When Hunter and Carey decide they want to live with their father in California, Mackenzie knows right away that she’s in for a tough time. And she couldn’t be more right.
The two boys show her on a daily basis that she’s not good enough for their dad. In fact, they make it quite clear their lives would be better without her. But could it be that Hunter has quite a different motive for hating her?
I first met Carter on a Friday. I was standing talking to someone when he came in, and it was like every atom in the room was immediately drawn in his direction. The oxygen, the people, even the flowers turned their heads to look at him. His presence was so powerful I couldn’t help stepping a little closer. When his eyes met mine, an electric shock went through my body. I was literally glowing, and in that fraction of a second, I imagined what it would be like to be his woman. And then…
His eyes moved on to the next object, not even acknowledging my presence, leaving me absolutely crushed. I wasn’t worth a second look. Swallowing hard, I watched him walk over to Brittany, who had been in charge of interior design at his new company headquarters. I’d had nothing to do with the project—I was just here to support my best friend on what was going be a big evening for her.
And I had never felt as much contempt for anybody as I felt for her in that particular moment. Even though I loved her to pieces.
Carter Tilman, head of Tilman Finance Group, had occupied the number-one spot on our girls’ talk agendas the past few weeks. God, was he handsome, Brittany had told me so many times I’d started rolling my eyes at her. But now I saw him in the flesh. He was blond and blue-eyed, about six-foot-two and, from what I could see under his suit, well built. The perfect combination of sleek and edgy, he immediately made me imagine him being a somewhat less-than-perfect gentleman in private quarters.
But there he was, talking to Brittany! Not even giving me a second of his attention.
I kept watching him, inconspicuously following him around, trying to be near him. But not once did I manage to capture his attention. It made me feel small and insignificant. In his world, I didn’t even exist.
Just before midnight, Brittany signaled to me that she was done. With a slight sense of regret, I left. After all, there was no reason for me to stay. It would just make me sad.
Outside, I said goodbye to Brittany and her colleagues before walking over to my car. I was just about to open the door when somebody behind me said, “I was hoping to be introduced to you.”
Every molecule of my body strained toward him, but I didn’t want to make a complete fool of myself, so I made a point of turning around slowly. “Really?” I asked, feigning disinterest.
He came closer, nodding. “You’re stunning. I just have to kiss you.”
And kiss me, he did. Our first kiss, which led to many others. Our first encounter, which turned into hundreds. Two lives fused into one.
Which leads me to the here and now, almost one year later.
“Are you excited?” he asks.
I nod, kneading my fingers. “Oh boy, am I excited,” I say in a strangled voice.
He laughs, quietly stroking my cheek. “Just don’t show any fear. They’re like predators. They can sense it.”
“Please tell me you’re joking!”
“I’m sure they’ll like you.”
“They” are his sons. Hunter and Carey. Ages seventeen and fifteen. I haven’t met them before because they live with their mother in Miami. But they’re coming to spend the summer with their dad in San Diego. And here I am. I can’t escape the inevitable, even though it scares the living daylights out of me. Seriously, I’ve never been this nervous, not even during finals week in college.
“Relax, sweetheart,” Carter says, reaching for my hand. He runs his fingers across my knuckles soothingly.
I look at him, trying to smile. It isn’t usually difficult, but today I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m meeting his sons. His teenage sons. I’m not even that much older than them… I’m twenty-five, and Carter is forty-three. Our age difference has never been a problem before, and people say age is just a number, but, come on—this just seems like a recipe for disaster.
“Here they are,” he says, pointing. Two tall boys who look a lot like Carter—and totally different at the same time—are walking across the baggage claim toward us.
Carey, the younger one, must be nearly six feet tall. He’s blond and blue-eyed like his dad. But while his father has a distinctly manly look about him, Carey brims with the beauty and energy of youth. His skin is spotless, which I take as a personal affront, because I still get zits in my mid-twenties.
Hunter is already taller than his father. He has close-cropped brown hair and brown eyes. His cheeks and chin are speckled with stubble, and for such a young man, he has a very masculine aura. The girls must be all over him. It’s true what they say. The apple does not fall far from the tree.
They’re both trying to appear cool, but I can tell they’re happy to see their dad. They each give him an affectionate hug, and he hugs them back happily. Carter has always seemed like a sexy bachelor to me, but seeing him with his sons is kind of cute.
“Okay, boys,” he says, putting his arm around me. “This is Mackenzie. Sweetie, meet Hunter and Carey.”
The boys’ bright faces darken, letting me know I don’t stand a chance. I stretch out my hand, and they do shake it, but they squeeze so hard I have to put effort into not screaming. “Nice to meet you,” I say, trying to sound cheerful.
