HER SURPRISE PROTECTOR
A Hamptons Filthy Rich Novel
I stopped being ticklish a long time ago. Back in middle school, tickling had been the best and easiest way to flirt with the girls in our classes without teachers raising eyebrows. Then I had started dating my first real middle-school girlfriend, Maddie - the first girl who had tickled me back.
That was when I discovered that I was so ticklish, even the slightest touch of fingers to my sides had me in paroxysms of laughter and tears. For my own survival, I had to adapt to my surroundings and evolve into a better version of myself – Riker 2.0, new, improved and no longer ticklish. Despite this, one thing could get through my iron defenses and recreate that tickling sensation I remembered.
That thing was the ocean. I stood at the edge of the surf on Cooper’s Beach, my face to the water and my back to my East Hampton mansion. Usually, the periodic lapping of the waves stopped just at the tips of my toes, but occasionally some little change in the dynamics of the tide sent water over and under my feet…and dragged grains of sand away with it, tickling my toes.
I didn’t like the sensation, but I could no more move my feet than I could my hand that held the glittering diamond engagement ring. The diamonds glittered cooly, but they didn’t feel cool. The summer sun and my uncertain fingers had warmed the stones. Warm. Like someone is actually wearing this. If I drew my hand back and tossed this thing as far as years of working out, learning martial arts and handling my duties as CEO of Sunset Security would let me, the stones would cool down. They might even drop to the temperature of the heart of the woman who was supposed to wear this.
My hand gave a little angry, betrayed twitch, and that was enough. Just enough to break me out of my paralyzed indecision. I could do it. I was going to do it. I was going to throw the ring into the ocean.
I moved my hand, but not to throw the ring. My fingers just cleared the teeth of a panting dog with curly brown hair as it jumped for the shiny object I was holding. “No,” I snapped, suddenly furious. The dog came bounding back for a second go, and I was forced to slip the ring into my breast pocket to hide it from the irritating animal. “No!” I fended the canine away with my foot, enraged beyond reason.
I had been so close. I had held onto the engagement ring for months, unable to look at it or incapable of throwing it away. Just now, I had been so close…
A flash of red came around the bushes that formed the privacy hedgerow between my mansion and the mansion next door. A woman emerged onto the beach. A beautiful woman, actually, if I had been in the mood to care about that sort of thing. The red that had caught my eye was her hair. It fell around her big brown eyes and lacked any sort of styling, but still managed to make her look sexy. Again, if I had been in the mood to care about these things.
“Is this your dog?” My frigid voice could have frozen the summer seas.
“Uh, y-yes- I mean, not exactly- Chauncey, come here, boy!” She made a swipe for the dog’s collar as he sniffed interestedly at my ankles. She missed, and the dog jumped up again, nearly bowling me over in the process.
Overtaken with righteous rage, I reached out a lightning-fast hand and snatched the dog’s collar myself. The woman snapped on the leash she was holding, sending me a quick, apologetic smile that instantly faded when she took a step back and saw my face. “If I ever see this dog on my beach again, I’m calling animal control. I shouldn’t have to deal with off-leash dogs outside my own house on my own beach.”
“N-no, Sir, you shouldn’t. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. He got out through-”
“I don’t want to hear excuses,” I cut her off. “I just want to hear that it won’t happen again.”
The redhead blinked rapidly and swiped a hand over her eyes under the pretense of checking the leash. “It won’t, I promise. Again, I’m really sorry. Have a- have a nice day.” Her voice almost broke, but she managed to contain herself and tugged the dog off toward the mansion next to The Eagle’s Perch, my own estate.
I almost called after her that I had been having a nice day before her dog showed up, but that would have been a blatant lie, and I was already pretty sure I would never see that damn dog again. This whole day had been a cycle of irrepressible memories and open wounds. Chauncey and his irresponsible owner hadn’t made things any better. Can this day get any worse?
I felt the tiniest sting of remorse as I watched her hurry back up the path from which she had come. No that wasn’t it. Cheated, that was how I felt. Robbed. Deprived of a chance to begin moving on from my ex-fiancée. Tossing this ring into the surf would have been a start. It had taken me so long to reach this point, and now I had lost my conviction.
