’d lived by one mantra and one mantra only: I have a wife. I’m just not married.
If I had it my way, I’d already have Addison McKenzie’s Husband plastered on the back of my jerseys, printed on goddamn business cards, and tattooed across my fucking chest, despite the fact that my best friend would rip off my balls if he knew the depraved shit I’d done to his baby sister.
Though my teammates were well aware of my obsession, they were the only ones. I was tired of not being able to call her mine, loudly and publicly, and I was really fucking tired of her ignoring me as she’d been doing for too damn long. But she was going to have a really difficult time ignoring me if I was standing right in front of her.
Unfortunately, from the murderous look the light of my life was shooting my way, it was clear she wasn’t happy to see me. Fury burned in her green eyes, and I had zero doubts that if she had a shovel and some rope in the trunk of her car, she’d lure me behind the bar and murder me right here and now.
Best to give her a minute, though I didn’t have much of a choice. I hadn’t even taken two steps into One Night Stan’s before I was swarmed by people and swallowed up in the crowd, the group of residents all too happy to welcome me home after my not having been back for more than a year.
Somewhere in the constant stream of hellos and hey, how’re you doings, Levi caught my gaze and lifted his chin in greeting, but that was all I was getting from my best friend. At least until I could extricate myself from the crowd.
A guy who graduated a couple years ahead of me clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, man! Sorry to hear about the injury, but it’s good to have you home. How’re things going?”
It hadn’t even been a month since I’d forgone coming home for Christmas and instead had lain on the floor of my condo, downing painkillers like candy and chasing them with a bottle of bourbon, just in the hope of being able to play through the pain to secure a contract, but I couldn’t exactly tell him that.
“Getting better every day,” I said instead.
“Good, good. We’ve been following the season, and you guys are doing amazing. You’ve got a good shot at the play-offs.”
Another shot at the play-offs, because it wouldn’t surprise me if they took it all the way for the second year in a row, even without me there.
“Yep. I’m proud of how the team’s been hustling this year.”
“We’re hoping to get tickets if that happens. Any chance we’ll see you on the ice by then?”
Media training wasn’t my favorite, but I’d never been more grateful for it than I was in that moment. It allowed me to keep the smile on my face. To brush off the question with a vague, generic answer I’d practiced enough times that it was second nature to regurgitate it. “That’s up to the medical team. I always want to be playing with my team.”
That training helped me hide how my stomach churned at the unknown looming large and imposing in front of me. The truth was, I didn’t fucking know when I’d be back on the ice. And that was scary as hell when hockey was all I’d known for so long. When it was all I was good at.
When it was who I was.
But if there was one good thing to come from all of this, it was that I now had four months back home to rehab the knee that was the bane of my existence. Four months in my hometown with my girl. And while the media-friendly answer for why I was here was that I was going to spend some much-needed time with my family while recovering from my second injury in a year, I was actually back in Starlight Cove to repair the most important relationship in my life.
Now, if only I could get her on board with that plan.
Despite the commotion around me and those attempting to engage me in conversation, I was acutely aware of Addison the entire time. Even though she’d downed a drink in the twenty minutes since I’d walked in, she remained rigid, her body tense, mouth pressed in a flat line as she tried her hardest to ignore me.
While I was listening to someone drone on about the Metropolitan Division play-off standings—it was January, for fuck’s sake…anything could happen—Addison stood from the table and made her way down the hallway that led to the bathroom. And the back exit. I wouldn’t put it past her to sneak out just to avoid me, so I excused myself and followed her. I belatedly remembered to double-check that no one was paying attention to the two of us—least of all the McKenzie boys. Thirteen months without her had made me sloppy. And greedy.
The raucous sounds of those gathered in the bar followed me down the dark, empty hallway to the single-stall bathroom at the end of the corridor. The door swung open just as I stepped up to it, and I barely had time to register the surprise on Addison’s face before I curled my hand around her hip and guided her back into the room, closing and locking the door behind us.
She stared up at me, eyes wide, lips parted, and fuck me, but she was so goddamn gorgeous. A year was too fucking long to go without her.
