Hard Compromise Excerpt

Copyright © 2016 by Samanthe Beck. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

Prologue

New Years 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?”

“What do you want?” She added a slow smile to the end of the question, and even as her palms went sweaty, she prayed she came off grown-up, self-assured—everything she aspired to be.

He handed the bottle of champagne to one of his friends and hopped onto the table. The two guys at the other end of the table jumped down. “How about a kiss?”

“A kiss?” Her heart tripped in her chest, and her attention automatically zoomed in on his mouth. The corners curved upward.

Shit, Laurie, stop staring at his lips like a complete rookie. Act like you’ve done this millions of times.

The thing was, she hadn’t. She’d kissed a few guys, but just high school boys—nobody who actually knew what he was doing. Now was her chance to change that, assuming she didn’t screw it up. She downed the last of her drink, tossed the cup to the sand, and turned so she faced him. Finally, she lifted one eyebrow and shot him the cocky look she’d perfected for exactly such an occasion. “Just a kiss?”

“For starters.” He stepped closer. “A kiss to kick off the New Year.”

Anticipation prickled beneath her skin, but no overwhelming urges of the sort her older, more experienced friends had described. Maybe because, physically at least, he didn’t overwhelm her. Despite her bare feet, she and Duke stood almost eye to eye. Then his arms wound around her waist, his hands slipped into the back pockets of her cut-offs, and her cocky faltered. Was it her move now? Should she do the same to him?

His lips found the curve of her neck and his mouth went to work there. Okay, time to do something. Only a freaking amateur would just stand there like a statue. She dipped her fingers into the back pockets of his shorts, but…shoot…they were buttoned. Without stopping to think, she yanked the flaps to tug them open. His startled grunt stilled her hands. Crap. She’d accidentally given him a wedgie. Talk about a freaking amateur.

“Sorry!” She jerked her hands away and left them hovering awkwardly at his waist.

“No worries, sweet thing.” He pulled her in closer. His chuckle tickled across her collarbone. “I like a woman who’s not afraid to go after what she wants.”

The teasing words bolstered her confidence. They described exactly the person she longed to be. Not just a woman, a fearless woman. She wanted to hold onto this feeling. The crowd around them erupted into a countdown. Heart pounding, she settled her hands on his shoulders and tipped her face up. His features swam into focus and she lowered her eyelids. Seduction 101. “I like a man who does the same,” she managed, and parted her lips in silent invitation.

Music swelled. People whooped. Corks popped like a fireworks finale, and champagne rained down on them in sparkling droplets. Duke slowly lowered his head. She inhaled, and waited with baited breath. The moment felt magical. She felt magical. Beautiful. Ready for anything. Definitely the best New Year’s Eve ev

“Party’s over, people. Somebody turn off that music.”

The booming voice cut through the noisy celebration. A millisecond later, the music stopped, and a closer voice, equally authoritative, said, “You.” A flashlight beam landed on Duke. “Get your hands out of her pants and step down from the table. You”—the beam swung to her—“stay put.”

Duke froze. “What the…?”

Big fists came out of nowhere and half-assisted, half-dragged him off the table, leaving her standing, alone, on her pedestal of shame. She rubbed her shoulders to combat a chill, and blinked at the laser show of flashlight beams crisscrossing the night, wielded by a small team of uniformed officers. A short distance away old Sheriff Halloran stood overseeing the activity.

Happy New Year, you’re busted.

“Back off, asshole,” Duke said, and tried to throw an elbow into the imposing figure still holding his arm.

Deputy Asshole,” the voice corrected, not releasing him. “And I want to see some ID.”

“Jesus. All right. Sorry.” He dug for his wallet, one-handed, and produced what looked like a driver’s license. “But seriously, let go, man. I haven’t done anything.”

The deputy examined the ID under the flashlight. He was bigger than Duke—taller, broader—with a cool assurance Laurie couldn’t help but envy. “Are you aware your dance partner’s barely old enough to drive?”

“Fuck me.” Duke’s head swung her way as her shame ripened into mortification.

Sheriff Halloran approached, calm if not a little weary. “Hello, Lauralie. Out past curfew, aren’t you?”

Duke turned his attention to Halloran, and started talking fast. “She told me she was in college. How would I know different? Come on, look at her! Shit.” His voice took on a desperate edge. “Nothing happened. We danced. That’s all.” He flung an arm in her direction. “Tell him!”