Of course, a dog had been to blame. My ex had a dog. Let’s just say, ‘like dog, like owner,’ was applicable in Hallie’s case.
I trudged across the shifting sand to the back gate set in the elaborate wrought-iron fencing that protected my estate from the idiot teens that sometimes roamed the beaches. It swung shut with a clang, and I tapped my phone to turn on the security system, then followed the path to the back deck. I growled when I caught my bare toes on the last step that led up to the deck. Everything was against me today.
Well, maybe not everything. A glance at my Rolex told me that I had about half an hour before the agreed-upon time to meet my two friends, Zeke and Nate, at the Hamptons Peak, the Hamptons most exclusive club. We had turned the club into our mutual weekend getaway, a way for three shamelessly rich guys to keep in touch and relax over the countless luxuries the club had to offer.
This was just what I needed – an evening with the boys. No ex-fiancées and no irresponsible dog owners. Just me, several stiff drinks and a casual evening of betting over poker with my friends.
I had started to get ready before the ring had grabbed my attention and driven anything else from my mind. All I had left to do was change out of the linen slacks wet from the sea spray and the dog’s slobber, locate my wallet and keys, then smooth a little gel through my wind-tousled hair. I grabbed my phone from the hall table on my way out, strode the lengthy distance across the large, open living room to the garage door and slid into my convertible Mercedes. My aviator sunglasses waited for me in the cupholders and I slipped them on just in time to shade my eyes against the sun that streamed through the rising garage door. Closing the door and reactivating the security system took seconds, then I sped off toward the promise of forgetfulness and a good time.
As the manicured shrubbery and sand dunes on the other side of the street flashed past, I gradually managed to calm myself. Sometimes, I wished I could live in the Hamptons seven days a week. Unfortunately, that wasn’t where my business headquarters was located. Like many prosperous and successful companies, mine had made its home in the center of Manhattan. Monday through Thursday, the city called to me, keeping me in my penthouse that overlooked Central Park.
I loved New York City and the airy penthouse that gave me a bird’s eye view of it, but…the place wasn’t meant for one person. It was meant for three people – a husband, a wife and their son. The penthouse made me lonely for my family. I still felt their absence, especially when I returned home late at night after a long day of work.
I spent the rest of the drive to the club wondering how outrageous it would be to fly my private jet to work in the morning and back in the afternoon four days a week. By the time I had parked the car outside the massive building and taken to my own two feet, though, I had abandoned that impractical idea.
I said building, but the Hamptons Peak had several buildings, all connected with enclosed, glass-sided walkways. And a luxury golf course surrounded the place, giving way to the beach. I knew my favorite room, the Peaks Casino, would be buzzing with activity. The Hamptons was the perfect location for a club like this. Cash pretty much grew on trees around here – or, at least, it fell freely from the pockets of a few iconic families who had lived here for decades.
I swiped my card to enter through the arched front door. I would be spending some money tonight, that was for sure, but I might make some, too. It depended on whether my luck planned to improve at all or just stay terrible for the rest of this miserable day.
I didn’t have to check with Zeke and Nate. Thursday evenings always found us in the same spot. Not at all to my surprise, both men had already arrived and ensconced themselves at our usual table. Partially drained glasses were in front of their seats and a third, untouched tumbler was on the table at another seat.
“For me?” I asked, placing a hand over my heart. “You shouldn’t have.” I lifted the glass of whiskey and took a sip, the burn from the alcohol hardly affecting my hardened tastes.
“We wouldn’t have if you hadn’t been so late,” Zeke pointed out. Of course, Zeke would have started without me. He was the self-proclaimed life of the party, and everyone at the Hamptons Peak knew it. Zeke had been born into money, grown up with money and lived his life spending all the money he wanted on anything he wanted. Even the locals regarded him as spoiled.
Nate raised his own drink in a toast as I sat down. “You’re here now. That’s what matters.” Nate only lived in the Hamptons during the spring and the summer because of his career as a professional football player, but Zeke and I always stuck around and welcomed him when he came back. He and I worked out together sometimes, but our differing schedules made that only an occasional occurrence - and besides, we preferred to spend our time together drinking, and playing cards.