She’d cut her hair since I’d last seen her, the dark waves falling loosely to her shoulders. I wanted nothing more than to bury my hands in it, tip her head back, and crash my lips against hers…capture her moans with my mouth.
It was only the rage burning in her gorgeous green eyes that stopped me.
After a brief, stunned silence, she snapped her mouth shut and glared up at me, all pursed lips, flushed cheeks, and eyes spitting fire. “Move, you overgrown jackass.”
I nearly laughed—in relief and amusement. Addison’s temper was nothing new to me. She’d always burned hotter than everyone else around her—passionate about everything she cared about—and it’d taken until right this second to admit I’d been uncertain about what kind of reception I’d receive from her. But I’d take her fury over indifference any day of the week.
Anger meant she still cared. Anger meant she had feelings for me, whether she wanted to admit to them or not.
Anger meant I still had a chance. We still had a chance.
“Happy to see you, too, firefly.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped, her words like acid. “And get out of my way. I can have any one of my brothers in here in thirty seconds flat.”
My lips twitched as I stared down at her, my fingers itching to reach out and touch her. Cradle her head in my hands, lower my face to hers until her glare melted into desire, and finally taste her again.
“You’ve never needed your brothers for protection.”
She tipped her chin up defiantly, her mouth pressed in a flat line. “You’re right. Does that mean you want me to test out my right hook on you? Because nothing would give me more pleasure.”
“You and I both know that’s not true,” I said, voice low, recalling the last time I’d been in her bed. When I’d woken her up with my mouth before she’d dragged me up by my hair and begged me to fuck her. “But you’re welcome to test out that right hook on me anytime. You know I love how fucking strong you are.”
She narrowed her eyes even further, her lips pursing to the side as she crossed her arms over her chest. Her armor sliding into place piece by piece. “Sweet talk is going to get you fuck all with me, Lockhart.”
“You sure? Because I—”
Before I could get out the rest of the sentence, she pressed her palms against my chest and shoved. Hard. “Yes, I’m fucking sure! It’s been thirteen months, Chase. Thirteen months. You think you can stroll in after all that time and shit is just going to go back to normal? That I’m gonna fall at your feet and into your bed? Not happening, asshole.”
The smile slid off my face as I finally saw beyond the anger simmering on the surface, that badass facade she loved showing the world. But deep down, she was hurt. And I had a desperate need to fix it. “Addie—”
She held up her hand to stop me and shook her head. “I don’t want to hear it. And don’t get any bright ideas while you’re in town. Just because you’re back home doesn’t mean we have any reason at all to see each other—you already made it clear that’s what you want anyway.”
Without another word, she stepped around me, unlocked the door, and walked out of the bathroom, shoulders back, head held high. My fucking queen.
My queen who apparently had no plans to speak to me with anything other than insults, so that was just fucking great.
As soon as the door shut behind her, I scrubbed a hand down my face and groaned in frustration. I braced my hands on the sink and hung my head, curling my fingers around the porcelain basin. While I’d hoped our reunion would’ve gone better, I couldn’t say I was surprised. This reaction was Addison, through and through.
She had this fierce outer shell, gave off major go fuck yourself vibes with a confidence that screamed I will make your life a living hell if you cross me. But she didn’t fool me. I’d seen her face slack with sleep, all worries swept away. I’d seen her smiles when she thought no one was looking and her full lips parted in pleasure. I’d heard her soft pleas for more and her whispered fears in the dark.
Despite how much she no doubt hated it, she wasn’t a mystery to me. She never had been.
I’d always seen her.
Even when I’d pretended not to.
Waking up on the family room couch in my childhood home was less than ideal. Especially as a 6’3”, thirty-year-old professional athlete with a fucked-up knee. A knee that was screaming like a motherfucker this morning because of how I’d slept, cramped on a too-small sofa.
I groaned, stretching out and cringing at the sharp pain that shot down my leg. Fuck, I was going to pay for this today.
