He Belongs with Me by Sarah Darlington
My dad, the one and only Reed Ryder, had been golfing professionally for the last quarter century. As a younger man, Dad was the shit. Golf’s golden boy. Insanely good looking. All-American. Dad’s likeability factor propelled his celebrity status to legendary overnight. Riding the waves of his new success and fame, he met my Mom—a Southern beauty with golden curls and an unbreakable spirit. The two fell madly in love, were married, and had perfect twin baby girls. Wanting a retreat for his new family that was out of the media spotlight, Dad built a beautiful house and a country club in the southern Virginia town of Blue Creek.
Talk about a golfer's wet dream. The Reed Ryder Country Club, located in the middle of nowhere, was like no other. With the help of his best friend—Leonardo Maddox the second, heir to the Maddox Hotel fortune—Dad spent millions designing and perfecting the ultimate golf getaway. Word quickly spread about the lush ‘little slice of heaven’ nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and soon others wanted in. Mr. Maddox built a luxurious hotel to accommodate the numerous vacationers and even more of the wealthy flocked in, which resulted in grand vacation homes popping up all over Blue Creek. So that's how the Reed Ryder Country Club came into existence, and how the once quiet town of Blue Creek, Virginia made its mark on the map.
The golfer, the beautiful wife, the twin girls, the best friend and his family, the country club in the mountains…this is our story.
And oh yeah, for the record, he most definitely belongs with me.
Desperation kept me from falling as I stumbled across the gravel parking lot in my red, Jimmy Choo, sky-high stilettos. God help me. I was about to enter the grungiest, ugliest, most run-down bar in the city—Mike’s Pub. I'd driven past this place countless times but never dared go inside.
My mission—my one care in the world at this moment—was to find a guy named Dean. My plan was to ask him to be my date. Tonight, the Reed Ryder Country Club was hosting its official gala to kick off the summer season and who better to accompany me than a total stranger, right? Judging by the bar I was about to enter, Dean was better off staying a stranger. Nevertheless, that's why he'd be perfect for this evening.
The goal tonight: shock and awe. A new rumor involving me, one that was unfortunately true, would begin to circulate soon, and maybe if I created a rumor of my own I could trump the first. My plan was juvenile, but it was all I had. I'd been to three other bars looking for this guy. If I couldn't find him here, then I'd be forced to head to the dance dateless. He had to be here.
As I approached the front door of Mike's, several middle-aged men—cigarettes and beers in hand—stared open-mouthed at me. I drew attention in my crimson-red Zac Posen dress, the lush material clinging to my petite body like a second skin. The dress had a long slit up one leg that would make Jennifer Lopez proud. To top off my elegant look, I’d worn my naturally platinum-blonde hair parted far to one side, circa 1920s. My hair had natural wave to it, but I'd straightened and then re-curled it in big waves to ensure that the style was just right. And it was perfect, though I hardly looked my age or appropriate for such a dive bar.
Keeping my head held high, I passed several men concealed by clouds of smoke and pushed my way through the heavy double doors into the unknown. Gulping down any remaining fear, I dared my first glance around at my surroundings. If I'd thought the outside was bad, the inside was worse…much worse. The rotting floorboards reeked of urine and mold, and the clientele wasn't much better—beer bellies and mullets were in plentiful supply. I was pretty positive all horror films started in places like this.
The infamous Dean—apparently some sort of walking sex on a stick—couldn't possibly be any of these strangers. I was beginning to think he was more fairytale than real life anyway, and therefore my brilliant idea to ask him to be my date took a nosedive straight into the trash. Settling for someone else wasn't an option either. If I wanted to shock and awe, then I couldn't arrive with Mr. Shockingly Awful. Going to the gala dateless, as pathetic as that would be, seemed like my only choice.
Accepting defeat, I headed back toward the door when a woman with the body of a flagpole approached me. She wore a tight-fitted white t-shirt, a server's apron, and a plastered-on smile. Her eyes took in my dress with envy. “Ain't you a fancy one? Ya lookin' fer someone?” Like any local in town, her voice carried a strong Appalachian dialect. Thankfully, my speech carried no trace of that distinctly southern Virginia twang, even though I had to try my best to hide it sometimes.
