Mine After Dark Excerpt

Mine After Dark Excerpt

Chapter 1

Riley McCarthy aligned the hydraulic nail gun with the sheet of drywall held in place by his brother, Finn, and nailed it to the wooden frame. Bam, bam, bam. Down one side, across the top, down the other side, along the bottom. With that sheet finished, they started on the next, positioning and securing it before starting again. The rote nature of the work suited Riley’s glum mood as he listened to the January wind howl outside the new home of McCarthy’s Wayfarer, Gansett Island’s shore dinner hall, event facility, beachfront bar and hotel.

The entire McCarthy family had come together to fund the purchase of the run-down facility that occupied prime real estate adjacent to the ferry landing. His cousin Mac’s construction company was handling the renovations, which would take most of the time they had left in the off-season to get it ready for the summer. Riley and Finn had come to Gansett for their cousin Laura’s wedding fifteen months ago and were still there, working for Mac as one project rolled into another.

With the winter deep freeze keeping everyone in hibernation mode lately, Riley had too much time to think about the direction of his life, his career, his living situation, his love life—or lack thereof—and whether he should move back to the mainland to shake things up. Not that he was unhappy on Gansett Island living with his brother, near their father, uncles, cousins and friends. He wasn’t unhappy, but he was… out of sorts.

For more than a year, Riley had been content on the island. But in the last few months, something had changed for him, and he couldn’t decide when the island had become less appealing or when the restlessness had set in that had him questioning everything.

“Riley,” Finn said.

Riley looked up. “What?”

“Are you listening to me?”

“Sorry. What’d you say?”

“I asked where you were, and when you didn’t answer, you confirmed you’re not here.”

“What? I’m right here.”

“Maybe so, but your head is somewhere else entirely, which makes me nervous when you’re pointing a nail gun at my hands. What’s up with you anyway? You’re zoned out more often than not, and you never want to go out or party or do anything.”

“It’s freezing.”

“That’s never stopped you before.” Finn held up another sheet of drywall and waited for Riley to nail it into place.

Riley could dodge a lot of people. The brother who knew him better than anyone wasn’t one of them. “I don’t know why I don’t feel like going out. I just don’t.”

“I know why,” Finn said with a smug smile.

“Can’t wait to hear this.”

“It’s because of Nikki, the roof girl.”

Riley took his eyes off what he was doing just long enough to nearly run a nail through his own hand. “What’re you talking about?”

“This funk of yours started when she left without saying goodbye.”

“What funk? And so what if she left without saying goodbye? I barely knew her.”

“But you liked her. Admit it.”

Riley shrugged, hoping he appeared far more nonchalant than he felt. “She seemed like a nice enough person.”

Finn snorted with laughter, and Riley seriously considered aiming the nail gun at his brother’s head. But only for a second. Most of the time, he liked the brother who was also his closest friend. This was not one of those times.

“She ‘seemed like a nice enough person,’” Finn said mockingly. “Is that your story and you’re sticking to it?”

Riley put down the nail gun and walked away.

“Riley!” Finn called after him. “Come on. I’m just messing with you. What the hell? Where’re you going?”

“Hey, Riley,” Mac called out to him from atop a ladder. “What’s up?”

He didn’t stop or reply to them on his way through the double doors that led to the beach, where it was about ten degrees with a wind chill of negative two hundred, or so it seemed. The wind whipped the sand into mini cyclones as huge waves pounded against the shore. Seagulls flew above the surf, seeming oblivious to the fact that it was too cold for any living thing to be outside.

Riley zipped up the heavy coat he wore to work in the building that was still heat-challenged, even with the new HVAC system fully installed and nearly operational. No one wanted to spend the money to heat the vast space, so they bundled up and spent their days freezing their asses off. He tugged work gloves from his pockets, put them on and pulled his ever-present wool hat down over his ears. He’d rather be out here than inside listening to Finn psychoanalyze him. They got enough of that bullshit from their father, the shrink.

Riley wished he smoked, so he’d have something to do besides shiver uncontrollably on this unscheduled break. Anything to give him something to do or think about besides the truth of what Finn had said, a truth that Riley hadn’t allowed himself to entertain before his brother had knocked him over the head with it.

How could he miss someone he barely knew?

And he did barely know Nikki Stokes, granddaughter of Mrs. Hopper, one of the island’s longest-standing summer residents. Nikki had arrived last fall with her identical twin sister, Jordan, to stay at the family’s island home. Jordan, a reality TV star, had been hiding from the media after her malicious on-again-off-again husband released a sex tape that prominently featured her. The roof at the Hopper house had been leaking in a rainstorm. Mac had sent him over to fix it. He’d talked to Nikki a couple of times.

That was the extent of his so-called relationship with Nikki.

Had he been bummed when he showed up to work one day and the sisters were gone? Sure, but that was months ago, and what did any of it have to do with him? He’d taken a casual look online but hadn’t seen any news about Jordan in the months since they’d suddenly left. He hoped wherever they were that Nikki was taking care of herself and not devoting all her energy to her troubled sister.