“Just a dance.” She wasn’t about to bring up the champagne, or anything else that might lead to Halloran or his cohort placing a call to her mother. Then she’d really be screwed.

“I don’t suppose he gave you anything to drink?” Halloran asked.

“No.” The denial came fast, and firm, but a loud hiccup followed like an embarrassing parent. A drunk one.

Somebody sighed.

Duke muttered, “Aw, hell,” and then took up the cause of rescuing his own ass. “This isn’t even my party. I’m just a guest. My room is right up there.” He nodded toward the resort. “I didn’t rent the cabana, or order the alcohol. None of it. If you want to double check with the resort, they can verify—”

“Tell you what,” Halloran interrupted. “You and I are going to take a walk up to the resort and discuss the situation. Deputy, will you deal with Miss Peterson?”

“No problem, assuming she can obey my instructions better than she can obey a curfew.”

Cop humor. LOL.

Halloran took her dance partner by the arm and steered him toward the path leading up to the resort. Staring after them made her dizzy, so she lowered her chin to her chest and focused on her bare feet. How embarrassing for Duke, getting perp-walked through a ritzy hotel lobby on New Year’s Eve.

But his embarrassment paled compared to the world of hurt she’d be in if Deputy Do-Right decided to Breathalyze her. Her stomach took a sickening spin as she thought about the consequences. Minor in possession of alcohol. Public intoxication. She didn’t come from a rich Montenido family who would hire a high-powered attorney to get their teenager out of trouble. Uh-uh. The juvie judge would make an example of her. Definitely yank her driver’s permit. She could probably kiss good-bye any chance of getting her actual driver’s license until she was at least twenty-one. Oh, God…

Don’t panic. Hold your shit together, and act sober.

“Where are your shoes?”

The deputy’s question cut short her self-coaching session. She looked up too fast and lost her balance. Gravity dumped her on her ass in the sand, and the impact jostled another incriminating hiccup out of her.

Black shoes appeared in her line of vision a second before she heard the soft pop of a knee joint. He crouched, balanced his weight on his heels, and reached for her arm. “Are you all right, Lauralie?”

She scooted away, which only succeeded in shoveling a load of Nido Beach into her shorts. “Don’t call me that.” An obscenely loud hiccup tagged along with the retort. So much for holding her shit together. She should have kept her mouth shut, but she couldn’t help herself. Only her mother called her Lauralie, and only when she wanted something. And basically, if Denise’s mouth was moving, she wanted something.

The flashlight beam landed on her. She flinched under the glare. “Can you get that out of my face?”

He didn’t immediately respond, just continued assessing her. A not-particularly-clever wisecrack leaped to her lips, about how a picture would last longer, but the smart-mouthed comment died away as an uncomfortable awareness settled over her. He was looking past the blond hair she’d tamed into smooth waves and her intentionally sophisticated makeup. Past her cocked chin and folded arms. He was looking at her. And if he kept looking, he’d see all the things she worked really hard to make sure nobody saw. Insecurities. Fears. Just when she couldn’t stand the spotlight of his attention a second longer, he moved the beam off her.

“Those yours, Jailbait?”

More cop humor. Her pink Uggs sat in the small pool of light. “Yes.”

He stood, and helped her to her feet before she could scramble up under her own power. Sand showered from her shorts, subsiding to a drizzle as he marched her over to her shoes. The last thing she needed was more in there, so rather than sit, she bent forward and reached for her boot. Bad choice, because tonight’s festivities left her less than steady. She started to topple.

A strong hand closed on her arm, just above her elbow, and righted her as if she weighed nothing. “Get them on. I’ve got you.”

The heat from his palm made her realize how cold she was. Numb and clumsy and freezing cold. She tugged her boots on, moving as fast as she could because shivers threatened.

“Anything else you need to collect before we go, Lauralie?”

“No, and I told you not to call me that.” Even in her current state, she winced at the bitchy tone in her voice.

“It’s your name, right?” he responded, seemingly unperturbed. He kept his hold on her as they walked down the beach to the parking lot.

“You sure know a lot about me. My name. My age.”

“Halloran tipped me off before he sent me over to reel you in.”

“And you are?”

“Ethan Booker.”