“Do you, by chance, know a guy named Dean? I'm not sure what his last name is.”
Realization dawned on her face. “I shoulda guessed you'd be here fer him.” The bony woman whipped around and, in no particular direction, yelled, “Dean! I found ya 'nother stray!” before facing me again. “He's workin' at the bar. Good luck, sugar. You'll need it.”
The server's slightly back-handed comments might have bothered me on a regular day, but not under the current circumstances and not with the clock ticking against me. The dance started fifteen minutes ago and this would be my only shot at a date. I sure hoped this Dean guy was everything Anita said he would be. He just had to be.
I got my first glimpse of the man working behind the counter and knew he was the one I'd been searching for. Hello, Mr. Hottie-Boom-Body. Early twenties, wickedly handsome, and totally worth the nightmare I’d suffered through to find him—thank you, Anita. But it wasn't just his pretty face that made him the perfect choice, it was his size. Between his height, width, and all the muscle in between, his size demanded attention. If I could show up with him tonight, then everyone on the gala guest list would notice. He was everything shock and awe had to offer. Now I just needed to convince him to be my date.
I walked confidently toward him like his looks weren't overwhelming. His light honey-colored, almost golden eyes locked with mine. Despite the low lighting, they stood out against his ruffled, brown hair. There was a sexy warmth about him that reminded me of something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Whatever it was, it made him the perfect choice for tonight. Not quite what I’d been expecting—better.
“You must be Dean,” I said, finally face-to-face with the guy I'd spent the last two hours trying to hunt down. Well, face-to-chest. He stood well over a foot taller than me, and up close, the intimidation factor was almost too much to bear. Behind the counter, his big hands worked quickly as they expertly mixed different drinks. I couldn’t help but think about what else he could do with those hands. At that thought, I tried to remind myself that my motivations tonight were strictly business. A slight smile formed on his lips and it helped me regain some confidence.
“You are Dean, right?”
The corners of his mouth reached wider into an even more charming smile. Did I amuse him or was the dress working its magic? He leaned over the bar to get a better look at me, and I tried not to feel flustered as he gave me the once-over.
“Who's asking?” His voice was gruff and completely void of any accent. Interesting.
“My name's Maggie Ryder.”
“As in Reed Ryder, the golf pro?”
“Yes, Reed is my dad.”
“Well then, what can I do for you, Maggie Ryder?”
There was no easy way to say what I came here to say, so I just blurted it out. “I know this is going to sound insane, but I need a date. There's a big party at my dad's golf club tonight and I absolutely, positively cannot show up alone. I need you. I need you to be my date. And I need this to happen like ten minutes ago.”
He chuckled and handed a mixed drink to a customer down the bar. When he returned, he looked as if he was waiting for me to say, “Gotcha,” but this was no joking matter. I waited for his response, and when it became clear I wasn’t messing around, the easy smile left his face.
“That's an odd request. Why me?”
I twirled a curl of my hair between two fingers—something I often did when under scrutiny—and tried to keep an even face. “I want something...um, someone different. Look, my reasons are kind of personal and I don't feel like getting into the details. I understand it's a lot to ask on such short notice, but I'm kind of desperate. Can you help me or not?”
“You're a pretty girl. I’m sure you've got the boys lined up. Besides, as you can see,” he said, indicating the dirty dive bar with a wave of one of his strong arms, “I'm kind of working.”
My eyes were having trouble leaving those arms. He certainly wasn’t a boy and I certainly wasn't after a boy. “I could pay you for your time. A couple hours, that's all I'm asking. Can you find someone to cover your shift? I'll wait if I have to.”
His jaw tightened, telling me his answer was ‘no.’
“I can't,” he stated, his voice firm and unwavering. “I'm not an escort service.”
