Chapter One

Nothing kicked off Gia Malone’s Monday more than charging waves the size of buildings. As she stood on the boat just off the tiny little island in the South Pacific, her heart pounded with the thrum, thrum, thrum of adrenaline-laced anticipation. Those were world-class waves out there and she had a major crush on them. She paused a moment to drink in the gorgeous view, fourteen footers at least, rising and breaking left like visual poetry.

This was why she loved to surf.

Even though she was ready to lose herself in those barrels, she made a point to slow down and keep her head calm. A decent breeze crept in and tossed her long, dark hair around, into her eyes and out again. Mostly, she surfed with her hair down. The feel of it whipping against her face and back was part of her process. Rituals were important to Gia. They kept her steady and alert in the face of pressure.

She’d arrived in Tavarua, the heart-shaped island resort in Fiji, two days before the Outerknown Fiji Women’s Pro was set to begin. With the extra time, she’d been able to reacquaint herself with the conditions at Cloudbreak, one of the resort’s seven surf breaks, and get her head in the game before the tournament. Jumping off a plane and onto a surfboard to compete at the world’s highest level was a thing of the past. Rookie mistake. Arriving early before a competition was now another ritual.

She’d taken a few waves on the head during practice the day before, but overall, she was stoked with the conditions in Fiji. The colors were brilliant and the energy that came with this particular tournament was palpable. It was the fourth of a total of ten tournaments on the Women’s Championship Tour, in which the top seventeen female surfers in the world battled it out throughout nine months of the year, jockeying for position, prize money, and more importantly, the claim that they were the top female surfer in the world. For Gia, that number one spot was everything, and she was so close.

No time for daydreaming.

She grabbed her board, hopped off the boat that had carried her to the surf break, and paddled out a distance to where she’d encounter the bigger waves. Next came the waiting, when that pent-up energy gathered like a tight little ball in her stomach. This was the calm before the euphoria. Nothing good ever happened in her comfort zone, which made high-level surfing the coolest drug she’d ever experienced. The seconds ticked by as she waited for her wave. Not that one. Nope, too squirrelly. Not that one either. It would fizzle early. Then she found some size heading her way. Okay, yeah. She felt good about this one, its speed, the way it moved. She and that wave were bonding. She zeroed in and made the call. This was it. Paddling for all she had in her, she set off, charging the wave, studying its swell, its breadth, the way it shifted. Once she’d found her position, she pushed herself up on the board to a standing position and started to glide, savoring the feeling of floating on air. Perfection. This was what it felt like to be on top of the world, and there was no greater joy. She took the briefest of moments to relish the power of the wave pushing through her board, propelling her onward. She checked her balance, crouched low, rode the turn. The breaking wave opened up, hollow and glorious, allowing entry to the barrel. While she’d love nothing more than to lose herself in the surreal experience, any loss of focus when the stakes were so high could result in her coming right off the board. A balancing act in more ways than one.

For Gia, this was a form of church. She honored the waves with the respect they deserved.

After a solid workout, she trudged to the shoreline from the boat, out of breath, muscles on fire, and on the kind of high she only encountered from waves in this part of the world. She spotted a couple of the tour’s regular reporters watching her approach, most likely having assessed her session. The core grouping of press tended to be courteous enough when it came to practice time, giving her space, but now she’d be forced to walk past them on her way to change and shower at the resort. Part of the gig she hated most: trying to sound like a human in front of those guys. She didn’t do the whole public speaking thing well. Sucked at it, actually. The few years since she’d been boosted from the Qualifying Tour to the Championship Tour, she’d gotten a little better. But, God, not much.

“You ready for tomorrow, Gia?”

She pushed her hair out of her eyes and squinted at Shoshana, a staff writer from Surfline.com. Short in stature, spiky red hair, and tiny glasses she couldn’t possibly see anything out of. They did look cool, though, which was probably the point. That was Shoshana. “Never felt better.” She continued walking because she felt awkward and out of her element, but the comment didn’t seem to be enough. Shoshana scurried after her, doing double-time due to their height difference. “You’re looking a little cautious out there. More so than usual. Any particular reason?”

She forced a smile. “You gotta save something for the competition, right?”

The guy who’d been standing with Shoshana whose name Gia didn’t know walked with them. “Gia. Charlie Kip from SurfTastic. Quick question for ya. You’ve had a great season so far, currently number three in the world. With number four Alia Foz injured, what do you think your chances are to take the whole thing this week?”

“It could happen.”

“Do you think Elle Britton would agree with you?”

She suppressed an eye roll at the mention of the leaderboard’s current number one. It was a provocative question, and she wasn’t going to take the bait and speculate. “Hey, I just want to surf my best, you know? That’s what I’m planning to do. The rest is out of my control.” She knew it was the boring answer. Luckily, the reporters caught sight of Elle Britton and her signature blond ponytail through the glass in the lobby and raced her way like bees to their queen. Elle always gave them fantastic stuff, sparkling quotes laced with wit and charm and humor. She was born to play the part of media It girl. If Gia didn’t loathe the woman so much, she might be impressed. As she entered the lobby of the resort herself, she watched as Elle burst into a smile and pulled Shoshana into a hug and squeal combo. A squeal? Really? And just look at her. She was pretty sure Elle had spent some time in the mirror, just to be ready for the attention she’d pull in the lobby. The peppy, fresh-faced look was why she landed gum commercials and late-night talk shows. Elle was not only the number one ranked female surfer in the world, she was the darling of the tour. Well, to everyone who didn’t know any better. Underneath it all, Elle was plastic, opportunistic, and on her way to losing that ranking, if Gia had anything to say about it. Perky ponytail or not.

Elle caught her eye as she passed through the lobby. “Hey, Gia.” She beamed. All part of the show Gia knew all too well.

“Elle,” she said back evenly.

“Best of luck this week. You’re gonna kill it, I know.”

Shoshana and SurfTastic guy beamed at her. What a fantastic sport she was! What support she showed! Three cheers for the marvelous Elle Britton!

“I do, too,” Gia said, and breezed by them with a nod. She closed her eyes briefly and glanced back to the surprised looks on the writers’ faces. Not her best moment, but she couldn’t resist. She didn’t do fake. She wouldn’t. And with Elle, that’s all there was. Had the reporters not been there, she probably wouldn’t have said a word to Gia. Maybe there would have been a smile, but it would have been just as plastic as she was.

Once Gia was safely on the elevator, she texted one of her best friends, Hadley, back in LA. I was a cocky asshole to Elle Britton in front of reporters.

Hadley, always Gia’s number one supporter, was quick to type back.Maybe they didn’t notice?

They did. I’m the resident bitch now.

Impossible. Come home soon, please. Autumn = pregnant and full of emotions and Isabel = workaholic, who is not paying enough attention to me.

