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Authors: Ellie Danes,Lily Knight

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BOOK: The Windfall
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“Cooper,” he said, reaching across the table with his hand. I must have given him a weird look because he laughed. “Figured you needed to, at least, know the name of the person you are eating lunch with.”

“Yes, of course,” I said, flustered as I reached for his hand. It all but covered mine when his warm fingers wrapped around mine, my tanned skin standing out in stark contrast to his. “Emma. I’m Emma. Nice to meet you, Cooper. I really appreciate you stepping in back there.”

“Yeah, you might have mentioned that.” He grinned at me. “It’s no problem, Emma.” He smiled again as he reached for his burger. I watched as he took a bite, his eyes rolling back in his head as he chewed. Yep. Just about every customer had that same reaction when they tried Chris’ homemade patties for the first time. “Oh god, this is really good. I think the cook was right when he said the best. I will have to tell him that.”

“Well, it’s on the house,” I supplied, picking up my own burger. “And don’t tell Chris anything. He already has a big enough head over his burgers.” Cooper burst into laughter as I took a bite, chewing it slowly. “So, Cooper. What brings you out to Cali? I mean, clearly you’re not from around here.” I offered sarcastically with a smile.

He started and then sat his burger back on the plate, picking up his napkin. “Is it that obvious?” He smirked, playing along.

“It’s your accent.” I grinned, taking a bite. “You stuck out like a sore thumb as soon as you opened your mouth.”

“Then I better keep it closed.” He winked, drawing a laugh out of me. “Wow,” he said, just staring at me.

“What?” I asked.

“I just can’t believe I ran into you. My mom has always said it’s a small world, but truth is . . . I never really believed that. But . . . just, wow. I mean, what are the odds?”

I laughed. “I would guess they are about as good as winning the lottery.”

The look on his face morphed into something I wasn’t quite sure how to take until a broad smile spread over his lips. “Those are some pretty crazy odds.”

“That they are,” I agreed and took a swig from my water.

“I have to admit, things on this side of the country are vastly different.”

“In a good way?” I asked.

He nodded and wiped his face with his napkin, half of his burger already gone. “Yeah. It’s beautiful out here. I can see why people are drawn to the California coast.”

I took another bite of my burger, thinking about how I took the scenery for granted sometimes. “I’m sure you have your own beautiful places back East. I didn’t really get to see a lot while Dad and me were there.”

He nodded and polished off the last bite of his burger before pushing his plate away, lacing his fingers over his stomach with a satisfied look on his face. “Man, that was good. Yes, we do have our own beautiful places on the East Coast, including some pretty awesome mountains and beaches. I, unfortunately, haven’t had the chance to travel that much yet. Have you lived here all of your life?”

“I have,” I answered, taking another bite before pushing my plate back as well. If I wanted to get through the rest of my shift, I couldn’t finish Chris’ burger. Otherwise, I’d be curled up in the stock room, asleep for the rest of the day. His burgers were good comfort food that would have you in a food coma in a matter of minutes. “So, you never did say, what brings you out here, Cooper?”

A hint of something I couldn’t put an emotion to crossed his face — a mixture of pain and distress, something that meant he wasn’t just out here for vacation. He rubbed a hand over his face, causing the look to disappear. “My aunt lives out here. We, I mean me and my mom, are out here just visiting right now. I’m not sure how long we’re going to be staying.”

“Oh,” I replied, immediately guessing that probably wasn’t the entire story. In my experience, no one came out to visit for an extended period of time unless they were running from something or someone. So what would cause a guy willing to step in and put himself in harm’s way to save a damsel in distress to run? Not that it was any of my business. Heck, I technically just met the guy. “Well, I’m sure she’s excited to see you,” I forced out.

“She’s my mom’s sister,” he supplied, leaning back on the chair. “It’s been a bit of a family reunion for the last few days.”

I smiled, thinking of how women liked to catch up. It wasn’t the kind of thing a man liked to be cooped up with. If he were anything like my dad, he’d make himself scarce.

“A guy can only take so much catching up, though, so I started looking for a reason to get out and remembered seeing this place.” He smiled, causing me to reach for a strand of hair to twist around my finger nervously. “And I’m glad I was able to show up when I did.”