Shame rose to my cheeks. He was right. I hadn't realized the insanity of my request until now. Did I really think I could pay a stranger to be my date? My life wasn't an eighties movie and this sure as heck wasn’t Can't Buy Me Love. This guy had morals. Where were mine? Maybe it was because of his good looks, but I suddenly felt all the embarrassment I should have earlier.
“You're right, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have wasted your time.”
I turned tail and hurried for the exit, past all the lingering eyes, and back into the cool night air. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. As fast as my Jimmy Choos would allow, I raced to my Porsche 911, aka Baby, desperate to put Mike's Pub and Dean in my rearview mirror. But it wasn't my outlandish idea that bothered me so much, it was how quick Dean had turned me down. I'd known the guy for all of five seconds and somehow he'd gotten to me.
Digging for my keys with shaky hands, I dropped my purse and its contents onto the gravel. Dang it! I bent over to gather my things, put my purse back in order, and when I made it back on my feet, a cry of shock left my lips—Dean.
Taking no notice of the heart attack he'd just given me, he crossed his arms over his broad chest and said, “I could trade a favor for a favor.” Gone was the apprehension I'd seen moments ago and instead, amusement lingered on his lips. Was he bipolar or something? “Money turns me into a slut. A favor, that's different.”
“What? You'll do it?” I asked, though inwardly wondering if I even still wanted him as my date. This guy just took confusing to a whole new level.
“That's what I just said.”
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “What kind of favor?”
He shrugged. “One to be redeemed at a later date.”
“What exactly does that mean?”
“It means I don't know what I want right this moment. Nothing sexual or illegal, of course.” He cocked his eyebrow at me. “But maybe later I'll want something in return. Does that sound fair to you?”
I stared up at his face and tried to decipher his motives. He wasn't just some backwoods country bumpkin. He was smart—smarter than his bartending job might lead one to believe. I could tell that much from the moment he first opened his mouth.
“You want me to cash you a blank check?”
“When you put it that way, you make me sound like some sleazy politician. But yes, I want a blank check. Those are my terms.”
“Nothing sexual or illegal, right?”
As he nodded, I realized that I was fine with the whole favor-for-a-favor thing, and I certainly wouldn’t complain if I had to see him again in the future. So at this point, we were just wasting time.
“Deal.” I jutted out my hand out for him to shake. “One favor to be redeemed at a later date.”
“Deal,” he said, taking my hand in his. “Pleasure doing business with you, Miss Maggie Ryder.”
AN HOUR HAD PASSED since I made my agreement with Dean and I'd spent every minute of it waiting. Waiting for him to find a replacement to cover his shift at the bar. Waiting for him to make a random phone call—probably to a girlfriend or something. Waiting for him to shower and change into some decent clothes. After what seemed like forever, he finally came out of his apartment and got in my car.
“You're worse than a girl,” I mumbled, shifting into gear and pulling away from his rundown apartment complex. Who knew hiring a date would be so much work? Trying to make up for the lost time, I drove my car like I stole it, pressing heavily on the gas and zipping down the empty streets. We were so late, I wasn't even sure if it was still worth going.
“Beauty takes time,” he said smugly. “Besides, you didn't want me going in my smelly clothes from the bar. And you've got to admit, I do clean up rather nicely.”
He looked so cramped in the small space of the Porsche that I couldn't help but smile. And he was right; he did clean up well. Maybe even a little too well. He now wore a black suit, white dress shirt, and a black tie. All of it non-designer. All of it simple. But I doubted anything ever looked simple on this guy. He could make a paper bag look good, but the suit was more appropriate for the occasion.
The fresh scent of soap and mint filled the air between us, causing me to momentarily forget everything else. I caught myself sneaking glimpses of him out of the corner of my eye and urged said eye to stay on the road. Fortunately, a potentially embarrassing situation was interrupted by a voice belonging to the object of my not-so-stealthy observations.
“Out of curiosity, who should I be thanking for the pleasure of your company tonight?”