Gia smiled at Hadley’s description of their other two best friends. As pressure-filled as these tournaments were, she took comfort in the knowledge she had a soft place to fall when she returned home to Venice Beach in LA. Hadley and Isabel also lived at Seven Shores, the same apartment complex she did, and Autumn owned the badass adjacent coffee shop, the Cat’s Pajamas. They were an unlikely foursome, given how different their personalities were, how widespread their occupations, but for whatever reason, they just clicked. She typed back her response. Give me five days and I’m there.

Don’t kill E.B., Hadley wrote. I’d miss you in jail.

No promises.

She was kidding, of course. Kind of.

Over the next few days, she watched one competitor after another fall from the tournament, as the excitement about her chances grew. The further she went at Outerknown, the more points she’d be awarded toward her ranking. This was an important tournament to Gia, who didn’t relax until she was the last one on her side of the board—right across from Elle Britton. Wouldn’t you know it? While it would have been nice for Elle to go down early and not pull in the points, if Gia pulled out a tournament win, she would still take home more, moving her up a spot on the tour’s leaderboard to number two. She closed her eyes and imagined how amazing that would feel. To win. She’d pulled in a handful of finals showings before, but it was the whole tournament she wanted.

Ousting every other competitor she’d come up against, and having the best year of her career, Gia still knew how hard it would be to take down Britton. The woman was a surf machine and had the kind of shred and tenacity that made legends. Even Gia couldn’t deny her that, Barbie Doll smile or not.

The crowd was a vocal one that Saturday morning of the finals. The beach was packed and Gia could hear their cheers of support (mainly for Elle) all the way out in the water. She was the underdog in this matchup and everyone knew it. The waves weren’t as generous as they’d been earlier in the week, so selection would be key. Elle had drawn first priority and would go first. She snagged a high arc and rode the front, carving into the pocket, taking it to the inside corner and ripping hard off the top for a fantastic first time out.

Shit.

That ride would pull in a big number from the panel of five judges who would score it on a scale of one through ten. Each competitor’s top two waves from the heat would be added together to come up with their final score. Gia could take on as many waves as she could get in in the heat’s allotted twenty-five minutes, but two of them better be awesome.

Gia’s turn. She paddled forward. Her first wave fizzled early and would score low. Not something she could control, so she shrugged it off and wiped her eyes, clearing them of the salt bath they’d just received. But her second time out yielded quality. She set up a front side wrap in the pocket and came away feeling good, adrenaline surging. Her exit had been masterful. Yes! She’d just killed it on that one. Exactly what she’d needed. That would push her into the lead. She and Elle exchanged a nod across the water; that contact only made Gia want the win more. She cleared her head and prepped herself for the remaining minutes in the heat as the crowd screamed louder. Elle had ground to make up and struggled to find any real foothold on her next few attempts. On what would be one of the last waves in the heat, Elle didn’t fully take advantage, playing it safe. Her timing was off. Gia couldn’t take it anymore and followed Elle out to her wave, once she’d failed to capitalize. She stuck to the rules, however, and stayed out of Elle’s way, honoring her priority. Gia made a meal out of the killer crest, shredding her way down with S turns to the bottom like a champ.

The heat concluded, and with a total score of sixteen to Elle’s fourteen, Gia Malone took the whole damn thing. Holy hell.

The tournament win would contribute 10,000 points toward her ranking, moving her into the number two spot on the leaderboard. She cried out when the scores came down and smiled at the crowd screaming along with her. Elle, a few yards down the beach, nodded Gia’s way and sent her a congratulatory smile. Love lost or not, Gia nodded back, because as a surfer, she had mad respect for Elle, and that’s what today had been about, the work.

Now…it was time to celebrate.

 

v

 

Two days later, at exactly seven a.m., Gia’s alarm went off. Well, her version of alarm, the morning surf report. Happy to be back in her own bed, she stretched and blinked against the hint of sunlight that slid in from the nearby window as she listened to Joker Johnny outline the conditions on the local beaches. God, it was good to be home.

“It’s gonna be a gnarly one out there today, folks. Buckle up. Lots of morning sickness on the horizon.”

“Perfect,” she mumbled, and pushed herself out of bed.

“Check it, agros. You may be amped to hit the waves, but take it easy. Heavy winds and killer swells should dominate through the afternoon. Choppy stuff, so don’t be a Barney. Stay safe, make good choices, and live to surf another rad day. Tide is peaking at a 5.29 feet at 6:30 a.m., then drops to a 2.03 feet at 12:38 p.m. If you’re looking for clean waves, sit today out. Later this week has you covered. In the meantime, bumps ahead with thirteen- to fifteen-footers on tap.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for,” Gia said to herself in the mirror, with a smile. “Bring it, California. Game on.”

Already dressed for the waves in trunks and her jersey, Gia pushed open the door to the Cat’s Pajamas, the funky little coffee shop next door to the Seven Shores apartment complex. She lived on the second floor of the twelve-unit building and made daily trips to Pajamas for the best coffee in town. Hands down. The fact that her best friend owned the place, and her routine trips were just as social as they were functional, certainly didn’t hurt.

“Wait,” Isabel said, holding up a hand. “Is that number two in the surf world walking toward us?”

Hadley grabbed Isabel’s wrist. “I think it is. She looks a lot like number three did, but somehow this woman comes with more championship swagger. I’m a little swoony to be in the presence of such a mega-athlete.”

“All hail, number two!” Autumn called, and her friends broke into applause, followed by the morning patrons, most of whom were regulars.

“Knock it off,” Gia said, though the attention gave her a boost, and the corners of her mouth tugged into a grin. She accepted the coffee from Autumn, cream no sugar, her usual order, and took a seat with her friends for Breakfast Club, their daily morning meet-up session. In just a short while, Isabel would head off to the television studio where she worked alongside her girlfriend, Taylor, writing one of the most kick-ass shows on television. Hadley would head to Rodeo Drive and open Silhouette, the posh boutique she assistant managed. Autumn would prepare her afternoon roast and dazzle customers with her warm and welcoming personality. And Gia would head to the beach. While Venice didn’t yield the kind of waves Fiji did, practice was practice, and she was not about to let up when her momentum was so strong. But for now, and most every morning, the four of them started their days together chatting about anything under the sun before dashing off in different directions. She missed these mornings when she was on the road and had grown to savor them when she was on break from the tour.

“So, what did it feel like to go head-to-head with your archrival and win?” Autumn asked. “I mean, that had to be like a delicious cherry on the beach sundae.”

Isabel frowned. “Now I’m picturing sand in a dish.”

“Not as sweet as you probably think,” Gia said. “It felt good, yeah, but it’s almost like I can’t revel for too long, as there’s still so much work ahead.” She pointed at Autumn. “What I’m more interested in is if they’re kicking yet.”

Autumn placed a hand over her swollen tummy and took a seat. She was four months along and already starting to show. “Flutters only at this point. Kate’s obsessed, however. Stares at my stomach just waiting for that first little foot to give us a hello.” Kate and Autumn had married less than a year ago and still existed in the happy honeymoon haven, grinning whenever they caught the other’s eye. Gia was happy for them.

