rebel heart early chapters

Please note: Rebel Heart deals with heavy and sensitive topics that may be upsetting for some readers, including in these early sample chapters. Should you prefer detailed information in order to have the best reading experience, please click on the content notes below.

For the best reading experience, please be advised that Rebel Heart contains content that may be upsetting for some readers, including:

  • Alcoholism
  • Alcohol use
  • Anaphylaxis
  • Classism
  • Death of a parent, 11 years prior but discussed in detail
  • Depression
  • Drug use
  • Emotional abuse by a parent
  • Grief & loss depiction
  • Needles
  • Parental abandonment
  • Pregnancy (side character)
  • Sexually explicit scenes
  • Suicidal ideation and intrusive thoughts

Chapter One


Some days, I would’ve preferred to throw my phone into the ocean than be on the receiving end of another fucking alert from the family text thread. It was a continuous stream of trivial bullshit, generally instigated by my little sister, so I rarely responded. And yet, the thread moved on just fine without me.

It made me wonder what else would move on fine without me.

Made me wonder what it’d be like if I just…didn’t exist anymore. If my family was preparing to commemorate the eleventh anniversary of my death instead of our mom’s. If I’d been the one who’d died on the boat that day instead of her. Or if my death had happened in the hundreds of other ways I’d willed it to over the years through reckless behavior alone.

But I knew why it hadn’t. Why I was still here, going through the motions. Left to suffocate under the weight of my regrets.

I didn’t deserve anything less.

I deserved to witness the wreckage I’d caused. To see the pain reflected on my siblings’ faces. Feel the heavy loss, not only of my mom, but of theirs, too, every day of my miserable life.

Addison: Seriously

It’s in just a few weeks

I need to know

Stop ignoring these texts Levi!

Since our mom’s death, I’d broken one of her only rules more times than I could count. Never sail alone. I’d gone out on the ocean on my own dozens—hundreds—of times, and nothing had happened, despite all my spoken and unspoken wishes otherwise.

I was still fucking here.

Yet she went out once by herself in a storm, and it was all over. A beautiful life snuffed out, taken away far too soon.

And it was all my fault.

Addison: @Levi



Beck: Jesus, will you stop? Go to his workshop if you need an immediate answer FFS.

Aiden: It doesn’t matter how often you tag Levi. You know he’s not responding.

Addison: BRADY

Do a drive by

Brady: I’m on duty, Addison.

Addison: Perfect!

Ford: Pretty sure that wasn’t a yes, little D.

I glanced over at my phone, the preview screen showing more than a dozen texts, all from my siblings and that fucking group text. Beck was on my shit list for suggesting our little sister pop over to my den of solitude, and Aiden was right. I had no intention of responding. Ford was, too, for that matter. As town sheriff, Brady definitely wasn’t going to use Starlight Cove resources to satisfy Addison’s demands.

The familiar hum of the belt sander filled my workshop, the sound soothing me in the same way the ocean’s waves did. Wood shavings rained down as I guided the machine along the hull of my current project. This ancient boat had seen better days, but it wasn’t a lost cause. Not yet anyway. In my fifteen years in this industry, I’d only encountered a handful of vessels that were. With grueling effort on my part—and a shit-ton of money on my clients’—most boats could be transformed back to their former glory, assuming I was the one restoring them.

My clients didn’t get a sparkling personality or excellent customer service when they worked with me, but they did get the best boatbuilder and craftsman on the East Coast. And I got to make a living with minimal human interaction. Win-win all around.

Out here in my workshop, it was just me and whatever boat I’d been commissioned to build or fix. Exactly how I liked it—everyone leaving me the fuck alone.

Shutting off the sander, I swiped a forearm across my brow just as my phone buzzed with another text. My jaw ticked as I glanced over, prepared for more family bullshit, but it was my best friend’s—now brother-in-law’s—name on the screen.

Chase: Don’t forget you have somewhere to be tonight.

Dropping my head back, I groaned toward the high ceiling. I hadn’t forgotten. It would’ve been impossible to since Chase had reminded me half a dozen times. But that didn’t mean I hadn’t tried.

Visiting his parents’ home was the last thing I wanted to do today—or ever, really. I loved the Lockharts like family, but going to the place that had been such a staple in my adolescence meant excavating memories I’d rather leave buried.

Without responding, I focused back on my work, running my hand along the hull of the 1930s Hacker-Craft. When she’d arrived at my workshop, a little worse for wear, I’d already been able to envision how this beauty would look once she was fully restored to her former glory. I wouldn’t stop until I made it happen. I reached for the sander, ready to dive back in, just as my phone buzzed again.