“Morning, sweetheart!” my mom called from the kitchen, poking her head into the pass-through window. “Did you sleep okay? How was the couch?”
“Great,” I said, wincing as I stood.
Her brow creased, her lips pulling down in a frown as she looked me over from head to toe. “It doesn’t sound great. I feel just awful about you staying out here, especially when you’re paying for the renovations! You should take our room tonight, and your father and I can—”
“I’m not taking your room, Mom.” I slowly made my way into the kitchen, dropping a kiss on her cheek and accepting the glass of orange juice she handed me.
She wore an apron with Queen of the Kitchen printed across the front, her hair—more gray now than blond—pulled back in a ponytail, a scowl directed at me. “Well, that couch can’t be good for you, especially your knee. You’re a growing boy and—”
“I’m thirty,” I said dryly. “I’m pretty sure I’m done growing.”
Ignoring me completely, she continued, “Your body needs certain conditions to be in optimal working order. And you’re supposed to be healing! If only we’d known you’d be coming home now. We could’ve—” She furrowed her brow, her train of thought shifting in an instant. She was definitely who I had to thank for my ability to do that on the ice. “Carl! Can we postpone the contractors? Maybe have them come back in a week or two?”
“What?” my dad yelled from his office—aka the twins’ old bedroom before the two of them had headed to college this past August.
“The contractors!” Mom repeated at a decibel everyone in Starlight Cove could probably hear. Jesus Christ, I’d forgotten just how loud it was in my childhood home. “Can we postpone—”
“Mom,” I said, raising my voice enough to be heard over hers. “You’re not postponing the contractors. It’s taken me seven years to get you to agree to this in the first place.”
“Well, after all you’ve done for your sister—for this family…” She huffed and shook her head. “It’s too much. I should’ve waited another seven.”
That was a bone of contention between us. My parents never missed an opportunity to voice their gratitude for the monetary help I’d provided thanks to my first pro contract after my sister Morgan had gotten sick. And I never missed an opportunity to tell them that wasn’t something they ever had to thank me for. It was just money, and I’d do everything all over again.
“And that’s exactly why you’re not calling off the contractors,” I said. “You’ll come up with all kinds of excuses to postpone again.”
“Well, I don’t like you cramped on that couch… It’s not good for you or that injury you’re supposed to be healing while you’re home.”
“I know. My furniture should be delivered by the end of the week, and then I can stay at my place. I’ll figure out something until then.”
“Like what?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I’ll ask Levi if I can crash in his old room at the resort.”
Mom’s brows flew up. “Levi, huh? So your staying there wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain spitfire who runs the whole ship?”
I took a sip from my orange juice, not going anywhere near that bait. “No idea what you’re talking about.”
“Mhmm.” Her teasing tone was gone in a flash as she frowned at me. “Well, I don’t know if I like you so far away. You haven’t been home in more than a year, and I’ve missed you.”
I walked over and wrapped my arm around her shoulders, tucking her into my side and pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “I’ve missed you, too, but it’s five minutes away. I can be over any time you want me to—especially if there’s a roast involved. And I’m going to be in Starlight Cove for a hell of a lot longer than I usually get to spend at home.”
She blew out a heavy sigh. “I guess that’s true. I just wish we hadn’t converted all the bedrooms into something else—Morgan’s is full of exercise equipment, your dad’s office is in the twins’ old room, and yours—”
“Is a plant nursery. I know. It’s not a big deal, Mom.”
“What’s not a big deal?” my dad asked, walking straight to the coffeemaker to get a refill. His dark hair streaked with gray was swept neatly to the side, his face freshly shaven, save for his signature mustache, and he wore a dress shirt paired with fish-patterned boxer shorts and black socks hiked up to his knees. The picture of professionalism. Since he’d begun working from home, he’d been in heaven. He gave me a once-over, his brow pinching when he saw how I was standing. “That couch wasn’t good for you. You take the bed, and we’ll—”
“He’s already got it handled, Carl,” my mom cut in as if she hadn’t been trying to figure out the same exact thing. With a pat to my stomach, she slipped out from under my arm and walked to the pantry. “Let me get you some breakfast, and then I’ll whip up some banana bread for you to bring to Levi. As a thank-you for letting you stay at the inn. And for helping your dad move all the furniture around in here to get ready for the contractors.”
