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Maggie watched Cooper hobble through his living room. His large frame was lopsided and tentative as he walked, one reluctant step at a time, and he braced himself on the wall as he made his way down the hallway and to the left, to his bedroom. She’d always liked his house and had, in fact, always been envious of it because it was more than double the size of her little place. What she loved most was its modern feel, with its open-plan living and four bedrooms. It was a man’s house too; leather and polished floors, Spanish-style rugs and surfing pictures on the walls. Maggie had picked out most of the furnishings for Cooper four years before, as he’d been about to head off to Fiji almost as soon as he’d bought the place, and she thought she’d chosen well. To Maggie’s great surprise, he hadn’t changed a single thing in the years since, not a picture on the wall or a plate in the kitchen.
The house itself was positioned high above the town, so a number of the rooms had beautiful views of the San Clemente Pier and the ocean, all blue sky and palm trees, and it featured a large backyard with a pool. Pity it was wasted on Cooper. Evan loved it, of course, but Cooper wasn’t home very much to swim in it and, when he did come back to San Clemente, he was usually surfing at Trestles. With his winnings, his investments and his income from the myriad endorsements he did—many back home in Australia—he could have bought a much grander house in San Clemente—even one of the historic Ole Hanson homes if he’d wanted—but he hadn’t.
‘It’s close to you,’ Cooper had told her when he’d shown it to her that very first time. She remembered that Evan had been just six months old and he’d been nestled against her chest in a baby sling. ‘And San Diego Airport, which means it’s a plane ride from everywhere,’ he’d said as she admired all the rooms.
Maggie had wistfully realised something that day: she’d once been a plane ride from everywhere too. Back in her other life.
‘Mommy!’ Evan called.
With a smile, she knew exactly where she would find her son: in the room Cooper had converted into a guest room especially for him. Twelve months before, Maggie’s mom had been on holiday in Mexico with her two best girlfriends and Maggie and Evan had met Cooper at the pier for a walk. They’d strolled along, enjoying the sun and the ocean breezes, chatting about nothing in particular. Cooper had just got back from some competition or other and he’d bought Evan an ice-cream cone. Maggie still remembered that more chocolate had ended up on her son’s chin than in his mouth. When he’d finished crunching on it, he’d run ahead to check if the anglers dangling their rods over the rail had had any luck.
‘Oh, I forgot to tell you something,’ Maggie had said, aiming for nonchalance.
‘Tell me what?’
‘Hey, Malone. Cheers, dude.’
Maggie had looked up and two young surfers, who’d been walking back from the end of the pier, had lifted their chins in respect to Cooper.
‘G’day guys,’ he’d replied with a wave.
He’d turned back to Maggie. ‘Sorry about that. What were you saying? You were gonna tell me something?’
She’d taken a deep breath and looked out to the ocean. ‘I’ve got a date next Saturday.’
Cooper had stopped walking.
She’d taken a few further steps and, when she realised he hadn’t kept up, she’d turned back to him.
‘You do?’ he’d asked her. And then it seemed that he’d remembered how to walk again and with a couple of loping steps, he was alongside her.
‘Yeah. A date. A real life, fully fledged date. With a man.’ She remembered how nervous she’d been about the whole deal.
‘And who is this man?’ Cooper had shoved his hands into the pockets of his long shorts as they strolled.
‘One of my clients. I’ve been doing his accounts for a year now and we finally met the other day. For some reason, he decided to come around to drop off his paperwork instead of emailing it like he normally does.’
‘Interesting. And he asked you on a date?’
‘Well, good for you. When are seeing this guy?’
‘It was supposed to be next Saturday but Mom will still be on vacation so we’ve pushed it back a little.’
‘Whoa,’ Cooper had held his hands in the air, palms up. ‘So what am I, chopped liver?’
‘Leave Evan with me next Saturday night.’
‘No, Cooper, I couldn’t.’
‘What are you talking about? You can trust me, Maggie. Evan will be fine with me. And I’ve got nothing on next weekend.’
Maggie had looked at him over the top of her sunglasses. ‘You? Not planning a hook-up for next Saturday night? You’re losing your touch, surfer boy.’
‘I’m just getting choosier.’
‘Do tell.’ Maggie had nudged him in the side.
‘I’m perfectly happy to have a hot date next Saturday night with Evan. Us blokes. Pizza and Jurassic Park.’
‘Oh now, way too scary for a four year old,’ she’d said. ‘How about Toy Story?’
‘Seen it. Last time I was back and you were doing that yoga class.’
Maggie knew that Cooper was the next safest pair of hands after her mom. He’d proved it in a hundred ways since they’d been friends. But what about Evan? Would he want to be away from his mommy for a whole night?
Cooper had stopped walking and taken her arm. ‘He can stay with me, Maggie.’ He’ll be no trouble. And you deserve a hot date.’ He’d looked from side to side to make sure no-one else was in earshot. ‘Think you’re gonna get laid?’
She’d huffed and slapped him on the arm. ‘Mind in the gutter, Malone.’
He’d leaned in. ‘C’mon, Maggie Mac. I know it’s been a l-o-n-g time since you’ve had sex.’
