Home > Long Shot (Hoops #1)(22)

Long Shot (Hoops #1)(22)
Kennedy Ryan

His eyes soften, but it’s a false soft. A curtain he draws over his true feelings, but I see them clearly. I’m not sure why I haven’t recognized this trick before, but I do now.

“Baby, I think once we’re married,” he says, resting his hands on my hips, “we can revisit this, but for now, it’s not something we should do.”

“You’re right.” I keep my voice soft and even, but I slip through his fingers, stepping away. “You have a game tonight. Let’s discuss it later.”

His expression goes flat and hard like the face of a cliff. He grabs my hand and twists it, shoving my ring finger in my face.

“I don’t understand what you want,” he spits out. “I offer you a ten-carat diamond, and you’re still walking around wearing this cheap junk jewelry where my ring should be.”

“It’s not junk.” I jerk my hand away, rubbing at the pain in my wrist. “It’s from my great-grandmother.” I narrow my eyes at him and lay my words out with care. “For protection from anyone who wants to hurt me.”

“Hurt you?” Frustration darkens his handsome face, and he grabs both my arms tightly. I’ve never felt the disparity between our heights and weight more than now. I’m not a tiny girl, but when held by a basketball player with more than a foot on me, whose body is honed to compete at the highest level, I’m practically defenseless.

“I love you, Iris, but if you don’t know the difference between love and pain,” he grits out. “maybe I should teach you.”

He shakes me, and my head snaps back on my neck with every jerk. My arms throb under the vise of his fingers.

“Let me go,” I gasp, pressing my hands to his chest. “Right now, Caleb.”

For a moment, refusal flares in his eyes. He tightens his painful hold a few seconds more, letting me know without words that he could keep doing it if he chose. Slowly, his fingers ease, but the intensity of his eyes doesn’t let go.

As soon as he releases me, I walk swiftly across the room, putting as much distance between us as this kitchen will allow. I almost limp with relief being away from him, and lean against the sink, forcing myself to look at him.

“Put your hands on me like that again,” I say, my voice leaden and sure, “and I will walk out that door with my daughter, and good luck finding us.”

The storm in his eyes settles into something that resembles fear and masquerades as remorse. Whatever it is in truth, I’ll never know because he quickly shutters that look.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly. “It won’t happen again. I’m just under so much pressure right now. We’re close to making the playoffs. Tonight’s game is huge for us. I’m feeling it, but that doesn’t excuse me taking it out on you.”

I want to believe him. He’s never hurt me like this on purpose before.

“I understand the pressure, but . . .” I drop my eyes to the floor. “I saw my mom and aunt take a lot of crap from men when we were growing up. I have no tolerance for it.”

“It won’t happen again.” He takes a deep breath, as if clearing the air. “Now that we got that out of the way, would you come to tonight’s game? It would mean a lot to have you and Sarai in the stands for me.”

“Sure.” I slide my hands into the back pockets of my jeans. “Who are you guys playing?”

“The San Diego Waves,” he says, watching my face closely as if for a reaction, one I refuse to give him, but inside my heart stutters and thumps.

So much for avoiding August.

13

August

“Hey, West. You got a second?”

I turn to face Deck. In addition to being the San Diego Waves’ president of basketball operations, he’ll also be first-round Hall of Fame. When he calls, you answer.

I hang my coat up in the locker and meet his eyes over my shoulder. A few guys mill around the Baltimore Stingers’ guest team locker room, but for the most part, we have this corner to ourselves.

“Yeah?” I stopped trying to call him ‘sir’ long ago. “What’s up?”

“I know this is a big game.”

No game is a big game because it’s almost the end of the season, and we’ve got an icicle’s hope in hell of making the playoffs. It feels like the last few games don’t matter since there won’t be a post-season for us. We’re an expansion team, so that’s to be expected in our first year, but it still bites with teeth.

