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Laci Montgomery collapsed on the sand, her entire body tingling from exertion and excitement.
She'd just ridden in on one beauty of a wave, a killer bombora that had fought her all the way in, determined to trip her up and pull her under. She'd conquered it, though, and her victory was a beauty.
"Damn," Drea said, running up the beach with Laci's video camera in her hand. "Too bad the competition hasn't started. You would have earned some serious points on that ride."
"Enough to beat you," Laci retorted, biting back a smile.
"True enough," Drea said. "Good thing the competition hasn't started."
"Enjoy your status while you can, rookie," Laci said, continuing the good-natured ribbing, "because I am going to totally blow you out of the water when the competition gets going."
"Smile when you say that," Drea said, aiming the camera at Laci. Laci obliged with a wide grin, then stuck her tongue out at her friend. The teasing was all in fun, and Drea knew that Laci was only playing. Well, mostly only playing. The truth was that Andrea Powell, Laci's friend and roommate, was the hot new thing on the female surfing circuit, the rookie of the year who was usually the subject of the cameras. Laci and Drea had only known each other a few weeks, but they'd bonded fast, and Laci genuinely wished Drea all the best. Well, mostly the best. Because if Laci had her way, Drea was about to be seriously outclassed by the new girl in town: Laci Montgomery, this year's wild-card entry in the Girls Go Banzai surfing competition.
"You're going down, girlfriend," she said, but with a smile.
"Am I?" Drea said as she pointed toward the surf. "Or are we both going to get our asses seriously kicked?"
Drea's finger was aimed right at JC Wilcox, a world-class surfer with the trophies to prove it. Laci would have had to hate her if JC wasn't such a great friend. She contented herself with being annoyed at JC's habit of leaving her towel draped over the curtain rod in the one-bathroom bungalow the three of them were sharing until after the competition.
"She's looking really good," Laci said with mixed envy and pride. She and JC had been friends for over a year, and during that time, Laci had learned a lot about JC. Mostly, she knew that the Hawaiian-born beauty was one hell of a surfer, and she deserved all her accolades and honors, but right then, JC had what Laci coveted: an actual corporate sponsor.
She sighed, telling herself it was the steady income of a sponsorship that she wanted. However, that wasn't entirely true. She could always find a way to make money, JC's trophies and sponsorships meant more than a paycheck. They meant that JC had earned her place in surfing.
And so faralthough Laci had busted her tail and had some solid accolades and competitions under her beltLaci still didn't have the holy grail. She still didn't have validation. And so help her, she craved it.
"You okay?" Drea's head was cocked, examining Laci's face.
"I'm fine." In fact, she wasn't. She was desperate for a win; desperate to prove herself here at Banzai. And that fierceness in her left a guilty hole in her stomach. But she couldn't help it she wanted to win. Wanted it and needed it.
More than that, she was certain that Drea and JC wanted it, too. But that was the kind of thing the girls didn't talk about unless they disguised it as joking. Sure, they were friends. But hanging out on the beach and discussing their pasts and their boyfriends and their surfboard wax was one thing. Copping to the hope of unseating both of her friends and taking a world-class championship? Well, that was an unspoken given, with unspoken being the key operating word.
Tease about it, yes.
Seriously state out loud that you want to beat your friend? Just not done.
But Laci wanted it. Oh, yeah. She wanted it bad.
"You don't look fine," Drea said. "Are you nervous?"
"A little," Laci admitted. "I'm still in a bit of shock, I think. I mean, I'm in Hawaii, competing in one of the hottest competitions on the planet. I've seen my picture on the Internet and in the local paper, and when we go into the bars and diners, the wait-staff actually knows my name. It's"
"A trip," Drea said.
"Disconcerting," Laci countered. More than that, all this unanticipated press was exactly the reason she was so anxious to prove herself. She was the wild card in this competitionhere because she was plucked out of the pile of all the potential surfers by XtremeSportNet, the corporation that was hosting and sponsoring the Girls Go Banzai competition here in Hawaii.
