With a make-or-break world championship on the line, professional surfer Tanner Wright has come back to the coastal California hometown he left a decade ago, carrying only his board and the painful knowledge of his father’s infidelity. Now that Hank Wright is dead, Tanner intends to keep the secret buried to spare his mother and sister the burden.
The last time Avalon Knox saw her best friend’s brother, she was fourteen and he was a twenty-year-old surfer god. She’s never understood or respected the way Tanner distanced himself from the family that has embraced her. But now she has the professional chance of a lifetime: to photograph Tanner for the competition—if he’ll agree.
Out on the waves, they find in each other passion that’s impossible to resist. And Tanner’s not the only one trying to move forward from his past. As the competition heats up, secrets get spilled, and lust takes over. How close can Avalon get to this brooding surfer…without getting burned?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The past ten years of the waves down under hadn’t been home to Tanner Wright, not like the gray-green swells of San Sebastian. He’d been raised on these Californian waves. His father taught him to surf on a long board, carve out what he could from the slush and be the man he was born to be. It hadn’t been until they were halfway across the world, in a much brighter blue ocean, that he’d realized his dad wasn’t half the man he was supposed to be.
Now Tanner was home again.
And Hank Wright was dead. Buried six months ago.
Tanner faced the waves of San Sebastian alone. The weight of the breeze pushed over his bare neck, scraping across his skin. His toes burrowed into the damp, cool sand. The sun rose behind him, over the expensive beach houses and stores that still hadn’t turned to chains over the decade he’d been gone. The water was the same.
The surfers bobbing past the swells were the same too. Tanner ought to be with them but he carried a weight. San Sebastian had become an anchor.
In four weeks he’d have to not only surf here, but he’d have to win. Or he’d lose his shot at this year’s pro-surf World Championship. The points were too damn close. Jack Crews, pretty boy and part-time model, didn’t fucking deserve the title. Tanner would be damned before he’d hand it over because he couldn’t man up enough to surf.
A decent set surged, bringing a surfer cruising in with a deep layback before peeling off to the side again. Tanner hardly noticed. A woman popped up on the second wave, taking it all the way in. She didn’t push any tricks, didn’t grab for the rails or try to make air on a front that probably could have supported her.
She breathed pure grace. The easy acceptance of the moment she’d been handed and the tiny fraction of the giant ocean she rode. Her face turned up toward the still-rising sun, golden light kissing the rounded apples of her cheeks. A smile curved her generous mouth and she kept her eyes closed, apparently enjoying the feeling of floating into shore. The water soaking her ponytail made it look almost black, but he knew otherwise.
He couldn’t help but smile as he eased down toward the edge of the water. Cool, foam-topped minisurf licked at his toes.
The woman glided in as far as she could standing on her board, but finally hopped off into knee-deep water when she wouldn’t float anymore. She pushed back damp bangs with one hand as she scooped up her board.
Summer’s deep grip meant that even a half hour after dawn it was warm enough for her to be wearing only a bikini top and black shorts. The red halter did good things to a figure entirely more curvy and filled out than he remembered.
“You never could spot a good trick, could you?” He couldn’t keep the laugh out of his voice. “All you had to do was shift and you’d have had a nice little cutback swish on the end.”
Dark gray-green eyes went wide. The nose of her board dropped to the sand with a soft thump and a miniature splash. Her sharp words were in direct contradiction to her stunned look. “Swear to God, if you call me a lazy surfer one more time, I may toss you to the sharks.”
Avalon Knox had always been a bit of a smart-ass. There was no denying the truth. “It’s not my fault you passed up a pro career,” Tanner teased.
She gave a wry smile and looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Lifting a hand to her hair, she skimmed loose strands back toward her ponytail. She hadn’t had those pert breasts the last time he’d seen her. But then, she’d been at most fourteen years old and he’d been twenty. Looking at his sister’s best friend would have gotten him strung up.
“Not everyone wants to go pro.” She picked the board up and hitched it under her arm. “C’mon. I’ll walk you back to the house.”
“I’m not going to the house.” The thought felt like scraping the inside of his skin with broken seashells. Tanner had never been able to separate the shitty memories of his father from his happy memories of his childhood home.
“You’re not . . .” But her voice faded off. A light pink flush crept across her sternum. She put her board down again, this time setting the tail in the sand and standing it up. One arm curled around it. “You know, we didn’t think you were going to be in town for another week or so. If you even made it at all.”
The blow wasn’t unexpected. He deserved no better. It had been more than nine years since he’d been home. Seeing his sister and his mother in Hawaii every year or flying them out to Australia for his birthday wasn’t the same thing. He’d invited Avalon too, but she’d passed every single time.
“I was injured last year. Pulled hamstring, remember?”
“Uh-huh.” She scratched idle fingers across the plane of her stomach as she looked out over the water. Tanner looked too. It was safer out there. Out on the water, he knew who he was. A surfer.
On the shore, he remembered he was a surfer who hadn’t won a world championship in nine years. Who got injured more often than not. Who wasn’t one of the little kids still scrabbling his way up in the rankings.
She side-eyed him again. That was Avalon, poking at dark corners. Always had been. “And what about the five years before that?”
“That . . .” He looked back at her, away from the deep surf that had claimed his whole life and created his father’s golden image. “That’s none of your damn business, sweetheart.”
She flinched visibly, the tendons at the base of her neck popping. Her tongue flicked out over her pink lips. “I see.”
“No offense meant, of course.”
“Most of the time when someone says ‘no offense,’ they mean they wanted to hit the max possible offense.”
He shrugged. “Take it how you want. But if I’m not discussing it with my mother, I’m sure as hell not discussing it with you.”
Avalon wasn’t exactly a member of the family, but she was more than a friend too. She’d been twelve when Tanner’s mom took Avalon under her wing for mentoring. He’d been eighteen and striking out to hit the pro tour. Skinny little waifs hadn’t held his interest compared to the beach bunnies who bounced their way down the sand. Plus he’d known Avalon a long time.
She wasn’t the type to keep her mouth shut very well. He could practically see whitewater churning behind those almost gray eyes.