“Yeah. Sorry. Got held up.”
Nate glanced at Zeke, but neither commented. “Well, hurry up and finish that drink. We’re ready for round two.”
I obliged willingly and, before I knew it, I was talking and laughing like nothing had gone wrong today at all. Bless whatever primitive version of man discovered alcohol. I stared into the nearly-empty tumbler and gave the amber contents a swirl.
Zeke noticed the motion and glanced at his own glass. “Your turn.” He nodded toward the bar.
I stood with no argument. Zeke and Nate had both made trips to replenish our drinks already. I managed to reach the bar just after the Yankees game televised this evening had ended and stood, waiting, with a press of people. The lightheartedness that had grown in my chest with the presence of good friends and good conversation dissipated slowly, drifting away to the ticking hands of the watch on my wrist. “Come on,” I muttered.
When I finally got our drinks and returned, my two friends already had a deck of cards and their poker chips on the table, waiting to start our first game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Poker was usually my favorite pastime. Anyway, I couldn’t seem to keep my head in the game tonight. I had already lost a few hundred dollars in chips and any last vestiges of my good mood by the time the clock struck 11 PM.
“Alright, what’s up with you?” Nate asked finally when Zeke collected yet another hundred off me. “You aren’t great at poker, but you’re not this bad.”
“I’ve just had a lot on my mind today,” I told him, trying to wipe the scowl off my face and failing entirely. Thursday evenings were usually my favorite of the week, and I was aware that I was ruining this one for everyone at the table.
“Hallie again?” Zeke sighed, seeing through my attempt at deflection like I had been holding up a glass pane. “Come on, man. She’s not worth this.”
“I know.” I sighed gustily. “Believe me, I know.”
“She was a gold digger,” Nate reminded me bluntly. “That’s why she’s your ex-fiancée.”
“I know,” I said again, more miserably this time. “I just can’t seem to get her out of my mind... I miss her. I know it’s sounds lame.”
“You just need another woman to get your mind off Hallie.” Zeke snapped his fingers and glanced around, evaluating the women in the casino, clearly gearing up to go into wingman mode.
“Not how it works.” That short statement was all I gave Zeke, because I knew he wouldn’t understand. He lived his life like a floating leaf in a current, carefree and aimless. That was how he liked it, and I doubted he would ever change.
Nate understood a little better. His life in the NFL meant that he couldn’t really settle down, not for a large portion of the year, and holding onto a steady relationship was hard. He too had been burned by love in the past, and I knew that was why he was giving me a sympathetic look right now. “You didn’t make a mistake. You had every right to have a prenuptial agreement written up, and if she had really loved you, she would have signed it, not flown off the handle like she did. Trust me, that girl would have split and run with half your fortune the day after the wedding. You made the right choice.”
Instead of answering, I downed my whiskey and glanced at the bar, swaying a little.
“I got it,” Zeke announced, probably realizing he had messed up earlier and trying to make amends.
“You ever just miss someone, Nate?” I asked quietly. “Even when you knew the relationship was a disaster?”
Nate set his glass down without taking a sip. “Yeah. Don’t remind me.”
We sat there together, thinking about our lost loves until Zeke came back, and the game resumed. I had discovered that the more I drank, the worse I played, and there was a certain point during these nights that I needed to cut myself off from either the game or the alcohol or risk losing more than I wanted to part with. I was quickly nearing that point – in fact, I had privately decided this game would be my last.
“Better luck next time!” Zeke crowed, backhanding me jokingly in the chest and collecting the chips for this round.
“Ouch,” I muttered, reaching up to rub my chest and glaring at Zeke’s hand, looking for a ring or something that could have cut into me. The culprit wasn’t on Zeke’s hand, it was in my breast pocket where I had slipped it hours ago. “One more,” I said so suddenly that I cut off Nate. “One more game. And I’m betting this.”
The engagement ring clattered onto the polished wooden table, glittering opulently. Something in my face must have discouraged Nate and Zeke from asking any questions because they just shrugged and silently began arranging their chips.
