Page 8 of Hot Mess

In my experience, this was exactly the way the residents of Creek Keys liked it.

It was the way it needed to stay, which was why Ari couldn’t tell her friends that their beloved vlogger was staying next door. Nobody needed a gaggle of crazy, obsessive pre-teen girls descending on their doorstep.

Elle definitely didn’t.

I hoped like fuck she wasn’t going to stay long. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate the help with the house, but I didn’t really think she was going to do that, either. She gained nothing by doing it, and someone who got as many column inches as she did in all the stupid little teen magazines my daughter insisted I buy at the store, she probably had a place of her own in some exclusive island resort somewhere.

Also, I really needed to stop reading those stupid tween-slash-teen magazines my daughter left in the bathroom.

What could I say? Sometimes a shit outlasted the reading material on your phone.

I blew out a long breath and dropped onto the sofa. I hadn’t expected anyone to be living in that house this summer, and despite my fight with the plumber, I really wasn’t in any rush to get it fixed up. The other three beach houses my father left me before he died were bringing in more than enough income for me and Ari to survive on.

I also hadn’t expected the flash of attraction I’d felt when I’d laid eyes on her. She was beautiful—there was no denying it, and she was even prettier in real life than in her videos. With her long dark hair and her big blue eyes, full lips and perfectly shaped curves, it was easy to see why kids like my daughter wanted to be her when they grew up.

And why she got the creepy comments on her videos.

Another reason why Ari couldn’t tell everyone she was here.

I didn’t need weirdos showing up in the night and stalking her. Not that I gave a damn about her—beautiful or not, my daughter’s favorite or not, the ideological world she put out was dangerous and fanciful.

I didn’t like Elle Evans, and I doubted I ever would.

***

I ran the hell out of the little dance studio before I could get roped into another fundraising activity and into my car.

The next two hours while Ari had her ballet and tap classes were all mine, and I happily drove out of the parking lot and made the turn to the grocery store. Sure, I had to see Elle, but I was delaying that for as long as I possibly could.

I skipped across town and pulled into the small lot outside the local store. After parking up, I grabbed a trolley—what these heathens called carts or buggys or some other illogical term—and went inside.

It was quiet for a Saturday morning, and I took advantage of that. There were no beatdowns in the bread aisle or fracas over the fruit.

Shopping could be surprisingly spicy in this town.

After getting everything I needed, I headed for the register and paid. I was almost done unloading what I’d bought when the sound of a familiar and unwelcome voice calling my name made me pause.

Plastering the nicest smile I could on my face, I turned. “Agnes, it’s lovely to see you.”

She shuffled over, using the trolley as a walking aid, and flipped her head so her bright purple hair didn’t get in her eyes. The woman was seventy if she was a day, but she acted as if she were a third of her age.

“Gosh darn tourists everywhere,” she muttered, drawing level with my truck. She was wearing a fancy purple t-shirt that matched her hair and had the words ‘Aliens R Real’ scrawled on the front, complete with a cartoon alien with black eyes and gray skin.

Yep. She was a real treat.

I raised my eyebrows. “You live in a tourist spot and have for ten years. Are you still surprised?”

“I will tell your aunt and bend you over her knee.”

“Aunt Elsie doesn’t have the strength to hit a fly, never mind me,” I replied, referring to my seventy-five-year-old great aunt on my dad’s side who was a current resident of Creek Keys. “I assume she sent you to find me?”

Agnes nodded with such vigor I was afraid she’d crack her neck. “Yes. Maude wants to use the beach and—”

“No.” I shook my head. “Absolutely not. The last time I let you lot use the stretch I own, you drank too much wine and tried to strip naked.”

“We were controlling the tourists.”

“You were terrifying the tourists.”

“Controlling. Terrifying. The government believes they’re one and the same.”

“I’m not getting into your conspiracy theories on a Saturday morning,” I told her. “Besides, I have things to do today. Tell Aunt Elsie to stop by and we’ll talk.”

“You could tell me yes.”

“I’d rather bleach my own eyeballs.” I loaded the last bag into my truck and shut the door. “No offense.”

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