#64 - A Big Friggin' Deal

Whitley and Koga departed at 7:00 AM for their three-hour drive to meet with Margarida Belo and Clara Melendez at Lake Cantor. Though they took Whitley's SUV, Koga offered to drive. Whitley accepted the offer and fell asleep in the passenger seat before Koga had even pulled out onto the road. Koga appreciated the freedom to enjoy her early-morning NPR, followed by her early 2000s pop playlist. In the last half-hour of their drive, Whitley suddenly snapped awake and checked the clock.

"Crap! Why didn't you wake me up sooner?"

"I didn't know I had reason to."

"Well, I have reason to," Whitley said. Opening a small plastic container, she extracted a chocolate chip cookie half the size of her palm. "I was planning to time this edible to kick in as we arrive."

"'Edible?' Whitley, does that have pot in it?"

Whitley raised the cookie to her face and studied it, ignoring Koga's accusatory tone. "It sure as hell better. At this rate, I'm going to have to deal with those two sober for at least an hour."

"Don't get too high. I need you for this."

"I've known those two since high school. You can't honestly think this would be the first time they've seen me stoned. Besides, if I wanted to get 'too high'—whatever that even means—I wouldn't have left the other half with Krysta and Alicia. They should have a pretty chill afternoon, assuming they split it, that is."

"And if they don't split it?"

"Then one of them is in for a ride." Whitley stuffed the entire cookie half into her mouth.

Koga knew better to question Whitley's choices, so she went with the next question that came to mind. "Did you bake it yourself?"

"Nah, I got it from Reggie."

"At John Hardy's?"

Whitley scrunched her face. "Goddamnit. Have you been talking to Alicia?"

"Krysta. You know she does analytics for us now, right?"

"Yeah, and as admittedly good an idea as that was, I don't like this blurring line between home and work trend I see going on."

"She told me Reggie's handsome and just a little fluffy."

Whitley chortled. "She's projecting. She's got a thing for the new Math department admin."

"Vince? We were the same year at NU and had new employee orientation together in the Fall. He's super nice. I could see them together. So, what is the situation with you and Reggie?"

Whitley closed her eyes and sighed. "Nothing is happening with Reggie and me. Alicia and Krysta are—you know what? I'm not doing this now. I have other things to deal with." Whitley pointed to the Marina up ahead. "Looks like we're here." Koga pulled into the Marina lot. The two hopped out of Whitley's jeep and headed for the dock. Whitley looked around for Margarida and Clara while Koga admired the rows of seacraft lined up at the pier. "Interesting spot for a business meeting. Which of them owns a boat?"

"I think they're just doing a photoshoot there on the way to Clara's family's East Coast beach house. They'll train out there for a couple of weeks as prep for the Summer season."

"And you think they'll have time to do our volleyball camp?"

"Ideally, we'll catch them on their way back from the tournament." Whitley glanced at Koga, whose face wore a mix of excitement and apprehension. "You aren't nervous, are you?"

"We have a lot riding on this meeting."

"I've known those two for a while, and I already sent them the details. If they're available to do it, they'll do it. If they aren't, they won't. That's the easy part of this."

"What's the hard part?"

"Whatever they'll ask in return," Whitley said, waving to the bikini-clad pair headed their way. "Here we go."

"Damn, Valentine, we could recognize you a mile away!" Margarida shouted. Beside her, Clara shook her head and sipped from a large plastic cup. Margarida jogged over to Whitley and hugged her. "Big V! How the heck ya' been?"

"I'm cool. Margie," Whitley said, patting her on the back. "Clara, you gonna get in on this too?"

Clara patiently strode over and joined the group hug. "I would've run too, but," she placed a hand on her pink strapless bikini "I'm hardly dressed for motion right now."

Whitley lowered her sunglasses and whistled. "Damn girl, you're bigger than I remember."

"Topped off at 34E," Clara said. "All I can say is, thank God for sports bra sponsorships."

"What about you, Valentine?" Margarida said, dragging her eyes up and down Whitley's long frame. "You've gotta be at least half a foot taller than when we last saw you in college. What have you been eating?"

Koga stifled a gasp and looked up at Whitley, who merely chuckled. "Everything," she said.

