Authors: Samantha Gudger
By Samantha Gudger
For my husband Ian.
And for anyone who’s
ever been told they are not good enough, strong enough, or smart enough.
Because you are.
looks could kill, the new guy would be dead already. Emma took a step towards
him, her glare firmly in place.
new guy, the arrogant guy, the guy who needed to learn that Saturday morning basketball
games at the park didn’t start with him circling Emma like he was the wolf and
she was the prey.
said you don’t look like much.”
disgust in his eyes was enough for Emma to know he was the kind of guy who
wouldn’t share a court with girls, much less play basketball with them. His
arrogant smirk didn’t help.
don’t you let us guys play basketball and you can cheer for us from the
closed his eyes and shook his head. Jerry winced, and the rest of the guys
suppressed their laughter as Riley grabbed the back of her sweatshirt and
pulled her away from Mike. Emma’s face burned with anger, her hands balled into
fists, and her mouth clamped shut to prevent a stream of vicious words from
Riley said, unable to hide his smile, “take it easy.”
it easy?” she growled. “First he says I don’t look like much and then he says I
should be a cheerleader. Who does he think he is?” Emma took a step in Mike’s
direction with the intent of having her fist speak on her behalf, but Riley
yanked her back to his side.
were the new guys always so against playing basketball with a girl? One thing
she knew for sure was that she
belong on a basketball court full of guys. If Mike wanted a
cheerleader, he could put on the skimpy skirt and pom poms and cheer for
cleared his throat. “Now that we’ve all met, how about we play?” He tossed the
basketball to Emma and turned to Mike. “And just for fun, you can guard Emma,”
he said, unable to hide the grin on his face.
mouth twisted into a smile. Payback. Nice. She would love nothing more than to
prove to Mike that not all girls were cheerleaders, and boys weren’t the only
ones who ruled the basketball court. She pulled free from Riley’s grip to meet
her victim at half court. Riley followed.
The warning in his voice tried to pull her back.
yeah, I know,” she said, waving him away, “behave.”
stepped in front of her, forcing her to look at him. “Actually, I was going to
say be careful. This guy looks like he could crush you with his bare hands.”
glanced at Mike. Sure, he was the size of a lumberjack with hands as big as her
head and muscles the size of her entire body, but she didn’t care. He deserved
to be taught a little humility. “You know what they say,” she said, squeezing
the basketball in anticipation of the challenge, “the bigger they are, the
harder they fall.”
shook his head and joined the rest of the guys as they cleared the court. The
guys included Riley, Tom, Jerry, Ben, Alex, Cy, Carson, and Emma. Yep, she was
one of them. This fact had less to do with her being a girl and more to do with
her skills on the basketball court and how hard she punched. If Mike knew that,
she wouldn’t be facing off with him to prove she was a basketball player,
noticed the guys lining up along the sideline instead of matching up on the
court. “Hey, what are you guys doing? I thought we were going to play.”
first one’s all you.” Tom waved him toward Emma. “Consider it your initiation.”
the ball in triple-threat position, Emma stared into the eyes of her defender.
Poverty child. Loser. Poor girl. Tomboy. She was well aware of the labels
people placed on her. She saw their looks as she weaved through the halls at Bradshaw
High School; she heard their whispered insults, felt their judgments. In a
school where ninety percent of the students came from families with
money—lots of money—Emma stood out like a porcupine among swans,
and not in a good way.
knew she wasn’t much to look at. Boys basketball shorts hung on her hips, her
faded sweatshirt was a size too small, and her blonde hair was secured in a wad
behind her head, the ends poking out in random directions. Yes, her family was
poor. Yes, she wore her brothers’ hand-me-downs. Yes, most of the kids at
school hated her for reasons she didn’t understand. Emma didn’t care. She could
play basketball—that’s all that mattered to her.
glanced at Riley. He stood on the sidelines, arms crossed and eyes glued on her
in case things got rough and he needed to intervene. It had only happened once
or twice—the new guy charging her with the intent to cause bodily harm
because he couldn’t take losing to a girl. Thank goodness she had Riley.
playing or what?” Mike asked.
She spun the ball in her hands, waiting for Mike to step up and play defense,
but he kept his distance. Mike’s stupidity was Emma’s opportunity. From behind
the three-point line, she shot the ball, her smirk in place as the ball dropped
through the net.
shot,” Mike muttered before Tom yelled from the sideline, “Watch the long shot.
She’ll sink it every time.”
rest of the guys laughed, knowing only too well the truth to Tom’s statement. She’d
scored way too many three-pointers during their games to let them forget it.
scowled at her, snatched the ball from the ground, and set up for his turn on
offense. Revenge was written across his face. She smiled inwardly. Bring it on.
jabbed left before dribbling right. Emma shuffled her feet, staying with him.
