WINNER TAKES ALL
Travel blogger Gwen Williams is about to live the dream—competing in the annual Annual Explorers of Islay competition. She’s up against some stiff competition, namely legendary gamer and four-time champ Cody McKay. The seriously buff hottie and shameless flirt is going all-out to seduce her. That’s when Gwen lays her cards on the table: She never, ever mixes gaming with romance . . . until resisting Cody becomes a losing proposition.
As Gwen gives in to temptation, everything’s in play for a major heartache. With the rounds heating up and players eliminated, she knows she’s gambling a lot more than a seat at the final table in Vegas. But Cody’s kisses promise more than a fleeting romance. If she plays her cards right, Gwen just might walk off with the championship and the man of her dreams.
Praise for America’s Next Reality Star
“Smart, witty, and really freaking good . . . a fun read that has you cheering from the first paragraph through the last page.” —Kerry Lonsdale, Wall Street Journal bestselling author
“Reality TV fans, this is your book! Laura Heffernan captures all the drama and over-the-top craziness in this fun and flirty romance.”
—Amy E. Reichert, author of Love, Luck, and Lemon Pie
“America’s Next Reality Star is one sweet, sexy brain-candy read! You won’t be sorry you indulged.” —Leah Marie Brown
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The conference center buzzed with anticipation. Palpable excitement filled the air. Some of the other participants fidgeted. I stood alone, an island of calm in the sea of activity. Nerves were for the less prepared. I'd done my homework, I'd played endless games, and I planned to make it to the final table in Las Vegas, where I'd win the $10,000 grand prize.
In about six months, anyway. One thing at a time.
My first game started in about twenty minutes, leaving me plenty of time to sip my Diet Coke and survey the competition. If someone said "I'm going to the local American Explorers of Islay Competition," most people would picture a room full of pasty twenty-ish guys with glasses and high water pants, living in their parents' basements. We had a couple of those types, sure, and my collection of geeky t-shirts fit in perfectly with that crowd. But the room also contained people of all shapes, sizes, genders, and colors, ranging from eighteen to about eighty. We hailed from all over the region, possessed a variety of interests.
And one of us was a very good-looking guy with curly brown hair, surveying me over his coffee cup with gorgeous chocolate brown eyes. He wasn't pasty at all, with a deep tan and lean muscles making his jeans and black t-shirt look a lot more exciting than they sounded. When I met his gaze, he smiled, flashing beautiful teeth, the kind typically found on the wealthy and children of dentists.
Although I'd never seen him before, he chatted with a guy who showed up at these things every now and then. Tall, with thin black braids trailing down his back, the most beautiful light brown eyes I'd ever seen, and dimples. The two of them upped the hotness average in this room by about thirty percent, but both were unfortunately off-limits to me. I didn't date gamers. Don't poop where you eat and all that.
"Not bad." My former roommate, co-competitor, and close friend Holly appeared beside me. "Looking for a little after-competition action?"
I rolled my eyes at her. "Whatever. I won't have the energy for hooking up after I kick butt."
Participants in the American Explorers of Islay Competition competed in a popular resource-sharing board game. The original game accommodated three or four players, and the expansion allowed for more, but the tournament assigned everyone to tables of four. This morning, everyone would play three games and receive a score based on their final rank in each. Table placement was determined in advance by a random draw.
Holly and I weren't playing each other in the first round, but it wasn't a big deal. At some point, we'd inevitably face off. And if we didn't, well, the trash talk would still kick into high gear. The way the tournament was set up, we could both move onto the next round. After three years of grad school and playing together, we'd still be friends after the final scores were announced. It didn't matter whether one of us got knocked out on Sunday or the two of us made it to the final table.
"Almost everyone here. I personally plan to wipe the floor with you." Holly corrected me with a wink and a smile. Trash talk and "game hate" ruled at these events. No one meant anything they said. Usually. "Oh, hey, I forgot to mention — last year's winner is here. I talked to him when he transferred his registration from Florida."