“I just need to know if these are little tiny boy babies or tiny girl babies or one of each,” Hadley said with wide eyes and a sigh. “I mean, I can plan a variety of unisex outfits in the meantime, but the lack of direction is keeping me up at night. Do you think they like hats?” she asked Autumn. “Have they indicated at all?”

“Hard to say. But another week and you shall have your gender answer. In the meantime, I just pray these two don’t turn me into the size of a Mack truck. At least not yet.”

“You’re gorgeous,” Gia said. “I thought so as soon as I walked in.”

Autumn offered a watery smile. “You’re going to make me cry, Gia-pet. My hormones are on the attack and I have the weepies. No sincere compliments. None.”

Hadley kissed Autumn’s cheek with a smack and turned to Isabel. “Speaking of gorgeous people, Taylor isn’t joining us today?”

“Nope. We spent the night apart because she has an early morning.”

Hadley shook her head slowly. “You guys are the most pragmatic couple I’ve ever met.”

Isabel’s girlfriend was the well-known TV producer Taylor Andrews, who just so happened to think Isabel hung the moon. “Raisin has an appointment at the vet, so she has to do this whole pep talk thing with him. Who knew Dachshunds were so easily influenced? Not that it works for me,” she said, and shrugged. “I can get him to chase a rubber pork chop, but she’s able to change his whole life view in one chat. He’s obsessed with her. I fault him not.” Isabel turned to Gia. “Oh, and she watched your finals online from her office. Said to give you a hug just from her. We can get to that later.”

Gia smiled. “Give her my love.”

“Done.”

Hadley, always one for following the surfing news, sat taller in her seat. “So, what do you think of the reports that you interfered on Elle Britton’s final wave? Not at all true, by the way.”

Gia sighed. She’d heard the speculation that she’d edged Elle out of her final opportunity to score by dropping in on her wave, but she hadn’t broken any rules. That was just part of the sport. “Nothing I did stopped her from going for it. If I’d interfered, I would have been docked. I wasn’t.”

“Is that what she thinks, too?” Hadley asked, the always eager information-monger. “That you stole her wave?”

Gia passed her a look. “Are you worried about Elle Britton’s feelings right now?”

“No way. I just don’t like the idea of anyone being mad at you. It’s not fair.”

Gia softened. “In that case, hard to say. She sounded upbeat and perky at the presser after the heat. But then she always does, so…”

Isabel stared at Gia, tapping her chin. “She drives you crazy, doesn’t she? I mean, I can just tell.”

“She’s my competition,” Gia said plainly. “So yeah. Plus, her Miss Perfect persona is tired at this point.”

Isabel looked deep in thought. “Right, but how does that make you feel? Physically, emotionally? How does the rivalry manifest itself?”

“Are you trying to put me in your TV show?” Gia asked, leaning forward. “You are, aren’t you?” Isabel was constantly studying them for hooks, or story ideas, gestures, and reactions. The dangers of befriending a writer. In the year that they’d been friends, Gia had gotten better at catching her in the act.

Isabel sat back in her chair, shrugging in surrender. “It’s possible we’re working on a rivals-to-lovers storyline on The Subdivision. Just using your experience for the rivals portion I’m developing. I need sparks, you know?”

“Oh, sparks are good,” Hadley said, resting her chin on her palm. “I love sparks. Write lots of those.”

“No.” Gia shook her head. “We don’t have any sparks.”

“Depends on the definition,” Autumn said. “Sometimes you spot the sparks right away, like with me and Kate. Other times, they sneak up on you.”

“Like with me and Taylor,” Isabel said, with a smolder.

Gia shook her head. “By any definition, we don’t have them. At all. None of those kinds.”

Isabel studied her. “Does she hate you back?”

“Probably. I’ve never asked.”

“Gotchaaaa.” Isabel drew the word out, looking super thoughtful. “No sparks. But when you see her, how do you feel? Still applies.”

That part was easy. “She makes my skin itch and my blood get hot and I just have this intense need to take her down.”

“As in down to the floor?” Autumn asked, with a twinkle in her eye, as she swapped out the creamer.

“Maybe a bed?” Isabel joined in, with a sideways grin. She was messing with Gia. It’s what she did to them all. The Isabel charm.

“Not even close,” Gia answered dryly.

“You guys,” Hadley said, waving them off. “It’s not like that with them. They’re like oil and water. Ursula and the Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast.”

“Beauty and the Beast hooked up,” Isabel said. “Big-time. Dancing furniture made it happen.”

Hadley looked mystified. “Good point.”

“Did you just call me a beast?” Gia asked.

Hadley shook her head apologetically. “I was on a cartoon kick and got carried away. Happens a lot.”

“Mm-hmm.” Gia downed the remainder of her coffee, grateful to have it back in her life even temporarily. Talking about Elle Britton just made her anxious to get to the beach and surf, remembering that every second of the season counted.

Isabel wasn’t done and raised one finger, regarding the table. “Let’s not forget the photo of Gia in which she appeared to be checking out Ms. Britton in a swimsuit.” She turned her phone around to reveal the offending photo.

Gia closed her eyes. Not this again. A year and half prior, as Elle was speaking to the media, a photographer had captured a shot of Gia looking on. However, it appeared upon first glance that Gia was infatuated with more than just Elle’s words to the press. The photograph had garnered a lot of attention and speculation. She loathed that photo to this day. “That photo can go to hell. We all know it’s not what it looked like.”

“Do we? And when do you see Ms. Britton again?” Isabel asked, sliding her phone into her bag.

Gia swore Isabel asked the question just to see how her features would react. “Well, nosy writer, probably not until next week. There’s a Billabong party in Malibu I’ll hit up.”

“Who are they again?” Autumn squinted. “Pregnancy brain.”

“Surf accessories,” Hadley supplied. “Clothes, gear. They also sponsor tournaments and surfers.” She turned to Gia. “Is this party beach attire?”

“Unfortunately, I think it’s a little dressier than that.” Gia glared at the thought. She hated wearing actual clothes.

“Perfect. When should we consult?” Hadley asked, always ready to put together the perfect outfit for her friends. Gia wasn’t one to refuse that kind of professional help. “I’m thinking white. Your tan looks amazing in white, as does that dark hair.”

“White it is,” Gia said.

“I will put something together and we can play runway in a few days.”

“It’s fun when you get to play runway,” Isabel said. “The time Hadley planned my look, I got lucky that night, and many nights after.”

Hadley’s eyes lit up. “That should go on my commercial! If I were ever to get a commercial.”

“Well,” Isabel said, with a saucy wink, “you’d have earned it.” She stood. “I’m off to save Hollywood.”

Hadley joined her. “Off to save Rodeo Drive.”

“I’ll stay here and save the good people of Pajamas,” Autumn said from her chair. They all looked to Gia.