“He told me you already filled his freezer with meals as a thank-you for that.”
She waved her hand through the air. “That was nothing. I was making those dinners anyway. And what are your father and I going to do with all that food? Now that the twins are off to college and you and Morgan are out of the house, we’ve got more than enough. And anyway, where else is he going to get a nice home-cooked meal?”
“Oh, I don’t know. How about at the diner they own? His brother is a literal chef, Mom.”
“Beck’s food is very good, I’ll give him that. But it still doesn’t have that mother’s touch.”
I knew there was no arguing with her, and from the way my dad subtly shook his head, he thought the same.
While my mom gathered the ingredients she needed, muttering to herself the whole time, Dad leaned back against the counter beside me. Keeping his voice low so my mom wouldn’t hear, he murmured, “Your knee hurts like a bitch this morning, doesn’t it?”
I breathed out a laugh and scrubbed a hand down my face. “More like a motherfucker, but yeah.”
His brow furrowed as he regarded me seriously. “You sure it’s good for you to be back here instead of with the team? They got you whipped back into shape in no time after your knee surgery in July. Seems to me you’d want that with this new injury, too. Especially when Starlight Cove can only dream about the kinds of resources they have.”
Was it probably better for my recovery to be there? Maybe. But I didn’t care. In one way or another, this injury had kept me away for far too long because I’d let it dictate my life for the past year—had to let the medical team dictate my recovery, too. This had been one thing I wasn’t willing to bend on. If they wanted me to take four months to rehab my knee instead of allowing me to have the surgery I wanted, I was damn well going to do it on my terms, and that meant being near my girl.
“It’s fine, Dad. Between the calls, video chats, and coordination with the medical team and the physical therapist here, I’ll be good. Back in playing condition in no time.”
I hoped. Because God knew I had no idea what I’d do otherwise.
“Yeah, well, you’re my kid before you’re a professional hockey player. It’s my job to look out for you, no matter how old you get. Just make sure to take care of yourself first and foremost.”
“I am, Dad.” I held up my fingers in the sign for Scout’s honor, even though we both knew damn well I’d never been a Scout. “Promise.”
“Good, good.” He clapped a hand on my shoulder and took a sip of his coffee. “So, when’s your next check-in with the team?”
“I’ve got a video call with the rehab coordinator tomorrow.”
He held up his coffee cup as if to cheers. “Love those video calls.”
I raised a brow and pointedly glanced down at his ensemble. “I can see that.”
“Oh shut up, you little shit.” He pushed off the counter and headed toward his office. “If you didn’t have to wear pants, you wouldn’t, either.”
With a laugh, I headed back into the family room, leaving my mom to her favorite thing—cooking. I grabbed my phone and sent a quick text to Levi to make sure I could stay there this week.
I know the resort’s booked, but can I stay in your old room until my furniture gets delivered?
Marianne isn’t treating you right? Told you she liked me better.
I’m on the couch, and it’s a fucking nightmare.
That’s what happens when you won’t give her grandkids. She becomes a plant grandma and turns your old room into a literal nursery for them.
She told you about that, huh?
Gave me a tour and everything.
Of course she did. Can I stay there or not?
Yeah. When do you want to head over? I’ll meet you there.
I’ve got appointments up the ass today. And I need to wait until your fresh baked banana bread is ready.
Marianne’s fresh baked banana bread, all for myself? I rest my case.
See you tonight.
I’d been off my game all day. Or, more accurately, since my encounter with Chase last night. I couldn’t think with him around. It was as if he fried every brain cell I had, and I absolutely hated it.