Beyond that, what did it matter to him where she was?

The icy wind beat against his face, almost like it was trying to get his attention, to make him see that freaking Finn was right. His gloom-and-doom phase had started around the time Nikki had suddenly left the island. Fucking hell.

Riley could’ve done without the realization that forced him to consider why he cared and why her departure had put him into a months-long bad mood. He’d gone out of his way to avoid the kind of entanglements that had other men making fools of themselves over women. It wasn’t at all like him to let a woman get to him this way. And how, exactly, had she managed to “get to him” in the span of a couple of conversations about a leaking roof? It made no sense whatsoever.

The double doors swung open, and his cousin Shane came out, zipping his coat against the blast of frigid air. “What the hell are you doing out here?” Shane had to shout to be heard over the relentless wind.

“Taking a break.”

“In what might be the coldest place on earth?”

“Why not?”

“Riley, what’s going on?”

“Nothing. I just wanted a break. That’s allowed, right?”

“You know it is, but anyone can see you’re not yourself lately. If something’s wrong, we can help, but not if we don’t know what it is.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake, Riley wanted to say but didn’t. Shane was a good guy, and his offer of help was sincere. Their older cousins tended to baby him and Finn, the youngest of the McCarthy grandchildren, and most of the time, he found it funny. Today, he wasn’t in the mood for hovering or babying.

“It’s all good.” Riley had zero desire to talk about his mood or the fact that people were noticing he wasn’t himself. Now that he knew what—or who—was causing it, he could begin to find a way past it. He wasn’t someone who allowed himself to get mired in negativity, nor did he obsess about women. Sure, he liked women. He liked them a lot, but there’d never been one who put him into a funk or caused him to question his life choices.

Until Nikki.

Oh my God. Just shut the hell up! I met her twice!

In his mind, he was arguing with Finn. But in reality, the argument was with himself.

His cousins had altered their entire lives for the women they loved, which was great for them, but that wasn’t his vibe. Not yet anyway. At only twenty-eight, he had no desire to be settled or domesticated or anything that smacked of commitment or responsibility. That’s what his thirties were for.

But he couldn’t deny that Finn was right. He’d become a bore lately, and that would change, effective immediately. He followed Shane inside, where the lack of freezing wind was a welcome relief.

Pulling off his gloves, he went back to where Finn leaned against the wall they’d been constructing, feeling his brother’s gaze on him as he unzipped his coat and picked up the nail gun.

“You wanna go out tonight?” Riley asked as they positioned the next piece of drywall.

“Yep.”

There. Back on track.

A night out with Finn was just what he needed to get himself righted. Perhaps he might meet someone who could take his mind off the disturbing thoughts he’d been having lately, although in the dead of winter, there were fewer single women on the island than during the summer. Whatever. It would be enough to go out and have some beers and laughs with his brother. Maybe some of their cousins would join them. They were always entertaining and good for many laughs.

That was all he needed to snap out of the funk.

 

In a state of absolute disbelief, Nikki watched her sister, Jordan, throw clothes into a duffel bag, grabbing articles off the floor and giving them a sniff before she jammed them into the bag or discarded them. When was the last time her sister had done laundry? It hardly mattered when you had more clothes than a person could wear in a lifetime, even someone who wore three or four outfits per day.

“This is a joke, right?” Nikki asked, fuming as she felt her blood pressure soar.

“What’s a joke?” Jordan asked, oblivious as usual.

“You. Going back to him after what he did to you. That has to be a joke, because no self-respecting woman would ever give a guy like him yet another chance.”

Jordan had the good grace to squirm ever so slightly. “He apologized and took down the video. He said he did it because he wanted me back.”

“He posted a video of you having sex because he wanted you back? And you believe that bullshit?”

“You don’t get it.”

“You’re right. I don’t.”

“I love him, Nik. I’ve always loved him. You know that.”

That might be true, but all Nikki could think of was Jordan’s utter devastation last fall when the man she loved had posted a video of them having sex—a video Jordan hadn’t known existed until it became public. In the world of deal breakers, that would top her list no matter how much she “loved” the guy. That he’d even recorded such a private moment without her consent would be enough for Nikki to call it quits forever.

But Jordan had a soft spot and a blind spot where Zane, the rapper known only by his first name, was concerned. From the time Jordan met him five years ago, their relationship had been an unhealthy, toxic mess, and Nikki had had enough.

She marshaled her fortitude and met the gaze of the sister who looked exactly like her but was as different from her as anyone could be. “I quit.”

“Don’t be dramatic, Nik. You’re not quitting.”

“I’m not being dramatic, and I am quitting. I appreciate the opportunities you’ve given me to work as your assistant, but I’m going to pursue other interests. It’s high time we started living our own lives anyway.”

“You’re pissed about Zane. I get it. He told me you would be.”

That infuriated Nikki. She and her brother-in-law had civilly coexisted, most of the time anyway. However, after he posted the video that had—temporarily, it seemed—devastated her sister, he was dead to Nikki. If only he were dead to Jordan, too, but alas, no such luck. The definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Her sister was completely insane to go back to him, but no one could tell her that, even the twin sister who was closer to her than anyone.