"Classic Valentine. So where are you at now? Seven-foot, what?"

"Seven-two."

"For good or for now?"

"Hi! I'm Koga!" Koga blurted, extending a hand towards Margarida, who accepted it.

"I'm Margarida, but you can call me Margie." She gestured to Clara beside her. "This is Clara, but you can call her—"

"Clara," she finished, offering a pleasant smile, and shaking Koga's hand. "Koga, it's nice to meet you."

"Great to meet both of you." Koga couldn't help but notice how Whitley made the 6'2" Margie and 6'0" Clara seem remarkably average. "So, what brings you out here?"

"Photoshoot," Clara said, motioning to the tanned, shirtless young man with a pompadour cut packing up his camera equipment. "He does our in-game shots, but also covers our—."

"Glamour shots?" Whitley finished.

"...promotional material."

"He rocks," Margie added. "Don't suppose I can talk you two into appearing in a few photos?"

Koga pointed at herself. "You want me in photos?"

"You play volleyball, don't ya'?" Margie said, slapping Koga on the shoulder. "Think you can convince Miss Valentine to join us?"

"Probably not," Whitley responded before Koga could think of a reply. "But I won't say 'no.'"

Clara blinked several times in surprise. "Wow, I would have expected a hard 'no.' You were always so wary of photos." Clara turned to Koga. "I don't know how much she told you, but we were something of a trio back in our USA U18 days. Not to mention our epic night out when Durrenburg Played USC our freshman year."

"She's told me a few stories...and I've seen a few videos." Koga again looked to Whitley who maintained a flat expression.

"Boat now, stories later!" Margarida exclaimed, motioning toward the trawler at the end of the dock.

"Is that one of yours?" Koga asked.

"No way," Clara said, laughing. "It belongs to the owner of BodyMove athletic apparel. They specialize in practical designs for unconventional body types. We took some shots on the boat and the dock for next year's calendar. We've got another shoot tomorrow morning but have a few hours to kill before we head back to the hotel. So—"

"Drinks on the boat!" Margarida finished, nudging Clara down the dock. As they walked over, Clara shared details of their recent tournaments and their shift into modeling. Koga listened while Whitley quietly wondered if either of her current roommates had appeared in a calendar and, if so, how many times.

"I was initially wary about modeling," Clara said. "But it's been good for our publicity, and it's opened doors for us we probably have missed otherwise."

"Clara's tits get us into tournaments," Margie said, popping the cork off of a bottle of champagne and mixing mimosas. "We crush the competition; then we aim higher."

"Solid formula," Whitley said.

"Pshhh," a blushing Clara said, finishing her glass. "I don't give my boobs as much credit as she does. We've performed well, and I think we've earned our reputation. As long as we keep playing well and it helps land us sponsors, I'll keep modeling."

"So what's your plan for the summer?" Koga said.

"We're hitting a couple of small tournaments before Queen of the Canyon at Coastside Beach in July. A good showing there will have us ready for Olympic trials in the Fall." Clara turned to Whitley, "So what are you up to now that the season's over?"

Whitley took a long drink of her Corona. "We have the high school volleyball clinic this summer and a couple more recruiting trips before we start prepping for next year's season. We've had a good year, thanks mostly to Koga."

Koga laughed, sipping her mimosa. "That's awful nice of you, but the team has been way more responsive with you standing on the sidelines."

"She's been doin' more than standing," Margie said, waving the empty glass from her third drink. "Yeah, we saw that video."

"Whatever she did," Clara said, "it sounds like you've had some success. It's been a while since Northshore U made the playoffs."

"First time in almost eight years. Not bad for our first year, eh?" Koga turned to Whitley. Whitley raised her beer bottle and prayed for her edible to kick in. "It's amazing how much the players look up to her," Koga continued. "I've even had to hold her back a little when she gets after them in practice."

Margie leaned back and laughed. "Oh, god, I can't even imagine! Having Amazon Val lighting a fire behind them must be a real trip."

Whitley bit her lip and forced a laugh. "I'm not that big a deal."

Margie scoffed. "'Not a big deal?' You're Whitley Goddamn Valentine. You're a giant friggin' deal."

"Margie…" Clara muttered.

"I'm just telling it like it is! Seriously, you just came off on four years as the most dominant women's college athlete in recent history."

