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🏀 Synopsis 🏀
A FORBIDDEN LOVE SET IN THE EXPLOSIVE WORLD OF THE NBA…
Think you know what it’s like being a baller’s girl?
My fairy tale is upside down.
A happily never after.
I kissed the prince and he turned into a fraud.
I was a fool, and his love – fool’s gold.
Now there’s a new player in the game, August West.
One of the NBA’s brightest stars.
He wants me. I want him.
But my past, my fraudulent prince, just won’t let me go.
🏀 Chapter 1 – August 🏀
Tomorrow is my father’s birthday.
Or it would have been. He died fifteen years ago when I was six, but in the biggest moments, the ones that count the most, it feels like he’s with me. And on the eve of the biggest night of my life, I hope he can see me. I hope he’s proud.
Tomorrow’s the most monumental game of my life. By all rights, my ass should be safely tucked away in my hotel room, not out killing time at some dive. I toss back a handful of bar nuts and sip my ginger ale. At the table next to me, they just ordered another round of beers. God, what I wouldn’t give for something strong enough to unwind these pre-game jitters, but I never drink before a game. And tomorrow isn’t just any game.
I glance at my watch. Fifteen minutes late? That’s not Coach Kirby. He’s the promptest man I know. His name flashes across my screen just as I’m considering calling him. I push away the bowl of nuts and the niggling feeling that something must be wrong.
“West, hey.” His voice carries a forced calm that only confirms something’s off. “I know I’m late. Sorry.”
“No, it’s cool. Everything okay?”
“It’s Delores.” His voice cracks over his wife’s name. Basketball is my high school coach’s second love. From the day I met him my freshman year at St. Joseph’s Prep, I knew Delores was his first.
“She . . . well, we were at the hotel, and she started having chest pains and trouble breathing.” Coach’s worried sigh comes from the other end. “We’re here at the emergency room. They’re running all these damn tests, and—”
“Which hospital?” I’m already on my feet, digging out my wallet to pay the modest bill. “I’m on my way.”
“The hell you are.” The steel that worked all the laziness out of me for four years stiffens his tone. “You’re playing tomorrow night in the National Championship. The last place you need to be is in some hospital waiting room.”
“Is my responsibility, and I’m handling it.”
“But, I can—”
“Your folks get into town yet?” He steamrolls over my protest to close the subject.
“No, sir.” I pause, checking my exasperation. “Matt had to work today. He and my mom are flying in tomorrow.”
“And your stepbrother?”
“He’s stuck in Germany. Some event for one of his clients.” My stepbrother and I may not share blood, but we share a love for sports. Me, on the court. Him, off, as an agent.
“Sorry he won’t be there,” Coach says. “I know how close you two are.”
“It’s alright.” I play off my disappointment. “I’ve got my mom and Matt. And you, of course.”
“Sorry I can’t make it to the bar, though why your ass wanted to go out the night before the big dance in the first place is beyond me.”
“I know, Coach. I just needed . . .” What do I need? I know the playbook inside and out and have watched so much film my eyes started crossing.
I’m restless tonight. Years of sacrifice, mine and my family’s, have gotten me here. And I couldn’t have done it without the man on the other end of the line. Coach has invested a lot in me over the last eight years, even after I graduated high school and moved on to college. When scouts and analysts urged me to go pro a year early, he convinced me to stay and finish my degree. To shore up my fundamentals and mature before going to the draft. But the man who passed his DNA on to me—his wingspan, his big hands, his long, lean body, and I guess even his love for the game—is the one I keep thinking about tonight.
I wasn’t sure who this moment should be shared with, but I knew it wasn’t my teammates trolling for girls in some rowdy bar. Even though they can only get so rowdy the night before a game, that didn’t appeal to me.
“Whatever you need, get it, and get out of there,” Coach says, snapping me back into the moment. “Get your ass back to the hotel. Mannard will bench you for breaking curfew, even before the National Championship. Don’t get too big for your breeches.”
“Yes, sir. I know.”
Between Coach’s take-no-shit leadership and my stepfather’s military background, the sirs and ma’ams come naturally. Discipline and respect were non-negotiable in both their regimes.
“I need to go,” Coach says. “Doctor’s coming.”
“Keep me posted.”
“I will.” He pauses for a moment before continuing. “You know I’ll be at the game tomorrow if there’s any way it’s humanly possible. I just need to make sure Delores is okay. She’s the only reason I would miss it. I’m proud of you, West.”