In an effort to shove him out of my mind, I’d overworked myself. I’d managed to destroy only one stress peen as I’d reached out to several contractors in the area to get quotes for rehabilitating our decrepit ice-skating rink and surrounding buildings, recorded twenty new videos for our social media accounts, emailed back and forth with Levi’s former bestie turned journalist, Harper, about possible articles on the resort, and started planning our spring marketing campaign. I wanted to do all I could to make sure the resort stayed at the top of people’s minds. Just because things were going well right now didn’t mean I’d forgotten exactly how tough times had been for us in the not-so-distant past.
It was nearly eight by the time I dragged myself upstairs to my room, grateful I was on the other side of the house from Aiden after the looks I’d seen Avery shooting his way. I loved that they’d gotten together—hell, I was the whole reason they had!—but I absolutely did not need to know what my best friend sounded like during a night with my brother.
I shuddered at the thought and stepped through my bedroom door to find Levi lounging on my bed, ankles crossed, phone in hand. “Hey. Did we have plans tonight?”
“Nah. Just wanted to give you a heads-up.”
I set my iPad on my dresser and kicked off my shoes, glancing at him with a raised brow. “About what?”
“Chase needed a place to stay, so I let him use my room.”
I tripped over absolutely nothing on my way to the adjoining bathroom and turned around slowly to face my brother. “You what?”
He didn’t lift his eyes from his phone, clearly not reading the sharpness in my tone. “Told him he could stay in my room this week.”
“Why the fuck did you do that?”
He shot a look my way before shifting his attention back to his phone. “He’s waiting for furniture to be delivered to his new place, and he can’t stay at his parents’.”
I didn’t give a single shit about his furniture or the lack of accommodations at his parents’ house. What I cared about was keeping my sanity intact. And that absolutely could not happen with him sleeping right next door to me. My entire avoidance plan would be out the fucking window.
“What about the cottages?” I asked, panic rising in my voice.
This time, Levi lowered his phone to his chest and met my eyes, his brows raised. He spoke slowly, as if he were explaining something to a child. “The cottages have been booked for months, as you continually remind me. What’s the big deal?”
The big deal? The big deal? The big deal was I had absolutely no willpower when it came to Chase. I never had. And now he was going to be directly next door, separated from me by a measly bathroom shared between our rooms?
“Why can’t he stay in Brady’s old room? Or Beck and Ford’s?”
“Because they’re still filled with paper towel cartons—and Jesus Christ, how many did Aiden accidentally order anyway?”
“We can move them into your old room and send Chase across the house.”
“Yeah…I’m not doing all that.” He shook his head, dismissing it without thought. “What, are you worried about him bringing random women back here?”
Well, I hadn’t been, but I sure as hell was now.
Levi shrugged. “I’ll tell him to get his dick wet elsewhere. That work for you?”
Without my permission, images of Chase doing exactly that assaulted me. If the tabloids were anything to go by, it’d be someone leggy and blond with huge boobs stuffed into a child-sized jersey with his number on it.
“I don’t care what he does with his dick.” Lie. “When’s he going to be here?”
In other words, how long did I have to prep for this absolute fucking catastrophe?
“Any minute. When you’re done freaking out, how about you shut up so we can watch Vampire Diaries?”
“Not tonight.” Any other time, I’d give my brother shit for being addicted to teen dramas, but I was preoccupied trying to determine a game plan. I needed to lock myself in my room and never come out. Figure out how to do all my work from right here in this 12’ x 14’ box.
Levi finally swept his gaze over me, his mouth pulled down in a frown. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said too quickly. Just trying to avoid your best friend because I’m done fucking him and fucking up my life in the process. “I have my period, and I don’t want you in my face.”
He gave me a dubious look, and I threw my hands in the air. “Do I have to start throwing tampons at your head to get you to leave?”
“Fine. Jesus, you vicious little shit. You don’t have to yell about it.”
“I’m not yelling.” I was totally yelling.
He stood from my bed and walked past me, ruffling my hair in the process. “I’ll wait for him in my room and tell him to steer clear of the red beast. Text me if you need anything.”
“Great. Thanks. Get out.” I pressed my hands against his back and shoved him the rest of the way out of my room, slamming the door in his face and locking it for good measure. There wasn’t anything I could do about the connecting bathroom door, though.