She’d planted her fists on her hips. ‘You marking this off on a calendar or something?’
Cooper had laid a hand on her shoulder. ‘You gotta start saying yes for a change. You can be a good mom—a great mom—and still want to have sex. And, last time I looked? You were still a woman.’
And then damn him if he hadn’t trawled those teasing eyes of his slowly down her body. Past her tank top, pausing for a moment at her breasts, down to the button of her cut-off denims, past her thighs and to her bare feet.
Then he’d stepped back, like he was too close to a flame, and began walking towards Evan and the guys with the fishing rods. With one last look back over his shoulder, he’d called out, ‘I got this, Maggie.’
He wouldn’t be told otherwise then and he wouldn’t be told otherwise now. That hard body of his, ripped with a professional athlete’s muscles, was as hard as his head and it was injured. Why was it that he got to tell her the truth but he wouldn’t hear it from her?
Because he was a man in complete denial.
Oh, she knew she was right and she knew that he knew she was right, not that she was into ‘I told you so’ but she really wanted to tell him, I told you so. His knee had been giving him trouble for twelve months, since he’d competed in the Triple Crown in Hawaii—which he’d won—and he’d managed to hide his injury from the surfing press ever since. But it was getting worse. She’d seen the grimaces and his increasing use of different kinds of pain medication when he’d been back in town, none of which seemed to have worked.
The long flights to competitions all over the world hadn’t helped and his recent trip back home to Sydney for his father’s funeral had only exacerbated it, given the way he’d limped into her house on the day he’d got back. He’d brushed her off then, and scooped Evan up into a bear hug anyway, but this was getting serious now. She’d seen it in the doctor’s eyes back at the hospital.
Maggie made her way through the house to the expansive kitchen, leaving the men in her life to be alone in their man caves. Oh, how she envied this kitchen: the whitewashed cupboards and tiled benches, stainless steel appliances, a ceramic double-bowl sink set into the bench, and in pride of place was the silver spectacle of a coffee machine that Cooper had imported direct from Italy. He’d always teased her that Americans couldn’t do coffee and liked to prove the point by brewing up his own in the steaming, hissing silver contraption.
She heard running footsteps and Evan joined her, clambering up on one of the high stools by the island bench. He jammed his elbows on the counter top, plopped his chin in his hands and frowned.
‘What’s up, sweetie?’ Maggie went up behind him and put her arms around her little boy.
He didn’t hug her back but huffed instead. ‘I’m hungry and Cooper only has beer.’
‘Let me see about that. I’m sure I can find you something to eat.’ Maggie rounded the island bench and opened the refrigerator to check for proof. Mmm. There was a six-pack of Coronas, half a suspicious-looking lime and a tub of margarine. She checked his cupboards. Not even a dry cracker. How on earth was the man going to feed himself with precisely no food in the house? She found Evan’s favourite dinosaur cup, poured a glass of water and set it in front of him.
‘You want to know a magic trick? If you drink a glass of water, you won’t feel hungry.’
Evan eyed her suspiciously.
‘I’m going to see where Cooper is and I’ll be right back.’ Maggie walked into the long hallway that led to Cooper’s bedroom. The door to his room was ajar but she wasn’t about to go barging in. She stopped and waited, listening to get an idea of what he might be doing in there. She knocked softly. ‘Cooper? You in there?’ There was no answer. ‘Cooper?’ Maggie pushed the door open and when she saw the state he was in, a hand flew to her mouth.
‘What the …?’
Cooper was propped on the edge of the bed, his bandaged leg straight out in front and stiff. The man was white as a sheet, dripping with sweat. His strong shoulders were hunched and he was breathing hard with exertion.
Don’t startle the tough man. Maggie sauntered to his side, laid a slow hand on his bare shoulder. God, he was shaking. She settled her own breathing, telling herself that she shouldn’t panic. Cooper would only act like a startled bear and growl at her, she knew that much about him. He hated being told what to do. Perhaps this wasn’t the time for the I told you so she’d been holding on to.
She looked down and noticed the track pants and T-shirt he’d worn home from hospital were in a pile on the rug. A pair of loose shorts were half pulled up his tanned thighs. There was a shimmer of sweat on his bare chest, creating a rivulet in the space between his pecs where there was a scattering of light-brown hair. He’d always been strong and muscular. Maggie knew it must be killing him now to have his body failing him like this.
‘It hurts, huh?’
Cooper didn’t move, but breathed hard, his chin on his chest and his big shoulders rising and falling. ‘Like a sonofabitch,’ he ground out.
She slowly lowered herself onto the bed. ‘Need a hand with anything?’ Her heart ached to see him like this. The big, larger-than-life man she knew, sitting on the end of the bed, feeling helpless.
He threw her a wry look. ‘You think? I was trying to get dressed.’
Maggie glanced down at his attempt. She had always been able to make him laugh. That’s what she had to do now. ‘I can see. Epic fail on your part, wouldn’t you say?’
He made a fist and tapped it on her thigh a couple of times like a high five with her leg. ‘I know what you’re going to say. So don’t waste your breath.’
