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Maddox McKenzie never expected to be caught in the middle of a twisted high school dare, especially one that involves pretending to be engaged to a woman he can't resist. As Tessa's fake fiancé, he discovers there's more to her than meets the eye, and he's falling head over heels for the very person he promised to help.
- Mistaken Identity
- Marriage Pact
- Fake Relationship
Emilia Hudson has never been one to consider arranged marriages, especially if it meant her fifty-five year old parents would have a say, but with her dismal love life, she’s almost reconsidering.
After her latest dating disaster, Emilia writes a simple blog post that goes viral. Worse yet, people start considering her a relationship expert, and all she feels like is a fraud.
As the emails and speaking engagements start rolling in, she realizes her only option is to take the bull by the horns and run with the unexpected fame.
What she doesn’t want to do is talk about the real reason why she won’t ever fall in love again.
However, when she gets an offer she can’t refuse from a major publisher, that’s all they want her to write about, but It isn’t until she meets the man behind the proposal that she realizes why…
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I looked at my three best friends from childhood and shook my head. “We’re not bringing that up. Not today. Not ever.”
“Why?” Winter asked, wiggling her brows. “Think we’re onto something, Tessa?”
Winter’s brown hair was swept into a braid, and her blue eyes sparkled with an intensity that told me I was doomed. She still had a trace of clay along her wrist, which told me she’d been at her potter’s wheel all day and needed an outlet.
Nothing like being tricked into a dinner with friends, which was really a guise for another torture session to vent about relationships.
Or the lack thereof.
“I just think it’s silly stuff.” I waved my hand to dismiss the topic and summon the bartender. “I’m super happy. I have a super life. I have a super job. I have super friends, most of the time.” I eyed Winter suspiciously. “Things are super, and this other stuff is silly stuff.”
“Silly stuff?” Winter laughed. “Well, that’s just super.”
“Our love lives are not silly. Pathetic, maybe.” Samantha giggled. “But not silly.”
“Okay, maybe I used the wrong word, but I think bringing something up from when we were sixteen is…” I chewed on my lip briefly and drew a breath. “Unnecessary.”
Samantha pointed at me, and I tapped my foot nervously, wondering when the bartender would show up. The bartender and I had locked eyes minutes ago, and he gave me the nod, and now I was stuck listening to something I didn’t want to face because he got sidetracked. I had a bad feeling about where this little reunion Winter had so suddenly organized was about to go.
“So, you’re saying bringing up dating stuff is not so super.” Samantha winked at me and nodded, giggling. She unclasped the top two buttons on her blouse and let her hair down.
We’d decided to meet at this dive bar in the heart of Seattle, close to where Samantha worked as an executive assistant. Since it was Wednesday, I’d hoped it meant we’d all be acting like civilized adults and going home at a decent time for work the next morning. Or at least, that was what I’d hoped until I arrived and saw the mischievous looks on Winter’s, Arie’s, and Samantha’s faces.
I glanced around the crowded Seattle bar and held in a groan. The exposed brick walls were splattered from decades of spilled drinks, and the smell of stale beer lingered in the air.
Seattle was a fun town, but it always left me exhausted and wanting to go back to Fireweed Island, where I now lived.
Fireweed was a short ferry ride from the city, but it felt worlds away, and I’d never been so grateful for being dumped and abandoned by a guy because it happened on a great island where I now taught high school and loved every second of it. I’d admit the place was short on single men, but I didn’t mind being a single woman. I had the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted to do it.
What was better than that?
“All I’m saying is that digging up some childhood game is unnecessary because we’re above all that.” I sat back in the booth, feeling like I’d finally gotten my point across. “We’ve all moved on.”
Besides, I really didn’t want to bring up what I’d written down so many years ago. It seemed so juvenile and perfectly thought out like a sixteen-year-old would write.
“But have we?” Samantha asked with a smirk.
“You don’t think it’s silly or unnecessary.” Winter sat back on the creaky wooden bench. “You’re scared. You’re scared that I’m right. Besides, we promised each other that we’d bring it up if we turned thirty and were single.” She tapped the table as the bartender wandered over.
His blue eyes caught mine, and I’d be the first to admit that he was good-looking, but he was a player. It was nearly stamped on his forehead.
When I glanced at Winter, I realized either she didn’t see the stamp, or she was destined to repeat fate time and again.
“What can I get started for you beautiful ladies?” He grinned, and I noticed the dimple in his left cheek.
This night wasn’t looking good for her, or maybe it was looking great for her.
She giggled and blushed. “I’d love a gin and tonic.”