I just had to hope Chase wasn’t stupid enough to come through it. Because I might not actually have my period right now, but I could muster up some PMS rage if I needed to. And I had absolutely no problem directing it straight at him.
I know you’re busy getting freaky with my brother
But I have an SOS situation over here
You need to come to my room
Probably daily for the rest of our lives
Since I’m never leaving here again
I’m going to take your silence as a need for further explanation
Why am I trapped here forever?
Oh nothing major
JUST THAT HE WHO IS DEAD TO ME IS STAYING IN LEVI’S OLD ROOM
AKA the room directly next to mine
Connected by a bathroom
You remember how that worked out for you and Aiden???
How long does it take my brother to get you off???
Does he need a manual?
I’m literally dying over here!
First, you’re not LITERALLY dying, you drama queen. Second, he has no problem getting me off, believe me. He stopped at three this time thanks to your incessant text interruptions.
That’s more than I ever wanted to know about my brother and his delivery of O’s
You’re the one who brought it up. But let’s get to the issue here. What do you mean, He Who Shall Not Be Named is staying in Levi’s old room???
Exactly what I said
Tell my brother he can play porn star later
I need you now
Be there in 2
True to her word, Avery showed up at my door a couple minutes later, carrying the pan of brownies she’d baked earlier in the day. “I figured if you were going to stay in here for the rest of your life, you’d need sustenance.”
“And all you brought were brownies?”
“What else matters, really?” She walked over and plopped down on my bed with the pan in her lap and immediately dug in. “I haven’t seen you much since the bar, so you’re gonna have to fill me in. How did we go from you glaring at him in One Night Stan’s to him staying in the room next door?”
I joined her on the bed and grabbed a brownie for myself, stuffing nearly the whole thing into my mouth in an effort to make myself feel better. It didn’t work. “I have no idea. Except for the fact that Levi is obviously out to get me.”
“Sweetie, I’m pretty sure this lies squarely at He Who Shall Not Be Named’s feet. Levi doesn’t have a clue about you two and hasn’t for years.”
“Aiden doesn’t either, right?”
She shook her head. “He asked about it after the bar, but I made up a story about Chase ruining your favorite dress freshman year, and then distracted him with a beej.”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, good thinking, I guess. Because I definitely don’t want any of them to know.” I pursed my lips to the side and glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. “Except I did think about telling Levi just to see if that would get the asshole to back off.”
Avery scoffed. “I don’t believe you for a second. Let’s cut the shit, and how about you tell me what’s really going on?”
What was going on was the only man I’d ever cared about had left me in the rearview without thought. What was going on was I’d allowed him to break my heart—not once, but twice—and I had no intention of allowing it a third time.
I threw my hands up in the air and lied through my teeth. “What’s going on is the person I want to see least in the world is staying twenty feet away from me.”
She lifted her brows, skepticism written on her face. “So this is the story you’re going with, is that right?
“There’s no story. It’s the truth.”
“Mhmm,” she said flatly. “So, we’re just going to ignore the fact that for the past however many years, you guys have hooked up every time he’s been home?”
I cleared my throat and avoided her gaze. “Yes, I would like to ignore that, thank you very much.”
“And how about the sobfest over margaritas last year after Christmas? Are we going to ignore that, too? Or the one in June after you found out he was injured and never texted you back? Or the one just a couple weeks ago when he didn’t come home for Christmas without a word?”
When she laid it all out like that, it made me feel even more pathetic than I already did, and I fucking hated feeling like that.
I blew out a ragged breath, my entire body deflating as I shook my head, my gaze locked on a loose thread on my comforter. “I can’t do it again with him. I need to move on with my life once and for all.”
She studied me for long moments before nodding. “Okay. If that’s how you really feel, then what you need to do is pretend he doesn’t exist. He’s dead to you, remember? If you hide away in your room, he’ll know he’s getting to you. Show him he’s not.” She grabbed another brownie and looked at me with raised brows. “And maybe if you do it long enough, you’ll start to believe it, too.”