The game began. I couldn’t hold a poker face to save my life – or rather, to save this ring. The game had become something else to me. I had fought so hard to keep Hallie, even after the prenuptial agreement had brought out her true nature. This game was another fight, and this time…this time, I didn’t care. I didn’t want to win. I wanted to be done fighting for her, and I wanted to be done remembering her.
“You sure, man?” Nate asked hesitantly, the winning hand on the table before him. “I understand if you don’t want-”
“I’m sure,” I cut him off. “It’s yours. You won it. Congrats.” My voice slurred, but I knew I wouldn’t regret this when I was sober.
“Okay.” Nate took Hallie’s engagement ring and pocketed it without further comment.
We abandoned poker and reverted to chatting, winding down for the evening, and I found myself doing something I hadn’t been able to do all day – relaxing. Taking deep breaths, I leaned back and watched the club-goers flit from the tables to the slot machines and back again. I was even able to listen to Zeke and Nate talk about the women they were dating without wanting to remind them that romantic relationships were a royal pain in the ass.
I did it. I got rid of the ring. I couldn’t turn it over and over in my fingers at night anymore, pining away for someone who didn’t give a damn about me.
Things would be better from here on out. I just had to keep believing that.
A loud bark nearly startled me out of my seat. “Sorry, buddy,” I told Chauncey, scratching his fluffy poodle coat. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea for us to go back there.”
Chauncey regarded me scathingly, then walked off and flopped down with a huff beside one of his many bones.
I sighed too. It had been two days since Chauncey had slipped out of the backyard through an unseen hole in fence beside the hedge row. I had found said hole and placed a decently heavy wooden board over it, but I was worried the excitable one-year-old labradoodle would push it out of the way and escape again.
“And we can’t have that, buddy, can we?” I murmured to the dog. My face was turning red, remembering how I’d been yelled at by that man on the beach. I had deserved it, though. Chauncey was my responsibility since I was dog sitting for the owners of this opulent estate, and he had escaped on my watch. Whatever the man had been holding could have disappeared down the labradoodle’s throat if he had been a little slower at moving his hand.
Just a few more days, anyway. I could tire Chauncey out with long walks and tug-of-war. He liked to run around the backyard, but if that wasn’t an option because of the hole, well…it would be okay. I had learned that the inquisitive dog never gave up looking for toys I had hidden or the location of a hole in the fence, either. So, the backyard wouldn’t be safe until a professional patched the fence.
I sighed again, looking around the massive living room. At first, I hadn’t known what to do with myself in this enormous home. The marble floors shone and showed even the slightest specks of dirt. The furniture looked as new as the day it had come off the assembly line – or, as was more likely with the owners of this place, been hand-crafted. Everything was just…fancy. The refrigerator in the kitchen had way too many little features that mine certainly didn’t have, the lights and other electrical devices in the house could operate on the sound of my voice, and the high ceilings lacked a single spiderweb or discolored spot. The mansion wasn’t new, but everything about it felt pristine, untouchable.
Now, I could cross my legs when I sat on the sofa without grimacing at the idea of possibly leaving a mark on the cushions. I could make food in the kitchen without cleaning it from top to bottom when I finished. I could slide in between the sheets of the guest room at night without feeling stiff as a board in the unfamiliar, massive bedroom with its looming furnishings. It had taken me a while to find some level of comfort here, but today I was ready to finish this house and dog sitting gig and go home.
Almost, anyway. My house wasn’t exactly a safe haven right now.
I didn’t have time to think about that at the moment, though. Clearly, Chauncey wasn’t willing to just settle down on his own. The pup needed more playtime, and it was part of my job to give it to him. Grabbing his favorite toy – a red and orange lizard with the words “Ruff, Tuff and Tumble” stitched on the side – I clicked my tongue at Chauncey, who was sniffing inside the elegant fireplace, exploring.
“Chauncey!” I interjected some excitement into my voice; Chauncey was genuinely the cutest dog ever. “Come here! Want to play? Huh?” A wave of the lizard brought him running over, and he seized the front half of the toy.