“I know. Thanks, Coach.” Emotion scorches my throat, and I struggle to hold my shit together. My dad’s birthday, the pressure of tomorrow’s game, and now Delores in the hospital—I’m staggering under the cumulative weight of this day, of all these things, but I make sure none of it makes it into my voice when I speak again. Coach’s got enough to worry about without thinking I’m not ready for tomorrow. “Do whatever you need to. Delores comes first.”
“I hope to see you tomorrow,” he continues gruffly. “You shoot the damn lights out of that place.”
“Yes, sir. I plan to. Call me when you know something.”
I don’t even bother finding the server or asking for the check. Instead, I leave a twenty on the table, more than enough to cover my tepid ginger ale. I have another few hours to kill before curfew, but if Coach isn’t coming to ease my nerves, then I may as well head back to the hotel. I’ll try to slip in without running into my teammates.
I’m almost at the door when an outburst from the far end of the bar stops me.
“Bullshit!” a husky, feminine voice booms. “You know good and damn well that’s a shit call.”
Just shy of the threshold, I turn to see the woman who’s cussing like a sailor. Curves punctuate her lean, tight body: the indentation of her waist in a fitted T-shirt, the rounded hips poured into her jeans. She jumps from her stool and leans forward, her body taut with outrage, her fists balled on the bar, and her eyes narrowed at the flat screen. She must be a good seven inches over five feet. A guy my height gets used to towering over everyone else, but I like a woman with a little height. Her hair, dark and dense as midnight, is an adventure, roaming wild and untamed around her face in every direction, drifting past her shoulders. She looks pissed, her wide, full mouth tight, and the sleek line of her jaw bunched.
The beautiful face paired with all that attitude has me intrigued. Even if I’m not getting laid tonight, I can at least get distracted from the pressure that’s been crushing me all day. Hell, crushing me for the last few weeks, if I’m honest. I want to shake off the melancholy thoughts my father’s death always wrap around me—thoughts of what we missed. What we lost. Seeing her all fired up and cussing at the television, swearing at the refs, lightens some of the load I’ve been carrying. I find myself walking straight toward the one thing that has penetrated the thick wall of tension surrounding me since we advanced to the NCAA championship a few days ago.
“Asshole,” she mutters, settling her denim-clad ass back onto the barstool. “No way that was a flagrant foul.”
I take the empty stool beside her, glancing up at the screen replaying the last sequence. “Actually, I’m pretty sure that was a flagrant foul.” I grab a fistful of nuts from the bowl between us.
“You’re either as blind and dumb as the ref,” she says, eyes never leaving the screen, “or you’re trying to pick me up. Either way, I’m not impressed.”
My handful of nuts freezes halfway to my mouth. I have a shot at college player of the year, have been big man on campus for four years, and was on ESPN’s Plays of the Week by tenth grade. No girl has shot me down since middle school, but I never shy away from a challenge.
“Just making conversation.” I shrug and swing my knees around to face her. “Though if you want to be picked up, I might be able to accommodate.”
She finally deigns to look at me. Her heart-shaped face is arresting, a contrast of fierce and delicate. She has high cheekbones and dark brows that slash over a button nose and hazel eyes. Hazel is too flat a word to describe all the shades of green and brown and gold. I’ve never seen eyes quite like these. Several colors at once. Several things at once. I wonder if the girl behind them is as multi-dimensional.
“I wouldn’t want to wear you out before your big game tomorrow.” The corners of her lips pinch like she’s trying her best not to laugh at me.
That gives me pause. So she knows who I am. That would usually work in my favor, but I have a feeling she’s not your run-of-the-mill ball groupie. “You’re a fan?”
Unsurprisingly, one brow crooks, and she rolls her eyes before turning her attention back to the game. The bartender approaches, a bottle of liquor in hand.
“What’ll ya have?” He sets the Grey Goose on the bar, toggling a speculative glance between me and the woman ignoring me.
“Could I get a ginger ale, please?”
He smirks, trading out the Goose for a ginger ale he pulls from the fridge under the bar. Filling a glass with the fizzy drink and setting it in front of me, he angles his head to peer under the brim pulled low over my brow.
“August West?” A grin lights his face.
I nod but put my finger to my lips, hoping to quiet him so I can flirt in peace. I don’t feel like signing autographs and being pelted with well wishes. I’m not even in the NBA yet, but ever since our team made the Sweet Sixteen, the media has homed in on me for some reason, elevating my profile and making it harder to remain anonymous.
