The three teens sat on the end of the rickety wooden dock at the pond.
“Today’s my thirteenth birthday,” Daphne Petty told the boy at her side, giving him a coy look and winding a bright red lock of hair around her finger. “You know what that means, right?”
“That it’s Audrey’s birthday, too?” Cade glanced around Daphne’s shoulder to smile at the quieter twin.
Audrey gave him a shy smile, flustered that he’d remembered her. She sat on the opposite side of her vivacious, flirty twin, saying nothing. That was usually how it went. Daphne commanded attention and Audrey just sort of stood by her side. Not that she minded much. Daphne was also the bad twin, and Audrey liked being the good twin. You got into trouble a lot less when you were the good twin, and if there was one thing Audrey hated, it was being in trouble.
“That’s not it,” Daphne said with a pout. She nudged his shoulder. “Pay attention to me.”
Instantly, Cade’s amused gaze went back to Daphne. “I am paying attention to you.”
“No, you’re paying attention to Audrey. Don’t you like me, Cade?” She continued to twist that lock of hair around her finger, imitating a move they’d seen their older sister Gretchen pull, to great effect. Gretchen always had interest from boys, and Daphne wanted to learn everything she knew.
“I like both of you,” Cade said in a cheerful voice, then ruffled Daphne’s hair like she was a child. “You two are my friends.”
“Best friends,” Audrey said shyly, swinging her legs.
Daphne rolled her eyes at her twin. “We can’t be best friends with a guy. Guys can only be boyfriends.”
Cade choked on a laugh. “You two are too young for me. I’m fifteen now. You just turned thirteen.”
“Well, it’s my—” she turned to look at her twin “—our birthday and you need to give us a present.”
Cade tugged on the frayed collar of his shirt. It was faded and worn, much like everything he owned. No one talked about it, but the Archers were the poorest family on a rather low-end block of the neighborhood, poorer even than Audrey and Daphne’s parents, who worked long hours for little pay. “I don’t have money, Daphne. I can’t get a job until next year, remember?”
“It’s okay,” Audrey said. “You can give us something that doesn’t cost anything.”
A kiss, Audrey thought dreamily, staring at Cade’s handsome blue eyes and blond hair.
“You could teach us how to make out with a boy,” Daphne said slyly, that wicked tone in her voice. “I need to practice so I’m ready for my first boyfriend.”
Cade sputtered. “Make out? I don’t think so. You two are like my little sisters.”
That was not the first time he’d referred to them as his little sisters. It crushed Audrey’s heart a bit, but she could tell her twin was undeterred. Daphne usually didn’t take no for an answer.
“Maybe just a hug, then?” Daphne asked sweetly.
“Of course,” Cade told her, leaning in and reaching an arm around Daphne.
Daphne immediately wrapped her arms around Cade and thrust her mouth against his, trapping him into a surprise kiss. Audrey’s jaw dropped in shock as her twin kissed—no, mauled—the boy she knew that Audrey had a crush on. Their friend.
Cade made a noise of surprise and tried to pull away, but Daphne clung to him like a leech.
“Daph, stop it,” Audrey hissed. Anger began to bubble inside her. How dare Daphne make a scene with Cade. It was bad enough that she monopolized him constantly. “Just stop it!”
But Daphne didn’t stop. She made a loud mmmmm in the back of her throat, just to goad Audrey.
So Audrey shoved her twin into the pond.
Daphne fell with a splash and a yell, and Cade barely managed to scramble backward onto the dock. He stared at Audrey in surprise.
That was okay, because Audrey was pretty surprised at her actions, too.
Dang it. There went her impulsive temper. Audrey tried to keep it under control, she really did, but sometimes it got the better of her.
Like right now.
Daphne surfaced in the pond’s scummy water, screeching as she flailed. “Audrey, you suck!” she yelled. “Cade, help me out!”
“That was not cool, Audrey,” Cade told her, leaning over the side of the dock and extending a hand to Daphne. When she continued to flounder in the water, he sighed and looked over at Audrey, who stood on the dock, frozen in horror.
She tried so hard to be the good twin, she really did.
“Here, hold this,” Cade told her, and pulled off his T-shirt. Then he jumped into the water and grabbed Daphne, who went into his arms, sobbing, and began to pull her to the nearby shore.
A moment later, both of them were dripping on the bank of the shore. Audrey still stood on the dock, clutching Cade’s shirt and mortified by what she’d done. She’d pushed her twin in, all because Daphne’d been kissing the boy Audrey wanted.
But it wasn’t just any boy. It was Cade. Audrey had adored him for what seemed like forever, and Daphne only wanted him because Audrey did. That was how it always went.
“You came for me,” Daphne sobbed, clinging to Cade.
“Of course,” he soothed. “I’ll always come for you, Daph. You know I will.”
It was true. Though two years separated them in age, the three of them had roamed their neighborhood for years, fishing for crawdads, playing in the pond, and riding bikes. It never failed that Daphne would get into some sort of scrape—like the time she’d pulled up a manhole and climbed down—and Cade would have to come after her.