“Fine,” she said, with a smothered smile. “I’m off to save…the ocean, I guess.”

“Someone has to,” Hadley said, beaming. “Go team!” The four of them headed off to their own separate corners of the world. Maybe they’d run into each other in the outdoor courtyard of Seven Shores later that day, or go for an impromptu dinner or a jaunt to the beach. If not, they’d see each other again at Pajamas the next morning.

Same bat time. Same bat place.

Gia smiled at that constant in her life. She didn’t devalue it or toss it aside. Coming off the road like she just had made her understand more than ever how important good friends were. She’d slay dragons for Autumn, Hadley, or Isabel any day of the week. No one would have to ask her twice.

 

Chapter Two

“I think you should stop beating yourself up about it.”

Elle pulled her hair from the ponytail holder and gave it a shake, noticing it was still partially wet from their earlier practice session. She turned to her best friend, Holly, who sat beside her on a chaise lounge, just yards from the ocean. “I’ve tried,” Elle sighed. The depression over the whole thing was not letting up. “It’s not working. I don’t lose in final heats, Hol. I just don’t. That’s not the kind of competitor I want to be. So what the hell happened?”

“I think we know what happened. Someone dropped in on a wave that was supposed to be yours and wasn’t penalized for interference.”

“Not something I would have done, but it worked in her favor.” She stared off in the distance, replaying that moment in her mind. She’d been about to attack the wave from the outside pocket when Gia Malone had shown up in her peripheral and knocked her out of concentration. Partially her own fault, but Gia had taken a pretty big liberty.

“Ballsy,” Holly said. “You gotta give her credit. She was trying to apply pressure.”

“Yeah, well, it worked.” Elle shook her head. “Gia Malone. This tournament bumped her to number two. I’m so exhausted from it all that I can barely see straight, but now? There’s no way I can lay up or take any kind of break. She’s getting better, you know.”

“I do.”

“And I’m not.”

Holly balked and tossed her bouncy dark hair that fell just shy of her chin. That bouncy hair was the most expressive hair Elle had ever seen. She envied Holly for it. “You’re so hard on yourself that I don’t know what to do with you. I want to smack you in your head over it. Do you know how desperately I would kill someone to surf like you do, you little surfing prodigy?”

“Yes,” Elle said glumly. “I should shut up, but I can’t. I’m that competitive. My off switch is broken.”

“No explanation needed. I’ve met you.”

She and Holly had grown up together in San Diego, surfing every minute they had available to them before moving to LA just out of high school. Elle had always been the stronger surfer and had been good enough to pursue professional surfing at just sixteen. Holly had not. So while Elle hit up whatever tournaments her parents could scrape together the funds for, Holly had entered the world of finance, starting off as a teller at a bank and climbing the ranks to loan officer. Elle might possess the flashier lifestyle, but she admired Holly and the place she’d carved for herself in the world. Solid. Stable. Easy. Plus, she didn’t have to travel the way Elle did.

“You’re a wave weasel is what you are,” Holly said, poking her in the ribs.

Elle grimaced at the childhood nickname Holly had assigned her and squirmed from her touch with a squeal. “I’m not a wave weasel. That’s something you made up. I keep telling you.”

“Don’t argue. You’re a wave weasel and always will be.” Holly glanced at her watch. “Is it after four? It is. You know what that means? Rosé!”

“Four feels early when I’m in training.”

“Well, that’s dumb. It’s not. I’ll snag two glasses.”

Elle shrugged. “You never listen to me. I’m the levelheaded one!”

“And I’m the fun one! So pipe down.”

“Hey!” Elle called after her. “I’m fun. C’mon!”

“Once in a while. Not as often as you used to be.”

Elle bristled at the probably accurate statement. Holly told it like it was. Yes, she’d been wildly focused on her career and the media responsibilities that came with it. Wasn’t her fault the requests kept pouring in. She knew how to work the press, to smile in just the right way or toss her hair when she laughed. They were skills like any other that she’d developed over time, especially once she learned how valuable they could be. When Holly returned to Elle’s deck with two glasses of rosé, Elle sent her a pout. “Am I really that bad? Please tell me I’m not. I don’t want to become boring and set in my ways.”

Holly stared at her. “You’re an obsessed zombie hell-bent on world surf domination. You’re admittedly exhausted from it all, but you won’t give yourself a break. I, your much more carefree friend, miss the version of you that lived a little more. Allowed yourself a night out on the town.”

“I go out on the town.”

“You have a million dinners with acquaintances. It’s what you do. Everyone knows your name, but how many people actually know you? Let me ask you this, when was the last time you went on a date?”

“I don’t date,” Elle said. “Look at my life. It never works. When would I date?”

“Therein lies the problem. You’re turning into a spinster.” She shuddered. “There are cobwebs on your lady parts. Allow me to remedy this awful trend and set you up with a buddy of Dash’s from the bank. Finance guys are hot. We can double. Won’t you allow me this pleasure?”

She didn’t love the idea, but she fought the urge to decline. “What are Dash’s friends like?”

“Probably a little like Dash, but he’s a decent catch. You like Dash.”

“Of course I like Dash,” she said, already dreading the idea. Holly and Dash had dated casually for the last six months. The guy was good-natured enough, if a little boring for Elle’s liking. Plus, the men Elle had dated in the past were often intimidated by her or interested only because she was well known. There didn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground, which was why she’d shelved the process altogether. There were other things to focus on. More exciting things.

“You’re never going to find the right one if you don’t look for him.”

“Fine. Set it up,” Elle huffed. Though her expectations were dialed to low, at least no one could accuse her of not trying.

Holly took a moment. She turned her head and regarded Elle suspiciously out of the corner of her eye. “That was too easy. Is the other shoe about to drop?”

“I only have one proverbial shoe. You made a valid point, and guess what? I listen to you.”

“And you won’t cancel, even if The Tonight Showcalls?”

This was hard. “I won’t cancel.”

“And when you marry this guy and have eighteen children you’ll thank Aunt Holly and make everyone toast to her and her matchmaking ways.”

Elle shook her head in wonder, not quite sure whether to thank Holly or slug her. “Sure. Whatever you say.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Holly said, and clinked her glass to Elle’s. “Two hot chicks like us, out on the town.”

“I don’t want to be called a hot chick.”

“Yes, you do.”

She grinned at her friend and took a sip of rosé. “Maybe a little.”

 

v

 

Three days later and Elle had changed her outfit at least four different times. What was one supposed to wear on a date with a banker? Her dark pink flirty dress would make her look too frivolous, and her black pleated cocktail number seemed severe when she tried it on. Even her middle-of-the-road sundresses made Elle second-guess ever agreeing to this date in the first place. Indecision was so unlike her! In the end, she’d gone with her peach sleeveless dress with the thin beige belt. Simple meant classic, and that worked. If Christopher, or whatever his name was, hated it, well, that was on him. She sighed at herself in the mirror one last time.