“The whole world wants to know, Tanner,” she finally said. “Not just the family.”
“You still work for Surfer?”
Her narrow shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I never really worked for them. I’ve sold them some photographs.”
“You’d like to though, wouldn’t you?” He tugged a pair of sunglasses that dangled by one arm from the pocket of his cargo shorts.
“Don’t be an ass.” She flicked her ponytail over her shoulder. “Of course I do. But I’m not going to sell out Sage or Eileen to get there.”
That was Avalon too. Honest to a fault. “My mom and sister count, but me you’d sell out in a second, wouldn’t you?”
The wide, bright grin she flashed him was everything appealing. He had the sudden, strange urge to taste it. Kiss that smile and see if it tasted as sweet as it looked. He could have shaken off the impulse if he wanted to. The years when he hadn’t been in control of his own body were long gone, if you didn’t count the times when it inconveniently gave out on him.
Avalon Knox . . . she wasn’t off-limits. Not for any real reason beyond longtime ties to the family. From the way her gaze flicked over his shoulders now and then, maybe she wouldn’t be averse to spending some time together while he was in California.
But then her smile turned out toward the water again. “You’ve been gone so long, you hardly count.”
He laughed off the sudden sting of that blow. It was the hardest part of it all—that no one knew he’d been doing a good thing by staying away. Keeping his dad’s secret meant keeping the family harmony. Who the hell was he to break his mother’s heart?
And to be honest, there was a little envy there when it came to his sister. Sage still looked on Hank Wright as a god among men. Tanner remembered that feeling. He’d do anything to make sure Sage got to keep it.
Avalon’s shoulder bumped into his arm in a friendly nudge. Her skin was still damp, and slightly chilled, but underneath was warm heat that was all her own. “Come back to the house. It’ll be water under the bridge. Eileen’ll make breakfast—you know it.”
His mom put together an awesome spread when she got it into her head that her brood needed feeding. Regret pooled in his gut with something that felt strangely like fear. Even if his dad was gone, the house was still Hank’s territory. “I don’t think I can. I have a meeting with some WavePro reps.”
“The big bucks,” she teased.
He shrugged. He’d been lucky to be sponsored by WavePro when they were a tiny clothing line with only three styles of board shorts. The company had been the backbone of his support when he’d cut ties with Hank. Lately things had been strained because Tanner hadn’t produced a major win. The San Sebastian Pro would have to be it. “Gotta keep ’em happy.”
“Do you like working for them, though? I’ve got a meeting there this afternoon. Don’t know what they want.”
“They’re businessmen at heart, but they know surfing too. Can’t go too wrong.”
Her mouth pulled into a firm line, but that quickly eased again into a kissable shape. “What are you doing out here, if you’ve got important places to be?”
“I got in so late last night, I didn’t get a chance to look at the waves.” He smiled down at her, testing. The way he’d like to lick the salt from her skin . . . He let it ease into his gaze. She didn’t flinch. Her smile tucked deeper, the apples of her cheeks rounding. “I didn’t expect to run into you.”
The gentle curve of her chest, even before it swelled into her breasts, was something remarkable. He wanted to trace his tongue over it. “Life’s full of weird little twists.”
“It is.” But he really did have to get going. “I’ll be by the house this afternoon.” Once he worked up the last bit of guts he’d need, but there was no reason to admit that. He’d have to hand over his balls. “Do me a favor?”
Her smile turned flat-out cheeky. The green in her eyes sparked brighter, washing away the gray. She cocked her hip. “Depends. I don’t give away favors lightly.”
The changes were definitely enjoyable. “Don’t tell Mom you saw me.”
“Want to surprise her?”
“Something like that.” More like he still needed a little bit of time to gather himself before he could see her. The second his mom knew he’d landed in town, she’d be blowing up his phone. He wasn’t a big enough asshole to be able to ignore that. After all, he always did everything he could to make up for the fact that he hadn’t been home in years. It was hard enough keeping his dad’s secret from miles away. He’d missed his family and the places he used to feel comfortable in his own skin. The pain of balancing everyone else’s needs and wants and expectations had been the only thing sharp enough to balance the rest.
Eileen’s kitchen had always been magic. As a teenager, sitting down at the counter while she set a glass of fresh-pressed juice and a sandwich in front of him . . . it was like having a switch flipped. Truths spilled out of him as easily as floating on the water on a flat day.
He’d only have to hope that being thirty-one and a full-grown man would provide immunity.
Spilling all the dirty details about Hank Wright’s secret family on the other side of the world wouldn’t help anyone. Hell, the man was dead. Let the truth die with him.
By afternoon, Avalon had almost been able to forget the strange swirl of thoughts Tanner’s reappearance had resurrected. Almost.
Walking into the WavePro offices blew that one out of the water.
Nestled in an anonymous complex barely redeemed by its beach-adjacent location, WavePro looked like any other set of stucco California offices.
The walls were covered with giant prints of surfing shots. Some of them front-lit, full-color, some of them artsy black-and-white portraits.
At least half of them were of Tanner.
His rugged, gorgeous face looked down at her from almost every angle.
Tugging at the cross-body strap of her camera bag, she sat on a cloth-covered couch. Her gaze drifted back to the shot of Tanner on the far wall. She couldn’t help it. Another dead-on color composition. He stared directly into the camera, his bright blue eyes looking into hers. The scar cutting up from his mouth toward his left cheek was a faint line. Mostly it was the wicked tilt of his eyebrow that got to her.
Christ, she had to shake this. She wasn’t a gawky fourteen-year-old drooling after her best friend’s older brother anymore. Jumping Tanner’s bones now could lead to major huge awkwardness come the next family Christmas.
There was no way she was repaying Sage and Eileen back like that. Along with Hank, they’d been her sole support when she’d been a teenager. Gee, thanks for making sure I didn’t end up knocked up at fifteen and working two part-time jobs to make ends meet. For repayment, mind if I bang the prodigal son?
