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Squeaking sneakers and the hustle and flow of the basketball players across the gymnasium floor charged me as I waved my arms, signaling I was open so my teammate could pass me the ball.
She bounced it to me, and I snatched it before focusing on the goal and sinking it in for three points. Nothing but net.
It was the final game of the summer basketball league's season, and I was giving it my all. Since deciding at the end of my junior year to give up my spot as cheer-leading cocaptain to play ball, I had thrown myself into each game. I had learned a lot over the summer, both about basketball and myself, and I was looking forward to my senior year, which was only a few weeks away.
Coach Miller called a time-out with only three minutes left in the game, and I jogged off the court, glancing up into the stands when I heard my dad yell, "Go, Courtland."
He had been at all my games along with my mom, my nine-year-old sister Cory, my best friend, Sabrina Davis, and a few members of my purity group, Worth the Wait. Knowing I had so much support had me feeling better than I had in all my seventeen years.
Coach went over our final play, then my teammates and I gathered in a huddle, pumping each other up before we went back to the court and played to win. When it was all over, we'd lost by one point, but I was grinning like we had won the NBA championship.
I guzzled down a cup of Gatorade before going to congratulate the other team. As I was heading to the locker room, one of our opponents stopped me.
"Aren't you that girl who pressed charges against Allen Benson?" she asked, squinting at me from behind a pair of sports goggles.
I groaned inwardly. It had been a couple of days since someone had last asked me about Allen, my ex-boyfriend who was rumored to be joining a pro basketball team at the end of last school year.
Allen was fine and charming. He was my first boyfriend, and I loved him. I thought he loved me, too—until I snuck out to meet him one night. Not only had he tried to force himself on me, but he had also admitted he'd started dating me so he could get me to sleep with him to win a ten-dollar bet that he'd be the one to make me lose my virginity.
He had done a lot of messed-up things while we were together—putting his hands on me, and fooling around with other girls, one of whom was also pressing charges. I'm not sure who the girl was, but it was rumored that she was from a political family.
It wasn't until after my aunt Loretta Danielle Dennis ended up in the hospital that I learned he'd been seeing her, too. She claimed she was pregnant by him, and he'd gotten so mad during their argument that he'd run over her with his car. Allen claimed it was an accident, but I saw the video my sister, Cory, had managed to shoot that night, and I believe it was intentional.
I finally decided to press charges against Allen for what he had done to me after my little sister, Cory, witnessed what he did to Aunt Dani. I felt as though I had to set a good example for Cory and not let Allen get away with what he'd tried to do to me, but I had changed my mind about a month ago. I just wanted to move on with my life.
My charges had been the least of Allen's worries. He was also being investigated by the NBA for accusations he'd accepted gifts from two coaches.
"Well, are you?" the girl repeated, using a forearm to wipe a trail of sweat from her forehead. I briefly wondered why she was sweating so much since she had been riding the bench the whole game.
A couple of her teammates gathered around waiting to hear my answer. I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could, Daddy rushed over and wrapped me in a bear hug.
"Good job, Courtland. I'm proud of you," he said.
He slung his arm around my shoulders and led me away from the girls, and I smiled. Mostly I was glad he had rescued me, but I also had to admit that it felt good to get a hug from my daddy and hear he was proud. It had been a while since he had done it, but it was starting to happen more often.
"You okay?" he whispered as we walked over to where Momma and Cory were waiting.
"Yes," I said. "Thanks for saving me."
Daddy and I had come a long way in the last few months—our whole family had. Daddy had finally admitted he was an alcoholic, and he was attending AA meetings every week. He was going to church with us, and he and Momma, who had never gotten married, were planning a big wedding for the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, the weekend before school started. Momma was so excited she was getting the wedding of which she had always dreamed, and so was I.
"You hungry?" Momma asked after congratulating me on a good game.
"Yep," I said before turning to my little sister. "Hey, munchkin."
"Hey," she said, frowning at my use of the nickname she now hated. "Can we go to Applebee's?"
"You're reading my mind," I said, already tasting the steak and shrimp parmesan and blondie dessert I was going to order.
"We'll walk over. I snuck out during the game and put our names on the waiting list. They'll probably be calling us soon," Momma said. "You can head over once you get dressed."
Our game was at Fair Park Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, and we'd had a nice turnout. I knew a lot of people were probably going to be headed to Applebee's, which was right across the street, so I was glad Momma had thought ahead.
"Do you want me to wait for you?" Daddy asked, looking worried as he glanced around the almost empty arena.
"I'll be fine," I said. I tried to be casual about looking around to see if the girls who had asked me about Allen were still there, but Momma busted me.
"You sure?" she asked.
"You're treating her like a baby," Cory said, and I smiled my thanks.
They all watched me head toward the locker room to make sure I got there safely, then I watched them walk over to one of Daddy's police-officer friends.
I didn't hear what Daddy was saying, but I was sure he was telling him to keep an eye on me.
