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If the fans packing the Springhill High gymnasium had known about the Carolina State College scandal, they might have given Grady Quinlan an even icier reception.
They greeted the basketball players who ran single file onto the court with raucous cheers worthy of an undefeated team, but the ovation abruptly quieted to a murmur when Grady walked onto the hardwood.
Grady kept his expression carefully blank, a triumph considering he'd already weathered the resignation of his assistant coach earlier that evening.
"You got nothin' on Fuzz," Dan Cahill had said, referring to the longtime Springhill coach who'd suffered a heart attack over the Christmas holiday. "I can't work with someone I don't respect."
Grady had only taken over the job as the Springhill Cougars' head coach two weeks ago, but the crowd about to witness his debut didn't think much of him, either.
All because word had spread that Grady had suspended Bryan Charleton, the best player to come through Spring-hill High in a decade.
Grady looked over his shoulder, expecting to see Bryan bringing up the rear. The seventeen-year-old junior had shown up for the pregame talk wearing khaki pants and a dress shirt, demonstrating he knew the drill. A suspended player couldn't suit up but was expected to support his teammates from the bench.
"You know where Bryan is?" Grady asked the short, skinny ninth-grade boy acting as the team's manager.
The boy's eyes darted away from Grady's. "No," he said, then went back to filling a tray of paper cups with water.
Rap music from the school's PA system blared. Grady's head pounded and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He fiddled with the tie he wore with one of the suits he'dbought after being named an assistant coach at Carolina State. The tie felt like a noose.
On court the Springhill players and their opponents went through layup and shooting drills. The illuminated numbers on the overhead scoreboard clock counted down the minutes remaining in the allotted warm-up period.
Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen.
And still no Bryan.
"I'll be right back," Grady told Sid Humphries, the very young junior-varsity coach he'd asked to act as his bench assistant during the game. "Have them do passing drills next."
Ignoring the panicked look in Sid's eyes, Grady hurried back in the direction of the locker room, the heels of his dress shoes clicking on the wood floor.
"Grady. Wait up." Tony Marco, the school's athletic director, caught up to him in the corridor that led from the gym to the rest of the building.
Nearly a half foot shorter than Grady's six-four, Tony had a stockier build, a mustache and the dark coloring he'd inherited from his Italian father.
Nobody ever guessed Grady's mother and Tony's mother were sisters.
"Is it true you suspended Bryan Charleton?" Tony sounded as though he'd be more likely to believe aliens had invaded the White House.
"Yeah, it's true." Grady fought against taking offense at his cousin's tone. If not for Tony, Grady would still be driving an eighteen-wheeler instead of coaching basketball and teaching high school students. "I caught him cheating."
"Cheating?" Tony's thick black eyebrows rose toward his hairline. "In PE?"
"Not in PE. I teach a nutrition and exercise class, too."
"Isn't that an elective?"
"Doesn't matter," Grady said tightly. "Cheating's cheating."
"But " Tony's voice trailed off, though not before Grady guessed he was thinking about the regrettable circumstances that had led Grady to Springhill High.
"Suspending Bryan Charleton wasn't smart," Tony said in a hushed tone.
Grady straightened his spine. "I don't agree."
"Listen, R.G." Tony placed a hand on his shoulder and used the nickname nobody but family called him. Grady's full name was Robert Grady Quinlan. "Next time something like this comes up, run it by me before you do anything."
Grady had to unclench his jaw to respond. "You asked me to coach this team, remember? You said I was the best man for the job."
Tony had approached Grady in a panic after Fuzz Cart-wright, who'd coached at Springhill for more than two decades, collapsed during a holiday tournament game. Tony claimed Dan Cahill, the first-year assistant, didn't have enough experience to lead the team. Grady initially refused, telling Tony he couldn't support himself on a high school coach's stipend. Tony's second offer included a teaching job at Springhill High taking over Cartwright's health and PE classes.
Sick of driving a truck and missing coaching so much it was almost a physical ache, Grady relented and moved to western Pennsylvania. But now he remembered the real reason he'd been reluctant to return to coaching: the ripple effects of the scandal. Even his cousin was second-guessing him.
"You are the best man to coach this team," Tony said.
"Then let me do my job." Grady moved away, his cousin's hand dropping from his shoulder, the sensation of isolation even more acute as he continued to the locker room.