“I get it.” The bartender nods knowingly, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “Avoiding the crazy, huh?”
“Something like that.” I look back to the super fangirl, whose attention remains riveted on the screen. “What’s the lady having?”
“A beer she can pay for herself.” She slides me a crooked smile and takes a sip of her half-full glass.
“Oooooh.” The bartender’s beer belly, an occupational hazard, shakes with a deep chuckle. He gives me a commiserating look before ambling down the length of the bar to his other customers.
“So, you come here often?” I can’t believe that just came out of my mouth.
The face she makes says she can’t believe it either.
“Next you’ll ask what’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this.” The humor in her eyes removes some of the sting.
“You think my game is that weak?”
She side-eyes me, extending both brows as high as they’ll go. “We talking on the court or off?”
“Ouch.” I wince and tilt my head to consider her. “And here I thought you’d be a sweet distraction until curfew.”
“I’m not anyone’s distraction,” she says. “Especially not some player looking to let off testosterone.”
“Assumptions and judgments.” I shake my head in mock disappointment. “Didn’t they tell you not to judge a book by its cover? You can’t possibly know—”
“August West, six-foot-six, Piermont College starting point guard, deadly from behind the arc, off-the-charts basketball IQ, and Naismith finalist. Six-foot-ten-inch wingspan and forty-inch vertical.” Her sharp eyes slice over me from the brim of my cap all the way down to the Nikes on my feet, before returning to the game onscreen.
“Your hops may be Jordan-esque, but your D could use some work.” A laugh slips past her lips. “And that’s not an assumption. I know that for a fact.”
I have to laugh because Coach Mannard has been after me all season—for the last four years, actually—to improve on defense. My three-pointers make the highlight reel, but he’s just as concerned with the fundamentals that will make me a better all-around player. Apparently, so is she.
“So they keep telling me.” I turn my back to the bar, propping my elbows on its edge, and consider her with new respect. “How do you know so much about basketball?”
“You mean because I’m a girl and should be watching cheering matches?” Her glare is all indignation.
“Um . . . you mean tournaments? Even I know they’re called cheer tournaments, not matches.”
“Well look at that.” She spreads a thick layer of sarcasm over the words. “You know girl stuff and I know boy stuff. Is it opposite day?”
She turns her attention back to the screen like she couldn’t care less that she just impressed the hell out of me. Guys, we talk shit, and never more so than when it’s about sports. A woman who can talk sports and talk trash? A fucking sparkling unicorn. She gives as good as she gets, this one. Hell, she may give better than she gets. There’s a spark to her, a confidence I want to see more of.
A lot of girls just reflect. They figure out what you like so they can get in with a baller. This one has her own views, stands her own ground and doesn’t give a damn if I like it.
I like it.
“Since you know so much about me,” I say, “it’s only fair I learn something about you.”
She turns her head by slow centimeters, eyes still locked to the screen as if it’s killing her to look away from the game. Her expression, those changeable eyes, warm and soften just a little. “What exactly would you like to know?”
“Your name would be a good start.”
Her lips twist into a grin. “My family calls me Gumbo.”
“Gumbo?” I almost choke on my ginger ale. “Because you have big ears?”
I risk touching her, pushing back a clump of wild curls. The whorl of her ear is downright fragile, and strands of dark hair cling to the curve of her neck.
“Not Dumbo.” She laughs and pulls away so her hair slips through my fingers. “Gumbo, like the soup.”
“I knew that.” I really did, but I had to get inventive if I was going to steal a touch without drawing back a stump. “So why Gumbo?”
She hesitates, and for a moment it seems I wasn’t breaking through like I thought. She finally gives a “what the hell” shrug and goes on.
“You may not hear the accent now, because it’s been years since I lived there, but I’m originally from New Orleans.”
Now that she says it, I do detect something reminiscent of that city in her voice. A drawn-out drawl spiced with music and mystery.
“My family moved to Atlanta after Katrina.” She gives a puff of air disguised as a laugh. “But I’m NOLA, through and through. I come from good Creole stock. As if Creole wasn’t already mixed up enough, my father’s German and Irish.”
I think the ambiguity of her beauty is part of her appeal. Something elusive and indefinable. I would never have guessed the ethnicities that coalesced to make a face like hers—the wide, full lips, copper skin and striking bone structure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone like her. Hers is not a face you would soon forget. Maybe never.
“I’m a mix of everything the bayou could come up with,” she continues, taking a sip of her drink. “So my cousin says I had more ingredients than—”
“Gumbo,” I finish with her. We share a smile, and she nods. “So you’re a mutt like me.”
