Home > Long Shot (Hoops #1)(9)

Long Shot (Hoops #1)(9)
Kennedy Ryan

That comment is met with wolf whistles and laughter. Fifteen college guys who just became national champions can get into a shitload of trouble, and a lot of us plan to find out how much firsthand tonight.

“But,” Coach Mannard says, pausing until he has our attention, “these are our boosters and they want to see you. Shake your hands. This is the school’s first basketball title. You made history tonight. It’s a big deal. You’re a big deal, and the people who pay the way want to see you.”

He looks at his watch and then back at us.

“I know some of you have interviews to do.” His eyes drift to me and then away. “And we’ll have the trophy ceremony here in a little bit. After that, shower and get your asses up to the box. Just gimme an hour or two. Sing for your supper, and then I don’t care what you do as long as I’m not reading about it tomorrow.”

The next hour or so goes quickly, a stream of people demanding my attention. I lose count of the reporters with their recorders and microphones, all asking the same questions.

The trophy ceremony is a blur of emotions, but I see it all in stunning Technicolor detail. My mind takes a snapshot. I’ll never forget hefting that trophy over my head in front of thousands of screaming fans.

It’s only after I’m showered and in my dress shirt and slacks that it all starts to sink in. I’m a national champion. I may win the Naismith award, Player of the Year. I may have just sealed a top-five spot in the NBA draft. Implications inundate my mind—the money, the fame, the opportunities.

I’ll be back in class in a few days. Finals are coming soon. Besides an upcoming visit to the White House, life will return to normal. But there’s a new normal waiting for me after graduation, and I’m not sure I’m ready.

I hang back a little and let the rest of the team go ahead to the booster party. When I board the elevator to the luxury boxes, I’m alone, considering the things I told Iris last night about not wanting to lose myself in all of that madness. I want to hold onto that.

I step off the elevator, and my heart stops. Thuds. Drops

Iris.

Like my thoughts delivered her to me, Iris is standing right there, tucked into a group of people clustered at the entrance of the box not too far from ours. Is it my imagination? No, a figment of my imagination wouldn’t charge the air and heighten every detail. Everything is clearer, sharper, crisper. For my senses, she’s a magnifying glass. She’s a megaphone.

And she’s standing right there.

Her hair is different. Tamed. It’s long, straight, and hanging to the middle of her back. Color splashes her lips, eyes, and cheeks, layered over the beautiful nakedness of last night’s face. Instead of the casual clothes from the bar, she wears a short top that stops right under the roundness of her breasts. The skirt sits low on her hips, molding to the length of her legs and the curve of her ass, leaving a stretch of toned stomach bare. I could tell last night she had a great body, but the reality of her shape, her soft, coppery skin—it shames my imagination. She looks different, but it’s still her. My gumbo girl. Every cell in my body confirms it, and my feet are taking me toward her before I realize where I’m going.

“Iris?”

When I call her name, she searches the space around her, sifting through the knot of people until her eyes meet mine, widening with surprise. She quickly picks her way through the small crowd gathered at the entrance to the box, crossing the space until she reaches me. She smells the same, and the effect she has on me, it’s exactly the same. A lightning strike. A power surge. Our eyes tangle in the tight space, in the brief silence. Those eyes are the color of whiskey tonight, and they’re just as intoxicating. She goes right to my head.

“Hey.” My voice comes out raspy and labored, like I took the stairs at top speed instead of the elevator to get here.

“August, hey.”

She sounds breathless, too. It must be the live wire running from me to her because she hasn’t exerted herself. As a matter of fact, she couldn’t look more perfect. “You look . . .”

I stop to steady myself. Adrenaline courses through me like I’m in the heat of a close game, a nail-biter. Like the ball is in my hands for the last-second shot.

“You look beautiful, Iris.”

“Oh . . . um, thanks.” She tugs at the top like maybe she’s self-conscious. Then her eyes go wide again when she looks up at me. “Oh, God, August. Congratulations! Incredible game. I’m sure your father’s proud of you today.”