Carter seems satisfied, at least. “Let’s go home. Mackenzie and I thought it’d be fun to have a barbecue.”
Carey turns his cold blue eyes away from me, defrosting them for his father. “Actually, we’re meeting up with some friends tonight, Dad.”
“Oh, well, why don’t we have dinner, then you can go?” Carter suggests cheerfully.
The boys seem mollified as their dad takes Carey’s bag and puts an arm around his shoulders, Hunter on his other side. They’re the perfect trio.
“Are you coming, sweetie?” Carter calls over his shoulder.
I follow them out of the airport, the lowly fourth wheel.
Back at the car, Hunter gets in front like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Carter looks irritated for a second but doesn’t say anything. Instead, he holds the back door open for me, and I silently climb into his Mercedes SUV.
Once behind the wheel, Carter is all cheer again. “What are your plans for the summer?” he asks.
“Friends, beach, babes,” Carey says automatically.
Hunter laughs. “In that order?”
Carey shrugs. “It’s not exactly a secret you go through all three of them like candy. Especially that last one.”
Carter throws his oldest a look. If I didn’t know better, I would think it was respect, but that’s impossible, right? Could a father be proud of his seventeen-year-old son’s sexual exploits? No. There must be something else behind that look.
Hunter turns around to grin at his brother. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, virgin.”
“TMI, thank you very much,” Carter says, and he actually sounds amused.
Hunter slouches down in his seat. “I thought you’d put those condoms there on purpose so we couldn’t help but find them.”
“Don’t corrupt your brother,” Carter laughs. “There’s still hope for him.”
“Did you hear that?” Hunter says. “You’re the good, normal, boring brother.”
“No, I’m not!” Carey leans forward to punch Hunter’s shoulder.
Hunter dodges it, laughing.
For some reason, I feel like I shouldn’t be here. They’re acting like I’m not here, anyway.
“Hey, boys, no punching,” Carter throws in. “Words are your weapons! You know the rules.”
“Hunter’s too stupid to use language as a weapon,” Carey grumbles.
“Stupid?” Carter repeats. “Was that report card a fake then?”
Hunter grins. “No need for that, Dad. Unlike Carey, I’ve got brains and looks.”
“Yeah, and your looks are shit!” Carey teases.
His brother turns around, looks straight at me, and then says to his brother, “I guess you want to spend the evening with Dad then…”
There’s a meaningful silence.
Carey looks at me for a second as well and then makes a cut-throat gesture with his hand, as if to threaten me, “They’re my friends, too.”
Hunter grins like a predator. “Be a good boy then.”
Carey snorts but doesn’t say anything.
I’m relieved when we get to the house—our house. Even though I know the toughest part is still ahead. Because the boys don’t know I’ve moved in with their dad. What on earth are they going to say when we tell them? It’s clear by now that they don’t hold back. And I don’t want those word-weapons trained on me…
Walking up the driveway, I look at the house like I always do. It’s huge, built for a large, happy family, and once again, I feel like an intruder. This is where they all used to live as a family. And now Carter lives here with a new woman. Me.
As soon as the boys get inside, they quietly claim the space around them. The house seems smaller with three big men in it.
“I’ll go fire up the grill, sweetie,” Carter says when I enter the kitchen.
I nod, and he gives me a hug, kissing me on the top of my head. Carey gives me a look so hostile I have to close my eyes, fighting back tears. I don’t want to show them how much they affect me.
As soon as Carter leaves, Carey steps in front of me. “Are you after our money?”
I give him an irritated look. “Excuse me?”
“Dad’s got a lot of dough. Is that what you’re after? Why else would you be with a guy twice your age?”
I’m speechless. Hunter nonchalantly leans against the fridge, not saying anything, but there’s something terrifying about the way he’s standing there all calm, his arms crossed in front of his chest. My eyes move from one brother to the other, and my mouth goes dry.
“Sweetie, can you bring out the steaks?” Carter calls from outside.
I swallow and glance at Hunter blocking the fridge. When I take one step toward him, he doesn’t budge. “Would you mind…”
He puts on his predator’s smile. “Would I mind what?”
He smiles down at me. “Say please.”
I want to tell him to fuck off but remind myself that he’s seventeen—and testing me. I can’t say to him what I would say to a twenty-five-year-old asshole in this situation. Pulling myself together, I give him my best unflinching look. “Would you please move over?”
He steps aside. “There you go, doll.”
Do not react, I tell myself. Just ignore it. “My name is Mackenzie. Or Mac.” I silently curse myself. Great job! Now he knows it bothers me, so he’s never going to stop calling me that.
Flustered, I get the steaks from the fridge and take them outside.
Carter smiles at me. “Hey.” He pulls me closer for a kiss. “Is everything okay?”
