Home > Long Shot (Hoops #1)(2)

Long Shot (Hoops #1)(2)
Author: Kennedy Ryan

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.”

   
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