Home > Long Shot (Hoops #1)(7)

Long Shot (Hoops #1)(7)
Kennedy Ryan

“You’re both welcome to join Barbara and me up in the box,” Mr. Bradley says. “We’ve got quite a spread up there to celebrate after my boy wins tonight.”

“I’m fine here for now.” I try to warm my lukewarm smile. “I like being close to the action.”

“And I’m sure Caleb wants to see you in the stands.” He looks at me sternly. “But tonight at the party, work the room some. A beautiful wife is a huge asset for a man like Caleb. We’ve got as much work to do off the court as we do on it.”

My teeth grind together. I have so many things I want to do before I settle down. And right now, none of them involve being a baller’s trophy wife.

“I’ll support Caleb in every way that I can,” I say. “Just as I’m sure he’ll support the things I want to pursue.”

Mr. Bradley wears a pleased smile and pats my shoulder. “There are all kinds of charities and committees for the players’ wives that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.”

“We’ll see how much time I have,” I tell him. “I’ve applied for several internships, including one with St. Louis.”

I don’t have to wait long for his reaction.

“St. Louis?” His thick brows lower and clump over his eyes. “My team?”

Mr. Bradley, already in the Hall of Fame as a player, is a front office executive for the St. Louis expansion team. He’s built many teams from nothing into championship-caliber squads.

“St. Louis is one of the teams I’m interviewing with, yeah.” I suppress a satisfied smirk.

“You should probably wait to see where Caleb is drafted before you make any commitments,” he says, his tone condescending. “You’ll want to know where he lands.”

“I’m actually in the final round of consideration for a few internships,” I say, keeping my expression placid. “So we’ll also have to see where I land.”

He squints and tilts his head, considering me like I’m a worrisome puzzle. My pieces aren’t fitting the way they should. Most girls would jump at the chance to secure a future with an NBA player. So why am I hesitating to marry his golden boy?

“Well, we’d better be getting back to our guests.” He nods toward a nearby tunnel. “See you up in the box after the game. Let’s go, Andrew.”

With one last look, Andrew turns to follow.

“You’re marrying into a fucked-up family.” Lotus shudders, shaking herself.

“I’m not marrying . . .” There’s teasing in her eyes. “Stop pushing my buttons.”

“But with my heavy workload at school, it’s one of the few joys I have left in life.”

“Find new joys.”

We share a grin, and she links her arm through mine, leaning her head on my shoulder while we watch the pre-game shenanigans. Mascots for both teams run the length of the court, using trampolines to slam-dunk balls. A kiss cam gets going, and Lotus and I can’t stop laughing at an elderly couple kissing like teenagers fogging up a backseat window.

And then I see him. I haven’t allowed myself to look for August since the players came on court for the pre-game shoot around. I’m not that close, and you couldn’t squeeze a gnat in this building because there are so many people here. Still, I worry that he’ll spot me.

I could be worrying for nothing. I mean, he must have girls chasing him all the time. Some inconsequential chick he met in a bar is probably utterly forgettable.

Except it didn’t feel inconsequential. Not the things we shared or the look on his face when I walked away. None of it felt inconsequential. And though I know I should forget, I can’t stop remembering.

My mom used to say it took a crow bar to pry me open, but with August, I surprised myself. I didn’t hold back. When was the last time I talked so openly with anyone besides Lo?

Down on the court, he faces a teammate, dribbling two balls, one with each hand, his posture relaxed. He laughs at something the other player says, his lips spread in a flash of humor and charisma. An indolent swagger hangs on him like his basketball shorts, easy and loose, but a barely veiled energy crackles around him. He’s nimble athleticism and latent power on the verge of explosion.