I nod. “Yup. Just weird.”
He gives me a loving smile. “I know you guys are all going to get along great. I love having my three favorite people here with me.”
I snuggle up to him until he frees himself to put the meat on the grill.
“Hunt?” he calls inside. “Can you set the table out here, please?”
As the boys come out onto the porch with plates and cutlery, I go back to the kitchen to grab the sides I made earlier.
“You haven’t answered my question,” someone says behind me, and I flinch so hard I drop the bowl in my hands. My potato salad lands on the floor, and glass shards from the bowl fly through the air. One of them hits my shin, and I stare at the red drop trickling down my leg.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” Carter calls, rushing inside, alerted by the almighty crash I just made.
“Yeah.” I nod a little too fast. “Just dropped a bowl. Sorry.”
“No problem,” he says. He comes over, picks me up, and sets me down on the kitchen island before diligently picking up the shards and throwing the rest of the bowl in the trash.
As he begins to wipe the floor up, my manners kick in. “Hey, let me do that,” I say, starting to slide off the counter.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do it.” He smiles at me, and a knot in my heart dissolves. Carter. He loves me. I love him. That’s what I need to remember.
When he’s finished, he gets out a Band-Aid and carefully places it over the little cut on my leg. “There you go. All set. I hope Hunter didn’t burn the meat.”
“I heard that,” a voice calls from outside. “Like I’d make a mistake doing something as manly as grilling meat.”
Carter laughs and kisses me before we take the remaining sides outside. Once we’re all sitting at the table, Carter looks at both boys. “Weren’t you two talking about going to football camp this summer?”
“It doesn’t start for three weeks,” Carey reminds him. “And we’ll only be gone a week.”
“What positions do you play?” I ask, just to be part of the conversation. Truth be told, I already know Hunter plays wide receiver and Carey’s a second-string quarterback, which they proceed to politely tell me. In fact, as long as their dad’s around, they’re polite and reasonably friendly. They’re not going out of their way to make me comfortable, but it’s at least possible to talk to them. However, when Carter takes a call and disappears into the house, things change quickly.
“Answer my goddamn question,” Carey snarls.
Hunter just grins and leans back, crossing his arms in front of his chest again. In a few years, he’ll be a real giant. He’s already tall, and even though his muscles are pretty impressive for a teenager, I’m sure he’ll bulk up some more.
Realizing I’m on my own, I look back at Carey. “You can stop asking. Because it’s none of your business.”
He pulls a face. “So you are a gold digger then.”
I gather up all my courage. It’s difficult to remember I’m a confident woman with Hunter staring at me like I’m some insect he’s about to crush. He somehow manages to appear both cocky and laid-back at the same time—a skill most men do not attain in this lifetime. “I-I don’t want to argue with you,” I say, trying to keep my voice from wavering. “I want to get to know you both, and get along. I’m not here to cause trouble. I love your dad.”
“News flash, doll,” Carey says. “Just because you spread your legs for our dad doesn’t mean you can wrap us around your finger. Dad’s brought home a lot of women over the past three years. They all had one thing in common. You want to know what it is?”
I shake my head, but I didn’t really think that was going to stop him.
“They’re not here anymore.”
Like I said, I didn’t want to know. “Please don’t talk to me like that.”
“Like what?” Carey asks innocently.
“Hmm,” he says, like he’s mulling it over. “To be honest, I think I’m being pleasant.” He looks at Hunter like he’s waiting for instructions, but Hunter obviously doesn’t care to interfere.
And I don’t know how to react. What am I supposed to say? “I’ll tell your father”? That’s a sure-fire way of ruining whatever chance I might still have at building a relationship with them. Or should I tell them—again—that I don’t want them talking to me like that? Only to have them ridicule me again… Maybe I should get up and leave. But then they’ll think they can do whatever they want with me.
Fortunately, Carter returns then, but he’s wearing a frown. “That was your mom,” he tells the boys. “She wanted to know where you are.”
Their expressions change immediately. Carey suddenly looks guilty, while Hunter’s face hardens.
“She said she had no idea where you were,” Carter says, his voice stern. “She was worried.”
Carey looks at the floor, but Hunter snorts disbelievingly.
“Hunter,” Carter says, frustrated, running a hand through his hair. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Hunter looks him directly in the eye. “We want to move back to San Diego.”
Carter looks stunned. “Excuse me?” he finally grinds out.
“You want me to say it again?” Hunter says.
Carter snorts. “Why?”
Hunter rolls his eyes. “You know Mom.”
“Yeah, what about her?”
Hunter runs a hand through his short hair. “She’s a mean drunk. And she brings home all kinds of men. It’s like living in a goddamn brothel.”
