Home > Long Shot (Hoops #1)(6)

Long Shot (Hoops #1)(6)
Kennedy Ryan

My skin may be several shades lighter than the smooth cinnamon of hers, but we’ve never let a little melanin and our one-year age gap come between us. We’ve needed each other too much. Lotus has been my constant, and I’ve been hers.

Even the years when she went to live on the bayou with MiMi and I stayed in the city, the miles between us didn’t weaken our bond. Though I never keep anything from her, I haven’t breathed a word about last night’s conversation with August.

The roaring crowd, the scantily dressed cheerleaders, and the swarm of cameras and commentators along the periphery of the court all fade, and I remember last night. August’s baseball cap provided a flimsy disguise, and I recognized him as soon as he sat beside me. The lean, powerful body, the chiseled jaw and sculpted lips, the bronzed skin—all dead giveaways.

Caleb has talked about August before, of course, and I know a lot about his game because I stay on top of sports. The media fixated on him during March Madness while his team continued their unlikely road to the Final Four. Caleb and August have been competing against one another since middle school and aren’t exactly friends.

None of that prepared me for who August West actually is. I discovered a depth in him that was surprising and refreshing. His vulnerability was so unexpected and at odds with the strength of his public image. Maybe it’s the vulnerability that enhances his strength.

A dozen times, I started to tell him I’m Caleb’s girlfriend. I have to admit, at least to myself, that I didn’t tell him because I thought he might leave. I was enjoying the conversation so much, and that was the last thing I wanted to happen. It won’t matter since I’ll probably never see him again.

I run a hand through my hair, flat-ironed straight and tamed the way Caleb likes it. I’ve made more of an effort tonight because this is such a huge milestone for him. I even wore the outfit he asked me to wear, the one he gave me for my birthday, though it shows a little more of my body than I typically would. Left to me, I would have worn his jersey, a pair of jeans, and Chucks.

No, Jordans.

I wiggle my toes in the boots I paired with this tight-ass skirt. The top is cropped just beneath my breasts, leaving my stomach almost completely bare. Lotus says I look good, but that isn’t the point. I’m at a freaking basketball game, not a club.

“Hey, there’s your boy,” she says, nodding down toward the court. “And he looks as nervous as you do.”

Lotus is right. There’s a tightness in Caleb’s expression and across his shoulders that doesn’t bode well for his jump shot. He glances all over the arena, searching for something. It’s not until he catches my eyes and smiles that I realize he was looking for me. I set aside my guilt and nervousness long enough to give him the smile, the reassurance, I know he needs tonight.

“Aren’t his parents posted up in one of those fancy luxury rooms?” Lotus directs her gaze to the row of VIP boxes elevated above the rest of the arena.

“Yeah, but I like to sit in the stands,” I tell her. “And Caleb likes to see me here.”

I blow him a kiss, and his smile grows wider, lighting his handsome face. Caleb is the same height as August, six-six, and he’s just as powerfully built. His blond hair, tanned skin, and nearly navy blue eyes make him quite literally the golden boy of college basketball. There’s nothing to indicate that he won’t be just as popular in the NBA.

He turns to practice a few dribbling drills. He’ll need all the practice he can get if he’s going to outshoot August tonight, though I honestly don’t know if he can. I hate doubting him, but we haven’t seen a perimeter shooter like August in a long time. Caleb’s team is the defending champion. He got his ring last year, but I know beating his longtime rival to win another would be especially sweet for him.

“That man loves you, girl,” Lotus says. “And I didn’t think any guy could get you out of the library.”

“Neither did I.”

I had a scholarship to keep and wasn’t going to be distracted by any guy. I was working the register when Caleb came into the bookstore needing a book for his psychology class. He showed up every morning for weeks with a cup of coffee for me until I agreed to go out with him. He’s practically a celebrity on our campus, so of course I was flattered. I didn’t take his interest in me seriously, though. I assumed he was exactly the kind of guy I should avoid, but he wore me down and he proved me wrong. We laughed together. We talked basketball. He treated me well and made me feel special.

