Riding the Wave

Pacific Blue -1

Lorelie Brown

To the Big Show

Chapter 1

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?”