Daphne caused trouble, and Cade rescued her. And Audrey stood by, because she was the good twin.
Until today, of course, when Audrey’s temper got the better of her, and she’d suddenly become the bad twin in a blink.
Daphne wiped streaming hair off her brow and scowled at Audrey. “I’m going to the house and telling Mom. You’ll be sorry, Audrey.” She turned and stomped off, heading back to the neighborhood.
Audrey sucked in a breath. She was totally going to be grounded.
“Looks like the birthday celebration’s going to end early,” Cade told her, heading down the dock and reaching for his shirt. He pulled it over his head and then ran his fingers through his wet hair.
“It’s okay,” Audrey said. “She’ll forgive me. We’re twins. We can’t stay mad at each other.”
Cade smiled, reaching out and ruffling Audrey’s hair. “Well, since you’re twins, I can’t give one a present and not the other, can I?”
And he leaned in and kissed her on her freckled cheek.
Audrey flushed bright red, her mouth gaping.
Cade pulled back, tousled her hair again, and grinned. “Happy birthday, Audrey.” When she continued to stand there, he added, “You should probably go home and check on Daph.”
Audrey nodded, then raced after Daphne. Her cheek throbbed in the perfect, perfect spot where he’d kissed her.
Sure enough, Audrey was grounded that day. Daphne had sobbed her story to their parents, who were appropriately horrified. Audrey was sent to bed early, without TV or computer while they let Daphne stay up late, feasting on birthday cake. Daphne was upset, and that was almost as bad as getting in trouble on its own.
As of that day, Audrey learned two things.
One, that she was never going to slip up and be the bad twin again.
And two, that she was absolutely, without a doubt, in love with Cade Archer.
Twelve years later
Audrey glanced in the bathroom mirror, smoothed a stray lock of hair into her tight bun, and then straightened her jacket for the eighth time that morning.
Time to approach the boss.
She left the bathroom, her nerves tingling with a mixture of dread and wariness. Not that her outward expression showed it. She was very good about remaining calm and in control in a stressful situation, and this was definitely a situation. Her low heels clicking on the marble floors of Hawkings Conglomerate’s headquarters, she swept the mail out of the delivery basket and returned to her desk. Once she’d sorted all the envelopes for Logan’s personal attention, she rubber-banded the rest and set them into her mailbox to attend to later.
Her hand paused over the tabloid on her desk. After a moment’s indecision, she folded the magazine in half lengthwise and tucked it under her arm. Then, with mail in hand, she headed to Logan Hawkings’s closed door and rapped twice.
“Enter,” he called.
She did, her stomach churning just a bit.
He didn’t look up as she approached, continuing to type on his laptop. As was their usual routine, Audrey moved to his outbox and picked up any outgoing memos or faxes that he needed her to handle. She slipped his personal mail into his inbox, picked up his faxes, and glanced over at him. But she couldn’t make her mouth form the request.
So she stalled. “Coffee, Mr. Hawkings?”
She moved to the Keurig machine in her adjoining office and brewed him a cup, waiting impatiently for the machine to finish. Once it was done, she sweetened it, added creamer, and stirred, all the while mentally cursing herself for not broaching the conversation yet. She returned to his office with the cup in hand and set it on his desk.
Again, he didn’t look up.
“Dry cleaning today, Mr. Hawkings?”
“No.” He picked up the mug and gave her a suspicious look. “Something wrong?”
And here she thought she’d hidden it so well. Audrey clutched the folded tabloid in her hand, hesitating in front of his desk. “I . . . need some time off work.”
Over his coffee mug, Logan frowned. “Time off?”
Just as she’d thought, it hadn’t gone over well. In the three and a half years since she’d been working for Logan Hawkings, she’d never missed a day of work. She was here before he was, left after he did, and took her vacation time concurrent with his so as not to disrupt his schedule.
She was the model employee. She kept things quiet and running as smoothly as possible for Mr. Hawkings. When he needed something handled, she took care of it.
And she never, never asked for time off until today.
Audrey swallowed. “I’m afraid so.”
“How much time off?”
“I . . . don’t know. It’s a personal matter.” And very quietly, she unfolded the tabloid and offered it to him.
Logan tossed it down on his desk, eyeing the picture on the cover. The headline was a bold yellow that screamed out of the grainy photo. POP PRINCESS CAUGHT IN A COKE-FUELED ORGY! PICTURES ON PAGE 17! And there was the unmistakable face of her twin, blade-thin, her hair matted and dyed a hideous shade of black, a dopey smile on her face as she snorted lines in a club bathroom and leaned on an equally dopey-looking pair of men. Audrey didn’t know who they were. She never knew who Daphne ran with anymore. Daphne’s manager handled all that . . . theoretically. She suspected Daphne’s manager took care of his own needs first, and Daphne’s second.
Logan glanced at the magazine, then back up at her. “Your sister?”
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