I forced myself to stop twirling my hair, thinking the act itself was something significant. But apparently I couldn’t seem to stop myself from staring at him like I was a tourist taking in a sight. In my defense, he was extremely handsome, even better looking than I remembered from the bar. Besides, those broad shoulders outlined under his T-shirt were made to be stared at. I was always a sucker for broad shoulders. Not to mention the guy was just nice, a true gentleman from what I could tell. We didn’t seem to have too many real gentlemen in Malibu.

“So, Emma,” he continued. “What is there to do around here for fun? What do you like to do?”

“I like to surf,” I said slowly, thinking about the waves I would hit up later to burn off this energy and rid myself of the stress of Tim’s visit. And probably think about Cooper. Yeah, definitely think about Cooper. “It’s a lot like therapy,” I added.

“I think I’d like to try it sometime,” Cooper said with a grin. “Though, I can’t walk right half the time. Think I’ll kill myself on a surfboard?”

“I think you will be just fine,” I replied with a hint of a smile. He had that effect on me where I wanted to keep a permanent smile on my face. “Unless a shark likes East Coast meat. Then, you might be in trouble.”

“Oh, right, I didn’t think about the sharks.” Cooper frowned, a hint of uncertainty showing in his eyes. “Like Jaws-type sharks?”

I laughed, glad to get some kind of rise out of him. “We haven’t had a shark attack in years. You should be okay. This isn’t Amity Island by any means.”

He made a swiping motion with his hand over his forehead and I found myself laughing harder, delighted with his company. He was a breath of fresh air.

Cooper looked away and pointed to the flyer on the mirror over the bar that Chris had put up yesterday in desperation. “You’ve got an opening for a bartender?”

I sighed, thinking about how Marcus had worked one day before quitting for a much more exclusive job downtown. I had spent three weeks showing him the ropes, only to have him up and quit. “Yeah. You know anyone?” I raised an eyebrow and quirked up one side of my mouth, joking with him since I knew he was likely heading back to Atlanta soon.

“I might.” He turned his gaze back to me, his eyes glittering with a little mischief. “Just so happens, I do.”

I glared at him, waiting for the punch line, but there was no joking in his expression. What else could this guy surprise me with? “Seriously?”

“Yeah, I don’t just open beer bottles. I make a mean mojito. Do you think you can get me an interview?” he asked with a wink.

“I’m sure,” I said slowly, looking over at the kitchen. Chris would enjoy interviewing him. “Can I ask why you are looking for a job if you are just visiting?”

“Well,” he started, fidgeting with the napkin before him. “I desperately need something to do. I might as well do something I enjoyed in my hometown. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but if it’s up to my mom, we could be a while. Besides, I might need some spending money while I’m out here.”

“Okay,” I agreed. What was this guy’s deal? Didn’t visitors do all of the touristy things when they were in California? Why would someone want to work if they didn’t have to? Then again, maybe Cooper needed to work. Maybe his life was a bit like mine, living paycheck to paycheck. If that were the case, I certainly couldn’t fault him for that.

“I know it sounds odd,” he supplied, bolstering his interest. “But I am really interested. I can’t promise how long I’ll be here, but you wouldn’t need to do any training. I’d like a shot, at least.”

“Well, I’m not the one you have to talk to,” I said, looking at my watch with a sigh. I had really enjoyed my dinner with him and hated that it was about to end. “And my break is almost over. Shall I escort you to the kitchen then?”

He laughed and stood, no nervousness in his expression whatsoever. Everything about this guy seemed terrific. Almost too good to actually trust him. Plus, I had to worry about the feelings that were starting to surface. I was attracted to him, more than I should be . . . especially if I was going to be working with him.

He followed me to the kitchen where I formally introduced him to Chris before heading out to start the second half of my shift. I just hoped it was less eventful than the first half.