“I wasn’t gonna say anything.” Her eyes run over my face and hair, my looks almost as ambiguous as hers. “But now that you mention it . . .”
“Lemme show you something.” I pull out my phone, flipping through the photos until I land on a picture of my family from a camping trip a few years ago. “Here.”
She takes the phone, her smile fading at the corners. I know what she sees. My mother smiles into the camera, her auburn hair a fiery halo around her pale face in the winter sun. My stepfather and stepbrother stand at her shoulder, both tall blondes.
And then there’s me.
My hair cut close to tame the dark curls that can never decide which way to grow. My skin is the color of aged dark honey, and my eyes are gray as slate. I couldn’t look less like a part of the family if I tried.
“One of these things is not like the others.” I grin over the rim of my glass, sipping my ginger ale. “I guess I’m gumbo, too.”
She returns my smile and my phone, but the humor slowly fades from her expression. Curiosity clouds her eyes when she looks back at me, but whatever that question is, she’s not voicing it.
“What?” I finally ask.
“What do you mean what?”
“Just seemed like you wanted to say something.”
For a second, her face shutters, and I think she won’t tell me, but she glances up, a smile settling on her lips after a few seconds.
“Did you ever feel like you didn’t quite fit anywhere?” Her words come so softly, competing with the revelry in the bar. I lean in to hear until our heads almost touch. “I mean, like you were always kind of in between?”
Her question echoes something I haven’t articulated to many people but often felt. I sometimes felt displaced in my mother’s new family. I may not look a lot like my African–American father, but I look nothing like anyone in the family I have left. Most kids were one thing or the other and clumped together based on that. It left me sometimes feeling adrift. Basketball—that rim, that rock—became the thing I clung to.
“I think I know what you mean.” I clear my throat before going on. “My father died when I was really young, and my mom remarried not too long after. It took me a while to adjust to everything, especially being different when all I wanted was to fit in.”
“I get that,” she says.
I shrug and turn down the corners of my mouth.
“Thanks to basketball, I started worrying less about fitting in and more about standing out.” I roll the glass between my palms. “But even then, yeah, I sometimes felt . . . I don’t know. Displaced.”
“Me, too. My skin was lighter than just about everyone’s in my neighborhood. My hair was different.” She shakes her head, the movement stirring the air around us with the scent of her shampoo, some mix of citrus and sweet. “Most girls there assumed I thought I was better than they were, when I would have given anything to look like everyone else. To fit in. I had my cousin Lo for a few years, but besides her, I kind of just had myself.”
What was that like for her? A beautiful anomaly in the Ninth Ward. Maybe I don’t have to wonder. Maybe I know firsthand.
“It got kinda lonely, huh?” I ask.
“Yeah, it did.” She circles the rim of her glass with an index finger. Her lashes lower like that might hide her memories from me, hide her pain, but it’s in her voice. I recognize it.
“Sometimes, even when we had a full house,” I say, dropping my voice for just our ears, “I’d end up in the backyard shooting hoops by myself until it got dark.”
Like there’s some magnetic center, our bodies have turned in toward each other. Our confidences enshroud us, blocking out the ribald conversation, the impromptu karaoke across the room, the wild response to the games on the flat screens. It’s just us two misfits. A few minutes with a complete stranger, and I suddenly feel understood in a way that’s always been hard to find.
“You get used to being alone,” she finally says.
“What about your mom? You guys close?”
“Close?” She squints one eye and tips her head back. “Not really. She’s made a lot of sacrifices for me, and it’s never been easy. She’s strong, a survivor, and I respect that, but I haven’t always agreed with her choices. I can’t remember my mother ever holding down a job for more than a few weeks.”
“How’d you guys get by?”
“She’s a beautiful woman.” She raises cautious eyes, like she expects me to judge. “She used to say there’s always some man willing to take care of a beautiful woman.”
I don’t know what to say to that. My mom is a beautiful woman, too, but I can’t imagine her living that way—relying on just the physical—because she started teaching when my dad died and has worked hard ever since.
“You’re a beautiful woman.” I nudge her knee lightly with mine. “And I bet you can take care of yourself.”
A smile starts in her eyes and eventually spreads to her lips. “Thank you.”
I don’t have to ask which compliment she’s thanking me for.
“My aunt is older than my mom by two years,” she continues. “It’s what my mom saw her do. It’s what they saw their mother do. They used what they had to get what they needed.”