Silence and the smell of dried sweat greeted him, followed by the clank of a metal locker closing. Grady turned a corner around a bank of lockers and spotted Bryan Charleton with one foot on a bench, lacing up his size-fifteen Nike basketball shoes. He was already dressed in the black-and-gold Springhill colors, the snarling Cougar on the left leg of his shorts seeming to mock Grady.
"What are you doing in uniform?" Grady asked.
Bryan had strong regular features, close-cropped brown hair and dark, soulful eyes that gave off the impression it would take a lot to rattle him. "Getting ready for the game."
"You're suspended. You're not playing in the game."
Bryan straightened to his full height. Six foot five with a lean, muscular build and the wingspan of a pterodactyl, the boy had been born to play basketball.
"Aw, Coach, you don't really mean that," the kid said in his soft, unhurried voice. "We're playing a tough team. Everybody knows I've got to play if we're gonna win."
Grady couldn't dispute that. It was still early in his junior year, and Bryan was already attracting interest from college coaches, making it likely that scholarship offers were on the horizon. The undisputed star of the team, Bryan had already led Springhill to an 11-0 record. Many believed he was good enough to propel the team to a state championship.
"I don't say things I don't mean, Bryan."
"But, Coach, why have me sit out the game? You made your point. I learned my lesson."
It would have been so easy for Grady to give in. To his cousin Tony. To the Springhill fans who clamored to see the team's star on the court. To the players who wanted to win. And to Bryan, whose passion for the game had never been in question.
But giving in wouldn't help Bryan, who needed above all to learn there were consequences for his actions. It would be like handing the boy a free pass to do whatever he pleased, no matter how wrong.
"Change out of that uniform and go home, Bryan," Grady ordered. "I don't even want you on the bench tonight."
"What? You're not serious."
"I'm dead serious." Grady looked directly into the boy's shock-filled eyes, hardening his resolve so he wasn't tempted to change his mind. "Here's another lesson you can learn. Defy me again and you're off the team."
Grady didn't wait for Bryan's reaction. He walked out of the locker room and into the fray, questioning why he'd let his love of the game prevail over his common sense, propelling him to take this coaching job. Because once again the atmosphere in the stuffy gym was as chilly as the January night.
It was going to be, he thought, a very long basketball season.
KERI CASSIDY RUSHED TO the foot of the stairs in the cramped ranch house she shared with her two teenagers, wishing she didn't feel as though she'd never catch up.
She was always hurrying. To her job in the advertising department of the town's newspaper. To the grocery store. The bank. The high school. The gym. The doctor's office.
Today was no exception. She and Rose barely had time to eat the egg rolls and shrimp fried rice she'd picked up on the way home before it was time to get ready for Bryan's basketball game.
She wondered if other single mothers couldn't quite get all aspects of their lives running smoothly or if her age and relative inexperience put her at a distinct disadvantage. At twenty-five, she felt more like a kid herself than a mother.
She cupped her hands over her mouth and called, "Rosie, hurry up or we'll be late for your brother's game."
"But I can't find my black boot," Rose yelled back. The distress weighing down the fourteen-year-old's syllables sounded as real as if she'd lost something really important. Like her homework.
"Wear your brown shoes, then," Keri shouted.
"I can't wear brown with black," Rose exclaimed, sounding horrified.
Keri ran lightly up the stairs and down the narrow hall. She longed to believe it was a healthy sign that Rose strived to look good.
Keri rounded the corner to Rose's bedroom. Clothes, books and piles of paper littered every surface, as though a strong wind had swept through the room, which was pretty much the way Rose's room always looked.
Rose stood at her closet door, wearing a black top, chunky necklace and belted, low-waisted blue jeans on her tall, thin body. Her long golden-brown hair was brushed to a shine and streamed down her back. She'd obviously taken pains with her appearance, but her shoulders were slightly hunched, her body language giving away her lack of confidence. The same as always.
The girl glanced at Keri, her large brown eyes mirroring her distress. "I don't know where it is."
Rose knelt somewhat awkwardly in front of her closet and haphazardly rummaged through it, her jeans drawing up to reveal the difference between her two legs.
The left one was covered with smooth plastic instead of skin.
"Did you try under the bed?" Keri asked.
Rose got to her feet, moved to the bed, then carefully lowered herself before continuing the search. The prosthesis slowed her down even though it had been three years since a car accident had claimed her legand her mother.