"Whatever. Britney Griner."

"Sure, if Britney Griner averaged a triple-double and six dunks a game. How many records did you break? I remember you smashed the single-game kills record."

"For five-set matches. Ugh, that Nebraska game was a marathon."

"And the blocks record."

Whitley snickered. "Against y' all."

"Attacks per set," Clara added.

"Before Coach Grace taught me to plan my attacks better."

"Hitting percentage," Koga said.

"After Coach Grace taught me to plan my attacks."

"Point is, you're the damn near best volleyball player out there." Margie poured her third drink. "Or, at least, you were..."

A chill shot down Koga's back.

"Don't say that, Margie!" Clara said, swatting Margie on the arm. She turned back to Whitley. "I'm sorry. She's a little buzzed."

Whitley waved her hand dismissively. "Whatever."

"But I have to admit, with our funding model, we're always looking for something we can sell. Most of the time, our image is good enough, but it's exhausting. Our fans are ready to see something new."

Koga was about to ask for clarification, but both girls had their eyes fixed on Whitley. Whitley took her time gulping down the remainder of her beer and setting down her bottle. "So what are you thinking? I'm not joining your team."

"Will you do a shoot with us?" Margie asked.

Whitley frowned. "That's your ask?"

"Too much? We'd be willing to back off on the photoshoot if you two could, I dunno, beat us two-on-two." Margarida smirked proudly, while Clara, who seemed surprised by Margarida's unexpected challenge, played along. A pale Koga turned to Whitley, who remained silent.

"So, what do you think?" Margie said. After a few moments, she snapped her fingers in Whitley's face, jerking her to attention. "Hey! Earth to Valentine! Volleyball, yes or no?" Koga gulped, expecting the worst. Whitley blinked, clearly caught off-guard by the inquiry.

"Oh, sorry. I was thinking, Koga how did you know Krysta was a statistician?"

"Whitley, they want to play us. Two-on-two. Beach volleyball!"

Whitley waved her hands. "Yeah no, my edible just kicked in, and I'm gonna be even worse by the time we get to a volleyball court. Maybe next time. But sure, I'll do the photo shoot."

Clara shook her head in disbelief. "Whitley Valentine backs down from a volleyball challenge, but accepts a modeling offer?"

"You gotta take Koga too, though."

Koga gasped but held a straight face.

"Absolutely," Clara said.

"Oh, and toss in some free swimwear for me and a couple of my friends."

"Sure!" Clara said, praying Whitley didn't mean the Asian girl with the humongous boobs who would definitely require a custom order.

"I'll get paid for the gig, right?" Whitley asked.

"Just as long as we get paid for for the volleyball camp."

"Obviously," Whitley said, shaking Clara's hand. "You've got a deal."

"Awesome!" Clara said. "And, money aside, we're happy to do the camp. It reminds me of how we met at camp all those years ago. It'd be cool to give other girls the chance to do the same. We're in."

"That's it?" Koga said, surprised.

"Sure. I mean, we'll want to have our photographer along to take photos, provided NU is okay with it. We figure it will be good publicity for both your program and for us. Win-win."

"Sure."

"Sweet! We're going to change clothes. Then we can grab dinner. There's a great seafood place near here that sponsors us, and they'd probably be willing to take the hit if Whitley's in the mood to eat a bucket of crab legs."

Whitley raised two thumbs. "I've never turned down a food challenge."

"Great, we'll meet you in about a half hour." Clara and Margie headed for the showers while Koga and Whitley waited near the boat. When the two were out of earshot, Koga let out a breath she'd been holding in and turned to Whitley, who was preoccupied with her phone. "That went way better than I expected! I admit I'm surprised you turned down their challenge."

"No reason. It's not our money. Besides, I've been smoking weed long enough to know I can make bad decisions while I'm baked."

Koga nodded. "Well, I'm proud of you. I'm proud of us."

"Uh huh," Whitley muttered, typing on her phone. "Hey, you free July 13th through 15th?"

I'll be home for Independence Day, but I'd be free the week after. Why?"

"I just registered us for the Queen of the Canyon Beach Volleyball tournament. We're going to beat the pants off those smug bitches where everyone can see."

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