“Bringing back the oldies.” He smiled, and she giggled some more.
Winter knew how to flirt. She knew how to bring a man to his knees. She knew how to leave them wanting more. And she also knew how to pick the wrong ones.
Well, apparently, that was a common thread that bound us all, or we wouldn’t be sitting here about to dredge up an old teenage pact.
Samantha and I traded a worried glance when the bartender kneeled in front of Winter and slid her a folded napkin.
Here we go again.
She opened it up, blushed some more, and grinned before he stood back up and took the rest of our orders. The moment he left, she leaned in and sighed.
“He’s cute.” She sighed again, and Arie patted her back.
“And it looks like you might get to do something about it,” Arie teased, and Winter rolled her eyes, knowing full well she was going to dial that number sometime soon.
“Anyway, before we were so rudely interrupted,” Samantha picked up where Winter had left off.
Winter had a habit of being easily distracted, but I never got distracted. I was just never interested.
“I say we look back into history, our history, and figure out what in the world we’re doing wrong. Maybe that pact from all those years ago jinxed us.” Samantha reached for her purse.
The mere mention of the pact made me cringe.
“It’s pointless,” I assured her. “I don’t even remember what I wrote. I didn’t even remember we had a pact until you brought it up.”
And I didn’t. Kind of. Well, I remembered it, but I didn’t build my entire failed-dating career due to those tiny vows. Only part of my dating career could be attributed to those, and I would never admit it to my best friends.
“Well, I remember my part of the pact clearly.” Samantha cleared her throat and took a sip of her drink that the bartender dropped off. “Too clearly, and I think that I need to finally acknowledge that I might have been wrong.”
I gasped. “Samantha Beau wrong? That’s ridiculous.” I giggled and looked lovingly at her.
Samantha had the sweetest heart, and I cursed the men who trampled it. Repeatedly.
“You’re saying your sixteen-year-old self might have been wrong about lifelong love and relationships?” Arie laughed. “Can’t imagine that.”
“Don’t be a know-it-all,” Winter joked, and Arie laughed some more. “And for your information, we were smart enough to know that we’d need to revisit things by now if relationships hadn’t worked out for us, so here we are.”
“And you’re giving me a week? My thirtieth is so close, I can taste it.” I glared at her.
“I’m just glad I didn’t participate in your hocus-pocus of a pact.” Arie beamed, sitting proudly with a wine glass in hand.
“Because not participating in the pact has clearly helped your love life,” I said sarcastically.
“Clearly.” She grinned, scowled playfully, and let out a sigh. “I’m divorced. Yes. But I’m sure that Mr. Right is just around the corner.”
“The only thing I saw around the corner was an alley full of homeless people and a bold assortment of brightly colored tents.” I grimaced. “So sad. Although you do like camping.”
Arie scowled. “I’m not into finding an urban camper as my Mr. Right, but thanks.”
Winter shook her head. “No. That’s exactly what I’m saying. What if we’re wrong? What if we’ve had dating and men wrong this entire time? We’re not getting any younger, ladies. What if Mr. Right doesn’t exist?”
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I’m happy with my life, and I don’t need a man to make me complete.”
“Close your eyes,” Winter began, “and imagine waking up in the morning, rolling over, smelling coffee wafting through the air, and opening your eyes to see Mr. Wrong staring right back at you.”
I shuddered, blinking my eyes open. “Sounds like a nightmare.”
Winter laughed. “Yeah. It came out wrong.” She glanced at Samantha. “You try.”
“I think instead of searching for Mr. Right, we need to start looking for Mr. Wrong.” Samantha pulled out yellowed papers from her purse and slapped the pages on the table, and every nerve in my body tingled with worry.
“Still not buying it.” I smiled.
“Here’s yours, Tessa. And yours, Winter, and… mine.” Samantha slipped us all the crinkled pages, but I refused to look down.
“Go ahead, look at it,” Samantha prompted, and Winter’s eyes fell to her sheet.
“What I can’t believe is that you still had all these.” I laughed, still refusing to look down at the pact.
I knew what was on it. An ode to a crush I knew I’d never get, promised myself I never wanted, and had the wherewithal to show I could stick to my guns.
Samantha shrugged. “I thought I might need them for a scandalous bribe or something someday.” She grinned mischievously. “You know, in case I needed someone to babysit my imaginary kids at a moment’s notice.”
“Sounds about right.” I laughed.
“What does yours say? What type of man did you vow you’d never marry?” Winter asked, staring at me with wide eyes.
