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Genna Pierce’s life is finally falling into place. Perfect grades? Check. Her choice of scholarship now that basketball recruiters are sniffing around? Check. The hot guy she’s crushed on since freshman year finally noticing her? Looks like it’ll be a check any day now.
But when a freak accident sidelines Genna, her perfect life starts breaking apart into a million less-than-perfect pieces. No more scholarships. Spiraling grades. And she’s sure Jake Butler, her forever crush, will have zero interest in someone as broken as she is.
Except Jake does want to stick around. He may have started falling for the girl Genna used to be, but he’ll wait for the girl she could become—if she can find enough left in her to pick up the pieces and start again.
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By Kendra C. Highley, Heather Howland, Sue Winegardner
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Kendra C. Highley
All rights reserved.
My brain's going supernova, brought on by squeaking Reeboks, bright lights, and yelling people. Nine seconds ... it's all I have left to make something happen, both for my teammates and for me. If I screw up, we fall an inch — a chasm, a universe — short of the championship.
My life's work, boiled down to nine stinking seconds.
The ref blows his whistle and the world snaps into chaotic focus. Taylor inbounds the ball. Her pass comes at me hard. I grab the ball and use its momentum to turn. The pushy little forward who's been harshing me the whole game tries to block, all elbows and knees and sweaty ponytail. I cut right, out of her path.
I jump. The ball rolls from my fingertips. I hold my breath as it tips over the rim and slides through the net a blink before the buzzer. Screams erupt, so loud they shake the walls of the field house.
Relief courses through my veins and I drop to my knees, exhausted, while the rest of the team piles on top of me. I accept the squashing with as much dignity as I can, given that we all smell like used gym socks. After mauling me, the team moves on to attack the next victim — likely Coach. I'm slow getting to my feet, though. My joy will come later, once my heart stops pounding in my ears.
"The Lady Panthers win it, beating Tecumseh sixty-eight to sixty-seven!" Our team's student-trainer — and announcer ... and anything else we ask him to be — is so excited his voice cracks over the PA. "Winning shot to Imogen Pierce! Weatherford North is state tournament bound!"
I cringe. Everyone knows how much I hate it when they call me by my full name. I'm thinking about making him swallow his microphone when a large shadow covers mine.
"Genna, you rock star!" Rowan spins me around and gives me a hug before doing a victory pirouette. At six-two, you wouldn't think my best friend would be that graceful, but she has the regal build, athletic agility, and predatory ruthlessness of an Amazon. Add in her mocha skin and high cheekbones, and she could model, too. So unfair.
Okay, yes, I'm a little jealous. I'm only five-eleven but wouldn't be caught dead dancing in public and I definitely don't have the cheekbones. But I shoot better outside, so there's that.
I squeeze her hand, still breathing hard. We made state. I should be screaming and smothering Coach Marczek in a group hug with the rest of the team. Instead, I keep thinking about how Tecumseh's point guard stole the ball from me to get ahead in the third quarter. I never can seem to protect my left side, something my mother will be sure to point out.
Rowan nudges me with her hip. "Earth to Genna. You in there?"
"Sorry." I force a smile. "Good game."
"Let's see ... we won, I'm going home with a few bruises, that cow from Tecumseh is going home with more. Yeah, good game." She pushes me in the direction of the bench, where Coach is trying to avoid being showered in Gatorade. "You going out with us for a burger? Charity's going to meet me at Braum's."
"You don't need a third wheel on a date," I say. "Besides, do you think my mother would let me go out on a school night?"
Her smile is crafty. "Jake Butler's going to be there. He asked if you were coming."
Jake Butler. A flush starts at my cheeks, flooding my face and neck, until I'm hot all over. I've had a crush on him since ... um, forever, and he asked if I was coming? Since when did he know I was alive? I mean, there was that one time when I bumped into him — hard — after lunch junior year. I can still almost feel his body pressed up against mine, sending pinpricks of something delicious up and down my spine ...
"Well ... maybe I can go for a while. Can you give me a ride?"
Rowan gives me a sidelong glance. "Only if you promise to say more than two words to Jake."
I open my mouth then close it. "I've said more than two words to him."
"Not at one time."
"I have too! I congratulated him after his last football game."
On November 5. At 9:42 p.m.
She rolls her eyes. "Girl, I've been watching you stare at him with your mouth open for four years, and it's getting old. Maybe if you show a little confidence, he'll ask you out."
I snort. "Like that's gonna happen. He prefers girls with big ... pom-poms."
Which certainly isn't me. My mom endowed me with a killer instinct, a near-perfect hook shot, and lots of baggage, but didn't pass on the better parts — which is how I ended up tall and all angles like my dad.
"One of these days you're gonna realize you are not wallpaper. Guys notice you all the time," Rowan says. "Besides, Jake's already run through most of the cheerleaders."
I follow her to the bench to hug Coach. She grins down at me — she's even taller than Rowan so I have to crane my neck to see her face. "Excellent game. You fought hard."
I flush at the praise. "Thanks."