Besides, when he wasn’t wearing that come-hitherish look he’d given her at the end of their chat, she remembered her annoyance all over again. Back to how much she owed the Wright family—when he’d cut tail and run. Never bothered to come home, not until his own dad was dead. The asshole. She didn’t sleep with assholes.
Not even if they had six-packs worthy of national advertising. Not even if they could drop a rail so sick the front of the wave carved itself.
He was still the one who’d left. For years. He might set himself up as some sort of conquering hero, flying Sage and Eileen in for a month in Hawaii here and there. He wasn’t the one who’d been here, who’d held their hands and given them hugs when Hank had died. Who’d taken care of all the stupid paperwork and told Eileen that no, it didn’t really matter whether Hank’s coffin had brass handles or silver.
Bitterness rose up in her chest like zaps from a jellyfish. She shoved it back down again just as quickly.
That solved that tingly girl bits problem, didn’t it? If she ever started thinking about his mouth too much, all she had to do was remind herself of his near-shithead status. Easy peasy.
“Miss Knox.” The voice belonged to an older man standing in the open double doorway. Though silver streaked his hair, he still carried the deep tan of a longtime surfer. The founder of the company, Frank Wakowski.
At his side was a taller man with golden blond hair and an expression that said he’d rather lick paint than meet with Avalon. He sneered down his nose. A fresh-faced brunette wearing a pencil skirt and button-down shirt stood next to him. The man and the brunette seemed like intentional opposites in everything, down to attitude. Even their hair was on the opposite ends of the spectrum.
The hand Avalon held out was probably damp with sweat. “Mr. Wakowski, I’m honored to be here,” she said as they shook. “WavePro is a huge name.”
“We’ve worked hard to get where we are.” His genial features spread in an open smile. “And I’ve heard you’re quite the hard worker too.”
Sudden nerves spiked her heartbeat up into her mouth with a heavy pulse. She’d racked her brain, but the only reason she could come up with for such a meeting was an opportunity. The fact that they’d asked for this meeting meant Mr. Crankyface could suck it.
She and Mr. Wakowski made small talk as they made their way into a standard-issue conference room. At least the version of Tanner in this room barely poked out of a heavy barrel, the entire right side of the image layered over with WavePro advertising.
Avalon knotted her hands beneath the pale oak conference table and did her best to modulate her voice so it didn’t shake. She hated being nervous, but hated looking nervous even more.
The tall man had been introduced as Walt Palmer. He leaned forward with his elbows on the edge of the table. “Miss Knox, to be frank, you’ve never worked at the level we’re asking for.”
She lifted her brows. “To be frank, you’re the ones who asked me here. Someone here must think I’m good enough.”
Mr. Wakowski chuckled. “That’d be me. I’ve been seeing your shots frequently in smaller publications and online. There’s an appealing element. I’m not entirely sure if the promise can be fulfilled, but we want something different.”
“We wanted Scott, but it fell through.”
The young woman, Ms. Harmon, seemed to be the in-house attorney. She lifted a single finger. “To be fair, it fell through because he bombed out in Tahiti and has since checked into rehab. We’re lucky to have escaped that commitment, considering his lack of reliability.”
Palmer’s mouth pinched. “He might be unreliable, but he’s good.”
That certainly took care of the nerves. Avalon leaned back in her seat, hooking one thumb in the open end of her camera bag. She never went anywhere without the thing. The canvas and Velcro had become her friend and confidant in a lot of ways, along with the equipment within. She looked Mr. Wakowski straight in the eye. “If your assistant is done insulting me, perhaps you can get on to the offer.”
“We want you to work with Tanner Wright for the entirety of his time in San Sebastian. His homecoming.” Mr. Wakowski tapped his index fingers together as he stared intently at her. “Honestly, yes, we had another photographer planned. It fell through. So we’ve decided to offer you the opportunity.”
Opportunity was definitely the word. “Commercial or feature?”
Ms. Harmon laid her hand flat on a folder that likely held the contracts and pushed it forward a few inches. “Both, hopefully.”
“If Tanner wins this competition, he’ll sew up the World Championship,” said Mr. Wakowski. “Back in his hometown for the first time. The publicity is inherently positive.”
Nervousness sank deeper into Avalon’s bones, but this time a thrill of excitement ran alongside it. “Me. You want me to photograph Tanner Wright for the next four weeks.”
“He and I are friends, but not follow-around-constantly-level friends.”
“We have a publicity clause in our contract with Tanner,” Mr. Wakowski said calmly. “We’ll invoke it if necessary.”
The tall man’s lips pressed into a thin smile. “Between the level of access WavePro gets and your personal connection, we expect plenty of good shots.”
Oh crap, she wasn’t sure if she could even do it. Their meeting this morning had been slightly volatile. Not to mention there were other worries. How she’d be perceived. She’d worked ridiculously hard trying to find her place in what was so very much a man’s field. Was she willing to take a leg up because of her connections?
Hell yes, she was. She’d known plenty of men who’d gotten their break because they grew up surfing with the right people. She’d worry about the perception later.
This was big enough to make her career.
She stuck her hand across the table. “You’ve got yourselves a photographer.”
Mr. Wakowski broke into a wide grin. He stood and took her hand, giving it a sturdy shake. “You’re not going to regret this, Avalon.”
Everything went rapidly after that, particularly the discussion of terms. Afterward, Palmer fled the room as if he were in danger of catching something nasty. Avalon held her hand out. “May I have the contracts, Ms. Harmon?”
“Please, call me Beth.”
“Beth. I hope you don’t mind me having the paperwork checked by my attorney.”
Beth had sweet brown eyes that danced when she laughed. “Oh, I promise I’m not offended. I might think less of you if you didn’t, for that matter. But everything’s on the up-and-up. If you ask me, it’s those surfer boys you need to watch out for.”
• • •
The Wrights’ place had been Avalon’s second home for close to a decade even before she’d officially moved in. Most of the value in the tall, narrow beach house was in the location. For two kids and lots of random drop-ins all the time, the place was a little small.