I'd been waiting for him to ask this question. It sure took him a while to get around to it. “My friend Anita, who is also the manager at the club’s restaurant. She told me about you.”
“I don't know an Anita. Should I?”
“She didn't she say she knew you personally. She just knew of you. Or had seen you around town…or something to that effect.” I flipped the gear stick down into second as I rounded a tight corner. We'd be at Dad's country club in less than a minute. My nerves started to creep in on me now that we were getting so close. Would tonight be a horrific failure or a brilliant success? Everything hinged on the stranger seated next to me.
“What all did this Anita person tell you?”
“Not much. Just that you were handsome, wild, a local, and that people would notice you. I can't remember the exact details.”
He chuckled low to himself. “Wild? Interesting description. Are you hoping for a taste of my wild side, Maggie?”
“We're here,” I announced, completely avoiding his question.
The car jolted to a stop as we pulled into the valet parking zone, and a wave of nausea hit me like a punch to the stomach. I'd been wrapped up in the conversation with Dean, but now that we were here, all I could think about was my impending doom.
“Oh God, I don't know if I can do this,” I thought aloud.
“You can,” he said, his voice sounding kind. “Trust me, you'll be fine.”
I didn't know him well enough to trust him. And he'd only just met me so I'm not sure why he seemed so convinced I could do this. Going inside meant I'd be facing Andrew Wellington—my ex—and a major reason as to why I'd gone searching for Dean in the first place. I dated Andrew my senior year of high school and throughout the past three years of college. We did the long-distance thing, which seemed to work for us, and I figured we'd be together forever. Then he dumped me last semester and I learned that our whole relationship had been nothing more than a colossal waste of time. He'd be here tonight.
But the icing on the cake was Clara—his brand new girlfriend. Her betrayal hurt more than anything Andrew could have ever put me through, and she was the real reason I needed a person like Dean at my side. I think I'd be fine never seeing Andrew again, but I had to prove to everyone that Clara couldn't hurt me. More importantly, I had to prove to Clara that she couldn't hurt me.
“Maggie?” Dean asked. I guess I must have zoned out there for a moment. “Did you hear me, Maggie? Are you okay?”
I gulped, watching as the valet guy—Kevin—came hurrying toward my car. “Yeah, peaches,” I muttered without thinking, “just peaches.”
“Peaches? Don't you mean ‘peachy’ instead?”
I didn't answer him but jumped out of the car, followed by Dean. Without hesitation, I handed over my keys to Kevin and gave him a quick hug. He was one of Dad's loyal employees and I'd known him for years. Kevin drove my car away and I hurried for the door. Ready or not—this was it.
“Wait.” One strong hand wrapped around my arm, forcing my determined stride to a halt.
“We're already late, Dean.” My voice came out rather shaky. “Can't it wait until we're inside?” I squirmed, trying to shake off his grip, but it was no use. Dean had a firm hold on me and wasn't letting go.
“Look at me, please,” he demanded.
“No. Let. Go.”
“Sorry, but not until you look at me first.”
I twisted and turned, but he still wouldn't budge. What was his problem? Now heated, I glared up at him. At five foot nothing, I had to crook my neck just to get a good look at his face, and I was surprised to find that something protective shown in his eyes.
“You should take a breath,” he said in a soft voice. “Calm down for a moment. You're so distracted that you're blind to what's right in front of you. I don't know who your boyfriend is, what the bastard did to hurt you, or why you thought I'd be the solution to all your problems, but you need to calm down before you go inside.” His words were sincere, hardly expected from a big guy like him.
“Ex,” I corrected.
“Who cares? A woman in a red dress came into my bar tonight, and never in my life had I seen someone with so much confidence or command over a room. Where is that woman now? Get it together, Maggie. I know you're stronger than this.”
He stood over me, unmoving, while his relentless eyes continued to hold my gaze. I took in a couple of deep breaths, trying to decide if I should be flattered or angry by his comments. Never before had I been spoken to like that—at least not by a stranger. His honesty was brutal and I finally landed on angry.