I could have held onto the lizard forever, even with Chauncey tugging at it for all he was worth, but I let him have it a few times. He would shake it back and forth, happily panting, then come back to me for another round. I obliged him until we both grew tired. “Good enough?” I asked him, standing up to get us both some water.
Chauncey lapped happily away, then followed me out onto the second-floor, enclosed porch. I sat on one of the comfortable deck chairs, holding a notebook and a pen, and Chauncey plopped down at my feet with a happy sigh.
I might actually miss this dog. Maybe I should get one of my own…but no. Getting a dog had crossed my mind once or twice before, but it wasn’t a good idea. Bree, my little girl, was only two-and-a-half years old, the perfect age to be bowled over by an overexcited dog. Besides, I barely had time for work and Bree. I didn’t need to add a dog to the mix.
And it would cost more money. I had to remind myself of the biggest issue I had and the reason I was here in this mansion right now – money. I didn’t need another drain on my bank account, not right now. Not right after…
Just as I opened my book to try and pull my mind away from dark and nervous thoughts, my phone vibrated on the glass table beside me. Chauncey glanced up sleepily as I answered, leaning forward a little when I saw the caller ID. “Hey, Payton. Is something up with Bree?”
“No, of course not! She’s sleeping right now. I just called to chat.” My best friend sounded apologetic for worrying me.
“Sorry. I guess I’m still a little on edge. I’ve actually been having a really nice time here,” I told Payton, looking out the stretching windows to watch the surf lap at the sand below. “It’s pleasant, and quiet. Mostly.”
“Mostly? Did something happen?”
“Not really. The dog got out and bothered one of the neighbors. It wasn’t a big deal.” Well aware I was underselling the issue, I changed the subject. “So, how’s Bree?”
Payton spent a few minutes talking about my daughter and her own young son and how they loved to play together, creating exciting characters out of their toys and composing make-believe stories. I listened with a smile on my face, thrilled to hear my little girl was doing well in our break from living at home.
“So, how are things going?” Payton asked during a lull in the kid talk. “Have you heard anything from the police yet?”
“Not lately.” My foot moved just a little, reminding me that Chauncey would bark if anyone came to the house and the alarm system would notify me and the police if anyone dared to break in. “They said that vacationing kids probably slashed my car tires.”
“That makes sense,” Payton mused. “Kids that drink too much think destruction is fun.”
“I guess,” I said unhappily. “But I’m not so sure. Wouldn’t there have been some beer bottles around or something? And wouldn’t they have messed with more than just my tires? And why mess with a house like mine when there are so many mansions right there in Montauk? It seems like kids would be a lot more interested in those mansions than my dinky house.”
“It does seem kinda odd,” Payton agreed. For a moment, we sat together in silence, pondering.
“I just… I want my daughter to be safe, you know? I’m a little nervous about going home,” I admitted, thinking of the few days remaining here before I returned home and to my everyday job as a legal aide.
“You’ll be fine,” Payton encouraged me. “Look, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll come over for dinner and wine the evening you come back so you won’t be alone. Bree and Michael can play, and we can stay up and watch movies – quietly, of course, so we don’t wake the kids. How does that sound?”
“Pretty awesome,” I had to admit. It had been a while since Payton, and I had found time to spend together since we were busy single mothers. An evening with Payton might be just what I needed to feel comfortable in my home again. “Do you think I should call down to the police station one more time, though… check to see if they found anything else?”
“No. I think they would have called if they found something. You just need to get on with your life and not let some stupid tourists ruin it for you. You still like living in Montauk, right?”
“I love it,” I corrected Payton. Something about the untouched, natural beaches that stretched up and down the shoreline beyond my clapboard house inspired me to write some of my best poetry.
“Then it’ll be fine. And even if it’s not, you know you’re always welcome here, right?”
I smiled down at the lines of poetry in my open notebook. “Yeah. I know.”
We talked for a few more minutes. Then I hung up and traded my phone for a pen and lowered it to the paper, gazing around the lovely deck for ideas. This place inspired me, too, but in a different way from my own home, which had a more rustic vibe. This mansion belonged to a couple who were the perfect example for the old saying - ‘Everyone who lives in the Hamptons is filthy rich.’