With her background and tech know-how, Holly helped set up the registration database for the competition. After years of acting as tech support and back-up registrar, she knew practically everyone's name. We weren't a large community, at least not locally.
Playfully, I swatted at her arm. "What? I can't believe you didn't tell me!"
Last year's winner was a legend. He'd won four years in a row, more than anyone except John, the current competition host. Rumor had it he was calm, collected, and dominated the table during games. Many a gamer imagined testing our skills against C. McKay. The thought of getting to play him here made my mouth water.
Unfortunately, he lived in Florida, so our paths had never crossed. I'd never been able to afford to go to the finals. Usually, I volunteered at the local and regional competitions, then dreamed about the rest. But not this year.
"Sorry. Things have been busy with the wedding planning and everything. But there he is."
She pointed at the list of first round match-ups on the wall behind me. Directly below H. McDonald, also known as Holly, the sheet said, C. McKay. A name I'd never seen on the lists in this state, but sent a little thrill through me. Was he as good as everyone said? I couldn't wait to find out.
"Excellent! I can't wait to scope out the competition, find his weak spots, and destroy him."
"You were checking him out a second ago," a voice said behind me.
John, the only person who won more tournaments than C. McKay, stood behind us. He was medium-height, medium-build, probably around my dad's age, with close-cropped, curly dark hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee. Only his whistle and clipboard made him stand out from the rest of the crowd. And the twenty years he'd been around, playing with everyone, making friends. He and his wife Carla co-owned the local game store with his parents, so I'd known him since I was a baby. "That's him over there. Cody."
Following John's finger, my eyes once again landed on the hottie. So that was C. McKay. My number one competition. My ridiculously buff number one competition. My stomach dropped. Why did he have to be an excellent player and totally hot? He reminded me of my very first crush as a child, Jonathan Crombie from Anne of Green Gables (who reminded me of my second crush, Megan Follows). Those crushes may have played into my utter fascination with the entire series.
He winked at me. For some reason, winking always weirded me out. Maybe because it was mostly old men who did it, looking at twenty-something women. I'd never seen anyone my age do it. As I rolled my eyes, he flashed a grin. My stomach flip-flopped.
Mentally, I revised my assessment: a good player, hot, and a shameless flirt. He probably thought that made him a triple threat. Whatever. I'd been one of only about a dozen women at these events for years: There wasn't a single pick-up line my friends and I hadn't heard. This guy didn't have as much game as he thought.
"Did he wink at you?" Holly rolled her eyes. "Like he's gonna win because he's cute?"
"I think he did."
"If only he frosted the tips of his hair or wore a popped collar, he could be a total walking cliché."
"Or both," I agreed.
A high, clear tone filled the room: the bell, alerting us that we only had ten minutes to get to our tables and settle in before the first game started. The guy started toward us, eyes still fixated on me, and I groaned.
"Ugh. I'm not up for introducing myself."
"I'd love to say hello," Holly said, "but I need coffee before we start."
"Yeah, I've gotta go, too," John said. "Talk to you later."
"You don't want to say hello yourself?" My question went to both of them, but John had already turned away, tilting his head the way he did when someone spoke into the earpiece he wore during these events.
True friends wouldn't abandon me with this guy. If he opened with "Hey, is your name Sonic? Because you've been running through my dreams," I'd never forgive them. And, knowing Holly, she'd be sorry to miss such a horrible line. She'd been attached to her fiancÃ(c) for so long, most everyone around here knew not to bother trying their luck. Every once in a while, though, a newbie got sucked in by her perfectly polished sorority girl look and decided to make a move. Usually with amusing results.
Holly grinned as she stepped away. "Not with the way he's looking at you. See you later."
Before I could argue I wasn't here to flirt, she vanished back into the crowd, and C. McKay arrived in front of me. He looked even better up close, if possible. A wave of disappointment hit me. Part of me hoped he was like a Monet — beautiful from afar, but a total mess up close.
"Carrots?" he said.