“I'm fine,” I assured him through gritted teeth. “You can let go now. And don't ask any more questions because I'm done answering them. Peaches?”
“I still don't understand what that means.”
“It means let go of my arm—please.”
I yanked away and this time, he let me break free without a fight. It had been a mistake bringing him. A big one, I decided. I couldn't believe Dean had the audacity to grab me in public like that. No one had seen us—everyone was inside—but still. I rushed for the door, planning to leave him outside, but he kept close as if nothing strange had just happened, walking inside with me.
“Since you're still determined to be my date, there's one last thing you need to know,” I whispered to him as we entered. “My ex, Andrew Wellington, will be here tonight with his new girlfriend. Oh, and just a head’s up…his new girlfriend is my twin.”
I hated grass. Loathed it. And everything it represented.
With his sweaty fingers laced through mine, Andrew Wellington led me down the fairway of the sixteenth hole. If Dad knew I was out here at night—trespassing and trudging all over his precious golf course in my stilettos—he'd shit a brick. Maybe even a whole house. I didn't care. I dug my heels harder into the grass. Except with my luck, I was probably only helping to aerate the damn stuff.
The only comforting thought at the moment was that one day I'd move someplace far, far away—Arizona, specifically—where the yards were made of pebbles instead of sickeningly perfect grass. I'd leave everything behind and never come back. I didn't necessarily want to cut ties with my family, just everything else that came with being a Ryder. I already had an escape plan in the works, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I worked up the courage to actually carry it out.
“It's beautiful out here at night, isn't it?” my sister's ex-boyfriend asked. My identical twin’s ex-boyfriend of four years, to be exact. Whom I was currently dating. Or pretending to date.
He released my hand from its damp captivity and strolled a few paces ahead of me. He stood and gazed around like a total weirdo, a huge unexplained smile on his lips. It was only a golf course, for goodness’ sake—not freaking Disney World. Maybe I would admit, and only if someone twisted my arm, that most normal people might agree with Andrew. The crickets chirped. The stars twinkled. The overhead spotlights illuminated the course in a way that regular sunlight just couldn't. And something about the stillness amplified everything. Except, I just couldn't see the beauty that I knew was smack-dab in front of my face. Or even if I could see, I damn well couldn’t appreciate it.
Summer break officially started ten days ago. I'd successfully finished my junior year at Virginia Tech, and while most of my friends were off tackling their first internships, doing the horizontal tango with someone special, taking fabulous family vacations, or simply hanging behind in Blacksburg so they wouldn't miss all the summer parties, I was being held hostage here in the dreadful town of Blue Creek. Secluded, quaint, and nestled along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Population: pitiful. Historical significance: zip. Suicide rate: extremely likely. At least I could take comfort in the fact that this would be my final summer under Dad's thumb. Oh, and best of all, it was the last time I'd be stuck working at his stupid, uppity country club.
I’d been home from college all of one day before Andrew asked me out. Naturally, I declined. As my sister's ex, the guy was strictly off-limits. It didn't matter that Maggie and I weren't exactly best buds. Hell, these days we were barely on speaking terms. But I wasn't a bitch. No matter what my relationship with my sister looked like, I wouldn't stoop that low.
Still, Andrew had been annoyingly persistent. It felt nice being pursued like that, since guys typically steered clear of me. They preferred the nicer, sweeter version of myself—Maggie. But for some mysterious reason, Andrew kept at it. I'd been almost tempted (not!) until I discovered from my friend, Leah Longerburger that persistence and charm were just part of the Andrew Wellington playbook. Apparently, he got around and not just recently. When I found out the slime-bucket had been cheating on my sister—with Leah and multiple others—that's when I finally agreed to go out with him.
Come hell or high water, my mission this summer was to make Andrew Wellington regret he ever knew the name Clara Ryder. When Andrew confessed that he had feelings for me—that he'd always had feelings for me—my first thought had been absolute disgust. How could he have dated Maggie for all those years and carried some secret torch for me? But as he made his declaration of love, I hadn't missed the sincerity behind his eyes. That's when I formulated my plan to fake-date him. He'd crushed Maggie's heart and now I was going to crush his. Payback was going to be a bitch.