Chase: I’m serious, dickhead. Stop ignoring everyone’s texts. Somehow my wife’s mad at ME for YOUR bullshit.

I had half a mind to text back and tell him I wasn’t ignoring anything—how could I when a text came in every thirty fucking seconds and constantly pulled me away from what I was paid to do?—but that I was simply choosing not to respond.

Chase: No excuses about tonight. I already told Mom you’d be there, so she’s making your favorite. Don’t make her come find you because you know she will.

“Fuck.” Resting my elbows on my knees, I brushed the sawdust from my hands and blew out a heavy sigh.

Chase’s mom, Marianne, was the closest thing my siblings and I’d had to a mother in more than a decade. Being our mom’s best friend, she’d stepped up during our darkest days, when our own worthless father couldn’t be bothered to. Even when she didn’t have to. Even when we’d made it difficult. Even though I still made it difficult.

Which was why skipping out on one of her dinners made me an asshole.

I grabbed my phone and typed out a quick response.

Levi: What time?

Chase: 5. Dad’s out of town for work, so she wants help with some shit before dinner. And bring wine.

It was already after four, which meant I needed to haul ass if I didn’t want to be late. After putting away my tools and locking up the warehouse, I headed the couple blocks to my apartment, doing my best to dodge all the wanderers. People were every-fucking-where—far more than usual—and that only soured my mood further.

Once at my apartment building, I took the stairs two at a time and let myself inside. The space was small, but it was quiet and away from my family’s resort. Most importantly, it was mine. That was all I needed.

After a quick shower, I pulled on a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt, ran a hand through my hair, and called it good enough. I made a quick detour to the kitchen to grab a bottle of Marianne’s favorite wine before heading out.

With the carnival beginning tomorrow and running through next week, tourists had already started flooding Starlight Cove, making Main Street a fucking nightmare. Navigating my bike through this clusterfuck would take too long, so I strode straight for the marina. The familiar scents and sounds of the ocean washed over me, solace and pain mingling together as always.

And, as always, I shoved the solace aside, undeserving of it, and focused on the pain instead.

Chapter two


The motors on my fully restored trawler hummed as I eased up to Chase’s parents’ dock. After tying off and shutting down the engines, I stepped onto the weathered planks and made my way up the hill toward the place that had been my second home since childhood.

The Lockharts’ beachside house had been theirs for decades, but Chase had recently talked his parents into finally allowing him to pay for renovations. Like he always said, what good was all that pro-hockey-player money if he couldn’t use it on the people he loved?

I knocked twice on the slider before opening the door and stepping inside, just like I’d done a hundred times before. Voices boomed from the back of the house, so I headed in that direction.

“Chase,” Marianne said, exasperation heavy in her tone. “You have to be gentle with my babies. They aren’t one of your hockey pucks that you can slam around wherever you want.”

“I don’t slam them wherever I want, Mom. I artfully and skillfully slap them into the net.”

“Well, I don’t want you to slap these anywhere, either. This is an African violet, and Bonnie—”

“Who the hell is Bonnie?” Chase grumbled.

“—doesn’t do well with your giant man hands. Where’s Levi? He knows exactly how the plants—Bonnie included—need to be handled.”

“Oh, because Levi has such delicate hands? We’re the same size, Mom.”

“All I know is not a single one of my babies fell ill—”

Fell ill?” Chase snorted.

“—when Levi helped me set up your old room as my plant nursery. And I just think—oh!” She spotted me in the doorway and shot a warm smile in my direction. She was petite, dwarfed even more standing next to Chase’s 6’3” stature, her gray-streaked blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. “There you are, honey. Just the man I wanted to see.”

Chase glanced over his shoulder at me. “Oh good, there’s delicate Levi with his tiny man hands, ready to save the day.”

I shoved the bottle of wine I’d brought into his stomach, causing him to let out an oomph. “I can’t help that your mom loves my hands and all they can do.”

Chase gripped the neck of the wine bottle and pointed it in my direction like a weapon. “Don’t you ever fucking say that again.”

I shrugged. “You’re banging my sister.”

“I married your sister, you ass clown.”

“Doesn’t matter. I still get a permanent free pass to say whatever I want to your mom.”

Marianne clapped her hands once, the sound as sharp as a coach’s whistle. “Boys! I swear, you’re worse now than you were when you were twelve. At least back then, we had Harper to temper things a bit.”

