A brand new standalone Contemporary Young Adult romance is coming from Ginger Scott in a few days (Jun 22), and I have a sneak peek for you.
Lost in my thoughts, I get lazy with the ball and Riley notices, grabbing it and moving around my body. I react as if this game matters, though, fueled by my stewing frustration, anxieties and pure resentment and anger for this life I have. I rush at her to take the ball back, my arms so wide that she’s trapped, my steps aggressive. She falters, and I reach in, taking over the dribble while she grabs onto my arm. I shake her lose and score, but she shoves me the moment my feet land from my short jump, lunging for the ball when I grab it on my unsteady legs.
“That’s a foul!” she shouts, swatting at me with one hand while I strong arm her to keep her at bay. I can’t help but laugh.
“I’m pretty sure yours was the foul,” I mock, my skin tingling with this rush of adrenaline. Everything in me is spiking, and I’m not sure what emotion I’m going to feel next.
Without warning, Riley shoves the center of my chest, the impact enough to push her back a step or two. I chuckle, but only for a second, realizing quickly that this isn’t about being playful or funny. Her eyes are glazed, and it’s not like tears…it’s beyond that. Her arms fall to her sides for a second then flex again, her palms hitting my chest once more, but this time with her full weight behind them. My legs stutter, and every time I come close to regaining my balance she comes at me again.
The ball falls to my side, and she kicks it then moves into me one final time. Before she can back away, though, I wrap her wrists up in my hands and hold them between us. Her eyes are wild, like a stallion caught in barbed wire. She’s trapped here too. This town…this school—here with me—this is the last place on earth she wants to be.
I can feel every muscle in her body flexing, trying to work up enough power to break away from me. She’s pulling from my grip with so much strength that her arms are quaking in my grasp. I should let her go, but she’s only going to hit me again. She’s angry at her life. I see it as clear as a reflection. I’m angry too. We’re taking it out on each other.
“Riley, what are you doing?”
I shake her gently, and as her muscles begin to ease so does my grip. My eyes dip to her chin and my brow creases. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more lost in my entire life. Everything inside me hurts, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about any of it. I can’t leave the gang. I can’t be friends with Riley. I’m caught in a tornado of impossibles and nevers, and the only things left on my list are horrible sins.
I know her eyes are waiting for mine before I lift my gaze, and I know that they wait in judgement. I feel them—the heat. It burns my face and everything inside of me. I look into them anyways, because maybe they’ll give me answers. Maybe there’s forgiveness somewhere in the silvery blue. I crave peace. I need a home. I need a person.
“How did your dad die?”
Her question actually punches the air from my lungs.
“Ha ha,” I breathe out in a short burst, stunned and caught somewhere in the midst of duty, regrets and pain.
Her eyes are open wide and they haven’t blinked since she locked onto me. She’s not looking at me, though, but it’s more like through me, her focus lost somewhere in my head because she’s in there too. She’s invaded me, welcome or not. She sees me, good and evil. I hold the tip of my tongue between my teeth as I steady my breath and remind myself of who I am and what I could do.
“He was stabbed forty-seven times in the Corduroy Prison yard. I had just turned eleven, and he had just been sentenced to life.”
I stop and let my eyes truly focus on hers, connecting enough to bring her to the surface—so she sees me…feels this truth that I don’t talk about to anyone.
“He was never going to get out, so a few people serving multiple sentences from our crew gave him relief. At least, that’s the story certain people tell. I’ve always thought about that number—forty-seven. It doesn’t feel very compassionate. Nothing about being stabbed that many times comes off as a favor. Have you ever been stabbed?”
Riley swallows and shakes her head no. Her movement is so small, fragile too. It’s strange to see her nervous because up until now everything about her has been defensive and strong.
“It’s brutal,” I say, relaxing my hold on her arms completely, letting them drop to her sides as mine do the same. “The wounds never really seem to heal quite right.”
I suck in my top lip and hold her gaze, her face relaxing into a new realization. I know how being stabbed feels because I’ve been stabbed…a lot. I breathe in heavily then exhale as my eyes fall closed. I lift the bottom of my T-shirt up to the center of my chest so she can really look. The lines are pale, and they contrast with my darker skin. Time has made them less obvious, but if I put my hands on them I feel the knife cutting into me as if it were happening right this moment. It burns, and I swear it bleeds.
Riley’s eyes trail from mine down to the evidence that I’ve been hurt more than most. I chew at the inside of my cheek as she looks on, her lip puffing out in a quiver as she takes it all in.