But whenever Avalon kicked off her flip-flops at the front door and cool Spanish tiles hit the bottoms of her feet, she knew she could relax and let down her shields in a way she couldn’t anywhere else. She put her camera bag on the couch, but not before pulling out her Canon. She loved the beat-up beast of a camera. “I’m home,” she called. Her voice echoed through the narrow living room, then out the opened French doors on the far end of the kitchen.
Sage stuck her head out over the stairway railing above Avalon’s head. “Get up here.”
“Nice to see you too,” she teased even as she skipped up the stairs. “Sure, my meeting went awesome. You’re so nice to ask.”
When she got up to the landing, where three rooms spidered out, there was no one there. Just the plain yellow walls adorned only by cobalt blue glasswork that Eileen had done herself during the “off hours” she had when she wasn’t working at the family-owned surf shop, Wright Break.
As a role model, Eileen Wright was really something to live up to.
Sage’s door squeaked open on the left, and the blonde reached out to grab Avalon. Next thing Avalon knew, Sage had dragged her over to the window.
“Look. Just look,” Sage said in a near squeal, her delicate features jumping with excitement. It was hard sometimes to believe that Tanner and Sage came from the same stock. Where he was blunt-nosed and hard-jawed, his sister was all sweetness and beauty and looked like Eileen. The way Tanner took after Hank had made it all the more awful to watch their split.
Avalon obediently looked out the window. Though a canopy of green star jasmine half concealed them, she could see Eileen on the back patio in her favorite spot. She was curled into her padded papasan chair, a holdover from faded hippie days. The only difference was the person sprawled across a lounge chair next to her.
A crumpled mess of emotions turned over in Avalon’s chest. Part wonder, to see him in the Wright family home again. Part excitement, to realize she’d been handed an a-freaking-mazing opportunity, all because she knew him.
And, yeah, part turn-on too, because Tanner was one fine specimen of man. He wore the same cargo shorts and slim, hugging T-shirt that he’d had on this morning at the beach. His legs were spread in a negligent sprawl and the way he had his arms crossed over his chest only made the T-shirt draw more snug over his shoulders. His hair looked spikier than this morning, as if he’d found some time to dip in the water before coming over.
Of course. Tanner always took the long way home, it seemed like.
Avalon flat-out didn’t get it. If she’d ever been born part of a solid family like this one, there would be nothing in the world that would make her walk away. “How long’s he been here?”
“About three hours. Rang the doorbell like he was a door-to-door salesman or some other kind of bullshit. I could choke him.” Sage touched her fingertips to the glass in a move that looked way more sisterly than her words sounded.
“You didn’t though.”
“Nope. Of course not.” She sighed, turned away from the window, and flopped across the bed—a little juvenile for a twenty-six-year-old woman. Sage scrubbed the heels of her hands across her eyes. “God forbid we scare him off. Mom’s already planning a party though.”
Sage used to have her own apartment, but that changed after her dad’s death. Even though Avalon had already been living there, Sage moved back in to help her mom either shut down the surf store or sell it so she could retire—and to be near when Eileen needed her. As a result, the walls of Sage’s room were still papered with magazine cutouts of fellow surfers and bands from her high school years—and hand-drawn sketches of the surfboards that she shaped for a living.
Avalon couldn’t help but pick out the shots of Tanner. She couldn’t get away from the man and she’d be even closer to him during the next four weeks. One way or the other she’d have to get over herself. “That’s your mom, though. Any excuse for having people over.”
“And cooking. God forbid anyone might go home hungry.” Sage rolled her eyes but it was obvious she didn’t mean it. Even being in Sage’s presence was relaxing. Lots of calm and sunshine, all stemming from a happy, internal place.
Avalon envied that happy place so damn bad. Half the time she felt like she was scrambling to keep up, and the rest of the time she wanted to collapse. She straddled the desk chair and fiddled with her camera for a second.
She had to look up from under her lashes to ask. It didn’t feel like her place, and yet she couldn’t leave it be, either. “Are you gonna ask?”
God, that was Sage. Able to let any slight or problem go. “Are you going to ask Tanner what happened with your dad?”
Sage shook her head. A sheaf of hair slid over her shoulder as she rolled onto her tummy. “No. Not my business. It’s past now.”
Avalon snapped off a couple pictures. Sage barely blinked. The random picture taking was routine between the two of them. Part of Avalon’s way of framing the world in more understandable ways.
Because she didn’t get it. If her brother had been gone . . . She’d have to know why.
She wasn’t sure at all if she’d be able to keep her mouth shut while spending the next month with Tanner.
Jesus. Suddenly, something made her sit up straight. It was possible he didn’t even know yet. He hadn’t said anything this morning. As if it weren’t enough that she’d tagged around his family for close to a decade, now she’d be shadowing him personally.
She might have to tell him herself.
Tanner had always liked his mom’s back patio. The entire space was probably only twelve feet by twelve before the garage and alley cut it off, but his mom had a special touch for making it cozy. She’d squeezed in a couple chairs, eked out some plants and grass that didn’t mind the high walls and getting only an hour of sunshine a day. Next to being out on the water, it was one of his favorite places in the world.
So the quiet burn of tears that had threatened when he’d stepped out onto the flagstones wasn’t a surprise. He’d easily managed to choke them back.
His dad had been such a fucking dillhole. To put all this harmony at risk, and to put Tanner in the position of losing it. All the while, he got to look like a good guy, while Tanner was the ego-filled surf boy who wouldn’t come home.
No one had ever known how much he missed the quiet moments spent with his mom in this space.
Eileen reached out and tapped his forearm. She kept doing that all the time, finding reasons to touch or pat him. Push his hair back out of his eyes. Once he’d thought she was two seconds from licking her thumb and rubbing his cheek.
He didn’t mind, not really. It couldn’t last long, but being with his mom again . . . It made him a little warm and fuzzy on the inside.
“Is there anyone in particular that you want me to invite for Friday?” she asked.
“Not really.” Anyone he added to the guest list would be another set of eyes to stare and wonder where the hell he’d been. The weight ate at him. “If you’ve got a question, go ahead and ask, Mom.”
“Do you have a girlfriend, sugar?” Amusement glowed from her still-smooth skin. His mom wasn’t exactly over-the-hill, but a bit of silver paled out her honey-blond hair.