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“Ethan Booker of the Montenido Bookers?” But she didn’t need him to confirm her guess. Now that she had the frame of reference it wasn’t hard to superimpose this badge-wearing badass over her pre-teen memory of an athletic high-school hottie striding out of the surf with a board under his arm and a bunch of girls waiting by his towel. Golden-boy came from a wealthy, high-profile family. And wealthy by Montenido standards meant mega-fucking-rich.

“Ethan Booker of the Montenido Sheriff’s Department,” he shot back. There was just enough sharpness in the reply to tell her she might have struck a nerve—like maybe he didn’t like money and privilege being the first thing people associated with him.

Defensive instincts had her pressing on the point, to see just how sore it was. “Please. Your family’s loaded. Why slum it in the sheriff’s department?”

“How else would I get to meet underaged girls who are about to be grounded until they’re thirty?”

Grounded? What kind of Gilmore Girls world did he think she lived in? She cleared her tight throat. “Are you going to a-arrest me?”

“We’re going to consider tonight a warning. Don’t tempt me to change my mind.”

Relief reduced her to silence. She couldn’t even manage a thank you, for fear he’d hear a telltale quiver in her voice. He led her around to the passenger side of the cruiser, opened the door, and stood there while she got in. “Seat belt,” he prompted, and then shut the door. Something about the way he handled her made her feel taken care of. Not a normal feeling for her, and more than a little unsettling. She straightened, crossed her arms, and pulled on her I-can-take-care-of-myself cloak.

He got behind the wheel, and flicked the interior light to the brightest setting. Then he turned to her. “Buckle—Fuck, I’m going to kill that prick.”

His eyes were glued to her throat. She flipped the visor down to see her reflection in the vanity mirror, and sucked in a shocked breath. The sexy Jessica Simpson-style waves she’d tried to emulate hung around her face in tangles. The shadow, liner, and mascara she’d painstakingly applied earlier tonight ringed her eyes like dirty smudges. And the cherry on the cake of all this classy? A big, red bruise blooming on the side of her neck. A souvenir from Duke. She couldn’t even feel the stupid thing, but it looked pathetic. She looked pathetic. Used. Cheap.

Her euphoria from just before midnight came back to mock her. There was nothing magical or beautiful about the girl staring back at her in the mirror. A sour taste percolated in the back of her throat as another thought struck.

She looked exactly like her mother.

The impulse to hide had her hunching her shoulders and twisting toward the window, but Booker caught her chin. “Lauralie, look at me.”

A cold, hard ball of humiliation lodged in her throat. Her chest tightened. She pulled her gaze up, and fell into dark, concerned eyes.

“Did he hurt you?”

The tattered edges of her imaginary cloak of self-sufficiency slipped out of her grasp. She burst into tears.

He immediately released her, and scrubbed his hand over his face. “Shit. All right. Everybody relax. I’m not touching you. Nobody’s going to touch you. I’m just going to ask you some questions, and I want you to answer honestly. Are you okay?”

Okay? Try fucked up, embarrassed, and angry—mostly with herself. Her teeth chattered, and she couldn’t stop shaking, but as far as how he meant? Basically yes. “I-I’m f-f-fine.”

“Then why are you crying?”

The careful tone of his question made her cry harder. People weren’t careful with her. She wasn’t even careful with herself, and the reasons were hard to explain in a way that made sense—especially to someone like Booker, who’d never longed to change who he was or where he came from. She racked her brain for a reply that wouldn’t sound so crazy. A night like tonight gave a girl plenty of reasons to cry, but she settled for one of her more immediate worries. “If Denise finds out about tonight, she’s not going to ground me. She’s going to kick my ass out. All she wants is a reason to justify booting me. ”

“Denise Peterson is your mother?”

Clearly, Denise’s reputation preceded her. What a shock. “Uh-huh.” A tissue would be handy right now, but the neckline of her tank top worked. She wiped her eyes, cringing at the mess left behind on the light-gray cotton. “Neither of us is particularly proud of the fact, but yeah, she is.”

“Is she going to be home when we get there?”

“Doubtful.” She sniffed to battle the tears trying to escape through her sinuses, but then gave up and wiped her nose, too. What the hell? At this point he wasn’t likely to mistake her for Miss America.

He stared out the windshield, but something in the set of his jaw told her he was considering the options. She held her breath as the silence stretched. He hadn’t challenged her obvious lie about not drinking. Hadn’t subjected her to a sobriety test, or arrested her, but it was probably too much to hope he’d let the whole incident slide without informing her parent.