“There are six of them,” I say, running my fingertips over each one slowly, connecting the dots. “Three were from my first fight out on the courts. I was thirteen, and I should have kept my mouth shut.”
Her eyes shift to mine quickly and flash wider. I shake my head before she can tell me I’m wrong. She doesn’t understand the rules of this world. Anywhere else, a young boy shouldn’t be stabbed for speaking up. But when you mouth off during a peace treaty between two rival gangs, your crew has to save face somehow. Dub didn’t stab me, but two of his main guys did. They dragged me home and left me for my mom to take to the ER after that.
My mother prayed for days. When I wouldn’t promise her that I’d quit the gang, she began lighting candles. She’s still praying, four years later.
“And the other three?” Riley’s voice is rough, tears caught deep in her throat that she refuses to let out. I recognize the sound.
“I don’t even remember,” I say, which is mostly true. One of my scars is from Joker. It was an accident when we were fifteen. He was scared and thought I was going to hurt him because he’d messed up a delivery for Dub. I was just there to make sure he was okay. I’ll never forget where that scar came from just like I’ll never forget how terrified he was when he saw me. He was an animal, caught and desperate, and he believed I would hurt him.
“They wound you to punish you. They make sure you never forget. That’s how this works,” I say, lowering my shirt and sinking my hands into the pockets of my jeans. I breathe with her automatically, and I think I do it so I don’t feel alone. Our bodies deflate in sync, shoulders rising together, lips parting. She’s beginning to understand how serious all of this is.
“I want to say you can count on me, Riley. I know that’s what you want to hear, and I know that’s why you’re mad,” I say, breathing out a sad peal of laughter. “I envy you so much.”
I squeeze my eyes closed, shaking my head and opening again as I view off to the side because the honesty stings. I’m rarely vulnerable, and I don’t think I’ve ever truly been raw with anyone. Not even my mother. It’s a challenge I’m driven to, though, and I don’t know why. I think I need to prove to myself that I’m tough enough for this—strong enough to let someone in and put a voice to how much I hate what I am and what I’ve become.
I swallow hard.
“You…you get to dream,” I say, holding onto my bottom lip with my teeth as my eyes settle back on Riley’s. She hasn’t moved. “I get to fight to survive, and you get to dream. And I want to help you, but I can’t promise you that I’ll be there. There are too many…”
Pausing mid-word, I shake my head and force my lips closed tight as I think of the right word. It turns out to be really simple.
“Bad guys,” I say, chuckling pathetically. “There are too many bad guys who own me. And I don’t get to make choices for myself. If I did, I would have been here for practice. I wouldn’t let you down. But as it is…I’m gonna. Over and over again. If you can work with that, then I still want to try to get you a team that won’t suck on the court next week. And I want to help you show everything you have to whoever you need to so you can get the fuck out of this place.”
We stare at one another through a full breath while she takes in my partial promises, and I’m compelled to make my point again—the one I have been trying to make since I first met her.
“You don’t belong here, Riley. You just don’t.”
I’m barely done speaking when her hands reach up and touch my cheeks as her body steps into me. Her eyes close in that fraction of a second and her lips find mine, a cool and soft surprise that stuns me at the first touch, my entire body rushed with what feels like a shot of morphine that begins at my lips and flows down my neck and arms and spine. It’s the softest kiss I’ve ever had. There’s nothing dirty or obligated about it. Her fingertips are feather-light against my skin, and her mouth holds onto my bottom lip with a quivering and timid touch that matches everything I know she’s feeling—that I’m feeling.
This kiss is uncertain. I don’t deserve it. She should take it back.
Her lips fall away from mine, losing their tentative hold as she rocks back on her heels and takes a single step away as her eyes open on me. They are heartbroken and embarrassed. I didn’t kiss back. It kills me that I didn’t, and I wanted to. God, did I want to. Her lips deserve better, though. Kissing back would have been another sin. It would have been weak in another way. I’ve let her get too close as it is.
“We can’t be friends.”
The sickness climbs up my chest the instant I utter those words. Her eyes flicker, the light dimming quickly, hope lost and regret quickly moving in. Her mouth hardens, lips forming a sneer. I wouldn’t be shocked if she spit at me next. She doesn’t, but she does slap me. My skin bakes, the burn from what I know is a bright red sting she left behind throbbing as I tilt my head back to face her.
She knocked me off my axis, but she didn’t destroy my world. It’s more than that, though. I know it the second she turns her back to me and walks out the gym door.
I didn’t destroy hers.