“Well you caught yourself a big fish, as our mamas would say.” The same bitterness about the men who passed through my life rings in Lotus’s voice. “Now just to keep him.”

“If anything, he’s trying to keep me.” I grimace at how that sounds. “What I mean is you know I care about Caleb.”

“Of course,” Lotus says, watching me closely.

“It’s just lately, it seems like he’s asking for so much more.”

I hesitate, not wanting to paint Caleb in a bad light, but Lo lifts her brows and nods her encouragement for me to go on.

“He’s been dropping hints about marriage and that he wants me to move with him to the city that drafts him.”

“But what if your opportunities aren’t in whatever random city drafts him?” Lo’s brows pinch together. “He knows you want to pursue your career in sports marketing, right?”

“Of course. Yeah, I’ve always been up front about that,” I say. “But now with the draft approaching, he doesn’t want a long-distance relationship, so it keeps coming up.”

I’ve always plotted my path in the opposite direction of my mother’s. Independence. Not relying on a man. Making my own way. If there’s one thing I know about my course, it’s that I have to stay on it.

“Well speaking of.” Lotus elbows me. “Your future father-in-law is heading our way.” She nods toward Caleb’s father and his cousin, approaching through the crowded stands, stopping every so often to smile and chat.

“Would you stop saying that?” Exasperation weights my sigh. “It’s bad enough everyone else assumes Caleb and I are already practically engaged.”

“To hear Aunt Priscilla tell it, you’ll be married and pregnant by Christmas.”

“Pregnant?” I scowl. “Mama would love that. The higher Caleb goes in the draft, the more she’ll want a grandbaby to hook him for life. That’s the last thing I’m thinking about. A baby right now would ruin all my plans.”

“What’s the rush anyway?” Lotus adjusts an errant lock of hair until it knows its place on my shoulder. “Why’s Caleb so eager to get married?”

“I know. What’s wrong with a long-distance relationship? I’m not ready for marriage. It’s too soon.”

“Do you love him?” Lo’s eyes pick around the edges of my expression.

“Sure.” I shrug, looking down at my knees. “I mean, we say it to each other, but does that mean he’s the one? I don’t know. We’ve been dating a year. We started as friends, and he’s gorgeous and smart and considerate. I’d be crazy not to love him, right? He’s perfect.”

Lotus puts her hand over mine. “Hey, look at me.”

I meet her eyes, braced for whatever she’s about to say.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s perfect, Bo, if he’s not perfect for you.” She squeezes my fingers. “You need a guy who respects your ambitions and your dreams.”

“I think Caleb can be that guy.”

But even as I say it, I question if it’s true. If my ambitions took me to one place and Caleb to another, would he expect me to follow him? Would I lose him if I didn’t? I hope I don’t have to choose. I know how important basketball is to him, but does he really understand how important my dreams are to me?

“Just be sure,” Lotus says, pasting on a plastic smile and aiming it over my shoulder. “In the meantime, here comes papa.”

“Good evening, ladies,” Caleb’s father says, finally making his way to stand in front of us.

Donald Bradley’s smile is always as carefully coordinated as his ties and tailor-made suits. The word that comes to mind is calculating, like he’s added you up and subtracted you to determine how much of his time and attention you merit. His every movement is smooth, but there is a hardness to him that makes me wonder if there’s really a heart beating beneath that silk shirt. He’s so much like Caleb physically—the same golden hair and dark blue eyes—but Caleb doesn’t have that hard smoothness.

Not yet.

It’s a whisper I try to ignore. The thought of Caleb evolving into his father drops a bag of stones in my belly.

“Hi, Mr. Bradley.” I glance up at the man beside him, forcing a smile for Caleb’s cousin. “Hey, Andrew.”

“Hey,” Andrew replies politely. Neutral is the word I always associate with him. He’s in medical school, so I know he has his own talents, but beside the vitality of his superstar cousin, there is something . . . bland, beige about him. Like he’ll match whatever’s around him, absorb whatever he needs to in any given situation. Maybe that’s not the worst thing, but it makes him hard to read. When you grow up with a series of creepy “uncles” in your house like we did, you learn to read men’s intentions. What makes me wary of Andrew is I can never read his.

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