She had been anyway, until Zane came along and ruined so many things, including the cohesive bond the sisters had always shared. During a chaotic upbringing in which they had been shuttled between divorced parents who had fought over them for years, they’d rarely had so much as a disagreement until Jordan met Zane and went off the deep end—in every possible way.

Nikki would bet the farm that he’d never been faithful to Jordan, but even those rumors or the ever-present threat of STDs didn’t seem to matter to her sister. After the video first surfaced, Nikki had felt relieved—right before she felt guilty for being relieved when her sister was utterly devastated. She’d hoped the video would finally be the deal breaker that would end their disastrous marriage.

During the weeks last fall that they’d spent at their grandmother’s home on Gansett Island, Nikki had been hopeful that Jordan was going to end it once and for all. But then Jordan had suddenly wanted to go home to Los Angeles. Then she’d begun disappearing for entire days. Nikki checked Zane’s concert schedule, found out he was in town and put two and two together to equal madness.

It was time to take herself off the insanity train. Enough was enough for her, even if Jordan wasn’t there yet. She’d get there eventually. Nikki was certain of it, but she wasn’t about to wait around and watch the shit show from the sidelines. She’d seen enough to last her a lifetime and to make her want to swear off men and marriage forever.

“Take a vacation,” Jordan said. “You’re long overdue for some time off, and I’ll send you anywhere you want to go. Zane will make the jet available to you after they drop me in Houston for his show. Just say the word.”

Nikki wanted to laugh at the irony of Zane making it possible for her to get as far away from him as she possibly could. That would make them both happy. He didn’t like her any more than she liked him—probably because he knew she was wise to him and not buying his bullshit the way Jordan did.

“That’s all right.” Zane was the last person on earth she wanted to be beholden to for anything. “I’ll make my own arrangements as soon as I can pack up my stuff here and get it into storage.”

Jordan stopped what she was doing with the sniffing and packing. “You’re serious.”

“Dead serious,” Nikki said, six steps beyond exasperated. This conversation was so typical as to be comical—Jordan listened to every other word Nikki said and then acted surprised when she finally heard something Nikki had already told her four times. Except it wasn’t funny anymore. Not to her anyway. “It’s time, J,” she said gently. “We’re twenty-seven and still joined at the hip.”

“So what? The Kardashians are older than us and together every minute of every day. No one thinks that’s weird.”

If she had to hear one more word about the Kardashians, the family Jordan held up as the example all reality TV stars aimed to emulate, Nikki was going to lose her shit. “Um, everyone thinks they’re weird. Everyone except for you, that is.”

“And the twenty million people who follow their every move,” Jordan said disdainfully. One of Jordan’s life goals was to have as many Twitter followers as Kim. She’d been well on her way with three million followers when the sex tape exploded her numbers to ten million. In Jordan’s twisted mind, Zane got credit for making her even more famous, the same way a sex tape had exploded Kim onto the national stage once upon a time.

Nikki couldn’t handle her sister’s twisted mind or the twisted world in which she and Zane lived and worked. However, Nikki would miss Jordan’s Bel Air estate, which had been home to them both for the last three years. Nikki’s apartment was totally separate from Jordan and Zane’s part of the house, but she couldn’t live for one more day under the same roof as that man.

No, the only roof she wanted to be under was the new one Riley McCarthy had put on their grandmother’s home on Gansett Island. Although, the thought of Gansett in January did give her pause. She’d never been there in the winter, but at least she knew the roof was solid. Riley was a man of his word. Nikki had known him only fleetingly, but she knew that much, and the roof would be as solid as he was.

Perhaps a few weeks under that solid roof, away from the endless calamity that was her sister’s life, would give Nikki the space and perspective to figure out who she was beyond Jordan Stokes’s identical twin sister and faithful assistant. She needed her own life and identity. Hopefully, some time away from it all, some time in her favorite place in the world, would help her to figure out what that life might entail.

 

Chapter 2

The first big difference between Gansett in the summer and Gansett in the winter was the ferry ride. Holy crap, Nikki thought as the ferry crested one enormous wave after another. She’d never been seasick in her life, but this trip was testing that record, especially with people discreetly throwing up all around her.

Air—she needed fresh air, and she needed it right now. She zipped up the heavy coat she had bought for the trip and pulled on a hat and gloves before stepping into the frigid air. The sky was gray and stormy, the seas churned, and the island was shrouded in thick haze as the ferry rose and fell with the tumultuous ocean.

This is what adventure feels like, Nikki thought, almost gleeful after declaring her independence from the sister who’d begun to suck the life out of her with the never-ending drama she thrived on. Standing at the rail, Nikki held on tight to remain standing. Despite their physical similarities—even their own mother mixed them up on occasion—Nikki and Jordan had always been polar opposites. While Nikki was usually content to stay home with a good book, Jordan wanted to be out and about, to see and be seen. When Nikki wanted to go for a hike, Jordan wanted to go shopping. Nikki would eat anything, while Jordan was a vegetarian, a part-time vegan and on every fad diet that came along.