Maggie tucked her long hair behind her ears. ‘You do, huh?’
He looked sideways at her, through the flop of his sun-streaked hair. ‘Please. I can see it in that fake smile of yours. You’re busting to tell me I’m a fuckwit.’
That fake smile was all she could manage right now. ‘I was going to wait until you were feeling slightly better. There’s no fun in kicking a man when he’s down.’
Maggie looked down into his lap. There were parts of Cooper on show that she’d never seen displayed quite so plainly before and it came as something of a shock. At the top of his thighs, there was one hell of a bulge covered by black Calvin’s. Clearly that’s where his reputation as The Ladykiller had come from.
‘You have no food in the house,’ she said as she lifted her gaze to his face. ‘Unless you count beer as a food group.’
Cooper shrugged. ‘What do I need food for? There are plenty of good restaurants down at the beach. And if I’m not down there I’m eating at your place.’
‘What’s your plan now, big guy? You can’t even put on your shorts, much less walk down to Del Mar.’
She couldn’t help it. Just mentioning the word ‘shorts’ had her looking down into his lap again and when she shifted her attention back to his face, he was watching her with a grin. ‘You checking out my package, Maggie Mac?’ He dropped his voice and it was low and smooth as a great whiskey.
Where had the heat in her cheeks come from? She pulled herself together. ‘However impressive it might be, fat lot of good it will be to you now. Poor Cooper. Hearts are breaking on beaches all over the world, no doubt.’
So much for her attempt to lighten the mood. Cooper didn’t respond with another shit-eating grin and the usual quirk of his eyebrow whenever she teased him about his fans. He looked pensive, unsure. And she was confused by it.
‘Leaving hospital so early was not a good idea,’ she told him.
‘You’re sounding like a broken record.’ He shifted position, moving the weight of his body on to his right side. The strain in his voice revealed the agony he was suffering.
‘You’re infuriating, you know that, Cooper?’
‘Ah, she’s back. The no-bullshit Maggie Mac.’
‘Yeah, I’m back. And you’re coming home with me and Evan.’
‘The what now?’
She got to her feet and manoeuvred herself carefully between his legs. ‘Lift your butt.’
‘I can do this.’
She huffed. ‘Clearly you can’t or you wouldn’t be sitting there with your shorts around your ankles.’
They stared at each other for a long moment. Finally, Cooper pressed his palms into the mattress and shifted his weight to his right side, lifting his ass just enough so Maggie could bend over, grip the waistband of his shorts and tug them up. Damn if they didn’t brush over his thighs with just a little too much tightness and then, they got caught against the bulge of his package. Once they were on—roughly, but it would do—she stood back and brushed her hands together.
‘Right. Where’s that bag we brought home from the hospital?’
Cooper raised a hand. ‘No can do, babe.’
She huffed and crossed her arms angrily. ‘Save the flirting for your beach bunnies. You know that no-bullshit, no-excuses promise we made to each other like a million years ago? This is me telling you: you can’t look after yourself here on your own. You’re coming home with me and Evan and, before you argue right back at me, for the first time in your goddamn life, will you listen to me and do what I say?’
Cooper’s looked at her, his expression serious. ‘I’ll be fine here. I can order food in. I’ve got beer. And you’ve got too much to do without having me hanging around.’
‘Cooper Malone, you big idiot. Don’t you know what goes around comes around? Do you want me to count how many times you have been there for Evan and me over the years?’ Maggie stopped. She didn’t need to say more. The softening look in his eyes told her he knew what she meant. He’d been wonderful to her son. He’d been there for her more times than she could count. As a friend. She knew he felt some kind of twisted responsibility for Evan, seeing it was his friend who ran out on them. Cooper had never let Evan down. Ever. When he’d promised something to her little man, he’d delivered.
‘For fuck’s sake, Maggie …’
She lifted her hands to stop the discussion, like she did with Evan when he wanted to debate the finer points of watching extra cartoons on a Sunday morning. ‘No discussion. And I’m not doing this for you, in case you’re asking. Evan will be miserable until you’re better.’
‘I’m not going with you, Maggie,’ Cooper said through gritted teeth. ‘I don’t need looking after.’
‘Oh yeah?’ she said and then turned towards his bedroom door. ‘Now I’m calling in my backup. Evan!’
At the sound of his name, Evan bolted into Cooper’s bedroom. ‘Yeah, Mommy?’
She stretched an arm out and her son came into it for a hug. ‘Guess what? Cooper’s coming to stay with us for a while. Until his knee gets better.’
Evan’s mouth fell wide open in shock and joy and he began to bounce up and down like an Energiser bunny. ‘You mean like a sleepover?’
Cooper snorted and Maggie ignored it. ‘Kind of. We’ve got a big job to do, you and me. We have to look after him until he’s all better.’
‘Cool.’ Evan held his hand out to Cooper for a high five.
The smile returned to the big man’s face. ‘Thanks, mate.’
When Cooper realised he’d been played, he looked up at Maggie and muttered under his breath. ‘You’ll pay for this.’
She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘I fully expect to.’
End of Excerpt