“No,” he said, but he couldn’t help the little chuckle that worked through him. Mothers were always the same, no matter what other drama swirled around them. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m out of here.”
Her easy smile drooped a little. “So soon?”
“I’ve been visiting for hours now.” He pushed out of his chair, but then leaned down to brush a kiss over her temple. “Besides, I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Her throat worked over a swallow. The corners of her mouth managed to push up again, but a certain wavering quality took over. He didn’t like it. For a second, she looked almost old. Sickening guilt churned through him, that he could make her look like that.
But he shoved it down again as quickly. She’d look even worse if she knew the truth.
“Promise?” she asked, her voice light on the surface. Darkened blue eyes gave her away.
That easily, things were better. Maybe he’d actually be able to make it all work. To balance everything.
He couldn’t afford to let all this family stuff take the fins out from under his board. Too much rode on the upcoming contest. He needed his head in the game.
On the front walk, he was slipping his sunglasses on when the door opened behind him. For half a second, he thought it would be Sage, wanting a word when their mom couldn’t hear. But when he turned, Avalon stood on the front stoop.
She looked entirely different from the way she had at the beach, but in a way she was still the same. Her hair had been dried and maybe even styled somehow so that her bangs weren’t just pushed out of the way. A thick fringe grazed above eyes that looked greener than they had this morning as well.
The biggest change was the fact that she was wearing way more clothes. The red bikini halter top was nowhere to be seen, replaced by a disappointingly respectable blouse. Not even a hint of cleavage. At least her skirt showed off a couple solid inches of smooth thigh above her knees.
Slender fingers hooked into her dark gray bag. “We should talk.”
“I think we did that this morning.”
Her soft-looking mouth quirked. “Something’s come up.”
It was weird as hell, looking at this version of Avalon and mentally layering it over the version he used to know: thin, wiry, and way too young. But that version was long gone, and he pushed the memory away. This was Avalon now. She was the one he had before him. Ignoring the past was what he was good at, after all.
“Do you mind if we don’t go back inside?” Being in what had been his father’s house had been bad enough. He’d had to employ intentional tunnel vision to make it past all the photographs and framed covers and his father’s trophies. All the things that said what an awesome guy Hank was. No way could he do it again so soon.
She shrugged. “No worries. C’mon, we’ll walk up the block to Manna’s.”
She struck out walking while she laughed at him. “I keep thinking of you as a local. But that’s not quite right anymore, is it?”
He let her draw even before he started moving. She smelled like coconut and toasted sun and everything good he remembered about California girls. Plus, underneath it, something different. Something tastier that called right to the bottom of him, made him want to lick and suck. And bite. “No, I don’t think it is. I . . . I don’t think I’m a local anywhere right now.”
She slanted a sideways look at him. The cross-strap of her messenger-style camera bag did delicious things to her tits, lifting them and pressing the cotton of her blouse against them. “That’s got to be one of the saddest things I’ve heard in forever.”
“Didn’t mean it to be sad. Just is.” He didn’t have to measure his steps to walk alongside her. She moved with ferocity of purpose, intent and quick. Though her legs had to be shorter, she clipped along too fast for it to be a problem. “Don’t feel bad for me.”
“Oh, I don’t.” She grinned. A quick flick tossed her shoulder-length hair over her shoulder. Now that it wasn’t soaking wet, the sun picked out red strands to caress. “Not in the least.”
“Nice. You’re real sweet—you know that?”
“You can’t have it both ways, dude.” She turned her face up toward the sun for a second. When he’d spotted her on her board, she’d been like that too. A true sun worshipper, probably. He couldn’t blame her. He had the same instinct. Get to some water and sun and the rest of it would all shake out. “If you don’t want me to pity you, you shouldn’t get your panties in a twist when I don’t.”
“When you put it that way.” He gently pushed his shoulder into hers. Not hard. Not enough to toss her off balance, but enough so that he felt that skin again. She was everything bright and soft. “So what makes it so sad, then?”
“This,” she breathed. Her hands found the back pockets of her skirt, thrusting her shoulders back.
They’d come to the end of the road, where it dead-ended in sand and a footpath tracked through the reedy plants staking their claim at the very edge of the beach. Cars and trucks squeezed in where they could. The heat of the crystal-clear summer day meant the entire expanse of beach, all the way to the ocean, was a sea of people. Dark hair, brightly colored swimsuits, tan-and-blue sun umbrellas. All of it covered the pale sand.
Some surfers bitched and moaned about San Sebastian. Said it was too crowded, too commercial. Tourists flocked in from miles around to fill out the small town. Tanner had always loved the contrast. In the morning, he could claim waves that ranked among the best in the world. In the afternoon, it’d all be handed over to inlanders so they could get a taste of wildness.
“You gave up all this. Apparently for nothing, if you don’t have a home.” Something sad darkened her eyes into a stormy color. “I could maybe get it if you’d chosen something else instead. But . . . nothing?”
Yeah, thanks. Like he needed any reminder of how bad the last few years had sucked. Of the kind of choices he’d been left with. Words burned his throat but he choked them down. She didn’t deserve to take the lashings from all the tension he carried.
He’d have to do something soon to work off the buzz riding his skin. Maybe he’d grab a board and hit the water, if he could get through the crowds. And the freaking tide was out too, now that he thought about it.
He’d have to find another outlet. He couldn’t help the track his gaze took toward Avalon. She’d be a spicy little armful—if she had any intention of giving him the time of day.
Though she had been the one who wanted to talk to him. Maybe she had more illicit purposes after all.
He couldn’t help the little spike of amusement. Yeah, right. He was starting to believe his own hype. Too much more of that, and he’d be Jack Crews. And as useless a surfer too. He and Jack had made about the same amount of money through the years—lots of it. But Jack’s attitude had suffered. “C’mon,” he said, shaking free of his own head. That was a dangerous place to be too long. “Where are we headed?”
“This way.” She turned south, then led the way down the beach about a hundred yards to a beach café slash bar. The door they pushed through was weathered to look like driftwood and the interior was cool and dark. The entire west wall was nothing but banks of open glass doors. Dark wood fans swirled air around in a lazy effort to add to the salt-tangy sea breeze.