Even when she was annoying, she looked frustratingly cute, which was why I always got into trouble with these ladies. Each friend was so different, yet we’d all bonded over life events, goals, dreams, changing dreams, and heartaches. Winter was the Bohemian of us all, enjoying pottery and somehow managing to turn that into a business. Samantha was goal-oriented and enjoyed working in the corporate world. Last but not least, Arie went to vet school and worked in a local animal shelter as their vet.
“Go on,” Winter tried again.
I knew she already knew the answer, and so did I, but I didn’t want to say it out loud. Out of all my friends, I’d been the only one to share at the time what I’d written down. They’d all chickened out.
“When I was sixteen, all kinds of things were going on in my life, and I didn’t know any better, and I seriously didn’t give this any thought.” I scowled, feeling a gnawing sensation in my belly. I didn’t want to believe that something I’d scribbled with my teenage friends could have impacted my entire dating life for the last fourteen years.
“Fine. I’ll read mine,” Winter announced, grabbing her reading glasses from her purse and sliding them on. “Can you believe I’m at the stage where I need reading glasses?”
Arie chuckled and grabbed her own pair out of her bag. “Why, yes, I can. It’s what happens when you’re heading in the direction we’re going.”
I smoothed my blonde hair and let out a sigh of relief.
“But there is a perk.” Winter grinned. “I can’t see my wrinkles.”
We laughed, and she cleared her throat, looking down at the aged pages from a decade and a half ago.
“I hereby swear I will never marry a man with tattoos, who drives a motorcycle, who loves to ski, who cooks, has brown hair, lives on a beach, has lots of money, or has kids.” She sucked in a breath. “I vow to never marry a man like my father.”
Silence fell over our table, and Samantha reached for Winter’s hand.
“I do believe I’ve managed to avoid all of those pitfalls.” Winter looked at me and smiled.
“Yes. God forbid you were to marry a man who cooks.” I smiled back, trying to make light of a rather serious declaration.
“Or has lots of money and lives on a beach,” Arie added and pretended to shiver. “The horrors.”
“But the father thing I get,” Samantha said sympathetically.
“Me too.” I nodded, my eyes connecting with Winter’s. Just because my dad was great, didn’t make all dads equal.
“Daddy issues are the worst.” Arie shook her head solemnly.
“I don’t have daddy issues.” Winter laughed. “Do I?”
I chuckled, putting my head on the table briefly. “We’re doomed.”
Even when I was growing up, I was able to figure out that Winter’s home life was rocky. It wasn’t that she didn’t live in a spectacular home with her parents or have incredible cars parked in their driveway that carried expensive purchases from magnificent shopping sprees.
The problem was that her parents fought like cats and dogs, but that was only when her father wasn’t busy staying with one of his many mistresses.
And the reason Winter hated a house on a beach was that she and her mother had walked into their beach vacation home with Winter’s father in bed, ass up, with another woman. Winter also saw, for the first time, that her father had a tattoo on his butt cheek that had forever scarred her.
No teenage girl should ever have to see her dad’s bare butt, especially up in the air where it doesn’t belong with someone who shouldn’t be clutching it, digging her bright red nails into his pale flesh.
The image was bored into my memory almost as harshly as Winter’s because I was the first friend she’d told all about it, sobbing into the phone.
Winter had stayed at my house for weeks after that. To say she was traumatized was putting it mildly, but even fourteen years later, I never knew what that tattoo was. It never seemed like the right time to ask, and now probably wasn’t the moment either, but I couldn’t resist.
“What was the tattoo of?” I shut my mouth the moment the words flew out, wishing I hadn’t asked. The second I saw a glint of humor in her gaze, I knew it was okay.
Winter shook her head, but she started laughing. “An anchor with red roses wrapped around it and a pair of skis propped next to the roses. Underneath, it read, Anchors Don’t Weigh Me Down.”
I hid a snicker.
“Wait—roses?” Samantha asked, giggling.
“Roses? I’m stuck on the anchor and skis.” Arie laughed.
“I tried to look away, but the image is burned into my memory.” She shuddered, laughing.
“I think the whole combo is priceless.” I laughed and let out a happy sigh. “Well, I always wondered why you didn’t like skiing or men who skied.”
She smiled and pursed her lips. “Well, now you know.”
“Was your dad in the navy?” Arie asked.
“Nope. Nothing really makes sense about the tattoo.” Winter scowled and shook her head. “And my mom still won’t tell me its meaning.”
“Maybe she doesn’t know,” I offered. “I mean, I’m not sure anyone could possibly figure that one out.”