Being Jordan’s assistant had exhausted Nikki. Being her sister had become almost as grueling a job. The time apart would do them both good. They were long overdue to start carving out identities separate from each other. Even after Jordan married Zane, she still spent more time with her sister than with her husband. Perhaps that was part of the reason their marriage was so toxic. If they were going to make it work, they needed her out of the way—and there was nothing she wanted more than to be far, far away from the Zane and Jordan freak show.

Why was she even thinking about her sister when she’d traveled three thousand miles to escape her and the madness that came with her? Although, thinking about Jordan first was ingrained in her after being her assistant for the last three years. In that time, Jordan went from a contestant on a dating show to a major reality TV star to the wife of one of music’s biggest stars to sex-tape queen. Nikki’s job had been to see to the myriad details that came with being Jordan.

Nikki would need an exorcism to reboot her thoughts and turn the focus away from her sister so she could figure out her own life, such as it was. She hadn’t had much of a life of her own since she’d started working for Jordan. When was the last time she’d done anything that was just for her?

Yesterday, she thought, recalling how she’d stepped onto an airplane for a trip that had nothing to do with her sister. Prior to that, Nikki honestly couldn’t recall the last time she had done anything that didn’t in some way involve Jordan. Last fall when she’d made this trip, it had been with and for Jordan after Zane released the tape that had immediately gone viral.

Jordan had wanted to be somewhere no one could find her. Nikki had immediately thought of their grandmother’s home on Gansett, where they’d spent summers with their mother and grandmother while growing up. Those had been some of the best times of their lives, and Jordan had quickly agreed to Nikki’s plan to hide out on Gansett where no one would think to look for her.

Being there had been so restorative, at least it had been for Nikki, but Jordan had gotten restless after two weeks and had wanted to go home. Nikki had suspected that her sister had been talking to her husband, and thus the hasty departure. It hadn’t taken much effort to discover that Zane was the reason they’d left Gansett right when things were getting interesting. If you could call a new roof interesting.

The man installing the roof had been extremely interesting. And kind. And handsome. And incredibly sexy. She’d liked talking to him, and she’d appreciated how quickly he’d fixed the leak that had damaged the ceiling in her bedroom. He was a take-charge kind of guy who got things done. As a take-charge person herself, Nikki respected that quality in others.

She’d thought of him often during the months since she’d left the island. Because Jordan had been in such a rush to leave, Nikki hadn’t gotten the chance to say goodbye to Riley. That was probably why she’d thought of him so often. She’d felt bad about disappearing on him when he was putting a new roof on the house.

It wasn’t like he needed her there to get the job done, but she hadn’t felt right about leaving without a proper goodbye. Hopefully, she’d run into him on the island while she was there. If he was even still there. For all she knew, he could’ve been wrapping up a summer job and had gone back to his regular life, wherever that was. She wished she’d thought to ask him if he lived on the island year-round or only during the season.

She wished she’d thought to ask him a lot of things.

Like whether he had a girlfriend.

Nikki laughed into the brisk breeze. A sweet, nice guy who looked like he did probably had all the girlfriends. If she allowed herself to believe he was probably a player, she could feel better about missing the chance to get to know him better.

The ferry crested a huge wave, teetered at the top and then plunged into the trough with a stomach-dropping slide. Nikki’s tenuous grip on the rail was all that kept her from falling.

A shout from her left had her looking up at a handsome, rugged-looking man rushing toward her. He wore a knit hat and a coat with the word CREW under the logo for the Gansett Island Ferry Company.

“You need to be inside, ma’am,” he shouted over the wind. “It’s not safe out here.”

She noted a lovely Irish lilt to his voice. “People are getting sick in there. I’m better off out here.”

“Not if you go overboard,” he said. “I’m afraid I have to insist.” He gestured toward the door, and Nikki stepped into the pervasive stench of vomit.

The man followed her in.

“See what I’m saying? I’ll get sick in here. I won’t out there.”

“Come with me.” He led her to a stairway that took them to the bridge, where the door was propped open to allow in fresh air. “Have a seat.” He gestured to a seat next to the man who stood at the helm.

“It’s pretty ugly out here, Seamus,” the captain said. “I think we need to call it a day after this run.”

“Aye, you read my mind. I’ll call it in.” He used his cell phone to place a call. “This is Seamus. We’re suspending service for the rest of the day.” He listened for a minute. “Tell them we’re sorry. They’ll have to come back tomorrow. It’s too rough for the fuel trucks anyway.” After listening some more, he said, “We’ll let them know in the morning. Talk to you then.” He ended the call and glanced at her. “You feeling okay?”

“Yes,” Nikki said. “Thank you.”

“Are you that… that girl on TV?” the other man asked. “Jordan Stokes?”

“No, I’m her twin sister.”

“She’s hot.”