When she arrived at Holly’s house, a cute little one-story not far from Elle’s place along Hermosa Beach, she didn’t bother knocking. Their relationship was beyond knocks and doorbells. She found Holly standing behind her couch, remote control in hand and a giant version of Elle laughing on the television.

“Talk-show-you is so upbeat.”

“Talk-show-me has to be.”

Holly turned to her. “True. She’s like regular-you turned up three notches. It works, though. I mean, look at your endorsement deals. You smile and show your abs and stuff sells. People like you.”

“If it helps pay my tournament entry fees, I’m more than willing to add some pep to my step. I’m nervous.” It all came out like one run-on sentence.

Holly took a moment to unravel the words. “You’re nervous Christopher won’t like you? That’s insane. He’s going to think you’re as adorable and hot as the rest of the world does.”

“No,” Elle said simply. “I’m nervous we’re not going to click, and you’ll be disappointed in me, and think I didn’t try and that I suck at dating, and I don’t like to suck at anything. I’m type A. Get it now?”

Holly looked confused and continued to proverbially scratch her head as she rounded the couch to take a seat. “Humor me.”

“Okay.”

“Here’s what I don’t understand. Whenever there’s any sort of event covered by the media, you have a guy on your arm, and you look like you’re having the time of your life. But it never goes anywhere.”

“Yeah, but those aren’tdates. Those are friends or acquaintances who have agreed to go with me.”

“You click with them?”

“I don’t know if click is the word, but we have a great time. It’s different. I don’t know.” She thought on it, looking for a way to better explain herself. “Those arrangements come with a much smaller commitment. One evening and some nice conversation versus working toward…more.”

“And you don’t have sex with any of them?”

Elle laughed. “Honestly, who has time for sex these days?”

“Riddle me this, Batman.”

She was nervous about where this was going. “Okay.”

“Do you want more? Level with me. If the answer is no, I’ll stop trying to set you up.”

“I do want more. Yeah.” A pause. “I mean, probably.” There was just never a person she’d wanted that “more” with. That was the core issue. Maybe not everyone was wired for an ongoing relationship, and while that made her sad on one hand, she also took pride in her self-awareness on the other. Maybe she was destined to focus on her career goals and leave the white picket fence and Facebook official relationship statuses to everyone else.

Maybe.

Or maybe she just hadn’t met therightperson yet. Maybe she would meet him tonight and put this whole issue to rest. That would be nice, right? To finally feel like a functioning person, like everyone else.

Twenty minutes later, she smiled into warm, dark eyes. The guy Holly had set her up with really was a looker. She had to give her credit. “Elle, meet Christopher VanCamp. He’s a good friend of Dash’s.”

“Hi. Elle Britton,” she said and extended her hand.

“Christopher. Nice to meet you.”

She nodded and took in his perfectly tailored sport coat and color block tie. Not too flashy, but still fashion forward. “Likewise.”

His hand was much larger as he closed it over hers. Firm, but not too firm on the shake. That was promising. Things were looking up.

“I’ve heard many great things about you,” he said. “Dash and Holly are big fans of yours.” He blushed, hearing how that sounded, and closed his eyes momentarily. “I am, too. Didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I’m a fan of yoursurfing.”

She nodded, letting him struggle. It was cute.

“I just meant that they spoke highly of you. As a person.” He glanced from Holly to Dash and back to Elle again. “I’m a dolt, and hopefully, you can forgive the last thirty seconds.”

“You’re doing great,” Holly said dryly, and then blossomed into a reassuring smile and shoulder bump. “Elle loves bumbling suitors. Tells me all the time.”

Elle grinned. “I do.”

Holly’s humor worked and Christopher seemed to relax. “Then maybe tonight will be a good one for me.” His eyes crinkled slightly and Elle decided she already liked him. He could be in a cologne ad. She passed Holly a secret look that said well done. Holly winked back.

Remembering her tricks of the trade, Elle made sure to light up as she turned to Dash, who she’d yet to greet. His sandy blond hair had less product than usual tonight and fell casually onto his forehead. She had no doubt that was Holly’s doing. “Hi, Dash!” She pulled him into a warm embrace. “Are you caught up on Game of Thronesyet?” She kissed his cheek. “Say yes.”

“Not yet. No spoilers.”

“How are we ever going to bond over this show if you don’t hurry up?” she teased. “You’re turning into a TV slacker.”

“I’m caught up,” Christopher said.

“See?” Elle pointed at him. “The new guy is lapping you.”

Dash turned to Chris and slapped him on the back. “Yeah, well, tell her what you do for a living, new guy.”

“I manage funds, which means I can work from home.”

“I work for the man,” Dash said. “Chris’s on his own schedule.”

“How awesome,” Elle said, looping her arm through his as they headed for the door. “Me, too!”

Elle had a fantastic time at dinner. While her heart longed for the fettuccini alfredo, her head made her order the salad with lots of extra chicken because victory didn’t come to the weak. Luckily, the quality of the company made up for the loss. The four of them killed some wine and after-dinner drinks, and before she knew it, they’d been sitting around that table for more than two hours, shooting the breeze, laughing, as she got to know Christopher.

“You’re really great, you know that?” Christopher said quietly in her ear as Holly and Dash argued about who had noticed who first at work. His breath tickled her ear and she resisted the urge to pull away a little bit. “I’m not just saying that. I was so nervous about tonight, but you really put me at ease.”

It’s what she did best. Elle had always been a people person and got along with most everyone. The fact that Christopher just happened to be an easy guy to talk to only helped the process. “I almost canceled,” she told him and then pulled a face. A guilty one. “But I can safely say that I’m very happy I didn’t.”

The confession seemed to have inspired Christopher, and he glanced behind them. “This restaurant has a really cool garden out back, and a gazebo. Want to go check it out?”

She did.

He took her hand and they excused themselves to Holly and Dash, who grinned at them victoriously.

Once outside, they took a lap from the deck to the walkway, which was lined with tiny white lights. “I’ve always loved this restaurant,” Elle told him. “But I’ve never been back here.”

“So that means I’ve scored a point?”

She liked the way his eyes twinkled. Mysterious, yet proud. Elle smiled and squeezed his hand. “One point for you. Deal.”

“Earlier tonight you talked about traveling for your job. Do you enjoy it?”

She considered the question. “Sometimes more than others. Seeing new places never gets old, but I miss the stability of home. Waking up in my own bed. I have a little house on the water not far from Holly’s in Hermosa Beach.”

“It’s a great neighborhood. Maybe one day I’ll see your place.”

She slapped at his arm playfully. “Christopher, my word, you’re forward.”

He caught her lighthearted tone and laughed. “A guy’s gotta try.”