“In college, he was ski patrol, but it still doesn’t explain the anchor and roses.” She rolled her eyes. “But he does like boats.”
“At least we can laugh about it now,” I offered, and Winter agreed.
“Crazy how things, when you’re young, can stay with a person.” Arie pursed her lips together, and I glanced at Samantha.
“So, what are you two saying? That Winter should go find a guy who cooks and has a house on the beach with a boat docked out front?” I asked, and Arie laughed.
“And has tattoos?” Arie chuckled.
“Just to clear things up, I have slept with men with tattoos. I just knew I’d never marry one.” Winter grinned and looked over at the bartender.
I held up my hands and laughed. “Believe me, we had no doubt there. Seriously, though. Why dig this up? What’s the point?”
“The point is that whether Winter knows it or not, she’s limiting herself. She’s cutting herself off from love, all because of a horrible incident back in high school.” Samantha cocked her head slightly. “And I think it’s about time we start letting ourselves go in the direction where love might actually be hidden.”
“You mean hidden in plain sight?” Arie asked, and I scowled.
“Don’t tell me you’re falling for it too?” I asked. “You didn’t even write anything down.”
Arie laughed and took a sip of her drink. “Because I’m the smart one.”
“Essentially, Winter has subconsciously vowed to date slackers for the rest of her life so she doesn’t wind up with someone successful because in her mind, she equates success with men who cheat, lie, and abandon people they should care about. But as we all know, that’s not true. Successful men aren’t all like that. There are plenty of slackers who do the same thing.” Samantha caught her breath. “I’m saying it’s high time Winter raises the bar. Maybe even date a lawyer, an entrepreneur, or actually anyone with a steady job, really.”
“Well, that’s just crazy talk.” I chuckled.
“It kind of is.” Winter smiled and glanced at the bartender. “Do you realize I’ve never been in a relationship where I didn’t have to support the other person?’
“Why, yes.” I nodded. “I think it’s something we’ve all noticed and mentioned over the years.”
“So, what about you?’ Winter asked, and I froze.
I didn’t actually have to look at the paper to know what I wrote or whom I wrote it about, but I certainly wasn’t going to reveal that bit of info or I’d fall entirely into their plan.
I took a deep breath and read the words aloud, “I hereby swear I will never marry a man named McKenzie.” I sucked in a breath. “I vow to never marry a bad boy or a rebel.”
Arie’s eyes widened. “You wrote yours about the McKenzie boys? The brothers?”
“One brother,” Samantha corrected.
She obviously remembered too.
“I only knew one.” I folded my paper back up and prepared my best lying expression. “I don’t even remember his first name.”
Another lie. The thought of Morgan McKenzie still turned my insides into a wild roller coaster ride of forbidden teenage lust.
“Okay, so let’s see.” Arie sucked on her bottom lip and nodded slowly. “I think Winter and Samantha might be onto something because you have an awful problem of dating only preppy boys, and I mean boys when I say it. I don’t think you’ve ever dated a real man.”
“I do tend to date very clean-cut men with—”
“An appreciation for matching sweaters and socks, loafers, and a ton of letters and numbers after their name,” Winter interrupted me with no sign of slowing. “I mean, think about your ex-fiancé.”
“Do I have to?” I teased.
“He looked like he stepped out of an eighties frat house complete with plaid sweaters and too much cologne doused on him.”
“Well, I wouldn’t pick him now, which was why I wasn’t heartbroken when he left Fireweed to pursue his career.”
“As a school teacher,” Winter added. “On the fast track to an administration role. Wasn’t that what he’d announced to us all at the last dinner we’d had at your house?”
I’d put that night out of my head almost as soon as it had happened. My ex had already grown distant and had absolutely zero thought about anyone but himself. He didn’t care that I’d loved Fireweed or that I had dreams too. It was always him, all the time, which was why when he announced that he’d accepted another position off the island, I didn’t follow. I’d had enough. It was actually relief that filled me right up, not sadness. So, when he held a dinner party to announce to his group of friends, with a few of mine thrown in, that he was leaving for a promotion, everyone turned to see my reaction. And it was pure shock. Because he hadn’t told me yet. I learned with everyone else, and yet, I couldn’t wait to help him pack.
Winter started up again. “Anyway, I think you absolutely need to quit dating such goody-two-shoes types. You just always ignore the guy with an edge or someone who has—”
“Tattoos?” I giggled. “Should we just switch dating types? You go for the clean-cut, goody-two-shoes, and I’ll go for the bad boy rebel.”