Nikki was never quite sure how to respond to comments like that about her identical twin. Jordan was hot, but Nikki wasn’t, apparently. Of course, Nikki had never starred in her own sex tape, so there was that. “If you say so,” she said to the grinning ferryboat captain.

“Ah, yeah, and that tape… Whoa.

“Shut yer trap and drive the boat.” Seamus scowled at the younger man before returning his attention to Nikki. “Sorry about that, love. Some people talk before they think.”

“Apologies,” the younger guy said.

“It’s okay,” Nikki said, relieved to see the breakwater at South Harbor coming into view. All her life, the pile of rocks that made up the entrance to the harbor had represented home to her. Even though they’d come only for the summers, Nikki had never felt more at home anywhere than she did at her grandmother’s house on Gansett Island.

They’d had a nomadic upbringing thanks to the custody battle that had resulted in the girls spending the school year with their father and holidays and summers with their mother, whose mental health and addiction challenges had made for a chaotic childhood for her daughters.

Nikki had had enough chaos growing up to last her a lifetime. She found it interesting that while she ran from the drama that had defined their upbringing, Jordan seemed to embrace it. The peaceful vibe of the island was just what Nikki needed to regroup and figure out her next move. It worried her that Jordan seemed to be following in their mother’s troubled footsteps. As much as Nikki worried about her sister, however, she couldn’t live her life for her or keep her from making destructive decisions. She would focus exclusively on herself and her own life for the next little while.

Jordan had been extremely generous in the years that Nikki had worked for her, and she had enough money to live comfortably for quite some time, which was a relief. Her grandmother had told her to make herself at home at the house for as long as she wanted to be there. She would hit the grocery store to stock up on what she needed and then hibernate for the next few weeks with her e-reader. Downtime was what she needed after the last few months of high drama.

The younger captain left the bridge to use the aft controls to expertly turn the huge ferry and back it into port. Nikki never ceased to be fascinated by how easy they made that look.

She extended her hand to Seamus. “Thank you so much for letting me sit up here.”

He surprised and charmed her when he kissed the back of her hand. “My pleasure. I hope you enjoy your stay on the island.”

She noticed a shiny gold wedding ring on his left hand. Too bad. Otherwise, she might’ve asked if he wanted to get a drink. The man was too handsome—and charming—for her own good. “I’m sure I will. It’s my favorite place in the world.”

“Aye, mine, too. Hope to see you around town.”

“Hope so. Take care.” She went down two flights of metal stairs to get into the black SUV she’d rented for a month. As always, it took about ten minutes after docking before the cars toward the front of the ferry started rolling off the boat. Usually, the ferry landing was a madhouse of people and bikes and strollers and cars and forklifts and frenetic activity. Today, she drove into a ghost town.

The difference between summer Gansett and winter Gansett was… day and night. For the first time since she’d hatched the plan to come to the island, she experienced the tiniest bit of concern about being here alone during the winter. She’d promised her grandmother she’d check in daily in exchange for Gran turning on the cable and internet service. Some things a girl shouldn’t have to do without. HGTV, Netflix and Instagram were at the top of her must-have list, along with the food she stopped to pick up at the island market, which was also deserted. The woman working the cash register was reading a book with her feet up on the checkout counter when Nikki walked in.

“Hey,” she said. “We’re closing in twenty minutes.”

“I’ll be quick.” She moved swiftly through the store, putting the essentials in her basket—soy milk, which she was always surprised to find on the island, granola, yogurt, salad fixings, deli turkey, chicken breasts and Fritos. They counted as a necessity, as did the M&M’s and the tabloid magazines she snagged at checkout.

This is a vacation, she told herself, thus the need for some reading material. “Wait one second,” she said, moving to the rack that held paperback books. She picked up a couple of romances and a thriller that was being made into a movie and added them to her order. Oddly enough, she sometimes preferred paperbacks when she was on Gansett.

Netflix, books and Fritos. What else did she need to be happy? Her camera, which was never far from her side. After receiving her first thirty-five-millimeter camera from her dad at Christmas when she was thirteen, Nikki had been hooked. She never felt more inspired to take pictures than she did on Gansett, where the rugged scenery and ocean views provided an endless tableau to explore.

Suddenly, she was excited again. Tomorrow, she’d get outside, take some pictures and get back to doing the things she loved. While she’d been busy putting out Jordan’s fires, she’d had little time for herself. Now she had nothing but time, and as she headed toward Eastward Look, her grandmother’s comfortable oceanfront home, Nikki couldn’t wait to be completely alone.

 

After work, Riley showered and shaved and put on a flannel shirt with good jeans, classified as such because he’d never worn them to work. He even put on a tiny bit of cologne. One never knew when one might meet someone special. It was best to be prepared.

“You done primping, pretty boy?” Finn called to him. “Let’s go already!”

“Showering doesn’t count as primping,” Riley informed his brother. “And tomorrow, we’re cleaning this house.”

“Shut up, Dad.”

“Seriously, Finn, it’s disgusting. We haven’t cleaned once since Dad moved out two months ago.”

“You can clean. I plan to sleep all day.”