She sighs before sipping her drink and going on. “My aunt relocated with us to Atlanta after Katrina, and they might have changed zip codes, but they didn’t change tactics. Apparently, men all over will take care of beautiful women.”
“Besides your cousin, were you close to anyone else in your family?”
“Just Lotus.” A frown shadows her expression. “She went to live with my great-grandmother south of the city and I stayed in New Orleans, but when she moved to Atlanta for college a few years ago, we got close again.”
She shakes her head like she’s dislodging thoughts, memories. “Enough about my family dysfunction. What about you? Perry West was your dad, right?”
“You know about my dad?” I ask.
“Yeah, sure.” Sympathy fills her eyes when they meet mine over our drinks. “Losing him that way—it had to be tough.”
“Yeah.” I shrug, a casual rise and fall of my shoulders that doesn’t hint at how tough it was. “He was a great player.”
“He had an incredible long-range shot.” She smiles ruefully. “How long was he in the league?”
“The car crash happened in the middle of his second season.” I was young, but I still remember his funeral. His teammates were all there, tall as skyscrapers to my six-year-old eyes. “Tomorrow’s his birthday.”
“No way.” Her eyes go wide. “You’re playing in the freaking National Championship on your dad’s birthday?”
I nod, allowing myself to smile for the first time over this monumental twist of fate. It’s a long time since my mom was married to my dad, but she probably remembers that tomorrow’s his birthday. We haven’t talked about it, though. It feels like I’m the only one who knows it, and now this beautiful gumbo girl knows, too.
“Is tomorrow for him?” Her eyes never leave my face, her intent focus drawing me into her.
“It feels like it. You know? Like what are the odds? I keep wondering if he knows how far I’ve come. If he can see.” I let out a soft laugh, watching her face for signs that she thinks I’m an idiot. “Does that sound stupid?”
“Not at all. I don’t know what happens after we’re gone, but I hope he can see. He’d be proud of you, no matter how the game goes tomorrow.”
“I hope so.” I lean in a little closer, giving her the same attention she afforded me. “What about your father? The German and Irish in your gumbo?”
She smiles, but it’s a tight curve of her lips.
“He was German and Irish. That’s about all I know.” Her harsh laugh ripples through the pool of quiet we’ve made here in our corner of the bar. “Well, I also know he had a wife and kids. My mother was just . . . a side chick, I guess. He paid her rent while they were together, but right after I was born he moved on. So did she. He never came around asking about me. She never offered much explanation for his absence.”
“And now? Nothing?”
“We left everything in the Ninth when we moved to Atlanta.” Her shoulders lift and fall with a carelessness I don’t buy. “He could still be in New Orleans. He may have died when the levees broke. Who knows? It’s never made me much difference.”
She flashes me another tight smile, signaling that she’s done with the topic.
“How’d we get into all that stuff?” She points her finger at me in mock accusation. “You, sir, are a good listener. Sneaky way to distract a girl from the fact that her team’s losing.”
I glance up at the game, grabbing her segue out of deeper waters like a lifeline. “You a Lakers fan?”
“Die hard purple and gold.” She folds her arms on the bar and leans forward, her eyes back on the screen. “New Orleans didn’t have a team when I was growing up.”
“Well they’re getting crushed tonight,” I offer unnecessarily, hoping to get a rise out of her. Of course, it works, and she goes on a diatribe defending the storied Lakers legacy, though it’s taken such a beating lately.
Through halftime and the last two quarters, we squeeze in a lot of conversation between plays. She wants to work in sports marketing and has several internship opportunities that might pan out after graduation. It seems like most of her stories eventually circle back to her cousin Lotus, the ambitious badass fashion student who always has her back. For my part, I avoid rehashing all the things she already knows about me: the numbers on stat sheets and the stories that have been looping on all the sports shows. Instead, I tell her about my mom, about Coach, about the philosophy class that’s kicking my ass. We cover everything from minutiae to monumental in the time it takes the Lakers to get blown out.
“What did get you so into basketball?” I ask her during a fourth-quarter commercial break.
“I dunno.” She studies her beer, probably long gone flat. “One of my mom’s guys, Telly, lived with us for a while when I was around ten.” She leans one elbow on the bar, giving me a frank look. “He was one of the few good ones who stuck around for a little bit. He loved basketball. Loved the Lakers and we’d watch the games together.” She chuckles, making track marks with her fingertips in the condensation coating her glass. “On game nights, we’d order pineapple pepperoni pizza and drink root beer floats.”