“You said it. I didn’t.” She chuckled. “No, I just think you should go for someone who isn’t so straitlaced. Maybe you’d have more fun than you realize. Maybe date a guy who wouldn’t mind jumping out of a plane with you or hang gliding off some mountain.”
I let out a thoughtful sigh as I thought back to why I had written that pledge.
My mom’s sister had just been dumped by her boyfriend of ten years, whom she’d had three children with. My aunt and her children had to live with us off and on over the years because she could barely make ends meet. She’d given him everything emotionally, and he’d left her broken to go play in a band that never took off, but it gave him plenty of reasons to sleep around and stay out drinking.
Seeing the devastation that man caused my aunt and cousins left a scar, and it happened to be at the same time I’d run into McKenzie, a last-name-only kind of guy. He was seventeen and somehow managed to have more tats than I’d ever seen, probably using his fake id at the time to talk his way into the tattoo studio for an appointment. He lived only a few houses down the street, and his band always practiced in his garage. One day, the garage door was wide open, and he blew me a kiss. From that moment on, I avoided him like the plague.
Because he blew every girl a kiss.
And I didn’t want to wind up like my aunt.
I glanced at Winter, who was observing me, and I nodded slowly. “I think you guys are onto something here.”
“And haven’t you ever wondered who kept leaving you that white rose week after week your entire junior year?” Arie asked me.
I laughed nervously, wishing my friend had a better case of amnesia, but I’d always wondered who left those roses for me.
Every Monday morning, one would be on our doorstep. At first, I thought my brothers were messing with me, and then I fantasized that it was a secret message from Morgan McKenzie. I shook that last thought out of my head.
Arie’s eyes were wide with anticipation as she looked at Samantha. “What about you? Who did you write off?”
“I’m probably the most doomed here.” Samantha folded up her piece of paper, and Winter almost ripped it out of her hands, but Samantha was too quick.
“You’re seriously not going to tell us?” I asked, completely shocked that my friend would play such a dirty trick.
“I got cold feet.” She frowned. “I fully intended on revealing my vows.”
“That’s not fair.” Winter shook her head. “In fact, it reminds me of something a sixteen-year-old would do.”
“Actually, wasn’t this pact idea Samantha’s in the first place?” I asked.
“It was.” Arie nodded.
“All I’m saying is we’re about to turn thirty.” Winter drew a breath. “And I think it’s high time we find our Mr. Wrong and give it a shot, and I say we have until our thirtieth to do it. We need to commit to this challenge or else.”
“That gives me a week.” I slammed my hands on the seat of the booth. “That’s totally not fair, and who said I even wanted to agree to this?”
Winter smiled an all-knowing look. “You don’t want Samantha and me to be the only two trying out this theory when all three of us committed to the original pact.” Her right brow arched. “You’ve got to do this challenge with us.”
“We were teenagers,” I protested.
“I bet you’ll find the love of your life in the next thirty days,” Winter shot back. “How about that?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not buying into this, and I don’t want to play. I’ll think about what you’re saying, and maybe I’ll dabble with a bad boy, but by my birthday? No.”
“We’ll see.” Winter was readying for battle.
“You are so not off the hook.” I shot Samantha a warning gaze.
“Okay, I will fully admit that this is completely rotten of me, but how about I share my pact after you guys experiment?” She tapped her finger nervously and clutched her purse. “I got cold feet hearing you two argue, and it will all make sense once I read what I wrote, but I just…can’t. What we need to do is vow to experiment with the men who are wrong with us before we turn thirty.”
“Nice try.” I shook my head. “But you’re reading it. I turn thirty next week, and I don’t even have time to fit in a date with a bad boy.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Winter asked me. “You constantly babble about wanting to jump out of an airplane, but you don’t want the adventure of love? Not on my watch. We’re all in this challenge together.” She pointed at Samantha. “And you better read it.”
“Ditto that sentiment.” Arie stared in disbelief. “You can’t pull me along for the ride this far and not tell me what your vows were.”
“Yeah,” Winter agreed, brows furrowed. “This isn’t how we planned it.”
“Fine. But I won’t answer any questions. Not now, anyway. Deal?”
Winter and I traded glances, and I shrugged. “Fine.”
But I wondered why in the world we’d have any questions. These were pretty blanket statements coming from a sixteen-year-old’s perspective.
She dug the paper out of her purse and unfolded it. She drew a slow breath and stared at the page.
“I hereby swear that I will never date my best friend’s brother.” Her breath caught. “I vow to never sleep with him again.”
“Again?” Arie nearly choked on her drink as she slammed the glass down on the table while Winter’s eyes remained wide and locked on mine.
We all had brothers.