“Does a guy?” she asked. “Does he?” She was flirting. Even she could tell that much, and it was fun. Hewas. Their eyes locked, and it got very quiet. They could still hear the distant chatter and ambient music from inside the restaurant. He leaned in slowly, giving her enough time to say no if she didn’t want him to kiss her. She appreciated that opt out, as a lot of guys didn’t offer it. She stood her ground and met his lips when they hovered just shy of hers. The kiss was…fine. A little wet and soft. She wouldn’t expound upon it later in a diary she didn’t own. She wouldn’t gush about it to Holly. Or relive it as she lay in bed that night. Butfinewas a big endorsement in Elle’s book. She would chalk fine up to a win.

As he pulled his lips from hers, Chris met her gaze. “Can I see you again?”

She nodded. “I was hoping so.”

The foursome laughed their way to Holly’s place, where Elle bid them all good night. She needed to be up with the waves in the morning and had a whole workout planned beforehand. A run on the beach, weights, and her least favorite, abs. Christopher walked her to her car, and Dash followed Holly inside, no doubt for a little one-on-one time.

“Don’t lose anybody’s money this week,” Elle said sweetly.

He covered his heart as if her words had pierced it like an arrow. “I will forgive you because you don’t know how good I am at my job.”

She leaned back against her white VW Beetle with a beige convertible top. She’d drop the top, she decided, once she got inside. The night was too perfect not to. “Thank you for dinner.”

“I had a great time,” Christopher said. “Even the part when you made fun of me for watching cartoons.”

“Well, you are a grown man and should really look into that.”

“Only because it was you who suggested it.” His lips were on hers again. It was a good-night kiss and to be expected after the kind of date they’d just had. A simpler kiss this time. Less movement of his lips over hers and neither tongue made an appearance, though their lips were slightly parted. Was it odd that she spent the time analyzing the logistics of the kiss rather than focusing on the romance of it? Shouldn’t she be lost in the heat? The exciting connection to another person she actually really liked? She wasn’t, though.

Her end conclusion: the kiss was, again, fine.

She drove home, top down, with her spirits hovering slightly above status quo. Holly had done well this time, and she hoped to see Christopher again someday soon. In the meantime, she had two things to worry about. Three press appearances that week and massive amounts of training before the next stop on the tour.

Bring on the waves.

 

Chapter Three

The Billabong party was packed, close to overflowing. The music pulsed and the drinks flowed freely as everyone who was anyone in the surf community mingled or danced or sucked up to the person they needed to suck up to most. All part of the game.

Gia knew there’d be a lot of industry folks in attendance, but the fact that she could barely walk three feet without bumping into someone who wanted to chat or take a photo with her had her worn down on smiles. She didn’t mind the people themselves. They were great. But she had trouble staying “on” for an extended period of time. Regardless, she forced yet another smile as she and her agent of three years, Gwendolyn, made their way across the crowded warehouse of a restaurant, rented out entirely for the event.

Gwendolyn stayed very close to Gia’s ear as they walked. She was like a hawk when it came to these events, looking to capitalize on any possible networking opportunity. While it was good for Gia’s career in the long run, she’d much rather be surfing. “Don’t be obvious,” Gwendolyn said, “but over there is an up-and-coming tournament sponsor.”

“Oh yeah?” Gia fist-bumped Lindy Ives, a fellow surfer, as they passed. She’d have to catch up with her later.

Gwendolyn wasn’t done. “Some sort of new spicy corn chip company with tons of venture capital dollars to help put them on the map, and do you see that guy?” She pointed with her eyebrows, which was, c’mon, impressive. “That’s Theo Trowebridge, their marketing guru. Make nice with him. He has money to spend.”

“Got it.” Gia nodded and sipped her sparkling water. No alcohol for her tonight. She’d noticed a dip in her timed sprints that she should remedy.

“You look stunning, by the way,” Gwendolyn said. “Fantastic look.”

Gia laughed. “Thank you, my friend helped dress me, but don’t I pay you to say that?”

“Last I looked it wasn’t in my job description, but it’s true, sweetheart.” Gwendolyn was a good fifteen years older than Gia and had taken on the maternal older sister role in her life.

“Well then, I will tell my personal stylist.” In other words, she’d high-five Hadley, who had come through as always, putting together slim black pants with a flowing white top that showed off the physique she worked so hard on. She’d pulled her hair back and let it fall to her shoulders, which Hadley said was a softer look for her.

“Well, son of a bitch,” Gwendolyn said in a huff.

Gia swiveled and followed her eye line to see Elle Britton chatting up the corn chip guy. She had to laugh. Of course Elle would already be in the know and two steps ahead of Gia, sparkling like the crown jewel. Gia watched as she laughed along with that Theo guy, touching his forearm briefly and nodding along with whatever he was saying. If there was a networking playbook, Elle had surely worn it out cover to cover, if she hadn’t written the damned thing herself.

Gwendolyn gave her a shove. “We gotta get you over there.”

Gia balked as they moved toward Elle and Theo. “Why?” she hissed.

“Because you never know when you’re going to need additional sponsorship, and a juicy, plump endorsement deal wouldn’t hurt your portfolio. You don’t have enough of ’em. Now, get over there and play in the sandbox.”

She hated the reality, but Gwendolyn had a point. Given her high ranking on the tour, she really should be pulling in more from external sources. She tended to shy away from those opportunities unless pushed. “All right. All right. I’ll talk to him.” She glanced back at Gwendolyn. “You’re a bulldog.”

Gwendolyn growled in response. It frightened her. She gave herself a quick shake and brightened into a smile.

“Well, if it isn’t the rankings climber herself,” Theo said as she approached them. He shook her hand heartily. “Gia Malone, your name’s all over the place these days. Theo Trowebridge, marketing director for Trainers. Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise. I’m a fan of your product.” A stretch. Corn chips were corn chips. Apparently, Trainers were a healthy alternative to the stuff already on the market. That’s about all she knew.

Elle grinned at Gia like they were best friends, but then she did that with everyone. “How are you tonight, Gia?”

“It’s a good night. And you?”

“I’m having a fantastic time. Everyone looks great.” Well, no one really came close to Elle. Her hair was down and a little wavy tonight in an understated, glamorous kind of way. She wore a patterned skirt and a sleeveless top that really brought out the blue of her eyes. Not that Gia had noticed. Though the men in the room sure seemed to, stealing not-so-discreet glances at Elle’s legs as they passed. The world was a virtual meat market.

“Wait,” Theo said, glancing between the two of them. “Have you two seen each other since Fiji and the big final?”

“Not since Fiji, no,” Elle said sweetly.

His eyes widened. “So, this might be a little awkward. I read about the controversy.” He made a face that said yikes.

Gia held her smile. Tried to. “I don’t think there was anything too controversial about that final.”

He seemed thoughtful. “Lot of folks thought there might be an interference call on that last wave of Elle’s you dropped in on.”

“I didn’t drop in. I wasn’t anywhere near Elle,” Gia told him calmly. “I think she would agree that she had every opportunity to capitalize on that wave outside of any interference from me.”

Elle held her thumb and forefinger close together. “You were a little close.”