Mike attempted a crossover to change direction, a slow crossover. Not between
the legs or behind the back or anything more sophisticated than Basketball 101,
but a crossover right in front of her. He had a lot to learn. Her hand struck
out like a viper, flipping the ball away from him and into her possession. This
time, when she set up at the three-point line to drive right, Mike didn’t give
her the extra step. He forced her left instead. Not a bad plan, but Emma didn’t
have a weak side, so if he wanted her to go left, she’d go left.
dribble, two dribbles, between the legs to the right, spin move to the left,
all executed to perfection in under two seconds. She faked the shot. Mike flew
through the air trying to block the ball, but she stepped around him for the
guys clapped. Mike growled. Emma grinned. It was the second basket of many.
Mike and Emma battled one-on-one for the next ten minutes. Mike desperate to
beat the girl; the girl determined to prove, beyond a doubt, that she was a
basketball player, not a cheerleader. Considering she outscored the guy five to
one, Emma figured she’d gotten her point across, especially when Mike slammed
the ball on the ground and turned to the guys.
he growled. “I get it. The chick can play.”
my girl,” Riley said with a smile, joining Emma on the court to give her a
high-five. The rest of the guys averted their eyes from Mike, trying not to
laugh, and started picking teams.
she hadn’t been so caught up in her victory and entertained by Mike fuming over
his loss, Emma probably would’ve seen the woman slip through the fence behind
them and step onto the court. She would have sensed how her life was one moment
away from changing. Again.
voice was not one of their own, and Emma and the guys turned to look at the
woman who’d inched her way onto their court.
guys and one girl stared at the woman, but the intruder only had eyes for Emma.
Emma took a step back. With her black running suit, her brown hair pulled back
in a ponytail, and her perky smile, the woman didn’t look like a police officer
or a social worker, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t one. Growing up in a
single-parent family with four brothers, Emma had seen her fair share of
authority figures and knew enough not to trust anyone. Except Riley.
woman took a step forward. “Are you Emma Wrangton?”
tensed. She had never met this woman in her life, so why had she thrown Emma’s
name out there like she already knew the answer? The temperature seemed to drop
ten degrees. Emma shivered.
grabbed Emma’s hand and pulled her behind him, blocking her from the woman’s
stare. “Depends on who’s askin’,” he said, his voice hard and filled with
woman stepped closer. “I’m Jen Knowles. I’m the new girls’ varsity basketball
coach at Bradshaw High School.” She answered Riley’s question, but stepped to
the side and craned her neck to reconnect her eyes with Emma’s.
glanced over his shoulder at Emma. She could only imagine what he was thinking.
basketball coach looking for you? That’s a first.
The curiosity in his eyes
didn’t match the fear in hers. He stepped aside, but remained close.
has it you’re the best female basketball player in town,” Jen said.
few of the guys whistled and hollered their approval, but Emma remained
skeptical of the woman’s motives and stayed on guard. Call it intuition,
paranoia, or complete distrust of the female population, but something in the
woman’s voice didn’t sound quite right.
nodded toward the basket. “From what I’ve seen, I’d say the rumors about you
child. Loser. Poor girl. Tomboy. Not exactly the kind of rumors a real coach
acted on to go in search of some girl. If there were rumors circulating about
her basketball abilities, Emma hadn’t heard them and didn’t know who would have
started them. Aside from Riley’s parents and the guys, no one knew she even
played. Even if this woman was different, Emma recognized the look on her face.
The plastered on smile and hopeful eyes couldn’t hide Jen Knowles’ caution over
Emma’s appearance. Add Emma’s lack of eye appeal to the fact she’d never played
on a real team, and people automatically assumed she was plagued by bad habits
and wasn’t worth their time.
want you on my roster.” Jen’s comment left no room for misinterpretation.
don’t play organized sports,” Emma shot back. No room for misinterpretation
shrugged. She wasn’t about to explain herself to anyone, least of all to a
stranger whose presence delayed a much anticipated basketball game.
team could use you.” Jen kept her eyes fixated on Emma, waiting for her to
respond, but Emma remained silent. No way would she ever consider playing for
the girls’ team. Not even if someone paid her. Her one goal in life was to
graduate high school with her sanity intact, not sacrifice herself to be at the
mercy of cruel and heartless girls. Besides, the girls at school had proven a
long time ago that Emma didn’t belong in their cliques. Between the glares,
accusations, and rumors they had spread to embarrass her, Emma stayed as far
away from them as possible.
offense,” Emma said, regaining her confidence, “but the girls’ team is a joke.”
She shrugged. It wasn’t a secret. “They haven’t won more than two games a
season in over a decade.”
this year will be different,” Jen Knowles challenged.
almost laughed, but she knew Riley would smack her if she did. “Maybe it
pressed her lips together and nodded once, as if sensing the more she tried to
persuade Emma to join the team, the more Emma would resist. “I’d appreciate it
if you would at least consider coming out for the team. The first practice is a
week from Monday.”
grasped Emma’s shoulders from behind. “If Emma tries out for any team, it will
be the boys’ basketball team.”
shoulders slumped, as if all of her dreams for the season had vanished, but
Emma was with Tom. The guys’ team sounded a lot more appealing than the girls’
team. At least the guys won a game once in a while.