“You’re helping me.” Riley stepped over a pile of dirty clothes in the living room. “Most of the mess is yours.”

“Life is too short to clean.”

“Your life will be shorter if you don’t clean that bathroom, because I will kill you and bury what’s left of you in the backyard. You got me?”

“Whatever. Can we drink now?”

“I mean it, Finn! This place is gross, and it’s freaking me out.”

“Fine. Tomorrow we’ll clean, but tonight we drink. Yes?”

Riley rolled his eyes at the brother who was a year younger than he was and pushed past him, taking a bottle of water from a fridge full of science experiments. Their father would flip his lid if he could see the condition of the house where the three of them had lived until their dad moved in with his fiancée, Chelsea.

The two of them were trying to have a baby, which meant his sons saw much less of him than they had during the year they’d lived together in the small three-bedroom house. It’d been spotless on their dad’s watch, but since he left, things had gone rapidly downhill.

While Finn drove them into town, Riley guzzled the water that would keep him from being hungover tomorrow. “Who else is going?”

“I told Mac, and he was interested. He said he’d see if Maddie minded if he went out, and he was going to tell the others. I guess we’ll see.”

“Having a wife seems an awful lot like having a mother,” Riley said.

“Only with regular sex.”

Riley choked on his water. “Shut the fuck up,” he sputtered, wiping water off his chin. “Oh my God, you’re disgusting.”

Finn howled with laughter.

“Don’t put those images in my head.”

“Speaking of Mom…”

Riley groaned. “Stop!

“Seriously, have you talked to her lately?”

“Not in a few weeks. You?”

“Nada. She’s been noticeably absent since she came to visit. I think she was really bummed—and surprised—that Dad is so serious about Chelsea.”

“Why should she be either of those things? She’s the one who left him. And Dad’s a good guy. Did she think he’d be alone for the rest of his life?”

“Who knows what she was thinking?” After a pause, Finn said, “Do you think she has regrets?”

“Of course she does. That was obvious when she was here. Dad was right to shut her down and not let her rehash it all. What does it matter now?”

“You sound like you’re still really pissed with her.”

Was he? He hadn’t given it much thought, but then again, he tried not to think too much about his mother or the way she’d chosen to end a thirty-year marriage.

“Are you?” Finn asked, glancing at him. “Pissed with her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a little. I just think the way she went about it was shitty. If you want out, get a divorce, but taking off with a younger guy and humiliating your husband of thirty years, who is a good guy? It’s just kinda…”

“Sordid?”

“Among other things. I’m so glad we aren’t still living in Westport, where the whole town knows what she did. I can’t believe she’s still there.”

“Being there would be hideous with everyone knowing that.”

“Definitely.” Riley had stayed far away from social media since his mother had left his father. He had no desire to know what the people at home were saying about his family.

“Why are we talking about this shit anyway?” Finn asked as he hung a left into the parking lot behind the Beachcomber.

“Because you wanted to talk about having regular sex with your mother.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Finn said, laughing. “I never said that.”

The lot, which would be full in the summer, had about five cars, one of them belonging to Chelsea and another to their father, Kevin.

“Looks like the old man’s in residence,” Riley said.

“As usual when Chelsea’s working. Let’s go see what he’s up to.”

Wind whipping off the water smacked his face as Riley ran after Finn, up the back stairs to the iconic white hotel that anchored Gansett’s downtown, if you could call a collection of hotels, restaurants and stores a “downtown.” They walked into the bar, where their dad was sitting with two other guys while Chelsea tended bar.

“Hey!” At the sight of them, Kevin McCarthy’s handsome face lit up with a huge smile. His obvious adoration of them used to mortify his sons when they were younger. Now they knew to expect it—and had come to appreciate his unwavering devotion. “It’s my boys. Riley, Finn, you know Shannon O’Grady, and I don’t think you’ve met Niall Fitzgerald. These two blokes have nearly got me talked into a trip to Ireland.”

“Nice to meet you.” Riley shook hands with Niall as Finn followed suit. “And good to see you again, Shannon.”

“Likewise,” Shannon said.

“What’re you guys up to tonight?” Kevin asked.

“Same as you—beer and food,” Finn said. “In that order.”

“Join us,” Kevin said as Shannon and Niall moved over to make room for them.

“Hey, guys,” Chelsea said, smiling as she came over to greet them. “Good to see you. Can I get you the usual?”

“Works for me,” Finn said, bellying up to the bar on the other side of Kevin.

“Me, too,” Riley said. “Thanks, Chelsea.” Riley liked the woman his father had fallen for, but sometimes it was still strange to see him with someone other than their mother. Over the past year, he and Finn had mostly gotten used to the two of them together.

Chelsea put a bottle of Bud in front of Finn and an Amstel Light in front of Riley.

“Does that stuff even count as beer?” Finn asked, as he always did.

Riley ignored him—as he always did—and took a healthy drink from his bottle.

“Are you guys eating?” Chelsea asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Finn said. “I’ll have a bowl of chowder and a cheeseburger with everything, please.”