“That’s not what you said at the press conference afterward.” Gia felt her defenses flare, though she would hold that damn smile if it killed her.

“Well, that was neither the time or place. Did you take some liberty on that drop-in? Yes. But those press events should be more about the love of the sport.” If there had been popcorn nearby, Theo would have grabbed a bowl as he listened in fascinated amusement. This was probably not what Gwendolyn had had in mind.

“I guess I try to be up front and honest with whoever I’m speaking with.”

Elle’s perfect smile faltered. “Why have you decided that I’m disingenuous?”

“You kind of just said so.”

Theo’s head swiveled to Elle for her response, and Gia inwardly cringed. She was behaving badly in front of a potential networking mark.

Elle scoffed uncharacteristically. It was nice to know she was capable. “You know what? Never mind.”

Theo held up a hand. “I’m sensing some hostility.”

“Not at all,” Elle said, brightening, probably remembering where she was. “Just some post-tournament playback. Gia and I have always had a healthy, if not competition-laced, respect for each other. Right?”

Gia shrugged. “Sure.” And then thought better and amended that. “Yes. We have.”

“Just what I was hoping you’d say. I have a proposition for you both.”

Gia and Elle exchanged an uneasy glance. For the twoof them? “And what would that be?” Elle asked.

“A Trainers campaign featuring the two of you. Highlighting the rivalry in the water and out. You’d be joint spokespersons, and the stars of our campaign.”

“There’s no rivalry,” Elle said, as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Theo raised an eyebrow. “I beg to differ, and so do most surf fans. But even the people who have no clue who you are will love the spots we’ll put together for you.”

Gia was skeptical. “So, you’re proposing an ad campaign based on—”

“The race for number one,” Theo supplied. “Who’s going to end up with the top ranking by the time this season closes out?”

Gia could tell from Elle’s understated smirk that she didn’t really think the ranking was up for grabs. Gia knew differently. If she could turn in just a handful of successful tournament showings and take Elle down another time or two, she’d have the points. It wouldn’t be easy, but it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. She was currently two in the world. World champion was within her grasp, and she was making steady progress. Apparently, others had noticed.

Elle paused and adjusted a strand of hair off her cheek. “It’s an intriguing proposition.”

And would you look at that? Theo ran with the encouragement, looking like a dog with a giant, meat-filled bone. He stepped forward, energized. “I see commercials, magazine ads, billboards, all cleverly put together and all showcasing Trainers. Listen, the chips are about a healthier snack option, and what sport showcases athleticism and the human physique the way surfing does?”

Gwendolyn would kill her if she balked. “I guess I’m with Elle. Sounds cool, but maybe we can get a few more details to fully understand where you’re headed?”

He nodded. “I’ll draw up a formal proposal and send it over to your people.” He pointed at each of them. “This could be a really fantastic partnership.”

“I, for one, hope so,” Elle said.

“Me, too,” Gia lied.

“I’ll leave you to your bickering, then,” he said, eyes dancing, as if he’d just located his own personal pot of gold. “And please, whatever you do, keep it up.”

Once they were alone, Elle turned to her. “If we do this, we have to pinkie promise each other that we’ll keep it classy.”

Gia turned her face and regarded Elle out of the side of her eye. “Did you just say the words pinkie promise?”

“Is that too pedestrian for you?”

“It’s too sixth grade for me.”

Elle sighed. “Fine. Blood oath at midnight it is. Whatever works for you. The point here is that this campaign could be a really good thing for both of us, if it’s done right.”

“Agreed. I want it to be just as tasteful as you do.”

“As tasteful as you dropping in on that wave?”

Gia smiled. It was a good barb. Points for Elle. “Something like that.”

Elle pushed a fist into Gia’s shoulder as she walked away. “Train hard. Just know I’m training harder.”

“Bet on it.” Wait. That came out wrong. “Bet that you’re wrong!” she called lamely to Elle’s retreating form. Instead of turning back, she offered Gia a wave of her fingers over her shoulder. Damn that woman. How did she always seem to come away with the upper hand? Gia blinked after Elle and watched as a waiter did a double take as she passed, his eyes zeroing in on her ass, her long, tanned legs. Gia shook her head at him, not at all noticing them herself.

Deep breath.

Not at all.

Sometimes she really hated herself.

 

v

 

Gia sat on a green cushioned couch in the outdoor seating area at Seven Shores while she looked over the Trainers paperwork Gwendolyn had sent over. It was late in the day, and the loss of the sun overhead left the air chilly. Gia didn’t mind. For whatever reason, the window from late afternoon until dusk was Gia’s favorite time of the day. It made her feel like something exciting lay in store as evening encroached.

The contract looked fine to her. In fact, it was a damn good offer, and with Gwendolyn’s stamp of approval, and her attorney’s, she was ready to sign. The i’s had all been dotted and the t’s had all been crossed. She tried not to think in depth about the fact that she would actually be working on this campaign with Elle. At least she would be paid a hell of a lot of money to do it.

“Oh! Is that the chip contract?” Autumn asked, joining her. She’d taken to working shorter days at Pajamas since the pregnancy and dropped her apron on the chair next to the one she’d plopped down in.

“Yeah, I guess we’re a go.”

“I have to buy them now.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Do, too.” Autumn ran her hand through her springy red curls as if to bring life back to them after a long day. “Understand something. If Gia Malone says I should eat these chips, I’m going to eat ’em.”

Gia laughed. “I had no idea I had that kind of power. Gia Malone also thinks you should give her free coffee for the rest of time.”

“Strangely, that one didn’t work as well,” Autumn said seriously, and then moved right along. “This means you and Elle, your number one rival, will grace the screen together.”

Gia sighed. “Apparently.”

Autumn raised an eyebrow. “Competition be damned. She’s hot. You guys will look great together. That marketing guy is no idiot.”

“She is not hot,” Gia said, and felt the lie burn her tongue.

“Okay, if you say so. Except she is.”

Gia let it go.

“So, when was the last time you got laid anyway?” Autumn asked.

Gia stared at her, water bottle stalled midway to her lips. “What kind of segue is that?”

“On reflection, it feels like an effective one,” Autumn said. “We were talking about a hot girl and now we’re talking about what one does with hot girls. So, dish. Laid. When? Go.”

“I don’t know.” Gia shrugged. “There was a girl a few months back at a tournament in Hawaii. A local. Just a one-night thing.”

“A groupie? You’re doing it with groupies now? That’s a thing?”

“No,” Gia said, figuring out how to explain. “It’s not a thing at all. It was a drunken, celebratory mistake after a big win, but you asked, and I don’t lie.”

Autumn grinned. “I got laid this morning.”

Gia sat back against the couch with a laugh. “Aha. This was just a front for you to gloat. Isabel would call this sex-gloating.”

“And sex-gloat I shall. It was glorious, G.” Autumn’s eyes lit up and she shook her head as if the mere mention transported her back in time. “There were stars and rainbows. Glitter fell from the heavens.”