“What happened?” I sip on my third ginger ale. “To Telly, I mean?”
She answers first with a little shake of her head. “He outstayed his welcome, I guess.” Her eyes drift to the screen, maybe an excuse to look away. Or maybe the game really has grabbed her attention. Lakers have the ball. “Someone else came along with more money. Mom traded up.”
“You ever see him, talk to him again?”
Her eyes abandon the screen, and for a few quiet moments, she studies the bar top. “No.”
The word comes low and husky. After a moment she looks back up, flashing me a half-teasing grin. “But I still like pizza and root beer when I watch the Lakers.”
“No pizza on the menu here?” I mumble around a handful of nuts.
“Beggars can’t be choosers.” The smile she shares with me morphs into a scowl when the final score displays onscreen. “Another one for the ‘L’ column. Shit calls all night, ref.”
“Really? Shit calls?” I glance from the game back to her face with skepticism. “Nothing to do with the fact that the team is aging and plagued by injuries the last few seasons? End of an era, if you ask me.”
“Bite your tongue,” she snaps, but there’s a playful glint in her eyes. “You could end up going to the Lakers. Have you thought of that?”
“Who knows where I’ll end up?” I slant my smile at her. “I’m hoping for the Stingers.”
“Baltimore?” A frown crinkles her eyebrows before clearing. “Oh! Your hometown, huh?”
“I mean, it happened for LeBron in Cleveland. He played where he grew up, for the Cavs.”
“True. Why do you want to stay close to home? You a mama’s boy?”
My laugh booms over the TV commentators analyzing the Lakers’ loss in the background. “My mom’s pretty awesome, but that wouldn’t keep me close to home.” I stare into my ginger ale instead of at her, a little uncomfortable to express my reasons. “I just want to do something for the place that did so much for me. I was in the Boys and Girls Club. I had amazing teachers, especially in middle school when a lot of my friends started going off the rails. The community center’s where I fell in love with basketball.”
Self-consciousness burns my face, and I shrug. “My whole childhood was there, and that community made it a good one.”
In the beat of silence after I finish, I glance up to find a slight smile on her face and warm eyes that meet mine easily.
“That’s cool,” she offers simply, and I’m glad she doesn’t make it a big deal even though it must be obvious it’s important to me. “So, you ready for the draft?”
I appreciate the shift of subject. It’s not likely I’ll go to Baltimore, and I don’t let many people know how much it would mean to me. “I am, but it’s all happening so fast.” A dry chuckle rattles in my throat. “The NBA was some distant fantasy when I was in the eighth grade. Now it’s right here, and unless something goes really wrong, it’s actually happening. I just hope . . .”
My words trail off, but my uncertainty remains. It’s not even about my ability to play at the next level. I know I’m prepared for that. It’s all that comes with it that I’m not sure I’m ready for.
“You’ll do great.” Her slim fingers close over my hand, gripping the glass. “You’ll be an amazing player.”
Just that light pressure, just seeing her hand with mine, feels good. Something about the sight levels the unevenness I’ve felt all day and unlocks words I haven’t said to anyone.
“I want to be more than just a player. I want to use my degree. I want a business. I want a family.” It feels like a confession. “To be a good husband. A good father. This world I’m entering in a few months, I’ve seen it devour guys. We work toward this all our lives, and an injury, age, a bad trade, whatever—can end it overnight. If the game has eaten up your priorities, turned you into someone you never wanted to be, what’s the point?” I laugh self-consciously. “I probably sound—”
“You sound too good to be true,” she interrupts, her hand still resting on mine. “Guys in your position, the night before the big game, right on the edge of the draft—these aren’t things most of them are thinking about.”
She props her chin in the palm of her free hand, a slow smile working its way to her mouth. “You’re special.” She bites her lip, lifting her hand away from my fingers, dropping her eyes to the bar top scarred by a million glasses and a million moments before ours. “I’m glad I met you.”
That sounds suspiciously like the beginning of goodbye. Like she’s ready to close the door on this surreal chapter.
I can’t let that happen. A night like this, a connection like this—it’s singular. After tomorrow’s game, my future will literally be a little ball bouncing around in the NBA Draft Lottery. I may end up playing for a team I don’t like, living in a place I won’t get to choose.
But tonight, I have control. I have choices, and I choose her. To get to know her. To woo her. To earn her trust. All I need is time.
But time seems to be the one thing we don’t have.