Keri swallowed the sadness that always rose inside her when she thought of Maddy Charleton.
She could still picture the way Maddy had looked in the break room at the Springhill Gazette on Keri's first day of work nearly four years ago. A shocking head of dyed red hair. A voice a few decibels too loud. An infectious laugh.
"What are you waiting for, girl?" Maddy had demanded from her seat amid a group of their advertising department coworkers. "Get some caffeine and get your butt over here."
Their friendship had blossomed from there. It didn't matter that Maddy was nearly fifteen years Keri's senior. With her blunt manner and outrageous sense of humor, Maddy breathed life into every gathering.
So much had changed, Keri thought. Maddy was gone, the victim of a patch of ice that had sent her compact car sliding into a tree. Keri had adopted her two children. And the original reason for Keri's move to western Pennsylvania had married someone else.
"You were right. It was under the bed." Rose held up a black leather boot with a two-inch heel, her young, unlined face lit by one of her too-rare smiles.
"Then put it on, girl, and let's go before we miss the entire first quarter. You know Bryan likes to see us in the stands."
Rose sat down on the bed and yanked on the half boot over her prosthetic foot, which she'd covered with a black sock dotted with gray stars.
"I don't know what your rush is," Rose said. "Bryan's not even playing tonight."
"Of course he's playing," Keri refuted. Chances were a couple of college recruiters would be in the stands to watch him. "Why would you say that?"
"I heard at school that new coach suspended him." Rose, two and a half years younger than her brother, was a freshman at Springhill High.
"Heard from whom?"
Rose shrugged her thin shoulders. "Some senior girls. They weren't even talking to me."
"Then maybe you misunderstood," Keri said. If the team's new coach had suspended Bryan, which seemed far-fetched to say the least, Bryan would have told her.
"Come on. Let's get going."
Rose kept pace with Keri as they hurried down the hall, a testament to how far the girl had come since the accident. Sometimes it was hard to tell her left leg had been amputated from above the knee, but Keri wasn't so sure Rose believed that.
"Is it okay if I sit with you at the game?" Rose asked in a small voice when they stopped at the hall closet. She pulled out a black pea coat and put it on.
"Sure." Keri tried not to let it show she was worried about Rose's lack of friends. "I like having you with me anytime I can get you."
Turning this way and that to view herself from different angles, Rose gazed into the full-length mirror on the back of the closet door. "Do I look all right?"
She sounded so unsure of herself that Keri ached for her. Why couldn't Rose see what Keri saw? A lovely, sweet girl who looked even better on the inside?
"You're beautiful." Keri tucked a hand under Rose's arm. "Let's get to the gym where everybody can see you."
Rose didn't speak again until they were in the driveway on opposite sides of the ten-year-old Volvo Keri had bought because of its superior safety record. Her words were so soft Keri almost didn't hear her. "You didn't have to say I was beautiful."
"I said it because I believe it," Keri assured her over the roof of the car. "But this taking an hour to get ready thing is driving me nuts."
Rose cracked a grin. "Teenagers are supposed to drive adults nuts. Bryan doesn't do it, so it's my job."
Headlights lit a swath of road in front of the house as a two-door Honda Civic pulled up to the curb. Keri's reply died on her lips. It was the same Civic Bryan had gotten a fabulous deal on from a local used-car dealer.
The car's engine cut off, and the driver's-side door opened. Bryan unfolded his tall, lanky frame from inside the car and slammed the door. Hard.
Keri went to meet him at the foot of the driveway, concern compelling her forward. "Bryan, what are you doing here?"
He moved away from his car with jerky steps, the glow from a nearby streetlight shining on his face and revealing the glisten of tears?
"Coach Quinlan suspended me until further notice," he said gruffly, his eyelids blinking rapidly.
The gossip Rose had heard at school had been right. "Why?" Keri asked. "Something about my grades," he said in the same uneven voice.
"I just got your report card," Keri said. "Your grades are fine."
"I know," Bryan replied.
"Then what's going on?"
"You'll have to ask Coach Quinlan." Bryan trudged past her up the sidewalk to the front door and disappeared through it, leaving Keri completely confused.
"Told you so." Rose's voice seemed to come from a distance. "Guess this means we're not going to the game."
"Oh, yes we are." Keri headed back to the car and got in, pulling the door shut and waiting until Rose was seated before shoving her key in the ignition. "Coach Quinlan has some explaining to do."