“You’re sixteen, dammit. That guy was twenty-five.” Frustration reverberated in his voice. “Do you even realize how wrong that is? If you can’t keep yourself in check, someone needs to do it for you.”

“Denise isn’t that someone,” she whispered. “Please. I won’t do it again. I promise.”

Serious eyes drilled into hers. Then he shook his head, and let out a low, resigned sigh. “Jailbait, this is your one and only free pass. I told you we’d consider tonight a warning, so listen up, because here it comes. I’m going to be watching you from now on. If you stray over the line in any way, shape, or form I’m going to bust your little ass so hard your head will spin. Understand?”

As if she’d say no. He had her boxed in, and they both knew it. Even so, some of the pressure in her chest loosened. Boxed in by Booker felt oddly secure. More like a safety measure than a shackle. She nodded.

“Good. What’s your address?”

She gave it to him, and then wrapped her arms around her middle for warmth and sat in the darkness as he drove to Nido Terrace—the ghetto of Montenido. An occasional shiver still rattled her teeth. After a mile he muttered a curse, aimed the vents her way, and punched up the heat. Otherwise, they traveled in silence.

Every so often she snuck a peek at him. He’d graduated from high school the same year as her friend Heidi, which made him a few years younger than the guy from the beach. But while Duke still had the lean, narrow build of a college boy, Booker was all grown up. She stole a glance at his lap from beneath lowered lashes, and swallowed. Definitely grown up.

Her gaze fled the imposing bulge and landed on his profile, taking in the slope of his forehead, the masculine angle of his nose, and his square chin. His cheekbone created a sexy parallel line with his jaw. He was cuter than Duke. No. Wrong word. Cute implied boyish, and nobody looking at Booker saw a boy. They saw a man. A girl in search of a guy who knew what he was doing could do worse. A lot worse.

He must have sensed her staring, because he glanced at her. She turned away, caught her reflection in the side mirror, and realized she was chewing the ragged cuticle around her thumb—a nervous habit she’d picked up from Denise. Forcing herself to stop, she put her hands to better use finger-combing some life into her hair, and then scrubbing away the traces of makeup under her eyes. Those little efforts helped. She looked more like her normal self. Then again, was that really helpful?

No. Not when it comes to a guy like Booker.

The depressing thought backhanded her, and left a lingering ache of truth. What did she really have to offer, other than the ability to fill out a tank top and cut-offs? Booker’s hard-to-read expression didn’t offer any indication he’d noticed those particular talents. Did he see anything in her except a troublemaker?

Why do you care?

She couldn’t explain why, but she did. She wanted him to like her. The car rolled to the curb in front of her house. He killed the engine and the lights. “This it?”

“Uh-huh.” Her pulse quickened. Could she make him like her?

While she worked on a strategy, he came around and opened her door. She climbed out and turned to him. Moonlight and shadows played over his face.

Go after what you want, her internal voice insisted. Work with what you’ve got. She straightened to full height, which still only brought her even with his chin, and eased her shoulders back to put the girls front and center. Then she inhaled deeply, hoping his gaze might slide down. It didn’t.

“How can I thank you for being so decent tonight?”

Her voice sounded a little hesitant, but it could pass for breathlessness rather than nerves.

“By staying out of trouble.” No hesitation there.

She took a step closer, so her breasts almost touched his chest. “I meant some way I could thank you right here and now.”

He retreated a half step, which offered zero encouragement. But now that she’d put herself out there, she couldn’t seem to find a graceful way to back down. She stared up at him, and slowly ran the tip of her tongue over her upper lip. “Think about it.”

“I’m thinking about a lot of things, Jailbait, such as how, unlike your friend from the beach, I know the difference between a girl and a woman. Go home.”

Rejection stung. It stung a lot when it came from a mom who treated her like a stray dog, but it stung coming from Booker, too. “That’s it? Just, ‘Go home?’”

He nodded, and then added insult to injury by pinching her chin, and giving her the barest trace of a smile. “Do us all a favor and pick on someone your own size for a while.”

Embarrassment, and—if she was honest with herself—relief, filtered through her. But she wasn’t in the mood to be honest, or to be treated like a child. She had to stop herself from stamping her foot. “For how long?”

Firm hands closed on her shoulders and turned her around. He gave her a little push toward the house.

“We can revisit the topic in ten years.”

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