A brick to the face would’ve been less jarring than that mere mention of her name. Just hearing it was a sledgehammer to my chest, same as it’d been for more than a decade. Memories of what we’d once been tried to surface before I shoved them down, locking them up tight where they belonged.

“Now, if you want to eat at a reasonable time, we need to get choppin’.” Marianne pinned both of us with her patented Mom Stare. Then, to me, she asked, “You remember what I told you last time?”

I dipped my chin in a nod, grateful for the distraction. “Gentle hands make for happy plants.”

“That’s right.” With her brows raised, Marianne gestured to me while shooting a pointed glance at her son. “You see? Levi understands.”

“Did you want me to contact my lawyer about drawing up some adoption papers?” Chase asked. “You’re already making his favorite meal instead of mine, so we might as well make this official.”

Marianne swatted her hand through the air before settling it on my back, her touch warm and gentle as she rubbed soft circles against me. “We don’t need a piece of paper to tell us what we already know. Levi’s been like another son since day one.”

That was true. Chase’s parents had treated me like a part of their family my entire life. Even when I’d tried to push them away—something I’d done a whole fucking lot, with everyone in my life, some more successfully than others. And even when I didn’t deserve it.

“Why are we moving all these out of here anyway?” Chase asked, carefully cradling the plants Marianne handed to him. “Didn’t you just set this up because your kids weren’t giving you grandchildren fast enough?”

“Yes, well.” She sniffed. “Since my eldest child and only son decided to go off and elope without me, his father, or any of his sisters in attendance—or even word that it was happening—I thought maybe things were progressing quickly. And I want to be ready for those grandbabies! The least you could do after shutting us out of the most important day of your life is to give me my dying wish—to have grandkids to spoil before I leave this earth.”

My heart stopped…just froze in my fucking chest. I snapped my gaze to Marianne, eyeing her from head to toe and looking for any obvious signs of illness or distress. Panic gripped me by the throat at the thought of losing her after everyone else. A million thoughts raced through my mind, all focused on what was wrong, what I could do to help, how I could stop it. Actually stop it this time.

But when I slid my gaze to Chase, I realized he wasn’t concerned at all.

With a scoff, he rolled his eyes. “You’re not dying, Mom. Don’t say shit like that. Jesus Christ, I swear you’re as dramatic as my wife.”

As subtly as I could, I released the pent-up breath I’d been holding and willed my heart to settle back into a steady rhythm. All while keeping up the facade that everything was fine. That my heart hadn’t plummeted to my feet, that I hadn’t gone straight to worst-case scenarios.

It’d been ten years—eleven in just a few weeks—since my mom had died, and shit like this still had me in a choke hold.

Marianne grinned at her son. “Is it any wonder you love us both beyond measure?”

“Never been a wonder for me,” he said.

“Oh, you.” Marianne walked up to Chase and pinched his cheek before patting it lightly. “Always my sweet boy. But I still don’t forgive you for making me find out you got married on one of Mabel’s Lives.”

“I knew I should’ve slipped that woman more money,” Chase grumbled.

“I’m not sure what you expected when you asked the town gossip to officiate. She even mentioned the gift basket she was sending your way—full of a variety of toys designed to give a woman plea—”

All right, Mom,” Chase cut in, loud enough to drown out the rest of Marianne’s words. “Jesus. I never want to hear you utter toys and give a woman pleasure in the same sentence again.”

Without missing a beat, Marianne turned to me, settling an oversized hanging basket in my arms. “And what about you, Levi? It’s about time for you to settle down, isn’t it? You’re not getting any younger, you know. Thirty-one is knocking on your door, and you’re the last single one left of your whole family.”

And it was going to stay that way. I hadn’t allowed myself to be interested in anyone in a very long time, and I had no plans to change that anytime soon.

“Perhaps you’ll find a special someone at the carnival this weekend or next,” she said. “You never know who you might run into.”

“But that means he’d have to go to the carnival,” Chase said. “And that ain’t happening.”

Marianne shot me a frown. “Not going? But you used to love them when you were little! You three would beg to spend whole days there, you remember?”

Remembering was all I seemed to do anymore. Remembering and regretting and wishing it all could’ve been different.

“When was the last time you went to one?” she asked.

Twelve years, but who was counting?

I shrugged. “Can’t remember, but it’s not really my scene anymore.”

She tsked and shook her head, eyeing me with a scrutinizing expression. “Funnel cakes and Ferris wheels are everyone’s scene, Levi.”