There were tables outside, all of them crowded with pasty white or lobster red tourists who clutched frothy drinks. The tables inside were half empty, as if it were a sin to come to the beach and not get all the sunstroke possible. At the far end, a nest of tables had been pushed together and seats dragged up. All of them were occupied by surfers.
Tanner recognized many of them, including James Montcrief, and so did Avalon from the way she smiled and waved. In fact, there was Jack Crews sitting at the head of the tables, as if Tanner’s very thought of him had drawn the man. He forced his mouth into a smile and gave two tips of his fingers.
“Avalon, sweetheart, why’re you keeping such shitty company?” Jack called. His eyes were narrow, but Tanner had heard plenty of chicks coo and giggle over him. He pushed his seat back and patted a knee. “You know I’ll always make room for you.”
“Like she wants to fight through your hordes,” provided James. It was surprising to see him in town, since he’d left the World Championship circuit behind to become a free surfer. He must have been visiting Beth Harmon, his fiancée.
“Sorry, Jack,” she answered. “We’ve got business to discuss. But maybe if you behave yourself I’ll grace you with my presence later.”
Business, did they? That certainly put an end to anything he’d been supposing. Probably had something to do with the way she’d been asking about WavePro earlier that morning.
“If anyone can keep me on my toes, it’s you,” Jack said with a grin. His teeth were so white, he’d probably had a recent bleach treatment.
Tanner didn’t hate the guy, but he didn’t understand him, either. Jack seemed to go out of his way to court inlanders and kiss publicity ass. He drank too much, partied too hard, and he’d lost freaking heats in important competitions because he’d been hungover. Absolutely unprepared. But his sponsors never let him go because he drew attention.
Considering Tanner had spent the last nine years garnering the least possible attention he could get away with, all so no one would ask him about his dad, he couldn’t comprehend.
“But please,” said another voice out of the crowd, this one low and lilting with the slightest touch of a foreign tongue. “Do think about coming back. We could use your sort of pretty around.”
A cold freeze trickled down Tanner’s spine in direct opposition to the hot air on his skin. Even worse, Avalon’s cheeks pinked with a blush. He didn’t need to look for the speaker, but he did anyway. He couldn’t help it.
Three seats down from Jack, separated by a dreadlocked, burned-out surfer stereotype and a bright-faced noob, sat Mako Wright.
His father’s bastard.
When Avalon had been thirteen, after the Wright family had practically adopted her but before she’d managed to break all the old ties of her life, she’d been at a beach bonfire that had gone very, very wrong. Too much alcohol and a too hefty sprinkling of skinheads had led to trouble once the hour got late. The air crackled with the very taste of violence, something sharp and bitter as everyone stared down enemies. Avalon had wrapped her hands around a red plastic cup and huddled into her hoodie, hoping no one would notice her before her ride was ready to go home. When an accidentally spilled drink led to a fistfight, which turned into a near riot, she’d run all the way home—a mile and a half in the dark.
In the shady bar, the air took on that same crackle. Bad sign.
Beside her, Tanner somehow bulked out without moving. She’d been standing and walking beside him for almost fifteen minutes, but until that moment she hadn’t felt small. Suddenly, it was all she could think of. That he had probably twice the weight on her, all of it thick muscles. Not that any of that threat was pointed at her.
Instead, it was toward the man who’d spoken. He had high cheekbones and dark eyes with a slant that whispered of far-off waves. His mouth, too, was delicate in a way that most men couldn’t pull off. Not him, though. He was all subtle intention and dark focus. On her.
She swallowed. She smiled.
“Okay, well . . .” Her voice trailed off. Tanner’s arm had the consistency of concrete. His muscles were locked about as rigidly as possible. “Jack, everyone, thanks for the invite, but we’ll be . . . See ya.”
Hauling Tanner into a corner booth took all the subtle force she could muster. And she still could only move him because he eventually decided to bemoved.
She ought to have been annoyed. Manly power shows had never been her style.
Instead something wicked and dark lit within her. It felt like cresting the top of a huge slab, waiting for the heavy weight of the wave to snatch her up.
She intentionally wedged him in so that his back was to the tables filled with surfers, then squeezed in next to him. If she’d sat across, she wouldn’t have been able to resist looking. Wondering what the hell had set him off.
His dad had been a blusterer. Lots of complaining, a little bit of stomping around. But Tanner seemed to be the exact opposite. All quiet burn. Her fingers literally itched to have her camera. The sharp line of his jaw would photograph so freaking perfectly, even in the dim light. Her thumb rubbed across the latch of her messenger-style camera bag. But it’d probably be a bad idea.
“Do I get to know what your problem is?”
“Well, that’s easy enough.”
Rolling her eyes, she waved down the waitress. They turned over as easily as prom dates, so Avalon didn’t know this one’s name. But she had quite the rack, wrapped up in a pink twist of fabric.
Avalon checked automatically to see if Tanner had noticed. Not that it made any sense—and hell, with what the waitress was sporting, she had looked too.
Tanner still stared straight ahead, as if willing himself to keep his gaze away from the table of surfers.
The bleached blond waitress smiled and it turned her otherwise vacant features pleasant. “What can I get you?”
“Just a Corona. Tanner?”
“Iced tea. Thanks.”
The waitress bounced away with a nod.
Avalon fiddled with a cocktail napkin. “Tea?”
“I’m on my training regimen. Strictly limited alcohol.”
The party behind them broke up, and Jack and James called a farewell to both of them. Avalon twisted in the booth to say good-bye, but Tanner only raised a hand over his head in an abrupt farewell. When the rest of the noisy group tumbled out the door, he deflated a few inches into the leather bench.
He blew out a noisy breath. “Sorry.”
“I’m assuming you’ve got some problem with that dude?”
His mouth tweaked in something that approached a smile. The scar over his mouth leached white. “You could say that.”
“But that’s all you’ll say, I’m guessing.” She ought to have moved around the horseshoe-shaped bench to the other side of the table. There was no reason for her to be within touching distance of him. But she stayed.
