Hard Compromise

By: Samanthe Beck
Prologue


New Year’s Eve

Montenido, California

Ten years ago

“Slide your sexy self over here, girl. I’ve got something for you.”

The invitation carried despite the thumping beat blasting from the nearby private cabana. Laurie turned her back on the two guys dancing with her on the low, teak table they’d commandeered from the cabana to find the cute blond she’d talked to earlier in the evening staring up at her from the sand. A fresh bottle of champagne dangled from his hand.

The cure for virginity, I hope, because I’m not ending this year without getting laid.

The MBA student from Duke seemed like a qualified candidate for the job. Trent? Brent? One of those. Free-flowing drinks left the details blurry, plus she’d talked to a fraternity’s worth of guys tonight. All she knew for sure was they had adorable Southern accents and this one looked like a compact version of the cutie from The Fast and Furious.

And he was very smooth. He circulated, turning lots of heads and talking to lots of girls, but every time her glass neared empty, he appeared with a bottle and a charming smile on his face. Flashing her own back at him, she did a little spin and moved closer. The silvery glow of the full moon and illumination from Las Ventanas Resort perched on the bluffs above them cast enough light to let her see his gaze lock on her swaying hips.

The attention felt as good as the music, and her buzz. Yes, she could turn a head, even at a party full of rich, east-coast sorority girls with Ivy-league pedigrees. Getting noticed was pretty much her mission tonight, and she’d dressed accordingly. Her best friend, Chelsea, had sworn the super-short, strategically frayed cut-offs made her ass look legal. Dropping it low, staying on beat—not easy after God knew how much champagne—she held out her glass for a refill. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, sweetheart.” He stepped closer and did the honors, while his eyes wandered over her tank top. His focus lingered on her cleavage.

Obviously he was a player, which suited her perfectly because she wanted to play. She was ready to play, dammit, but even so, she suddenly wished Chelsea had come with her tonight. Her best friend’s levelheaded personality balanced out Laurie’s wilder, more restless nature. Chelsea wouldn’t stand by and let her make a big mistake. Unfortunately, Chelsea’s mom didn’t approve of unsupervised beach parties thrown by vacationing frat brothers, and she kept close tabs on her only child. Laurie’s mother? Not so much. Denise was too busy running around, drinking, and partying like a porn star to give a crap what her sixteen-year-old daughter was doing. And tonight, her daughter planned to do…everything.

“Are you from around here?” Duke asked.

“Sort of. I’m in my final year at Montenido University.” She pointed to the pink university logo stretched across the front of the gray tank top calculated to show off the attention-grabbing curves nature had bestowed last summer. Practically overnight she’d evolved from a girl to a woman. The change sometimes left her feeling like an imposter in her own body.

Tonight she really was an imposter.

Duke’s gaze shifted to her face. His brows drew together a little, and a cloud of anxiety formed on the horizon of her mind. “You don’t say?”

Her heart sank. Did something about her looks or actions tip him off she didn’t belong at this party? Was he going to send her home before the clock struck midnight, like an underaged Cinderella?

“Want to see my student ID? My friend has my wallet, but I’m sure I could find her…” Heat flared in her cheeks at the thought of him calling her bluff. God, she hoped he didn’t. She smoothed a hand over her tank top. Tonight’s wardrobe played a key role in helping her project a cool, casual twenty-one—or really any age more legit than boring, pointless sixteen. But she’d relied on Chelsea’s advice and her own instincts. What if she looked more like a big slutty dork than a college student?

Duke shook his head. “No way, sweetheart. I don’t want you going anywhere.”

Her pulse settled a bit. “Then I guess I’ll stick around.”

“Awesome.” His smile widened. “So…what’s your major?”

Okay, points to Chelsea for suggesting the tank top. She took a gulp of champagne to hide her relief, and a wave of triumph rushed through her, even more dizzying than alcohol. She could answer any way she chose, be anyone she chose. Rebellious Laurie Peterson with her fucked-up mother and penchant for trouble didn’t exist here. “I’m a dance major.” To sell the fib, she treated him to some of her better Pussycat Doll moves.

“Damn, girl. I bet you’re at the top of your class. I could watch you work that body all night.”

All night? Was that some kind of suggestion, or…invitation? Uncertainty anchored her for a moment, but another swallow of champagne sent a fizz of bubbles to her brain and evaporated the caution trying to drag her down. “You could”—she broke off and sipped again—“come up here and dance with me.”

He licked his lips. “What’ll you give me if I do?”

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