I was in and out of the locker room in fifteen minutes. As I headed for the exit, a girl waddling past caught my attention.
"Emily?" I said.
Emily Arrington was a cheerleader for our rivals, the Baldwin Eagles. She had also come to a few Worth the Wait meetings, but that had been months ago. She was a white girl, but she had plenty of booty, and she didn't mind shaking it.
My eyes widened when she turned around. I was pretty sure that wasn't a basketball she was sporting under her shirt.
"Hey, Courtland," she said, sounding tired. She rubbed her stomach, and I found myself feeling sorry for her.
"How are you?" I asked. I thought about saying congratulations, but I wasn't sure if that was the right thing to say to an unwed mother. I glanced at her ring finger to make sure she hadn't gotten married since the last time I saw her, but it was bare, and it looked like there had never been a ring on it.
"Sick all the time," she said. "Every time I turn around I'm throwing up."
I nodded sympathetically. "When are you due?" I asked.
"October 25," she said.
I calculated and realized she was about six months pregnant, which meant she'd been pregnant at the last Worth the Wait meeting she'd attended. She had been talking all this craziness about having a baby before she got married so she'd be able to hold on to the guy forever. I guess she had gotten her wish.
I adjusted my gym bag, trying to think of something else to say.
"How are things with Worth the Wait?" she asked.
"Good." I filled her in on the purity conference, which would end with a ball we were planning for the spring. Fathers and daughters were both going to take an oath, promising to be pure in thought and deed. Our Worth the Wait adviser, Andrea Mitchell, had read about the ball online, and most of our members loved the idea. It would give us a chance to dress up and have some fun.
After I was elected president of our chapter, I had come up with the idea to do an entire conference, hoping we would get some new members.
A cell phone rang, and Emily and I each glanced at ours, which meant we both had Beyoncé's latest hit as our ring tone.
A big smile broke across Emily's face, and she snapped open her phone.
"Hey, baby," she said, sounding like a contented cat. She talked for a few minutes, and I figured it was the perfect chance for me to get away and meet up with my family. I had just put one foot out the door when Emily's words stopped me. "I'll see you later tonight. I love you, Allen."
I couldn't even enjoy my steak and shrimp parmesan at Applebee's because I was so busy thinking about Allen and Emily.
There were a million questions racing through my mind. Was Emily really talking to Allen—my Allen? That raised the question of whether he ever really was mine.
If she was talking to Allen Benson, was she carrying his baby? I thought back to what had happened last school year. It was rumored a girl who had accused Allen of rape was pregnant. Was Emily that girl? If so, why would she start seeing him?
I finally decided to get a to-go box for my food.
"You okay?" Momma asked, looking at me strangely when I turned down dessert.
I nodded and took a sip of my watery soda.
"I didn't get a chance to tell you that someone from the Harbert Center called and said there was a cancellation, so we have it for the reception." Momma looked as though she was about to bounce out of her seat in the booth, she was so excited.
"That's great, Momma," I said, mustering a smile.
She pulled a notebook from her purse and jotted something down. "I'm glad the summer basketball season is over. I'm going to need your help. We only have about a month left before the wedding, and we still haven't picked out your dress."
"We can go tomorrow," I said without really thinking. Cory stopped playing with her Game Boy long enough to kick me under the table. I had promised her I would hang out with her the next day. I had been so busy with practices and games all summer that I really hadn't spent much time with my little sister, which I had been trying to do more of.
I looked at her, silently telling her I was sorry.
"We can make it a girls-only day," Momma said then turned to look at Daddy. "You have to work tomorrow, right, Corwin?"
"Yes," Daddy said, his gaze never leaving ESPN, which was playing on the television in the bar.
"We can be at David's Bridal when it opens," Momma said.
I groaned to myself. That meant that I wouldn't be sleeping late, and since Momma was in total wedding mode, we probably wouldn't get home until late the next evening. So much for a relaxing Saturday.
I didn't sleep well that night, thinking about Allen and Emily. As much as I tried to tell myself not to be bothered by it, I was. I knew he had been cheating on me, but I was still finding it hard to believe he was doing it with people right under my nose. Emily was bad enough, but my aunt Dani was worse. She had told Allen she was pregnant, too, but it turned out she was lying.
I found myself thinking back on all the time Allen and I had spent together. I mean, we were always together, but for him it had all been a joke. I couldn't believe he had been faking his feelings for me, all for a lousy ten dollars.
I woke up the next morning in a bad mood, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend the day looking at bridesmaids' dresses and talking about weddings. I threw on some jeans, a Worth the Wait T-shirt and my Air Force Ones and headed down for breakfast. Momma was in a really good mood and had cooked all Daddy's favorites: sausages, home fries, cheese eggs and pancakes. I helped myself to a little of everything, making a mental note I needed to start cutting back since the basketball season was over. I was planning to try out for the school basketball team, but until then, I really wasn't going to be exercising as much since I had quit the cheerleading squad. The last thing I wanted to do was put back on the twenty pounds I had taken off the summer before freshman year.