Most of the competitors had arrived at the competition through what Laci thought of as the usual route. In other words, they had entered a less prestigious, more locally oriented contest that fed into a bigger contest that fed into a bigger contest, until finally the top-ranking surfers in a dozen or so competitions were eligible to compete at Banzai.
In contrast, Laci hadn't played the competition circuit. Instead, she'd been invited by the sponsorXtremeSportNetto compete at Banzai as a wild card, which traditionally meant that the sponsor had seen the surfer at exhibitions or other competitions, had liked what they saw, and thought the wild card would be an asset to the overall competition.
She scowled, thinking of all the possible ways a sponsor might consider a surfer an asset. Media appeal, for example. But Laci was interested in none of that, and now that she was here, she figured it was her job to prove to everyone that she was picked because of her skill and only her skill.
Drea's eyebrows rose. "What's eating you?"
"Let's just say I don't get it," Laci said. "It's not like I've won anything yet, so what's the big deal? All this attention. It feels like I'm getting something for nothing." And that scenario grated on Laci. Always had. Always would. "I didn't even go through the trials." She'd been in Australia tending to her little sister after a car accident. The accident had been minor, but Laci had practically raised Millie, and not even the trials for Girls Go Banzai was going to keep her from Millie's side.
"Big deal. It wasn't like you've been blowing off surfing or losing your edge. You've been doing exhibitions and contests nonstop for the last fourteen months. Ever since you backed out of San Clemente."
Laci licked her lips. That one stung.
Drea glanced at her sideways. "So I'm thinking that you've got something to prove."
"Maybe," Laci admitted.
Drea studied her, then nodded. "Well, obviously it worked. They only bring in girls who deserve it as wild cards, and that would be you."
"Deserve it," Laci repeated, her mind drifting back to San Clemente, a highly touted but very new addition to the competition circuit run by one of XtremeSportNet's competitors. She'd been brought in as a wild card there, too, and she'd been foolishly, stupidly giddy about it. At least she had until she heard the rumors that she'd slept her way into the competition, trading sex for a slot. And no matter how much she denied them, the insinuations wouldn't go away. Why would they, when her then-boyfriend was Taylor Dutton, the man who'd been in charge of promoting that competition?
He'd denied it, of course, but considering that the media was already all over the story and her reputation was shot, nothing he said made a whit of difference.
The trouble, of course, was that she'd trusted him. No, more than that; she'd loved him. They'd been dating on and off for two months, and they'd fallen into a pattern of easy familiarity that had tingled around the edges. Simply sitting next to each other at a table eating breakfast cereal had moved her, and he could turn her to mush with a soft brush of his thumb against her cheek as easily as with a deeply passionate embrace and a slow slide into bed.
She'd loved him and she'd trusted him, and because she had, the hurt had gone that much deeper when the media broke the big story that he'd pulled the strings to get her into the competition as a coveted wild-card contender. Not because she deserved it, which she did, thank you very much, but because she'd been sleeping with him.
She'd wanted to dump him in a flurry of curses and flying pieces of furniture, but instead she'd dumped him with a quiet fury she liked to think was elegant and controlled. Then she'd scurried away to lick her wounds and tell herself that if she never saw Taylor Dutton again, it would be too soon.
For a few weeks there, she'd even considered leaving surfing behind, but then JC had kicked her butt and told her to get out there on the circuit and prove that Laci didn't have to sleep her way to a trophy or a world rankingshe could surf her way there just fine.
As surfing competitions went, San Clemente wasn't yet ablip on the world-class radar. So her surfing career hadn't taken too much of a hit when she'd backed out, in spite of all the local media attention. Even so, there was no wayno wayshe'd been willing to hang in there and let people think that sex had eased her entry into the events. And for the next fourteen months, she'd aimed for the gold standardhighly prestigious competitions. Competitions that could kick a girl up into the world rankings. Competitions that could get her noticed and get her a sponsor.
Girls Go Banzai was one of those competitions, and even if Millie's accident had meant that she'd missed the primary feeder competition for Banzai, nothing changed the fact that Laci had spent weeks carefully selecting which competitions and exhibitions she surfed. She'd done her best, busted tail on the waves, and she'd gotten herself noticed.