Even though the couple who lived here appeared friendly on the surface, I had a feeling that they looked down on me for being who I was and not rising to their high financial standards. I could feel that superiority here in this house, and it was affecting the tone of my poetry.
That was okay, though. I liked to try and write many different styles of poems. Well-roundedness never hurt in any respect.
“Right, Chauncey?” I asked the labradoodle. He twitched an ear in response, and the rocking-chair I sat in creaked.
The white chair creaks on the painted porch.
A single imperfection in a world of perfection.
Outside and inside, a paradise
Beneath, a place of judgment.
I regarded the lines I had just written. It didn’t really flow, in my opinion, just because of the varying lengths in the lines. Still, it adequately described my feelings for this place, so I decided not to change anything for now. There was always something to be said for raw emotion and feeling as opposed to constant editing and perfecting. I had a long way to go before I could see the line between the two that showed whether a poem was good or bad, but I doubted I would ever share this particular piece with anyone, so I thought I might as well write from the heart. My heart had gotten me in trouble before, but I felt it was safe to let it express itself in my poetry.
My mind strayed from the words in the notebook to the most recent and most unfortunate trouble my heart had led me into – Bree’s father. He had been bad for me, even before he had gotten me pregnant and vanished without a trace. I should have been able to see that coming, but I had been naïve and convinced that he loved me, and what I felt for him was love too.
I had been very, very wrong, but honestly, I could never bring myself to regret the brief and tragic relationship. I had gotten something I loved very much from that train wreck – Bree. I wouldn’t give up my baby girl for the world, and her life would be better with her father as far out of the picture as he could be. I hadn’t heard from him since the talk when I told him I was pregnant over three years ago, so it was pretty safe to assume he would be out of our lives for good. He had probably moved to a new state, gotten another unlucky woman pregnant, and left her too.
My fingers turned through the pages of the notebook, flipping to the beginning. All of these pages were about love, trust and building a future with Oscar. I couldn’t bring myself to hate these poems, because there was no point. I had felt this way once, sure, but I didn’t anymore. I had become more secure with myself and living on my own. Oscar didn’t matter to me anymore. He hadn’t for several months.
I closed the notebook. I had meant to spend a lot more time on poetry today, but the sun was already going down, and I needed to figure something out for dinner. Chauncey would be happy if I just scooped some food out of the bag and into his bowl, but I was a little more needy. Soup, I decided. Soup sounds good. Nothing fancy, just microwaved canned soup. The owners of this house would be horrified at such a cheap, unassuming meal, no doubt, but some simple soup sounded heavenly to me right now.
“What do you think, Chauncey? Dinner time?” The labradoodle lifted his head sleepily but jumped up to follow me when I stood to head into the house. “Dog food for you, and soup for me? Sounds pretty good, right?”
Chauncey agreed with a wagging tail. I fixed our meals and sat down, watching the dog scarf up his dinner while I slurped at mine. “It’ll be fine,” I told him. “I’m going home in a few days, and it’ll be fine. I’m overreacting. I’m sure it was just some kids, like the police said. I’ll never see them again, and I’ll be able to live in peace with Bree.”
Food crunched as Chauncey chewed his way through the contents of the bowl. “Not your problem, right, buddy? Your mom and dad are going to come home and they’ll fix the fence so you can run around. You won’t even notice I’m gone.” I pulled a red hair out of my soup, finished the bowl and sighed for what felt like the millionth time that day as the labradoodle bounded across the kitchen floor, trying to play with a tiny piece of plastic that I hadn’t even seen against the pale tile. “Guess you’re all awake again.”
I put my soup bowl in the sink and went hunting for the leash, avoiding the playful pup for a moment. Suddenly exhausted, I bent down slowly to pick up the leash and almost fell when Chauncey came bounding out of nowhere. “Chill. One second,” I promised.
A quick walk, then I could go to bed early. I had better enjoy this extra sleep while I could; I wouldn’t be getting much when I went back to the daily grind of raising a child and working.
Vacation was almost over, and I would have to return to my less-than-rich reality. That would be fine, though, as long as no one wrote poems about how my home made them feel uncomfortable. And I never became as mean as that man I had met on the beach.