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Riley & Nikki

He barely knew her, and he can’t forget her…

It’s the dead of winter on Gansett Island, and Riley McCarthy’s mood matches the lousy weather as he and his family work to bring their new business, McCarthy’s Wayfarer, back to life. He can’t deny that he’s been in a funk since Nikki Stokes and her twin sister, Jordan, left the island last fall without saying goodbye. Riley, who’d been hired to fix the leaking roof at their grandmother’s home, had liked talking to Nikki and had been looking forward to getting to know her better when she disappeared. Months later, he still thinks of her every day, even if he wishes he didn’t. She’s hard to forget.

As the manager for Jordan’s reality TV career, Nikki finds herself square in the middle of the kind of drama she’s had more than enough of, especially since her sister plans to go back to the husband who released a sex tape that devastated Jordan last fall. Enough is enough for Nikki, who quits her job and heads for her happy place—her grandmother’s oceanfront home on Gansett Island, hoping she might run into the sweet, sexy guy who fixed the roof last fall. She liked talking to him and wonders if he stayed on the island for the winter. She really hopes he’s still there.

The minute Riley hears that Nikki has come back to Gansett Island, he has to see her. He has to know if the spark of attraction he’d felt for her is still there, and more than anything, he’d love to know why he’s thought more about a woman he met exactly twice than he ever has about anyone else. Come back to Gansett Island for Riley and Nikki’s sweet, sexy story and catch up with many of your favorites, including Mac and Maddie, Adam and Abby, Shane and Katie and Kevin and Chelsea! 

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Mine After Dark

(Gansett Island Series, Book 19)

By Marie Force
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.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

~ Calvin Coolidge

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