Fortunately, she let the subject drop without another word as Chase and I did her bidding. After we’d successfully relocated all seven thousand plants from his room-turned-literal-nursery-turned-prospective-baby-nursery to be scattered all over the house, the three of us sat down for dinner.

Marianne dished heaping portions of pot roast and mashed potatoes onto each of our plates before settling into her chair. “Since we can’t turn a corner without hearing the exciting things Chase has coming up this week with the new hockey camp, why don’t you tell me how things are going with you, Levi? Work is going well? I worry about you, you know. In that apartment all by yourself. Away from your family. And running your own business on top of it all.” She tutted and shook her head. “I imagine that’s stressful, making sure you can stay afloat.”

I didn’t exactly advertise my two-year wait list so it wasn’t a surprise she had no idea, but I hated the thought of her concerning herself with me. “You don’t have to worry about me or the business,” I said, tucking into my meal. “Things are going good.”

She hummed skeptically as if she didn’t believe me, and I had half a mind to pull up my bank account just to show her how good things were. It was the one part of my life where I wasn’t a complete and total fuckup. “Maybe you can do some more boat tours for the resort. Branch out, perhaps expand your offerings a bit, just to bring in some more income.”

I made an incremental fraction running boat tours for my family’s beachside resort compared to what I did designing, building, customizing, and repairing boats. But I didn’t do the tours for the money. I did them for my family. For our mom’s legacy. And to keep alive the few memories I had left of her.

I hummed noncommittally. “Maybe. I’m sure your daughter-in-law is already on it.”

“Speaking of… Where is my little angel?” Marianne asked, and neither Chase nor I could hold in our snorts.

Addison was a lot of things, but an angel wasn’t one of them. I loved the little shit more than almost anyone and would do anything for her. But she grated on my nerves on a good day and drove me out of my mind the rest of the time.

“She’s at the inn, bossing the contractors around,” Chase said around a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “Between the hockey complex and the main inn renovations, she’s been in heaven, ordering all those people around.”

“You make sure to tell her to stop by this week. I’ve been missing my daughter-in-law.”

While it had taken a while to come to terms with the fact that my best friend had been hooking up with my baby sister in secret—for ten fucking years, no less—I’d done so. Reluctantly. But I couldn’t deny how good he was for her. Other than my brothers, Chase was the best man I knew, and I couldn’t think of a better fit for Addison.

Though it’d been comforting to watch all my siblings move on, move forward, and overcome the demons of our past, I couldn’t help but drown in them. Chained to a history I didn’t deserve to escape.

After more coercing from Marianne where she encouraged me to attend the carnival because you just never know, she wrapped up the remaining leftovers for me, and I said my goodbyes. I made my way down the steps toward the dock, glancing down at the beach. The sun was beginning to set, casting an orange glow across the water, and the warm breeze carried the salty tang of the ocean.

While the sea itself reminded me of my mom and all I’d lost—all we’d lost—the gleaming letters on the hull of my trawler reminded me of someone else entirely. Reminded me that despite years of fuckups, I’d done one good thing in my life.

But it was also a steadfast reminder of exactly why I was here.


Chapter three


It was easy to forget the quirks of small-town living until you were thrown back into the trenches to experience them for yourself.

I’d traveled all over the world, had been transported in buses, trains, subways… Hell, I’d even ridden on a donkey once. But there was nothing quite like the ride in the back of an old man’s car, the taped piece of paper in the windshield declaring it Starlight Cove’s non-Uber, and the lack of working air conditioning to remind me just how far out of city life I was.

From the age of ten until I was almost eighteen, I’d spent every summer in Starlight Cove. My family had made the trip from Connecticut to our summer home on the beach, and I’d been in heaven for three months. This place had held a sort of ethereal quality to me back then—it’d been a fairy-tale getaway. Where, for a few months a year, I’d pretended I had a different life.

I’d adored it here…adored everything Starlight Cove had to offer. Until I hadn’t.

Until a certain dark-haired, blue-eyed, mysterious bad boy had done exactly what everyone had warned me he would.

I’d come a long way since running from this town with a broken heart and without a backward glance. At least until last year, when a freelance assignment had sent me back to the one place I’d never intended to return. And now I was here for six weeks.

Six. Fucking. Weeks.

No matter how much I didn’t want to be back in this tiny town along the Maine coast, and no matter how much I absolutely knew he didn’t want me here, it seemed fate had other plans.

When the editor in chief of Weekend Wanderlust had reached out and offered me this assignment, all while dangling the carrot of a permanent position at my dream company if she liked what I delivered, I wasn’t going to turn it down. I’d be stupid to do anything but show up with a smile and pretend like being back here didn’t reopen old wounds I’d rather not revisit.