As pick-up lines went, this one stumped me. It beat the Sonic line some creeper tried on me a few months ago, but largely because it made no sense. With no idea what he was talking about, I said the first thing that came into my head. "Squash? Rutabaga?"
He chuckled and pointed at my chest. Oh, right. My t-shirt: Don't Keep Calm, He Just Called You Carrots.
My face grew warm. "Sorry, I forgot. It's an Anne of Green Gables reference."
"I got the reference. I was trying to be funny. Sorry." He held out one hand. "Cody McKay."
In all the times I'd worn this shirt, no guy my age had ever caught what it meant. Of course, I'd never met a guy who looked like Gilbert Blythe. Under other circumstances, I'd have been impressed. But now I was mostly intrigued to meet the guy I'd heard so much about. Not that he could know. "Gwen Williams. I'll be kicking your ass here shortly."
"Gwen? That's a pretty name." He smiled. "Think I prefer Carrots, though."
My stomach fluttered traitorously at the way he looked at me. My hand tingled where our fingers still touched, but I quashed those emotions. If this guy thought he could charm me to throw me off-guard, he had another think coming. Just because he was better-looking than the average gamer didn't mean I'd fall at his feet once he flashed those gorgeous brown eyes. I came here to win games, not to hook up.
Hoping he couldn't see how flustered he made me, I said, "Then maybe you should hit up the snack room. They've got plenty of carrots for you."
"Sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. I'm usually much better at this."
"Well, if you're not great at playing games, you're in the wrong place." I flashed a broad smile at him to take the bite out of my words. "Excuse me, I've got a tournament to win."
"Actually, I've got a tournament to win," he said, smoothly maneuvering around me. Still walking, he turned to look back at me. "After all, I'm the four-time American Explorers of Islay Competition champion."
"That's because you've never played against me." The parting shot had the desired effect in that it made him pause for a second. He shook his head, grinning, which left me dying to wipe the smug look off his face.
So that was the guy I needed to beat. He apparently thought charming the other players gave him an advantage. Little did he know, I'd had plenty of experience with silver-tongued gamers who relied on their good looks to get girls. They didn't impress me. Our interaction only made me more determined to hand Cody his ass in a game.
With a small smile, I tugged at my t-shirt, bringing the v-neck a bit lower. My boobs couldn't compete with Holly's, but I could give him something to look at. Then I shook my long hair out of its braid and pressed my lips together to redden them. Two could play Cody's game. But only one of us would win, and it was going to be me.
* * *
Eight hours later, my plan to distract C. McKay with my big brown eyes, lustrous red hair, and heaving bosoms utterly failed. He might be looking, but he sat three tables away, so I'd never know. Either way, he didn't have much of a view through the sea of people. Glancing at him took too much attention away from the board in front of me, and I couldn't afford the distraction.
The game was fairly simple. Players rolled a pair of dice, then collected cards with different "resources" on them. The resources could be discarded to build various structures. A bad roll could result in losing cards, and the first player who got to ten points won. Simple, yet it required concentration and strategy. Most players couldn't get the resources they needed without trading with other players, but you had to be careful not to trade someone the final resource they needed to beat you. No matter how well you strategized, an unfortunate roll could ruin your plans. That random element was one of the reasons I continued to play. It was possible to win every game. But things sometimes went wrong.
For the tournament, every player received a score from one to four at the end of each game. After lunch, anyone with a total score of eight or less went home, and the rest of us repeated the process with five more games. Tomorrow, the top sixteen players would return for two more games — one elimination round and one final to determine the champion. Four players would move on to the next tier, regional finals in New York. Including me, if I had anything to say about it. Then I'd play in the quarter-finals in Charlotte, the semi-finals in Chicago, and the final competition in Las Vegas.
I won the first two games. In the third game, I found myself sitting across from the guy Cody had been talking to earlier: Tyler. He wasn't nearly as big a flirt as his friend, thankfully. He was a good player, though. It took all my concentration to come in one point behind him after a long, intense game.