Chapter Ten


I whistled as I pulled the car into the drive with a smile on my face, thinking about the last hour and a half of my life. A quick trip to the bar and grille had proven to be one of the best excursions in my life so far, and I had Emma to thank for it. I couldn’t stop thinking about those gorgeous, sparkling eyes and the way those freckles dotted their way across the bridge of her nose, making me think of her in a way I hadn’t thought of a woman in years. And, by the looks of how things ended in the parking lot, she was single. I still couldn’t believe I’d run into her again. I had truly enjoyed her company and it was nice to know that she was hanging out with me because she wanted to. There was no motivation for money driving her interest. Working with her would give me a chance to get to know her just a little bit better.

Cutting off the engine, I opened the door and climbed out of the car, the conversation with Chris still in my mind. He gave me the cold shoulder when I first approached him about the job, but I kept asking. He evidently thought of me as a troublemaker because of what had happened in the parking lot, but I eventually wore him down and he agreed to give me a shot at bartending. Even though I didn’t need the money, it would give me something to focus on while we were there, something that made my life feel semi-normal. Plus, I could see Emma. It was a win all the way around.

Uncle Bill approached me as I walked toward the house, a peculiar look on his face. “What’s wrong?” I asked immediately, thinking something might have happened to Mom while I was gone. Not that they couldn’t have called. I’d picked up cell phones as soon as we had arrived in Malibu, giving Mom one so she could keep in touch. It was a luxury we hadn’t been able to afford before.

He stopped in his tracks, shaking his head slowly. “Nothing’s wrong, Cooper. Everything’s good on the home front. I-I just need to talk with you for a moment, son.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, watching his agitated state. Something was definitely going on with him.

He looked at me and exhaled gradually. “Why didn’t you tell us you were the big lotto winner? I saw the article and couldn’t believe it when I read your name. How could you keep a secret as big as this?”

My chest tightened, I shrugged, not really knowing what to say. I hadn’t wanted them to find out so soon, nor had I expected them to. I had nothing prepared, I was totally off guard. “I don’t know. It just wasn’t important at the time.”

“Not important?” my uncle asked, disbelief in his expression. “Cooper, you are a billionaire. How can that not be important?”

“It’s just not,” I replied, frustration in my tone. I didn’t want to be treated any different just because I had a lot of money. I wanted a simple life, one that wasn’t riddled with money grubbers and those who only talked to me because of my sudden pockets full of cash. That was precisely one of the reasons I’d enjoyed the last few hours. Emma didn’t know. To her, I was just a guy who had helped her. I liked the simple fact that she looked at me normally, with genuine interest on her face while I talked. I didn’t want to see greed in her eyes or anyone’s eyes for that matter.

Uncle Bill looked at me intently for a moment, something dawning in his eyes. “What happened at home, Cooper?” he asked softly. “Is that why you’re out here? Something happened to make you run all the way to California?”

He knew why I was running from the neighborhood. On some level, he understood. “I had a little run-in with one of the gangs in the old neighborhood,” I forced out, my hands balled into fists as I thought about that night and how it had changed my life forever. “They wanted money that I didn’t want to give them. They threatened me, and I panicked.” I forced myself to relax, reminding myself I was far away from the danger. “I didn’t ask for this money. Hell, I didn’t even want the ticket, but for some reason, fate had its own ideas.” I looked at him, imploring. “Please. I have to keep Mom safe, and we weren’t safe back home. I knew she would love seeing ya’ll, so this is where we came. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“How much trouble are you in?” he asked, his expression hardening. I knew what he was thinking. Thank god I was smarter than to do anything close to what was likely running through his mind. I shook my head, rubbing a hand over my face. “It’s not like that. I’ve never been mixed up in the gangs in any way. It’s just like I told you. I refused to give them any money. They threatened my life, and I knew I had to get out. There was nothing else going on.”

My uncle exhaled hard and crossed his arms over his chest. “Good. I thought you had done something stupid. I can see why you came out here now.” He then clapped a hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze, some of the tension draining from his face. “You and your mom are both safe with us, and you can stay as long as you like. You’re family.”

“Thanks,” I said, giving him a nod. “It means a lot.” I was glad to have someone to confide in, though a small part of me still felt the urge to be on guard since my little secret was out. It was a horrible thought to have day in and day out that someone was always out to get you because of the money, but it was going to be the life I lived for, well, for as long as I had money.

BOOK: The Windfall
10.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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