“I’ll have the same, but make mine—”

Plain,” Kevin, Chelsea and Finn said together.

“One burger, no gaggers, coming right up,” Chelsea said, using his favorite word to describe the gross shit everyone else seemed to put all over their food.

Riley made a face at them. So sue me, he thought. I don’t like my burger loaded down with crap. “That word is trademarked.”

“We’re just messing with ya,” Kevin said, nudging Riley with his shoulder. “You know that.”

“I know.” Riley focused on his beer, depressed to realize that it didn’t matter if he was at home or out. He still felt shitty.

The feeling stayed with him as they ate and visited with their father, Shannon and Niall. Shannon’s cousin, Seamus, joined them, as did Mac, Shane and Adam, all of whom seemed excited about an impromptu boys’ night out in the middle of the week. Their musician cousin Evan was touring in Europe this winter with his wife, Grace, and Grant was in Los Angeles, working on the movie based on the life of his wife, Stephanie.

Mac squeezed Riley’s shoulders. “How’s it going?”

“Good, you?”

“Excellent. I had dinner with my wife and kids and got a free pass on baths to have some beers with my boys. Life is good.”

Riley found it funny that a get-out-of-jail-free card was all it took to make Mac happy. What would it take for him to say that? Riley didn’t know. Maybe it was time he figured that out. The aimlessness he’d felt lately was starting to wear thin.

The bar filled up with more people he knew—his uncles Big Mac and Frank along with Big Mac’s best friend, Ned Saunders. Alex and Paul Martinez came in together, followed by Joe Cantrell and Luke Harris.

“Damn,” Chelsea said, smiling. “And here I thought it was going to be another quiet winter night around here.”

“Nothing quiet about it when the McCarthys show up,” Kevin said.

“Don’t I know it?” she replied as she drew one beer after another from the taps.

“Can we put the Bruins on, Chelsea?” Finn asked, scowling at the TV where one of the entertainment shows was previewing the Golden Globes.

“I get hockey after she gets her fill of celebrity gossip,” Kevin replied. “That’s our deal.”

Finn rolled his eyes.

Riley tipped his head, asking his brother to come closer.

“What’s up?”

“Just wanted to say thanks. You know, for asking the guys to come out tonight.”

“I hardly had to twist their arms.”

“Still, I know why you did it, and I appreciate it.”

“No problem. I figured out what’s wrong with you, by the way.”

“Gee, I can’t wait to hear this.”

“I saw this thing on TV about seasonal affective disorder. It’s when people get depressed at certain times of the year. You never have liked winter very much. That could be what it is.”

Riley loved his brother. He truly did. There was no one he’d rather hang out with—most of the time. So rather than laugh in his face when Finn was being dead serious, Riley only nodded and said, “Could be.”

“Ask Dad about it.”

“Ask Dad about what?” Kevin said, overhearing them.

Great, Riley thought. Just what I need is a consult with Dr. McCarthy.

“I think Riley has seasonal affective disorder.”

Kevin’s relaxed expression immediately sobered. “What makes you say that?”

“He’s depressed and gloomy. Has been for weeks.”

“Finn. Jesus. I am not depressed or gloomy.”

“Yeah, you are. You’re both.”

“Finn, give us a minute, will you, son?”

“Gladly.” Finn gave Riley a pointed look, silently urging him to talk to their father, and went to sit at the long table Mac and the others had made by pushing a bunch of smaller tables together.

“What’s going on?” Kevin asked, signaling to Chelsea to bring them refills.

She put the beers on the bar in front of them.

“Thank you, honey,” Kevin said with a warm smile for her. Then he glanced at Riley and raised that brow of his. He got a lot done with that damned brow. “So…”

“I don’t know what Finn’s talking about,” Riley said, unwilling to discuss the funk that had begun with Nikki’s sudden departure with his father, who’d want to pick it apart. It had happened. It sucked. He’d get over it. End of story. “Everything is fine.”

“Haven’t seen much of you since I moved in with Chelsea.”

“Phone works both ways, Dad.”

“True,” Kevin said with a sheepish grin. “I guess I got used to you being the one to hit me up rather than the other way around. You’re better than I am about keeping in touch, so I guess it’s noticeable when you stop calling.”

“I’ve just been busy. We’re hard into it at the Wayfarer and trying to meet a tight deadline. I’m exhausted after work most days, and all I want is to eat and sleep.”

“You’re not sick or something, are you?” Kevin asked, alarmed.

“Stop being a doctor, would you, please? I’m fine.”

Kevin studied him as he took a drink of his beer. He’d told Riley once that he nursed two every night that Chelsea worked so he wouldn’t get fat on beer. At fifty-two, Kevin McCarthy was a long way from fat. The guy looked forty on a bad day and was trying to have a baby with his much-younger girlfriend. Eighteen months after his marriage had ended, he’d found a whole new life with Chelsea.

“If you need me, you know where I am. Right?”

“Yes, Dad. I always know where you are. Thank you for your concern, but there’s nothing to worry about.”