That lost game cost me, unfortunately. When I finished my last match of the day, I found myself in second place. C. McKay's name mocked me from the top of the leaderboard. Of course.
Although seeing it made me want to stomp my feet like a child, the stats didn't leave me terribly surprised. After all, he was the reigning champ. I'd lost the third game pretty badly. It didn't matter; I had plenty of time to catch up tomorrow. I couldn't do anything about the rankings now. Players still sat at a few tables, but they played various expansions, which meant these games came from their personal collections. The tournament had ended for the day.
Time to find Holly and get out of here.
Outside, the sun still shone over the horizon, a warm contrast to the stark lights of the windowless conference room. Holly texted our other former roommate, Shannon, to let her know we'd finished. Although she worked for a children's board game manufacturer, she designed all types of games. She'd spent half the day holed up in a coffee shop nearby working on her latest side project until we were free.
Shannon loved Explorers of Islay as much as Holly and I, but she also was helping her grandmother recover from a hip replacement surgery. They had help, but she wasn't comfortable spending entire weekends in windowless conference rooms with no Wi-Fi and poor reception, in case Nana needed something. Especially since all but the first round of the competition took place out of state.
The reply to Holly's text came after about eleven seconds. Of course, I want to have a drink, I'm waiting at the hotel bar. Did you two conquer the competition yet?
With a smile, I thumbed my response. It's only the first day. I'm in second place. Holly's in fifth. Be there in a few.
When we arrived, we found Shannon in a booth near the back, sipping what had to be her usual rum and Coke. A chilled glass of white wine and a cold beer waited on the table. Holly sat beside Shannon, taking possession of the wine. I slid in to the other side of the booth, smiling because they'd left me the spot against the back wall, where I could scope out the room.
Holly had been in a relationship practically since kindergarten. The only thing that interested Shannon less than dating was hooking up with strangers, so I appreciated their consideration. Plenty of non-gamers should also be in this bar.
The three of us made an interesting trio. Holly had medium-blonde hair, hazel eyes, average height, naturally tanned skin, and an average build. Meanwhile, Shannon and I filled out the opposite ends of the spectrum - her pale with short, cool black hair, blue eyes, close to six feet tall, and curves I'd have killed for in high school. In contrast, I was short and too thin, with long red hair pulled back most of the time, brown eyes, and freckles. I burned if I even thought about going outside without sunblock, no matter what the time of year. Shannon wore glasses, Holly used contacts, I had perfect vision. Shannon dressed mostly in vintage dresses and heels, Holly looked like she belonged in a J. Crew catalog, and I wore much more casual/comfortable clothes.
At least we never fought over dates. Boob men flocked to Shannon, who largely ignored them. People who appreciated a perky butt flirted with me instead. The large, sparkling ring on Holly's left hand kept guys away so effectively, Shannon had joked about buying one of her own to avoid unwanted attention.
"Let us know if you see anyone you like," Shannon said after I greeted her. "We're fully prepared to play wing women."
At her comment, a certain brown-eyed guy popped into my head. I shook the image away. Maybe a hookup would help me ease some of the tension from the day, but I couldn't. Not tonight. "Thanks, but the only person I'll be hanging out with after I leave here is my father. I haven't seen him in weeks."
"How is Daddy McHotCakes?" Holly winked at me. Ever since she met my dad, she joked about ditching her boyfriend for him. In my opinion, Lucas was kind of a wet towel, so I'd be fine with her dumping him. Not to date my dad, though. Ew.
"Still working too hard. Still claiming he isn't. Still not taking care of himself," I said. "I was hoping once I graduated and moved out, he'd ease up a little. Maybe go on a date or something. But no dice."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "She's Got Game"
Copyright © 2019 Laura Heffernan.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Laura Heffernan is the author of:,
Part I: Boston,
PART II: NEW YORK CITY,
Part III: Charlotte,
Part IV: Chicago,
Part V: Boston,
Part VI: Las Vegas,
Read on for a preview of,
About the Author,