I swallow. I’d thought they couldn’t stand me because they loved their mom so much. But that’s apparently not it. They may have been treating me like dirt just a few seconds ago, but I can feel their pain now. No child should have to worry about whether a parent actually cares about them. I know that best of all.
Carter runs a hand over his face. “Hunter…”
“Come on, Dad! I know what you’re going to say. But we can’t stay there with Mom.”
Carter nods slowly. “Actually, you don’t know what I’m going to say.” He looks over at me quickly. “Mackenzie moved in with me a few weeks ago. So, this is her home now, too. If you two want to move back in, you have to get along with her, too.”
Carey gives his dad an exasperated look. “She moved in with you?”
“You have a problem with that?” Carter asks, and for the first time, he sounds slightly snappy.
“No,” his youngest mumbles.
“Anything’s better than staying in Miami,” he says.
Carter nods. “Mac?”
I give him a surprised look. “Yeah?”
“It’s your home, too. Are you okay with them moving in?” he asks.
“They’re your sons,” I say, even though I have to swallow before I finish my thought. “They’ll always be welcome here.” Deep inside, I thought it would be tough to spend ten weeks with them. But having them move in with us? It’s a whole different story. While Hunter’s about to start his last year of high school—and then he’ll be off to college or somewhere else—Carey would be with us for at least another three years.
Can I do this? It very well could be three years of hell lying ahead of me.
But, at this point, I’ll just have to wait and see.
Carter puts a hand on my shoulder and looks over at Hunter again. “If I let you move in here, I expect you to behave better than you did in Miami.”
Hunter and Carey both nod. “Promise,” they say in unison.
Carter snorts. Obviously, he doesn’t believe it. “Okay, we’ll still have to see. I’ll call your mom and let her know about your decision.”
“Awesome.” Hunter gets up. “Now, we’re out of here.”
“Be back at midnight,” Carter says.
“Dad, seriously?” Carey asks in the tone of a complete brat.
“You’re fifteen,” Carter responds.
“So Hunter can bring you back here at midnight and stay out another hour.”
“That’s totally unfair!” Carey whines.
Carter gives him a firm look. “What did you just say about good behavior?”
Carey gives him a sly smile. “You said better, not good.”
I struggle to keep a neutral face, because inside, I’m secretly applauding Carey. Carter though isn’t so impressed.
“Midnight,” he says.
“Can we take the car?” Hunter asks.
Carter nods. “Keys are on the table.”
They’re gone within a second.
“Rascals,” Carter says, sitting back down with me. He puts a hand on my leg. “Thank you, sweetie.”
“It’s your house, and they’re your sons. Of course they can move in with us.”
“It’s our house,” he corrects me gently.
I shrug. “Still.”
He runs a hand through his hair. “It’ll be different.”
He looks at me. “What’s wrong?”
I’m kneading my fingers, and he zooms in on them. He knows I do this when I’m nervous, so there’s no point lying to him now. “They don’t like me,” I admit.
Carter nods slowly. “Give them some time. They’ve never seen me with another woman. Only with their mom. But it’ll be okay.” I realize then that he has no idea his sons actually know about every woman he’s ever dated.
“So, I guess they don’t have a great relationship with their mom?” I say, trying not to sound like I’m prodding.
Carter shakes his head. “Not anymore. They always did before. But then she cheated on me, and I left. She started drinking, and… I guess sometimes they still hold me responsible for it.”
I take his hand. “But it’s not your fault.”
He smiles wistfully. “I know. I couldn’t stay with her. But I’m sorry my boys got hurt.”
“You’re a great dad. They love and respect you.”
He nods. “They’ve always been my number-one priority.”
“Why did they stay with their mom?”
“It’s what they wanted. Lauren was not in a good place after the divorce, and Hunter always feels like he has to take care of people. Save them. He didn’t want to leave her alone, and Carey always does what Hunter does. I’m just glad he’s somewhat of a good role model.”
A faint smile flits across my lips. “So what trouble did they get into in Miami?”
Carter smiles. “Oh, man, they messed up a few times. Nothing serious, though. Hunter got in a few fights with his coach and had plenty of detention. And they were at a few parties that were broken up by the police. Carey was caught drunk once. I’d say it’s all pretty normal for their age. Judging by what my friends say, it could be much worse. Some kids are really out there. Hunter might be a bit of a hothead, but he’s sensible enough to make sure Carey’s always safe.”
“What if they don’t accept me?” I ask.
He strokes my hand. “It’ll be fine, sweetie. Don’t give up.”
I nod, even though I know I’m in for a rough ride.
My stories are all about love, but some are of the romantic kind, some of the sad kind and others of the very steamy kind. So if you can stand drama, foul language and sex, you came to the right place.