For the past twelve years, I’d done exactly what I wanted. Had given myself the freedom I’d never had as a child. As soon as my eighteenth birthday had rolled around, I’d turned my back on the carefully crafted plans my senate-hopeful father and Stepford mother had made for me. Without my input. Without my consent.

Up until that point, my entire life had been prepped, planned, and designed by other people. Each detail meticulously laid out for me without a care of what I wanted. Of what my dreams had been.

And while I’d spent the past decade-plus building the life I wanted, I’d grown restless. Unsettled.

The trouble was, I didn’t know what I was still looking for.

“Here you are, dear.” Arthur pulled up in front of the café on Main Street, the sidewalks on either side of the road bustling with people.

As luck would have it, the café was directly across from my temporary home while I was in town, an apartment just above Starlight Cove Gazette’s corner shop. Mabel—owner of the newspaper, the town’s surrogate feisty grandmother, and my landlord for the next six weeks—had promised I could use the newspaper’s resources whenever I needed. Just another example of small-town living…

“Thanks, Arthur. I’m sure I’ll be seeing a lot more of you while I’m here.” Especially since I wasn’t renting a car. No need when everything but Starlight Cove Resort was within walking distance.

After passing him some cash—Venmo might as well have been in another language to him—I climbed out of the car and grabbed my suitcase from the trunk.

Before my afternoon appointment, I was meeting Mabel to get the keys and a tour. After that, I’d be heading over to the high school to interview Chase Lockhart—former pro hockey player to the rest of the world, former best friend to me.

When we’d been younger, he’d been the third person in our little summertime trio. Somehow, despite that trio shattering, Chase had managed to rekindle our friendship years later. I’d tried like hell to sever all ties to this town, him included, but he hadn’t let me. That was Chase in a nutshell, though—determined beyond reason. Hell, he’d been chasing after his now-wife for ten years, apparently. And if that wasn’t dedication, I didn’t know what was.

Since I had some time to kill, I hitched my purse over my shoulder and rolled my suitcase straight into the café. I’d had two delayed flights on my way here, which meant I’d been up since ass o’clock this morning. If I wanted to obtain anything usable this afternoon for my article, I needed to get some caffeine in me, stat.

The café was cute, with its weathered tables and mismatched chairs, black-and-white photos of Starlight Cove through the years covering the walls. I much preferred the diner at Starlight Cove Resort, though. But since the resort was run by the McKenzie family, and Levi McKenzie was the one and only person I planned to avoid like my life depended on it, I was going to have to make do with the café instead.

It was late morning, too late for the breakfast crowd but too early for lunch, so only a handful of people were inside. My gaze snagged on one just as she noticed me.

“Harper, hey!” Addison McKenzie—now Lockhart—stood at the counter, exuding the kind of presence someone a foot taller than her would give off. Her confident demeanor wasn’t really a surprise since she’d grown up with five older, overbearing, protective brothers and had to learn how to hold her own against them.

“Hi, Addison.” I offered her a warm smile and strode toward her, pulling my suitcase behind me.

“I take it you just got into town?” she asked, eyeing my luggage.

“After the travel day from hell, yes. I’m dead to the world, and it’s not even noon.”

“I know what you mean.” She sagged against the counter, her eyes looking more tired than I could ever remember seeing. “I’ve been exhausted lately. We better get you a coffee. My treat.”

After placing our orders with the barista, coffee for me and chamomile tea for her, we stood off to the side and waited for our drinks.

“I hear congratulations are in order.” I tipped my chin toward the delicate band on Addison’s left ring finger—not exactly the sizable rock I was used to seeing the WAGs of professional athletes wear, but it fit her.

She jerked her hand away from her stomach, her entire body jolting as she stared at me with wide eyes. “What? Congratulations about what?”

I tipped my head to the side, brow furrowed. “Your…marriage?”

“Oh! Right. My marriage. Of course. Thanks!” She flashed me a smile, her previous weirdness gone, before glancing down at her adorned finger. “Still feels surreal. Ten years of practically nothing, and now suddenly I’m married and we’re renovating the main inn to make it our forever home.”

“Chase never was one to let an opportunity pass him by.”

“He’s a persistent pain in my ass, that’s for sure.”

My lips twitched at her frank appraisal of my once-best friend. “He is. But you love it.”

She blew out a long-suffering sigh and shook her head. “God help me, but I do.”