“Closing.” The bartender drags our empty glasses toward him and wipes down the surface in front of us. “You ain’t gotta go home, but you gotta get out of here.”
I hadn’t noticed the bar emptying around us, but we’re nearly the last ones left.
“Good luck tomorrow, West,” the bartender says, sliding two checks across the freshly-wiped bar.
“Thanks.” I stand and snatch both of them before she can even look at hers.
“Give me that.” She lunges toward me, but I hold the check over my head, completely out of her reach.
She stumbles into me, her soft breasts pressing against my chest. I want to wrap my arms around the stretch of sensuous lines and curves that make up her body. With her check still suspended over my head, I slide my other hand down her back, investigating her shape beneath the clingy cotton. I palm the dip at her waist, drawing her a few inches closer until her warmth, her clean scent, surrounds me.
She blinks up at me, bright eyes darkening and widening, the green and gold lost in sable. Desire starbursts her irises. We’ve barely acknowledged the current humming between our bodies, the electricity running under the surface of our easy conversation, until just now. Until I lured her into me with a little slip of paper.
“Let me buy your drinks.” I can’t remember ever wanting a woman the way I want her. I don’t just want to bury my hands in all that dark hair, or to discover for myself how sweet her lips taste, or to explore her body. I want more of her memories, her secrets—to accept an invitation she hasn’t extended to anyone else.
Her lashes lower, shielding her eyes from mine, but she can’t hide her body’s response—the way all the places she’s soft seem to seek out the places I’m hard and unyielding. How her breath stutters over her lips in little pants.
“Um, okay.” She steps back until we’re no longer touching, clearing some of the huskiness from her voice before going on. “Thanks. I could have . . . well, thanks.”
Neither of us speaks on our way to the door. I find myself slowing to match her shorter stride. We watch each other from the corners of our eyes, the silence between us pulsing with possibility. Once outside, we’re tucked away under an awning with the still-bustling city just beyond our patch of sidewalk. Inside, surrounded by people and noise and the action of the game, the conversation came so effortlessly. The confessions and admissions I’d never made to anyone else flowed right out of me. And now, it’s just us and I’m not sure what to say to keep her here, but I know what I’ve been feeling, what we’ve been doing, can’t end tonight.
There’s this part in Spanglish, one of Adam Sandler’s chick flicks. He and his kids’ nanny share dinner at his restaurant. It’s just one meal, a few hours. The narrator, the nanny’s daughter, says, “My mother has often referred to that evening at the restaurant as the conversation of her life.” I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes when I heard it and said, ‘That was some conversation.’
But now, with her, standing at the edge of goodbye, all I can think is . . . that was some conversation.
The streetlight and the moon illuminate things the dimness of the bar hid—the amber in her hair I thought was just black, the length of her lashes casting shadows on her cheeks while she studies the ground. We both seem to be searching for words. It’s as if we’ve crammed so much into the last few hours that there are no words left—none left for me, anyway. All I have is feeling. Need. I need to touch her, to kiss her—I need something physical to reassure me this encounter really happened. That this isn’t the end.
When you’re a foot taller than a girl, it’s hard to smoothly go in for a kiss, so I don’t try for smooth. I’m careful, though. I lift her chin with one finger, persuading her eyes up to meet mine. I cup her cheek and lower my head until I’m hovering over those lips that look so soft I have to hold myself back from devouring them; I have to control my need to taste her right away. My body revs, demands. My heart slams into my rib cage. My dick is hard. Want sizzles through every cell of my body.
“August.” She pulls her chin away and presses her hand to my chest, but not to explore. To gently push me back. I hold my breath, waiting to see what this means, this small space she’s put between us.
Her head drops forward until the dark cloud of hair eclipses her face, hides her expression. “I’m sorry.” She steps back, running a hand through her hair. “I-I can’t.”
I want to bring her close again. “It’s okay. I get it, of course. We just met.”
I link our fingers. Even that brief contact stirs my senses. I check the roar of my body, hoping my erection doesn’t betray me.
“We can just talk. We can go to your place, if you’re not far.” I lift her chin so I can see her eyes. So she can see that I mean it. Despite the absolute inferno raging under my skin, it’s enough. “We can do whatever you want.”
As little, as much—let’s just keep doing something. Let’s just not stop.
“I-I can’t. We can’t.” With a vigorous shake of her head, she takes another step back, dropping my hand, inserting space between us again. “I have a boyfriend, August.”