Seamus came up to the bar to order another beer. Glancing at the TV, he said, “Hey, I brought her twin sister over today.”

Riley looked up and did a double take when he saw Jordan Stokes appear on the entertainment show. Then he realized she was with Zane, the rapper ex-husband who’d released the infamous sex tape. The headline on the bottom of the screen read: Reunited and it feels so good.

Oh my God! She’s back with that guy? After what he did to her?

Better still, Nikki was on the island? Riley pulled out his wallet, tossed a twenty on the bar and said to his father, “If I borrow your car, can you get a ride home with Chelsea? I’ll get it back to you tomorrow.”

“Where’re you going?”

“Something I gotta do, and Finn drove. Yes or no on the car?” Riley was unable to wait even one more minute to get out of there.

Kevin handed over his keys. “Been years since one of you took my car.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’ll take good care of it.” Riley bolted out of there before anyone could stop him or ask questions or get between him and…

He was in the parking lot when he stopped to ask himself what the hell he was doing rushing to see her the second he heard she was back on the island. In his father’s car, which bore the citrusy scent of the cologne Kevin had worn for as long as Riley could remember, he sat staring out the windshield for a long time.

Long enough that Finn had time to come after him and tap on the window.

Reluctantly, Riley put it down. “What?”

“Where’re you going?”

“I have an errand to run.”

“Out at the Hopper place, by any chance?”

“Fuck off, Finn, and go back inside, will you please?”

Rather than fuck off, however, his brother leaned against the car, apparently settling in for a chat. “What’re you doing, Ri?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Since when is your life none of my business? We’ve been in each other’s business all our lives.”

Riley couldn’t argue with that. But for some reason that he couldn’t explain to himself, let alone his brother, Riley wanted to keep where he was going and why to himself. At least until he better understood the immediate need to go to her after hearing she was back. “Could I just please have a little bit of space? Is that too much to ask?”

“Nope, not too much to ask as long as it’s not the start of a new pattern in which you act like I have no right to know what’s going on with you.”

“It’s not,” Riley said, eager to be on his way.

“Good. I’ll hold you to that.”

“Fine.”

“Fine. Go do your little errand.” Finn pushed himself off the car and headed back inside, his distinctive stride—part strut, part prowl—as familiar to Riley as anything in his life.

Riley started the car and backed it out of the parking space. His heart raced with excitement that he’d never felt before when it came to any woman. Why did he feel that way about one he’d seen exactly twice in his life before she disappeared without a word months ago?

Damned if he knew, but he was drawn to her anyway. He had questions, and he hoped she would have some answers. Maybe after they talked, he’d feel more settled and could put this madness—and the accompanying glum mood—behind him once and for all. That’d be a relief.

He drove toward the island’s north end, where Nikki’s grandmother’s house was located. The last time he’d been out that way had been in the fall when the trees had been turning and the sky bright with sun. Tonight, the roads were dark and coated with a thin layer of ice that made for treacherous driving.

He slowed to a crawl. The last freaking thing he needed was to wreck his father’s prized BMW in his haste to see Nikki. As he took the turn into the Hoppers’ driveway, the car fishtailed, but thankfully, he was able to maintain control. Riley wondered if the elements were sending him a sign that maybe this trip to the Hopper house in the dark of night wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had.

Recalling how skittish Nikki had been in the bright light of day had him worried that he might scare her by showing up this way. What if she had a gun in the house? Riley wished he had her phone number so he could call her and tell her it was him, but they hadn’t gotten that far the first time around.

The porch light came on along with security lights that lined the driveway and lit up the yard.

Leaving the car running and the lights on, he got out and held up his hands, just in case she had a gun. “It’s Riley McCarthy,” he called out. “I heard you were back, and I wanted to see you.”

A number of locks disengaged, the door opened, and there she was. Her big brown eyes were just as he remembered, the most dominant feature in a strikingly pretty face that was on full display. Her long dark hair was piled on top of her head in one of those messy buns that looked incredibly sexy on some women, including this one.

When it became clear she didn’t have a gun, he put down his arms. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“What’re you doing here?”

Right then, it occurred to him that the odd zing of attraction he’d felt for her had been one-sided—and he’d made a total fool of himself trekking out here in the dark to see her. “I… I’m not entirely sure.”

She seemed as confused as he suddenly felt. “My grandmother told me you finished fixing the roof.”

“Yes, I did.”

“So…”

“I heard your sister was back together with Zane and that you were here. I wondered if…”

“What did you wonder?”

God, he was a total ass on a fool’s errand. Since this couldn’t possibly get any worse, he went with the truth. “I wondered if you might need a friend.”

She was silent for so long, he questioned whether she had heard him. Then she said, “Do you want to come in?”

“I don’t mean to bother you.”

“I was watching TV and eating a frozen pizza. It’s no bother.”

“Let me turn off the car.” He got back in the car and shut off the engine. The lights were automatic and would shut off on their own. Jogging toward her front door, he told himself to calm down and take it easy. Oh, and stop acting like a fool. That would be good, too.

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