Herself. Not her former jerkwad of a bed partner.
So, yeah. She deserved this wild-card spot. And with a quick "I absolutely, totally do deserve it," she told Drea so.
"Well, there you go," Drea said, as if that solved everything. Laci sighed. Maybe it did.
Besides, once she won, that queer, uncomfortable feeling would go away. No one could say that she hadn't earned the attention (or, she hoped, the endorsements) because the trophy would be sitting on her mantel. But until she actually won, she was just a pretender. And that was a role that didn't sit well with Laci at all.
"Is Millie coming?" Drea asked, shifting the subject to Laci's little sister.
Laci shook her head. "I wish. But she's in Sydney doing The Magic Flute. A small role, but she's got a solo, and she totally steals the show." The car accident, thank goodness, hadn't slowed Millie's career one iota.
"Really? That's awesome. You must be totally proud."
"Enough to bust a gut," Laci admitted, though Drea didn't know the half of it. The truth was, Laci had been more like a mom to Millie than like a sister. No one knew the full story because Laci had never felt close enough to anyone to share. Couple that with the fact that dredging up her sub-par childhood was not on Laci's list of fun things to do, and it made for a topic that was definitely not discussed in polite conversation.
She'd never even shared the details of her childhood with Taylor. He'd known she was close to her sister, of course. But all the other baggage That stuff was best left buried.
Drea whipped the towel from around her hips and laid it out on the sand, then settled in, faceup to the sun, the pink zinc oxide on her nose making her look cuter than usual.
Laci swallowed a frown as she settled back, towelless, on the sand. Next to Drea and JC, she'd always felt plain. Brownish-blond hair, a smattering of irritating freckles and a mouth she'd always considered too big. Fresh, the press was calling her now, which Laci interpreted as code for "not sexy in the least." Not that it mattered. She was here to surf, not to win a beauty pageant.
Besides, the press chatter about her looks was a lot better than the alternative. So far, at least, not one reporter had mentioned the San Clemente scandal. As far as Laci was concerned, it couldn't get much better than that.
Drea turned her head, opened her eyes and frowned. "Do you want to share my towel?"
She squirmed a little, digging her heels into the warm sand, enjoying the feel of the grains against her back and legs. "No thanks." The sensation teased her, reminded her of what she was there for and of how far she'd come. All the way from her screwed-up childhood in Laguna Beach, California, where she wasn't allowed to take a towel to the beach because her mom didn't want to risk tracking any bit of grit or grime into their blindingly white, paid-for-with-other-people's-money beachfront condo.
All of that hadn't mattered then, and it didn't matter now. Laci had grabbed Millie' s hand and marched the two of them jauntily through the glitz-and-marble lobby. They'd crossed the walking path to the dunes and plunked themselves down on the sand, Laci's six years on this earth qualifying her for elder-statesman status over her four-year-old sister. The California beaches weren't warm like the ones in Hawaii, but to this day she could remember the smell of the surf, and she could still feel the suction beneath her toes as she wiggled them in the warm, wet sand.
They'd stay outside as long as they could, cooking under a layer of sunscreen, and cooling off with quick dips in the surf and slushies from Joe who worked the concession shack. Then they'd traipse back to the condo, only to be waylaid by Manuel, the doorman, who'd invariably tell her that her mom had a "special guest," and suggest that Laci and Millie get cleaned up in the poolside shower and maybe take a quick swim for, oh, another thirty-five minutes.
Millie was too young to understand, but even at six, Laci got it: stay out of their mom's way for a while longer, and by the next day, they'd have a few new clothes, food in the fridge and a mother who wasn't in a perpetually pissy mood. Usually, Laci scored a new toywhich she immediately dropped in the charity box at the grocery store, though she'd never, ever tell her mother for fear of one of Alysha's famous spankings. Their mom had a temper, no doubt about that. And woe be to any adult or child who looked askance at the way she provided for her kids.