I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s taken. A girl this gorgeous, this funny and smart and authentic—she’s all the adjectives I would use to describe the perfect girl for me. She’s even the things I didn’t know I wanted. But now I know, and I can’t have her.
A hole gapes open inside of me wider and deeper than it should be considering how little I know about her, but it’s there. And by the second, it fills with disappointment and lost possibilities.
“So . . . is it serious?” I wince internally. If there’s anything more douchey than trying to kiss another guy’s girl, it would be asking, in so many words, if she’s sure she wants to stay faithful to him.
“Yeah.” She sinks her teeth into her bottom lip. “We’ve been dating about a year.”
She finally looks up at me, and at least the battle in her expression, the struggle reflected back to me from her eyes, assures me I’m not imagining the pull between us.
“I should have told you, but that would have been weird.” She smiles ruefully. “I would have sounded like I was assuming you wanted more than . . .”
We stare at each another in a silence rich with things I shouldn’t say.
“I do want more than.” I manage a smile, though I’m frustrated and not just sexually. I’m downright devastated that some other guy got here before I did.
“I’m sorry.” She stuffs her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. “I was enjoying our conversation so much. I didn’t want to . . . I hope I didn’t mislead you.”
“You didn’t.” I stuff my hands in my pockets, too, to keep from touching her again. “At least I made a new friend.”
It sounds hollow compared to what I thought we could be, but I can’t demand more. I can’t make her give me more. I’m on the eve of something most men only dream of, and this bright-eyed girl has made me feel helpless.
“Yeah.” Her face relaxes a little into a smile. “A friend.”
“And you helped take my mind off tomorrow’s game.”
As soon as I say it, both of our eyes go wide. I check my watch, dreading the time.
Was I so absorbed by this girl that I forgot curfew before the biggest game of my life?
Yeah, I was.
“Oh my God.” Her eyes are anxious, worried. “The game. You’ve missed curfew.”
The hunger, the heat, the rightness between us had made me shove every other thought aside, but they all intrude now. Curfew. The rest of the team, asleep and accounted for at the hotel. Tomorrow’s game.
“Will you get in trouble?” she asks, frowning.
“It won’t be the first time I’ve had to sneak in,” I tell her with more confidence than I actually feel. The biggest game of my life, and I lost track of time with a girl in a bar.
But what a girl.
Looking at her, replaying every moment, every joke, every memory we shared over the last few hours, I can’t regret it.
“Let me at least walk you home.” Curfew or not, there’s no way I’m letting her go alone.
“No. I’m really close.”
This part of the city is completely commercial as far as I can tell, not residential. “Your apartment is nearby? Or are you staying at a hotel?”
Does she live here? Is she visiting? A student? Is she in town for the game? Will she be there tomorrow? Does she want tickets to come see me play? All the things we did talk about are suddenly less important than all the things we never said. I don’t even know her damn name. “Gumbo” won’t get me very far after tonight. Panic tightens my body into a drawn bow. Even if it’s never more than what we had tonight—the honesty, humor, ease, empathy— I want to continue with her. I’ll even settle for the dreaded word—friendship.
“I’ll walk you home,” I insist.
“I’ll be fine.” She looks down at the ground and then back at me. The end is in her eyes. I see goodbye, and I want to stop it before it reaches her lips, but I don’t.
“Goodbye, August. Good luck tomorrow.” She turns and starts up the sidewalk.
I want to chase her. To follow and find out where she lives or where she’s staying. Even knowing some lucky bastard found her first, I can’t imagine having no idea how to find her again.
“Hey, wait,” I call after her, forcing my feet not to follow. “You should at least tell me your name. Do you really want me to think of you as Gumbo forever?”
She faces me but keeps walking backward, steadily putting more space between us. Between this night and the rest of our lives. Mischief lights her eyes, and the sly smile playing around her lips makes me think for a terrible moment that she won’t tell me.
“It’s Iris,” she calls back to me. “My name is Iris.”
I stay still, absorbing the sound of her name, absorbing the look on her face as she walks out of my life with as little fanfare as she entered it. Her smile dies off, and she’s staring at me like she wants to remember my face—like she won’t forget tonight either. Like maybe, unreasonably, undeniably, this night meant as much to her as it did to me. If she felt it, too, this connection, she can’t be walking away, but she is. I’ve only known her a few hours. It’s unreasonable that desperation bands my chest and panic shortens my breath, like I’m sprinting.
Except I’m standing still. And she’s still walking.
Walking and turning the corner, out of my sight.
She takes my hope for more with her when she goes.
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