He smelled like salt and man. Something that made her want to nuzzle.
When the waitress arrived with drinks, he smiled at her. Avalon spotted tension at his temples. The tiny fluting around his eyes that wasn’t quite called wrinkles. When the blonde walked away, he kept looking in her direction, but Avalon didn’t get the idea he was ogling her. More like avoiding looking directly at Avalon.
She wrapped her hands around the damp bottle. “You don’t have to say anything, of course. You owe me no explanations. But I’m here to listen.”
That got him to look at her. It went all the way down inside her, as if he were looking for a specific answer. “Tell me one thing, Avalon.”
She swallowed past a mouth that felt as dry as if she’d swallowed a handful of sand. “Sure.”
“Are you oh so eager and ready to listen because you want to . . . or because that’s what you’ve always done with my family? Your role, let’s say.”
She flinched the tiniest bit, the tendons inside her elbows jumping. No matter how closely she searched his face, she couldn’t see any meanness in it. A certain level of curiosity, she supposed. Maybe a bright flash of hope in the anticipating part of his lips.
There had only been a couple times in her life when she’d felt like she stood at such an easily delineated crossroad. One had been when she’d held two college acceptance letters and decided intentionally to stay near the Wrights so they didn’t forget about her. The other had been when she’d looked at her college boyfriend and intentionally accepted the fact that he would always be too nervous to try surfing, even for her. At that moment, she’d accepted that he wasn’t Tanner and never would be.
Her heart thrummed into overdrive. “Because I want to.”
His lips lifted into a genuine smile. “Yeah? That’s all right.”
She ducked his gaze, looking at her beer, and she wasn’t the gaze-ducking type. Easier to keep her fluttering girly bits in line if she wasn’t looking at him. But crap, it wasn’t even as easy as all that. “You should know something.”
“That doesn’t sound promising.”
She couldn’t help a little laugh at that. “Totally depends on your definition.”
“My definition includes not being able to take you out for dinner tonight.”
“You’re kind of slick, aren’t you?” She didn’t want to admit what that line had done to her. Made her slippery and needy. “You know, I remember when you were nineteen and home after your first summer on the circuit. Didn’t you have a crush on Amanda Hanterny? She shot you down.”
“Ouch.” He pinched his features into mock chagrin. “She said she wanted a boyfriend who’d be able to take her to prom. Thanks for bringing that one up.”
“Yeah, your ego doesn’t seem like it needs any stroking. Anyway. Issue. Us.”
“There’s an us already?” He took a lock of her hair between his thumb and forefinger. Though he wasn’t touching any other part of her, a shiver slid over her collarbone. “I think I should be careful around you.”
“Hush already.” She was really going to have to spit this out before Mr. Slick got going too hard. “I’ve been hired by WavePro to do a spread on you. I thought you should hear it from me first.”
He tugged lightly on the chunk of her hair. A tingle spread over her scalp and she had to swallow hard. Her legs pressed together against the sudden ache between her thighs, until her knees ground bone on bone.
“A photo shoot shouldn’t be that big a deal. We’ll take some pictures, and then you’ll let me take you to dinner. As payment, I’ll get to pick the restaurant.”
Oh, this was not going to go over well. Tanner had never really been known to revel in the spotlight. “No, you don’t understand. They want full access. I’m to be with you pretty much twenty-four-seven until the Pro.”
“No way,” he said automatically. He dropped the lock of her hair as quickly as if it had turned into a jellyfish stinger, and slipped so far away from her that he was practically on the other side of the booth.
“I wanted to be the one to tell you. I didn’t want you to think I’d gone behind your back or anything. They came to me.”
“You know what everyone’s going to say about why, right?”
Bile burned through her chest. Everyone was going to say that—the boys’ club of the surf world in action. But it didn’t matter. She’d make sure it didn’t, not when they saw the photos that resulted.
“I don’t care.” She pulled her Canon out of her bag like a medieval warrior pulling out a sword. Rather than beheading dragons, she laid it carefully on the highly polished table. Tanner was no Arthur anyhow. “If I wasn’t friends with the family, everyone would say I got the gig because I was sleeping with you.”
What People are Saying About This
“Riding the Wave is a book you don’t want to miss! It has it all: a hot-as-hell hero and heroine, intense chemistry both in and out of the bedroom, and sharp, witty dialogue. Tanner and Avalon’s story will enthrall you one minute, then tug on your heartstrings the next. I loved this book, and I think you will, too.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Deirdre Martin
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
RIDING THE WAVE is a wonderfully written summer story, with good family drama, a hot romance and a handsome main character. Tanner Wright is a pro surfer that has come home to win the World Championship, and also face what he's been running away from for the last 10 years. A family secret so hurtful that the burden of keeping it has caused him a lot of distress and to push away his love ones in fear that he might slip and tell. But his father is gone now, and that might make it easier for him to come home and keep it all together to accomplish his win and then leave again. Hoping that when he does, the secret will die with him and no one will ever have to know. Until that secret is threatened to be leaked to the media. Now Tanner has to do what he can to do what is right for everyone in his life. It helps that Avalon is right by his side... Avalon has always had a crush on Sage's brother. But being much younger, and never having a steady home life with her mom, she's always been able to blend in with the Wright family, Tanner and Sage's mom, Eileen, becoming her second mom. She would never do anything to jeopardize their relationships - it's the only solid thing she's ever had in her life. Now that she has moved back 'home' after finishing school and her boyfriend breaking-up with her, she is even more determined to embrace how lucky she is to have the Wright family to go back to. Until the opportunity to bump up her career is handed to her - she is to follow Tanner for the month until the Championship and capture all the pictures that she can for a magazine editorial portraying his career and, hopefully, his win. Can Avalon and Tanner keep their relationship strictly business and family orientated... or can they possibly juggle a carefree relationship as well??? I really enjoyed every single character, good and bad, in this story. Tanner was handsome and full of himself, his attitude was typical guy but he has such a huge caring heart, and I instantly fell for him too. Avalon was sweet and carefree, she knew her flaws and did the best she could without needing anything from anyone - I really adored her. However, I felt that there wasn't enough. Their romance felt flat to me. I didn't feel the spark between them - don't get me wrong, there was a physical spark that no one can deny, and that was fun. But I didn't feel that genuine spark of their true need for each other. I wish there was more details, more heart into it... as well as the other plot to the story - the secret. I also wish the author would have gone deeper with the revelation, everyone's reaction didn't give the story the climax I was expecting. Even though everyone is described as being down-to-earth and rational, I still feel like this would have had a bigger impact and that even calm people have a right to overreact and show their feelings. Everyone was constantly holding back or being held back. I would have liked more details, I am a very visual person and always strive on more of everything. In the end, I truly enjoyed the story, the beach scene and surf, the amazing characters, and highly recommend it for those looking for a quick summer read. This is book one to the Pacific Blue series, and I am really curious to see what book two is all about - AHEAD IN THE HEAT is due to be release January 6th, 2015. An eARC was given for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