With a shared laugh, we grabbed our drinks from the barista before scooting over to the condiment stand to fix up our orders.

She dumped an obscene amount of sugar into her tea and shot me a glance. “I’m so sorry we didn’t have any cottages open for you while you’re staying in town.”

I waved her off as I added a splash of creamer and three sugars to my coffee. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I would’ve loved to have you stay with us, but the main inn is in shambles with the renovation. Aiden and Avery are staying with us at Chase’s cabin. Which is a fucking nightmare, by the way. Even if the walls were five feet thick, I still don’t think it’d be enough to drown out the sounds of my brother banging my best friend.” She snapped a lid on her tea and shuddered. “And ever since that viral video last year, the resort cottages have been booking out for months.”

“Seriously, don’t apologize. I love that the resort is finally seeing the success it deserves.” Their family-run business was a Starlight Cove staple—had been for decades—but it’d always been on its last legs. Now, it was thriving in a way I wasn’t sure it ever had. “Besides, Mabel hooked me up with a short-term rental in town. It’ll be a lot easier staying on Main Street since I don’t have a car.”

She hummed and took a sip of her tea. “Mabel, huh? Don’t let that sneaky old woman corner you, or she’ll be pitching you this month’s special.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

Addison raised a brow. “Not until she explains, in great detail, the benefits of the most powerful clit suction toy she’s ever offered.”

I sharply inhaled the sip of coffee I’d just taken and spiraled into a coughing fit.

“Oh shit! Sorry, sorry.” Addison shoved a wad of napkins my way before patting me on the back. “But I have to prepare you for it, you know? Don’t want you walking into the lion’s den unaware. Mabel’s always been…colorful, but the field in which she grows her fucks has been barren for a while. The woman’s not afraid of anything or anyone. I didn’t want you to be caught off guard.”

“Yeah, no,” I said through a tight throat, my eyes watering. “Being caught off guard in the middle of a public café while drinking hot liquid is definitely better.”

A loud, unrestrained laugh burst from her, the sound infectious. “Happy to help.” She grabbed her tea, hooking a thumb over her shoulder as she gestured toward the door. “I gotta run and grab Chase, but I’ll see you later today at the school, right?”

It might’ve been my first day in town, but there was no time like the present to start gathering content for this article. I ignored the whisper in the back of my mind that wondered if Levi would be there. He and Chase were still extremely close, as far as I knew. And with as big of a deal as opening day on this hockey camp was for Chase, it made sense that Levi would be around.

But I didn’t care. And I certainly wasn’t going to concern myself with it. If he was there, I’d ignore him. Just like I’d been doing for twelve years. He wasn’t worth my worries.

He wasn’t worth anything to me.

I pasted on a smile and dipped my chin in a nod. “I’ll be there.”

Chapter four


I loved my family. I really did. But I couldn’t deny how hard it was to be around them. Being in their presence only served to remind me of how much we’d lost. Of what I’d taken from them. And the painful memories my being around at all must’ve brought up for them. It would’ve been easier for everyone if I weren’t here.

I’d spent years holing myself up, hiding away, but that had only worked while Addison had been at college. During that time, my brothers had been lost in their own grief, and we’d all been trying to keep the resort afloat in our mom’s absence. My brothers all had each other, though. The Irish twins, Brady and Aiden. And the actual twins, Beck and Ford.

I’d been alone. Addison, my partner in crime growing up, had been off at school. Chase had already embarked on his hockey career and was clear across the continent in Vancouver. And anyone else who’d once cared about me was long gone or actively avoiding all contact.

But after Addison had graduated and returned home, everything changed.

She’d whipped the resort—and us—into shape like the little dictator she was, earning every bit of her little D nickname. Without taking no for an answer, she’d dragged me from my solitude, whether I’d wanted her to or not. And now, barely a day went by when I didn’t see the little demon.

The past year notwithstanding, get-togethers with her and my brothers had been few and far between. But recently, they’d become more and more frequent as my siblings had started pairing off, one by one, until I was the only single one left.

Something sure as fuck was in the water around here, and I had no intention of catching whatever the hell it was.

Thanks to the new part-time help Chase had coerced Addison and Aiden into hiring for the resort, the family had been given some breathing room, allowing for a quick lunch at the café on Main Street. Since Brady and Ford were both on duty tonight, this was the only time that worked for everyone to celebrate the soft launch of the Lockhart Hockey Camp for Kids.

Since the actual complex Chase was building on the resort property wasn’t yet complete, he’d been given permission to use the high school rink as a temporary stand-in for the trial run. He’d been working around the clock the past couple months to make this a reality, and there was no way I’d miss being there to support him. Especially when he’d given me that same support tenfold over the years.