Her softly spoken words move me. All the pieces of myself that never seemed to quite fit lock with this girl. I recognized it last night, and I know it now. Maybe it’s because we grew up with some of the same challenges, of never feeling like we belonged. Maybe it’s the nitroglycerine chemistry boiling between us, just waiting for the strike of a match.

“Thanks.” I clear my throat, not sure what to say next except the obvious. “What are you doing here? I mean, I’m glad. Really glad, I just—”

“Iris.”

The sharp voice just beyond her shoulder captures my attention. She stiffens, her lashes drifting down for a second before she glances back up.

“August, I—”

“Hey, baby. I was looking for you.” The tanned arm that wraps possessively around her waist belongs to the guy I just defeated.

“Caleb, hey.” Iris flicks a glance between the two of us.

What. The. Fuck.

Caleb Bradley is Iris’s boyfriend? It couldn’t be worse. I hated the idea of the guy lucky enough to have Iris before. Now I hate the actual guy. The one everyone calls “the golden boy” is, from my experience, an asshole. He certainly doesn’t deserve the girl I met last night. I’ve never envied his family’s money or all the attention the media showered on him. I’ve never envied the advantages he’s had, but now he has her. I envy him that. It boils under my skin and churns in my gut.

“Good game.” I fix my eyes on his face so I don’t have to look at Iris.

“You, too.” Stony blue eyes collide with mine. Bitterness twists his lips. “Congratulations.”

It’s the most grudging congrats I’ve ever heard, but I can’t blame him. No one wants to see the winner so soon after losing.

“You know my girlfriend?” His eyes connect dots between Iris and me, suspicion laced tightly into the words.

When I finally look at her, the guard over her eyes that dropped so quickly last night is back. I’d almost forgotten it ever existed. Is it back because of me? Or because of him? I have no idea how she wants to play this. Nothing happened last night. Not because I didn’t want it to, but because she stopped it.

For him.

For a moment, I want to ruin it. To wreck their relationship by planting doubts in his mind. It’s a passing thought I won’t follow through on. That’s not how you win a girl like Iris.

“We met last night at a bar.” Her voice is even. Her eyes, when they meet his, are clear.

“At a bar?” A frown jerks his eyebrows together. “What the hell?”

“I wanted to see the Lakers game,” she says with measured patience, “and the hotel wasn’t carrying it. So, I went to the bar around the corner to watch.”

“We ran into each other there,” I finish for her. “Just talked for a little while. No big deal.”

“Right. No big deal.” Her eyes meet mine for a charged second before swinging back to Caleb. “I hadn’t had a chance to tell you.”

“Well, you won the game, West.” There’s a phony lightness to Caleb’s voice while his eyes remain flinty. “Next thing you know, you’ll be trying to win my girl, too.”

“Oh, you’re not that insecure, are you, Bradley?” I deliberately relax my posture, sliding my hands into my pockets and rocking back on my heels, laying a wide winner’s smile on him. “If she doesn’t want to be won, she won’t be.”

“She doesn’t want to be.” He strips all the lightness from his voice, and if his eyes were stony before, now his whole face is granite. The arm around her waist stiffens to steel.

“Both of you, please stop.” Iris exhales sharply, her words, soft but firm, refereeing the tension snarling between Caleb and me. “Caleb, we just talked.”

His face broadcasts his displeasure. Seeing his hand spread over Iris’s waist, mine might, too. Asshole.

I’ve known him since the eighth grade. Most guys don’t just stumble into an NBA career. They pursue it relentlessly for years. We started attending the same preparatory camps and tournaments years ago, and though everyone’s fawned all over him, he and I have never clicked. Dirty plays when he thought no one was looking, jockeying for positions, whining when he lost and boasting when he won—those are things that have kept us from being friends. Even though the press constantly compares us and pits us against each other, the hostility has never been open . . . until now.

Until her.

“I guess I won’t see you again until the draft, huh, West?” Caleb’s tone stays smooth, but he can’t hide the lumps from me—the frustration in his eyes, the anger bunching his jaw, the tight fists at his sides.

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