A ride not short of Amazing.Loved this book.. When Tanner Wright came home to San Sebastián after being gone for so long, he was also recovering from an accident. A hidden secret he was keeping from his family. It was his fathers and if his mother and sister found it, well he just could not fathom it. He ran into Avalon Knox who was living with his family. his mother sort of adopted her after she had some issues with her mother. Avalon Knox could not believe Tanner was back home she had such a crush on him. She still did. Now she was offered a big photograph job and it was featuring him. It was a very important job for her. He was however the Pro surfer now back for a big world championship on the line. She had to capture the best shots. That meant 24/7 with him. He was not happy, but they made it work. A little closeness is evident and becomes a little more. It didn't go too smoothly at first. They needed to work there differences out. When Avalon tried to make things easier it just caused more problems. In the long run Tanner helped her and well you definitely need to read to see where it goes. When the secret comes out it get's interesting. See what happens you won't be disappointed and might shock you too. Love Lorelie Brown's writing. Kept me interested all the way through the book. Looking forward to more books. See your review on the site
I was in the mood for some California sun and surf with my romance so I eagerly grabbed up this ultimate summer beach read. It doesn't matter if you're into surfing or not with this one since the characters, plot and setting are the main event and at its heart it's really 'the prodigal come home small town romance' theme with the small town just happening to be a beach town hosting a surfing tournament. While I enjoyed many things about this book, I can't say that I ever really got into it. The story opens with professional surfer, Tanner Wright, returning home after ten years away due to self-inflicted exile. At the beginning of his surfing career, he learned something devastating about his dad that cut him to the core and would hurt his mother and sister if they ever found out. He stayed away because being anywhere near his dad knowing what he did just enraged him and he was afraid that he'd blurt out the terrible secret. Now his dad was dead and he was back as an aging surfer to maybe go out a winner with the pro surfing championship. He hoped that he would keep it together around his family knowing they still cherished good memories of husband and father. Avalon Knox was just fourteen when she started crushing on her best friend's brother, but then he left and she never saw him again. Something happened between Tanner and his dad, but neither man would say what it was. Avalon loved the Wrights as her own family the way they took her in and practically raised her when her own mom was off doing her thing. She is angry about the jerky way Tanner stayed away after his dad's death when his mom and sister needed him, but this doesn't stop her from instant attraction and want when she sees him back. He seems pretty interested in her too. They might even get a chance to scratch that itch because she has just accepted a contract with his big sponsor to do a full photo shoot for a top surfing magazine that will follow Tanner for the month leading up to the big tournament. Tanner can't keep his eyes and hands off this grown up sassy version of Avalon. He's not too keen about being followed around by her and her camera, but having her close is definitely a side benefit. Unfortunately, the past rears up its ugly head when the living evidence of his dad's infidelity shows up and starts up all sorts of trouble threatening to spill all of the dead Hank Wright's dirty laundry just to hurt the family. Things get pretty crazy for Tanner with the growing thing he has with Avalon, the situation with Mako and getting prepped for the surfing championship, but then it all comes to a forefront when he discovers that Avalon went behind his back about something important to him. The plot was more drama than action which is not a problem per se. However, I didn't buy into the drama which was the root of my dissatisfaction. The dad who is dead cheated on his wife with an underage girl and it wasn't a one time only thing, but he won't come clean about it so the son runs away for ten years after discovering all this in an attempt to protect his mom and sister from finding out because he apparently couldn't be around home without giving it away. I get it if you're fifteen to think this way or even needing some time to process, but ten years? Nah! I constantly felt like I was reading a mature YA or an NA level book the way these characters were thinking, acting and talking. The romance side was a struggle for me too. The story was 'telling' me these two were in love, but the actions didn't go there for me. The story glossed over any down time when they would have done any real relationship building outside the bedroom and gave pages and pages of their sexy times so I wasn't really given anything to make me believe when they both started thinking serious 'I love you'. They spent a lot of time in flux where Avalon was angry or disappointed in Tanner or when her lie kept them from getting closer before it blew up and broke them up. Attracted to each other? Definitely. I can buy that. In love? I needed more convincing. The characters were drawn simply with Avalon getting more attention as to her character development than Tanner. They weren't given enough development to make me really care about their story. I didn't hate them or their story. I liked them well enough and liked some of the playfulness. I had a few factual details about their lives and a bit about their feelings about family, but I wasn't given enough to know them. Truthfully, the two characters that grabbed my attention was a fellow surfer, Jack, and Tanner's sister. They had a lot of depth and intriguing sides to them even as secondary characters. I would love stories about them- not together necessarily. The setting of the small beach town and the surf background added a nice layer of depth to the story. I enjoyed all the scenes at the beach, the descriptions of the town and their memories of growing up there. I think this will continue to develop nicely as the series progresses. There wasn't much surfing action, but there was enough to show it as a vital part of the story if not a big part. To sum up, I think there is some good potential here for a series, the characters were likeable if under developed, the plot and romance were on the less mature side for an adult story, but it was worth it for a nice lazy summer read with some sizzle to it. My thanks to Penguin Group for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.