“How much longer till those fucking construction trucks are gone, Lockhart?” Aiden grumbled as all eleven of us strode out of the café. Avery elbowed him in the gut, and he glanced down at her with a raised brow. “What? It’s getting mud and shit all over the resort grounds.”

“You can handle a mess once in a while.” There was no missing the sexual undertone in her voice or the smirk she sent his way.

“Goddammit, Avery!” Addison glared at her best friend. “It’s bad enough that you’re staying so close I can hear you at night, but this, too? It’s going to be like this for the rest of our lives, isn’t it? You saying completely inappropriate things about my brother’s and your sex life, and me just having to deal with it.”

Avery grinned, completely unrepentant, and shrugged. “Yeah, probably. On the plus side, you get to do that to Levi now.”

I snapped my head in Avery’s direction. “The fuck she does.”

I didn’t care if Addison was married. I didn’t care about the fact that I’d witnessed her and Chase climbing out of the back seat of his truck, no question as to what they’d been doing. I didn’t care that I’d walked in on them going at it more times than should have been possible in the four goddamn months since they’d gone public. In my mind, those two were sleeping in separate beds and always would be.

“I don’t want to hear it, either,” Brady said, wrapping an arm around Luna as they led the group. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re still a virgin.”

“Ditto,” the rest of my brothers chimed in.

Addison huffed, turning an indignant expression our way. “Well, if I have to hear about all the freaky shit you guys are doing, it’s only fair that you have to hear about me!”

“I will duct-tape your mouth shut and lock you in a closet if you even think about it,” I said.

Beck nodded, glancing back at us with Everly tucked into his side. “I’ll help.”

“I’ll be on lookout.” Ford shot a wink at his wife. “And make sure my beautiful, do no harm doctorwife doesn’t know anything about it.”

Quinn snorted and rolled her eyes but didn’t argue.

“Brady and I will occupy Chase while it’s taken care of,” Aiden said.

Brady didn’t agree with Aiden’s statement, but he also didn’t rebuff it. Plausible deniability for the sheriff and all that.

“You could try,” Chase said, his tone daring my older brothers to give it a go.

“She’s twenty-eight, not sixteen.” Luna shot a glance at my brothers and me over her shoulder. “And she’s married to that.” She tipped her chin toward Chase with a smirk. “She’s definitely getting fu—”

“Lawbreaker,” Brady cut in, his low tone ringing with warning. “Don’t even think about finishing that sentence, or you’re gonna be in trouble when we get home.”

She shot him a mischievous smile. “In that case, she’s definitely getting fu—”

“That’s our cue.” With that, Brady offered a two-fingered wave over his shoulder and tugged a laughing Luna along behind him.

The rest of my brothers and their significant others followed suit, saying their goodbyes as they dispersed until it was just Chase, Addison, and me.

“Can I catch a ride with you guys over to the high school?” I asked.

“Yep.” Chase twirled his keys around his finger. “We’re parked around the corner.”

“Let me run up and grab my gear, in case we do a pickup game.”

He nodded as the three of us crossed the street, heading toward my apartment. Chase never let Addison get out of arm’s reach, always having to touch her in some way. Including the undeniable sound of his hand smacking her ass as they walked into the building behind me.

I climbed the stairs and shot them a glare over my shoulder. “Seriously, I think I liked it better when you were hiding shit from me. I can’t look at you two without seeing your hands on some part of her body, and it’s fucking weird.”

Chase just shrugged, a satisfied grin on his face like he was the luckiest man on earth. As long as he made Addison happy, I’d figure out a way to deal with all the PDA they seemed to be intent on subjecting me to. He rested his left hand on her stomach, his fingers spread wide, their wedding date inked on his ring finger for all to see.

I unlocked and opened my apartment door without taking my gaze off the two of them, the placement of his hand drawing my eye. It was possessive. Protective. As if she were— Without even finishing my thought, I shot my gaze to Addison’s face before snapping it to Chase’s. “Wait, are you preg—”

“Oh, honey,” Mabel’s voice called from somewhere inside my apartment. “I wasn’t expecting you home until tonight!”

My thoughts derailed in an instant, and I hung my head, blowing out an exasperated breath. The older woman was always around, stopping by more days than not. And she didn’t understand the meaning of privacy, instead just letting herself into my apartment whenever she saw fit. I’d learned a long time ago that it was easier to go along with her whims than fight them. Especially because she brought cookies half the time.