But in addition to hurting Andrew, I also had to protect Maggie. My biggest fear was that after I crushed and dumped Andrew, he'd go running straight back to my sister. What if she took him back? My sister let people into her heart so easily, and since she dated the dillweed for four years, I got the impression that she might still be hung up on him. My relationship with Maggie was already broken, no matter what I did. So, my great-big-awesome plan not only consisted of breaking his heart, but also giving Maggie the impression that her “perfect” Andrew was vile enough to bang her sister. Not exactly honorable, but in my deranged mind I saw the plan as brilliance.
Maybe it would’ve been easier to just tell her the truth, but I doubted she'd have believed me. I needed insurance and my plan offered that. Plus, it gave me something to do this summer. Blue Creek was dreadfully boring. A little scandal sounded fun.
“Andrew,” I whispered in my best seductive voice. “We're all alone and you're more interested in the golf course than the beautiful girl standing right beside you. I didn't come all the way out here to admire the grass.”
A smile formed on his smug lips, and then he suddenly closed the distance between us. His hands tangled through my long hair. His mouth smothered mine. His dry lips needed some serious ChapStick, but I kissed him back like I wasn't repulsed. When his slobbery tongue plunged into my mouth, I very nearly vomited, but somehow I managed to keep it together. We'd kissed twice now but never so greedily. Was he trying to eat my face?
He shimmied out of his suit jacket and glued his body to mine as his hands traveled downward. Then, to my surprise, he yanked me up in his arms, and the next thing I knew he was lowering me down onto the prickly grass I hated so much. His consuming kisses didn't stop there and neither did his hands. He pushed his way between my legs, inching up my dress, and I felt his rather puny erection pressing against me. Can you say awkward? The only thing separating my ‘V’ from his ‘P’ was a couple layers of clothing. Holy shitballs! This wasn't what I had in mind when I'd suggested we take a walk instead of going to the party. I had to stop this before I lost my V-card to the last person I ever wanted touching me.
“Andrew,” I breathed against his mouth, giving his chest a small nudge, “it's too fast.”
Putting on the brakes, he wasted zero time shoving his body off mine but took no care in covering the giant sigh that escaped his lips as he plopped down in the grass beside me. Staying still for a moment, I tried to collect my thoughts. I wanted to give Maggie the impression that I'd screwed him—not actually screw him. What if Andrew wouldn't have stopped just now? A jolt of fear shot through me. I normally would have never put myself in such a vulnerable position, and the close call made me want to get the hell back to a more populated area…now.
“We should go to the party. My dad is expecting me there.”
“No problem.” Hardly rattled, he sat up and reached for his jacket. While his attention was elsewhere, a glorious light bulb popped into my head. Lots of people liked to get freaky out on the golf course at night, so I plucked a handful of grass and rubbed into my hair. Maggie never missed a single party at the club, and hopefully when she saw it, she would assume I’d been getting hot and heavy out here. Maybe that would help boost her hatred for the skuz-wad.
Andrew stood to his feet, noticing nothing, and then helped me up.
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to spoil the moment. I just... I just...” I trailed off, fumbling all over my fake apology. Fake or real, I wasn't sure what the appropriate words were for this type of situation. We began walking back across the fairway toward the distant lights of the clubhouse. Talk about awkward. I tried to come up with something—anything—to say, while ignoring the blades of grass that kept falling from my head. “I'm sorry,” I mumbled.
“I know,” Andrew said, his words earnest and soft. “I know you're not a slut. I told you before, I've always noticed you. You don't have to explain yourself. We'll get to the good stuff when we get to the good stuff. I would never rush you.”
For a fraction of a moment, I almost believed the toolbox was a halfway decent guy. Maybe I even saw what my sister had always seen in him. Then the disturbing image of Andrew getting freaky with Leah Longerburger sprang into my head, and I lost my respect for him all over again.
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