In an instant, he goes from the ease of his teammate’s camaraderie to the trademark precision shooting that’s inspired awe in basketball pundits throughout this tournament. Eyes fastened on the hoop, he knocks down six three-pointers in quick succession. From wrist to bicep, one arm is sheathed in a shooter sleeve, a compression accessory some ballers use to keep their arm warm and increase circulation. A few colorful tattoos paint the other arm, but the most prominent one is on the ball of his shoulder, the number thirty-three. It’s his jersey number, but I remember hearing it was his father’s, too.

He’s not wearing his jersey yet, and when he tosses the ball back and forth between his big hands, palming and raising it over his head in a stretch, his T-shirt lifts, exposing rungs of muscled abs.

My breath catches. My body flattened to his last night, the check above his head. The rock-hard chest and arms. The gentle hands and eyes. The strength and heat of him, the way he smelled—everything about him made me want to press closer. To be as close as I could get. I wanted to kiss him. The source of all this guilt isn’t what I did with August. It’s what I wanted. What I felt.

He looks up into the stands in our direction, and my heart pauses for the space of a beat. I tense, as much from the memory of those eyes fixed on me as from the fear that he’ll see me now.

His coach yells, waving the team over to the bench. I should be relieved he didn’t see me, but some perverse, masochistic part of me wishes he knew I was here.

My eyes seek Caleb on court, and I wait to feel anything as visceral as what I felt last night with August. I’m glad to see Caleb. I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him, but it doesn’t feel like my heart is pinned to a soaring kite. My feet are firmly planted on the ground. My body doesn’t go haywire. When was the last time Caleb left me breathless with little more than a look, a touch? For that matter, when was the last time I wanted to tell him so many things there wasn’t time for it all?

I have a year invested with Caleb, and we’ve been happy. After meeting August West once, I’m questioning it?

“So what are you gonna do?” Lo asks softly, breaking into my thoughts. “About this Caleb situation, I mean. If he wants more and you want . . .what you want?”

I turn my head to study my cousin’s face.

“Why do I have to know right now?” I answer Lo without actually answering. “I’m about to graduate from college. This should be a time when it’s safe to explore, when there’s space to figure out what life is on my own. Can’t we just be dating? I’m not sure what I know for sure yet, and that should be okay.”

The closer we get to the future, the more I feel the weight of Caleb’s expectations, spoken and unspoken. I just hope it’s not so heavy that it crushes us, crushes what we have completely.

“Don’t let him rush you, girl,” Lo says. “Better no man than the wrong man. We saw that firsthand.”

What would our lives have been like if my mom had married one of the creeps who paid our rent? Except for Telly, I was usually glad to see them go. If she’d married one of those men, I know instead of the security she envisioned, it would have been a trap.

Once the game is underway and halftime approaches, I know Caleb’s team is in trouble. It’s not in the score, because they’re only down by five, still easily within striking distance. And Caleb’s performance shouldn’t give me pause. He’s nearly at a triple-double already. My reservations actually have nothing to do with Caleb and his team, and everything to do with August and his. There’s an X factor in sports, probably in life, that doesn’t show up in stats sheets or on scoreboards. Jordan had it. Kobe had it. It’s that “I will not be stopped” killer instinct. When a player has that, he’ll strap the whole team to his back if that’s what it takes to win.

That killer instinct blares from every pore of August West.

I’ve never seen him play live, or I would have known this already. It’s in his eyes every time he faces Caleb one-on-one, the crooked grin that says August relishes toying with him. Each time he stops on the dime and spins beyond Caleb’s reach to score, he insinuates himself deeper into Caleb’s head. And that’s where the game will ultimately be lost if something doesn’t change in the second half. If I were the coach, I’d assign someone else to guard August because Caleb can’t. I suspect Caleb asked to do it, feeling like he had something to prove.

He’s not proving it.

If I could have five minutes alone with Caleb, maybe I could help. He’s told me before that he thinks about me when the game isn’t going his way. Even if I could get to him, I’m not sure I could face him right now. I’d probably just blurt an apology for all the things I didn’t do last night with August but can’t stop thinking about.

Not helpful.

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