“Are you…reorganizing my brother’s kitchen cabinets?” Addison asked, her brows raised as she stared at Mabel in disbelief. My sister turned toward me, hooking a thumb over her shoulder to Mabel. “Seriously…is she reorganizing your cabinets?”

“Not the first time,” I mumbled.

“When he puts the spices in the same cabinet as his cups, what am I supposed to do?” Mabel asked. Her gray hair was in curlers, and she wore a shirt that read, Prone to shenanigans and malarkey. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

I ran a hand through my hair and blew out a heavy sigh. “She’s taken it upon herself to be my surrogate mother.”

“Well, with no one else here to help, who’s going to do it for you? I, for one, am happy to provide my assistance. And, actually, that’s why I’m here.”

“To reorganize his kitchen?” Addison asked.

“No, to let you know you won’t be lonely living here all by yourself anymore.” She shot us a smile I’d learned a long time ago meant nothing but trouble. “At least, not for a few weeks.”

“Uh, what?” I asked, not bothering to hide the suspicion in my tone.

“A roommate,” Mabel said, speaking slowly as if that would clear up everything.

“I don’t have a roommate, Mabel,” I said. “I live alone. I like to live alone. And you might be my landlord, but you can’t just rent out a room in my apartment without my consent.”

“Oh, but I can. Because, technically, it’s still my apartment.”

I raised a brow in her direction and crossed my arms over my chest. “The lease I signed says otherwise.”

“Did you read the lease, honey?”

I didn’t appreciate the condescension in her tone. Or the way she whipped a large packet of papers from her purse and offered them to me with a flourish, as if she’d just been waiting for me to challenge her.

She pointed to a section in the middle of the page. “It says right there that you’re renting one bedroom in this apartment. Not the whole apartment. So, the living room, kitchen, and bathroom are all technically shared spaces. And the extra bedroom is free for me to rent! I had a friend in need, and who was I to say no to the sweet girl?”

I scanned over the document, realizing that the fucking rental agreement I’d signed was, in fact, for a single, solitary bedroom, not the whole apartment. And the sad part was I wasn’t surprised in the least this conniving woman had pulled that over on me. What was a surprise was that she’d waited years to spring it on me.

“Jesus Christ, Mabel, are you serious?” I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I don’t want a stranger living in my apartment.”

She shot me a huge smile and snatched the papers from me before stuffing them back in her oversized purse. “That’s the best part! She’s not a stranger. In fact, you all go way back, so I knew it wouldn’t be a problem.”

I could only manage to stare at her, no clue who she could possibly be referring to. I didn’t go way back with anyone. Only my family, Chase, and—

Before her name even entered my mind, Harper Davidson stepped out of the extra bedroom and froze at the sight of us. Her attention pinged between the four of us before landing on me, and a jolt of awareness shot through me.

Just like fucking always when it came to her.

And just like fucking always, I immediately dropped my gaze to her left hand, equal parts relieved and angry there wasn’t a ring on her finger.

She was still as gorgeous as ever—a blonde bombshell with lips I’d pictured wrapped around my cock more times than I would ever admit and curves that could make a grown man weep. Since I’d pushed her away all those years ago, I’d seen her in passing a handful of times, but I’d never really allowed myself to look, to soak in every inch of her, knowing just how dangerous it would be. Knowing exactly how easily she’d pull me right back into her orbit.

But she’d disarmed me enough by showing up in what was supposed to be my sacred space that there was no stopping it now.

Her hair was long and wavy, falling to the middle of her back, her blue eyes sparking with a fire that was brand-new. Her body was made for sin—something that was new, too, and so different from the wisp of a girl I’d once known—with full tits, a small waist, and a pair of thick hips I couldn’t help but imagine gripping as I—

Jesus fucking Christ, what the hell was wrong with me?

She was going to be my undoing. She was still my undoing.

When we’d known each other more than a decade ago, she’d had an innocence about her. She’d been soft and sweet. Willing to conform to any expectation someone had of her. But it seemed life or circumstances or both had beaten that out of her, leaving behind a woman who dared you to cross her.

Except I already had. I’d crossed her. Before bailing entirely, I’d said the words I knew would hurt her. I’d broken her heart and left her to pick up the pieces on her own.

Worse, I’d known exactly what I was doing. Had known my unexpected words would cut her deep. It was why I’d said them—my assurance she’d leave me alone. That she’d never want anything to do with me again.

And it’d worked. She’d stayed away from me and from Starlight Cove for more than a decade.

Until now.