Gia shook her head in appreciation. “Maybe Kate deserves a medal for more than just firefighting.”

“Good God, that woman does things to me. And with the pregnancy hormones hitting, let’s just say it’s happening a lot more often. Speaking of which, I’m feeling a little tired. Might head inside.”

“I see straight through you, Carpenter.”

Autumn grinned. “Yet I feel no shame.”

Gia watched as her friend made the short trek to the apartment she shared with Kate on the bottom floor. The same apartment that had led to their meeting the year prior. There was a cosmic justice in that, Gia decided. It was also nice to have Autumn living so close by.

“Hey, is that the contract?”

Gia glanced at the gates to see Isabel enter the courtyard, hand in hand with Taylor.

“Yep, they want to get started right away.”

“For the corn chips, right?” Taylor asked. “They’re not bad. I gave them a try.”

“I’ll take not bad. What are you two up to?”

“Just here to grab some clothes. I’ll be at Taylor’s for the next few days, since it’s closer to work and we’ll be pulling some long hours. Fat Tony is coming, too.”

“Cool.” Isabel’s cat, Fat Tony, had slowly become the hateful little mascot of Seven Shores. They took turns feeding and tending to him on weekends when Isabel spent her days and nights at Taylor’s. When it was Gia’s turn, she’d stay an hour or two and play hide-and-seek with the moody cat, allowing him to leap out from under the couch and attack her feet. She feigned surprise for his benefit, but let’s be honest, he was fooling no one. As far as Isabel and Taylor went, Gia wondered why the two of them didn’t just bite the bullet and move in together already. They seemed adamant about not rushing but were so insanely in love, she didn’t really get the point. To each their own, her mom always said.

“Do you know she has her own calendar?” Taylor asked. “The other surfer, Elle Britton.”

Gia nodded. “I’ve heard that somewhere.” She’d heard it everywhere. They sold that calendar at vendor stands at the tournaments. Those things flew off the shelves and people lined up in droves for Elle to sign them. Some of the photos had her in action, shredding like she was born to do it. Other months were a little more…sexy in nature. Elle in a swimsuit, simply holding her board. She’d thumbed through it once or twice, purely out of curiosity.

“How did you come across an Elle Britton calendar?” Isabel asked, scratching her head.

Taylor scoffed. “One of my writers used to have it pinned to their cubicle at work.”

Isabel turned to her, amusement plastered all over her face. “And you just happened to notice one day as you breezed through? ‘Oh, would you look at that! A hot girl in a bathing suit!’”

“Not hot,” Gia supplied.

They ignored her.

Taylor held up both hands. “I will completely admit to finding those shots…motivating.”

Isabel laughed. “That motivation is causing you to blush. Oh! And it’s spreading. This could get embarrassing. Look out, everyone.”

“You’re awful,” Taylor said, now the impressive shade of a tomato.

“Of course I am. I don’t have my own calendar or anything. Not even a desk version.”

“There’s always Christmas,” Taylor said innocently. “I’ll need something under the tree. I don’t think you even need the swimsuit.”

Isabel’s mouth fell open. “And now I’mblushing. Perfect.” She shook her head. “I think posing naked might be a little beyond me.”

Taylor smiled. “Not if memory serves.”

Gia held up a hand. “You guys get that I’m sitting here, right?”

Isabel laughed. “My fault. C’mon, let’s get my stuff,” she said to Taylor. “G, you’re in charge of the complex until I get back. No loud parties, understand? Larry Herman rule.”

“On it.”

Gia rolled her shoulders, wondering what was in the air that had her friends all sexed up. If there was time to be jealous, or the smallest burst of energy available, she would have been.

“Oh, wow! Is that it? Is that thecontract?”

Gia stared hard at Hadley as she approached, keys jangling from her hand. Her hair was swept up in that posh way she did it for work in some sort of blond twist. Her designer clothes only confirmed where she’d been. “You guys planned this? Isabel put you up to this, didn’t she?”

“Planned what?” Hadley asked.

“To all open with the exact same sentence? It’s like Groundhog Day.”

Hadley shrugged, dismissing it. “It’s cuz we all live together. Mind meld. It’s real. Now, is that the contract we’ve been waiting on?”

“It’s the contract.”

Hadley stared in awe. “Can I hold it?” she whispered.

Gia passed the stack of papers her way. “You’re so weird.”

“I’mreverent.” Hadley held the contract to her chest as if to soak it in, swaying slightly as if backed by a choir. “There’s a difference, and this contract is huge for you, which makes me extra happy. Next level stuff, Gia. I’m proud of you. You should be proud of you, too.”

Hearing Hadley gush made it hard to hide her own smile, because Had was right. This was the kind of exposure she’d been looking for, and with exposure came opportunity, and those were the kinds of things that kept a career afloat and tournament fees covered into the future. Leave it to Hadley to remind her of life’s little business truths. “Yeah, well, sometimes I get caught up and forget to celebrate the small victories.”

“Not small. Huge. This is a huge victory.”

Gia swallowed the urge to downplay and nodded instead. “Huge.”

“And in preparation for this campaign, have you figured out your Elle strategy? You probably want to if you’ll be working together a lot. I can’t even imagine how that’s going to play out. You two working side by side.”

Another valid point. “I was planning to just be professional and not let her get to me. Probably not the best plan, though, because she always seems to.”

“We could do better. Maybe we need a poster board.” Hadley looked skyward. “Not to get off topic, but it’s intriguing what Iz said a couple weeks back, isn’t it?”

“That Ms. Pac-Man should be allowed to have boobs? The only problem with that is where would they go?”

Hadley held her eyes closed for several seconds. “No. Gia. Strangely, not that.”

“Give me a hint.”

“I meant the part where she said you and Elle had sparks. Apparently, this corn chip executive thought so, too. Interesting series of events is all.”

Gia felt her defenses engage. “Please tell me you’re not going there. Not everything is hearts and butterflies, Had, just because you want it to be.”

“First of all, ouch. And second of all, I’m not going there,” Hadley said quickly. “I know you hate Elle and how always put together she is. But maybe that’s part of it. That tension.”

“I see through her. That’s all. I’m not her number one fan. That part is true, but it certainly doesn’t mean we have sparks. The whole idea is stupid. Isabel’s just projecting her glamorous, fictional world onto my life, and the fit’s not there. It’s lame.”

“Understood,” Hadley said, with an affirmative nod. “Won’t mention the sparks again. Will mention nachos, though.” Her eyes took on longing. “Let’s get some on the boardwalk. Please, with sour cream on top? My day smacked me on the back of the head rudely. Cheese will help me love everyone again.”

Now, nachos on Venice Beach was an offer Gia couldn’t pass up, so she softened, letting go of the bristles from the conversation with a sigh. “You just said the magic words.”

Hadley broke into a grin. “This way, superstar. It’s time to celebrate your chip deal in style.”

Gia nodded. “With more chips.”

“Duh.”