She picks up her clipboard. "Make sure you get some rest this weekend. I'm calling practice after school every day until state, starting tomorrow."
I hold in my groan of exhaustion, because right after a game, all I can think about is a hot shower. I start for the locker room, but a flash of emerald-colored wool catches my eye.
She's wearing a cashmere sweater and black pants, the only parent dressed as though a high school basketball game is a business dinner.
"Over here, honey," she calls, waving at me.
I trudge to the stands. Mom leans over the railing as if to tell me I'm moving too slow. Her hair, done up in a French twist, is still perfect, despite the humidity of the field house. Yet her smile is tight and I can see all my failures reflected in her eyes. So that's how this conversation is going to go.
My father hovers behind her. The gym lights gleam off the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses, and his smile is warm. "Good game, sweetheart."
I smile back in spite of myself.
"The scouts from Lincoln seemed impressed, despite the mistakes in the third quarter." Mom sighs, and my smile falls right off my face. "All those summer training camps, and you're still weak on the left. I wish I had some slack in my schedule. I could put you through some drills."
Six years ago, the idea of drills with Mom would set my heart racing and I'd count the minutes until it was time to practice. Four years ago, when I surpassed her in skill, she suddenly stopped playing with me, saying she was too busy. While she poured her heart into her new law practice, I had to learn by myself. Losing her hurt ... and that pissed me off.
"Anyway," she's saying, "it sounds like Nebraska is definitely interested. And Oklahoma State called while you were warming up, asking when they could bring you back to Stillwater for a visit. It looks like we'll get our pick."
Our pick. Never any mention of what I'm thinking — which is Texas A&M, mainly because it's really far from home — but whatever. Bringing up what I want will give her an opening to argue and I'm way too tired to deal with her. "I want to meet a few friends for milkshakes." I hurry to add, "If that's okay."
"On a school night?" Mom asks, arching a thin eyebrow. She pays a fortune to have them shaped by a tiny Asian lady. It takes a lot of effort to look flawless, and there are days when I want to ask her what the Great Oz looks like behind the curtain, but I know better.
Finally, she glances at her watch. "Home by ten."
The clock in the field house reads eight fifteen. By the time I shower, I'll have a whole forty-five minutes to hang out with everyone. Nice.
I wave and head for the locker room before she can change her mind. All the postgame adrenaline I had burns away and my muscles start to ache. My arm's already bruising where Tecumseh's forward pinched me every time I got too close to the goal. It'll be hard to get out of bed in the morning after all the bumps I took, too. On days like that, Advil is my sure and steady friend.
The main locker room is empty when I go inside and take a seat on the bench. Everyone else is in the showers, or already gone, and the knot at the base of my spine finally starts to unwind now that I'm safely here. The smell of sweat and disinfectant is like home ... disgusting, but true. This is where I live. Okay, so maybe it's kind of a shithole, what with the chipped tile, dented lockers, and showers that never get hot enough. Still, it's my shithole.
I bend to untie my sneakers, wincing at the strains in my shoulders. Pain is always the sign of a good, hard game, and that's how it sinks in, how I know the dream I've carried for four long years is really happening.
We're going to state. And we're going to win.CHAPTER 2
The parking lot is crowded by the time Rowan and I get to Braum's. Jake's truck is parked near the front entrance.
My palms grow slick with sweat. "You know, on second thought, I'm kind of wiped. Want to hit the drive-thru?"
Rowan gets out of her car, a boring gold Honda she named "The Tank" to give it some swagger, without answering. She walks around and opens my door. "Don't be a chicken."
I clamber out, taking a second to smooth my T-shirt. "I'm not a chicken." When she raises her eyebrows, I add, "Most of the time."
She heads up the sidewalk, leaving me behind. I'll look stupid if I stay out here loitering next to The Tank all alone, so I hurry to catch up.
A cheer goes up as soon as Rowan clears the door. She swaggers inside like she slayed a dragon on her way to Braum's Ice Cream and Dairy Store. Her girlfriend, Charity, comes running and throws her arms around Rowan's neck, reaching way up on her tiptoes to do it.
Reminded I'm a tagalong, I start for the counter to buy a Diet Coke, but abruptly lose my train of thought. Jake's standing not ten feet away, smiling at me. My heart takes a hard bounce in my chest and my knees turn into lo mein noodles. When he catches me looking, he heads my way and I forget where I was going, totally sucked in by the quarterback with broad shoulders, lean muscles, and perfectly messy light-brown hair.
Oh, such a cliché, but so pretty, he makes my eyes hurt.
"Hey, Genna. Great game."
Jake's chocolate-brown eyes hold me captive. My brain has gone blue-screen-of- death-imminent-hardware-failure, yet somehow I stammer, "Y-you were th-there?"
"Yeah. The way you faked out that point guard at the last second was sweet." His smile is easy. He either doesn't notice I'm coming unglued, or he does ... and he likes it.
"Thanks." I manage a small smile. I hope it doesn't look like something you'd see on a serial killer. "She was pretty feisty."