I’ve never been on a losing team in my life. The fierce competitor in me has never allowed that to happen. I’ve always been able to pull any team I was on across every finish line—first. But this is the NBA. Every man out there is the best in his neighborhood, the best in his high school and college. One man can do a lot, but in this league, one man can never do it all.

“What’s so special about this game, Deck?” I close the locker and turn to face him.

“For one, you’re playing in your hometown,” Deck says. “I assume your family will be here to see you.”

I allow a genuine smile, thinking of my mom and stepfather in the stands tonight. “Yeah, they’ll be here. My mom’s invited the team over for dinner after the game since we don’t fly out ’til morning. You’re welcome to come.”

“Nah.” An almost sheepish smile looks out of place on the strong planes of his face. “I’m flying to New York to see my girl, but thank your mother for me.”

Deck and Avery make long-distance love look easy, though I’m sure it has its challenges. “Give Avery my best.” I shoot him a knowing grin.

“I haven’t seen her in three weeks, so I’ll be busy giving her my best and not thinking about your punk ass.” His roguish laugh makes me laugh in response.

“Lucky man.” I lean back on the locker and wait for him to get to the reason he came, which has nothing to do with my hometown, my mama, or his girlfriend, for that matter.

“So the media has been hyping this game because it’s you and Bradley,” Decker says, the humor fading from his expression. “Everyone’s saying it’s a two-man race for Rookie of the Year.” Decker lifts both brows. “Or are you so caught up in your tennis star girlfriend you hadn’t noticed?”

A chuckle rumbles from my chest, and I offer him a slow head shake. “Don’t believe everything you read, Deck. You should know that better than anyone.”

“Oh, so you’re not fucking Pippa Kim?”

I zip a finger across my lips. “A gentleman never fucks and tells.”

Truth is, I did fuck Pippa months ago. It was good, but not something I wanted to repeat. We’re both new to the sports spotlight, me with basketball and her with tennis, so we understand unique challenges most people can’t even imagine. We clicked as friends and have attended various functions together. I never comment when people ask me about Pippa, and she never comments when people ask her about me. Apparently “no comment” is a comment in itself because now everyone assumes we’re together.

Pippa was during my “how many holes can I squeeze my dick into” phase. I probably would have screwed a hole in the wall if I had thought it might help take my mind off Iris.

Which brings us to the actual reason Deck should worry about tonight’s game.

“Me and Caleb are cool.” The lie comes smoothly. “But if the media makes shit up, why should you care? More butts in seats if they think there’s drama, right?”

Deck’s too sharp for my own good. He narrows his eyes and crosses thickly muscled arms across his broad chest. I always think of him like a lion with his tawny hair and eyes. Dude is still cut up even though he’s a few years out of the league. My eating and workout regimen were the first things he adjusted when I joined the team. He may be a front office executive now, but he was a baller first. He’s hands-on with the players, and right now he’s trying to wrap his hands and head around this Caleb situation.

“If you say so, I believe you,” he finally replies after a few seconds. “But I’m trusting you to be the bigger man if he starts shit on the court tonight.”

I will my face into not giving a damn and shrug carelessly, faking nonchalance like a motherfucker. “At least you picked up on the fact that he’s an asshole,” I say. “Most are fooled by the golden boy act.”

“Why do you think I didn’t draft him?” Deck dips his head, a cynical brow raising an inch. “I know a carefully crafted image when I see one, and Caleb’s daddy’s been carefully crafting that boy since he was in diapers. Now he’s used to getting everything he wants. I’d hate to see him when he doesn’t.” He points a warning finger at me. “Thus, this little talk. The two of you always go at each other hard, and you seem to always come out on top.”

“Not always.,”

He got the girl.

And I deeply resent him for that.

I’m gonna hold my shit together with iron will and rubber bands tonight, though, no matter how he provokes me. It’ll require complete focus. I haven’t allowed myself to wonder if Iris will be at tonight’s game. It’ll be packed, and I probably won’t even know if she comes. I assume she attends his home games.

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