Feisty? Feisty? Oh, Lord, shoot me now — I sound like my dead granny. My dad's an English Lit professor who played "define that word" with me in elementary school, and that's what I come up with?
He laughs, though. "She looked like she wanted to rip you apart after that shot went in. I laughed my ass off."
That makes me giggle. Then I try to stop, because giggling can't be attractive on girls nearly six feet tall, and I end up making a sound like a strangling goose. "It was nice revenge for how she and the forward kept pinching my arms whenever I'd go in for a rebound."
"They did?" He grabs my left arm and holds it out. I concentrate on keeping my knees from shaking while he examines the little bruises purpling my triceps. "I had no idea girls' sports were this rough."
"Most guys don't," I say. He looks embarrassed, so I shake my head. "I didn't mean that in a bad way. It's just that our type of rough is more sneaky than a linebacker knocking you into next Tuesday. To be honest, I'd prefer that sometimes."
"Having a guy knock you flat on your back?"
He gives me a wicked smile, and I turn nine shades of pink. "Well, um, it'd depend on the circumstances, I guess."
"I'm joking. But you're cute when you blush," he says. "Besides, getting concussed by a defensive lineman isn't as fun as it sounds."
I think back to a football game our junior year. "I forgot about that." But now that I remember, I get that sick feeling in my stomach, seeing him sprawled out on the field, while coaches brace his neck and remove his helmet. That night had been horrifying. "I'm glad you were okay."
"Yeah. My mom wanted me to quit playing, but the doctor said I was fine, and my dad talked her out of it." He shrugs. "I didn't want to stop just because of a bump on my head."
I nod. I couldn't imagine being told I couldn't play anymore. "I wouldn't have, either."
"Well, Mom never played a sport, so she doesn't really get it."
"My mom gets it all too well," I mutter without thinking. Jake frowns, so I hurry to say, "She played. She ... likes to critique my games."
"Ah. My dad played, too. He doesn't give me crap about it, though."
"Lucky you." I stare at my feet a second, wondering how we ended up here. "So, I didn't know you came to our games."
"It was the playoffs." He gives me a little nudge with his hip. "Everybody was there. Your team's the first one to make it this far in seven years. I wouldn't miss that."
A flush of pride warms my face. "Um, thanks. I'm really excited, but it's going to be hard to keep from stressing about the tourney for the next week."
"Well, maybe I can help with that," Jake drawls. "What are you doing tomorrow night?"
Wait ... is he asking me out? "Um, nothing that I know of."
"Want to go to a movie with me?"
It takes a few seconds for my brain to register what he said. Electricity travels the length of my body, but I manage to answer. "Um, yeah ... I mean, yes. I'd love to."
He brushes my arm with his fingers. "See you tomorrow, then."
With that, he disappears into the crowd and I drop into a pink vinyl booth feeling like a rag doll.
How did this even happen? I always thought our "relationship" was a one-way street: Genna drools over Jake, Jake acknowledges Genna exists. The end. I'm not tiny, cute, or popular. I play basketball, I do well in school, and I intimidate most guys. Except ... it's weird. We seemed to have more in common than I thought. I hadn't ever dated another athlete, and I'm starting to wonder why. Maybe I was the intimidated one. No, the last thing I need to do is question a good thing. I should focus on the fact that it took four years of pining, hours of shameless staring, and the alignment of every planet in the solar system, but it finally happened.
Jake Butler asked me out.
* * *
I'm still woozy when Rowan arrives, milkshake in hand, to grill me about the conversation.
"So?" She waggles her eyebrows. "How'd it go?"
"We're going to a movie tomorrow."
"Actual movie, or" — she makes air quotes — "a 'movie,' as in something playing in the back of his truck?"
"Either, both, I don't really care." I'm trying to act casual, but it's so hard. I want to skip around tossing daisies at people or something.
"Just be safe," she says. "He's had more than his share of hookups."
That would be the first thing Ro got out of the whole encounter. She's right, though. If a quarter of the rumors about Jake are true ... well, he's legend. Another reason to wonder why he asked me out.
"I'll be careful." I jump to my feet, not ready to ask myself the harder question. "Be right back ... I need a drink."
The guy working the counter tries to talk me into my usual — a chocolate-chip shake — but I order a Diet Coke instead. At this stage of the season, I can't afford the sugar and I've worked too hard to blow it now. Soda in hand, I start back to my table, only to find myself surrounded by dumbasses.
"Look who's here, guys. It's the savior of Weatherford North." Ethan Prenderville, flanked by half the offensive line, puts his hand over his heart and bends his big, square body into a mocking bow.
I steel myself, hoping this is a hit-and-run visit. "What's up, guys?" "Oh, we just want to bask in your glory a moment," Ethan says.
I should walk away, but Ethan's been on me since I beat him out for student-athlete of the year in sixth freaking grade. It doesn't help that Mom helped some ranchers win two million dollars from his dad's oil and gas business in a lawsuit four years ago, either.
Excerpted from Sidelined by Kendra C. Highley, Heather Howland, Sue Winegardner. Copyright © 2013 Kendra C. Highley. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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