Everybody has their happy place. For me, that happy place was Briarwood Elementary School’s gymnasium on Wednesday afternoons. Once my basketball practice was done, I’d head over there to help coach their girls’ team.
These girls were good. Like, crazy good. And it’s not like I was biased or anything, but these girls might’ve been the best players the world had ever seen.
Okay, yeah. So I was biased.
But my point was, I loved being there. I loved working with the kids. No matter what was going on in my life, at least I had that. I had these rambunctious girls who made me laugh and who reminded me how fun the game could be.
Don’t get me wrong. I still loved basketball. It was still my favorite sport, by far, but once you added the pressure of earning a college scholarship into the mix, it kind of lost some of the fun and gained a whole lot of stress.
“One more layup, Andie,” I called out. The little blonde nodded, her expression fierce.
God, I loved these girls.
But today, for the first time, this place wasn’t quite as happy for me. Some of the stress of my day followed me here because I knew I’d be seeing him. Connor Matthews.
I spotted him now, sitting hunched over in the bleacher seats and looking all sorts of out of place. He looked out of place in our high school, but here? He kind of looked ridiculous. He had his elbows on his knees and his head tilted down as he did something on his phone. His messy dark hair fell over his face so I couldn’t read his expression, but I didn’t need to. He’d be looking fierce—that was pretty much the only way he ever looked. Like he might get into a fight at any moment.
Every school has their bad crowd, and Connor was ours.
Most of my friends were scared of big, bad Connor, with his bulging biceps covered in tattoos. They’d never admit they were scared, of course, but there was no denying his effect in the hallways. People tended to get quiet when he passed, and then start whispering as soon as he’d gone by.
It wasn’t like we’d ever seen him be violent or anything. But he was always scowling or glowering or just looking pissed in general. More than that, he was a big guy and he had this tension about him, like he was wound up tight.
Half the time he walked the halls with earbuds in, even though that was prohibited, but I’m pretty sure even the teachers were intimidated by him so no one said anything.
Anyways, his being here at the grade school basketball practice wasn’t what was stressing me out. He was here most weeks, if not for the whole practice, then he came at the end to pick up his little sister, Gina.
Luckily for Gina, she didn’t inherit her brother’s bad attitude, just his dark good looks. But her black hair was always pulled neatly back in a ponytail and her uniform fit in, unlike his grunge rocker look that looked like it came straight out of a 90’s music video.
His mere presence didn’t bother me. He always kept to himself and did his own thing, which was fine by me. He didn’t know I existed, and I was cool with that.
Except today, I was considering breaking through this invisible barrier we’d placed between us as if through an unspoken accord. As the only two people in the gym who were not pre-pubescent or a middle-aged coach, it wasn’t like either of us didn’t know the other was there. I mean, our high school wasn’t that big that he wouldn’t recognize me, but he never so much as nodded in my direction.
I was always acutely aware of him, though. It was hard not to be. The guy stood out. But I respected the wall between us so I also pretended that he wasn’t there. Mutual ignoration.
That’s not a word. I made that up.
The coach, also known as Mr. Danvers, fifth grade science teacher, blew his whistle to signal an end to practice. The girls hustled off the court, already talking and laughing in groups as they made their way to the locker room.
Connor hadn’t lifted his head. He’d wait until Gina came out. Then he’d get up, go over and take her pink sparkly backpack from her and lead her out to the parking lot. I never saw him smile at her, but he must talk, right? I mean, I didn’t think he was a mute. But if he did talk, I’d never caught anything he said. Gina seemed to talk enough for both of them, chattering loudly as they walked out the door.
I know this because I watched them every week. Not in a stalker way, but because the Matthews siblings fascinated me. Maybe because they were so very different, or maybe because I loved the part when big bad Connor took her backpack and slung it over his shoulder. That one gesture made the big bad wolf seem so very human. Sweet, even.
Still, watching him sit there with that predator vibe and that intimidating glare, it was hard to remember that sometimes I thought that maybe, just maybe, he had a soft spot. I had a few minutes to decide if I was really going to do this. I stared at his bent head, nibbling on my lower lip as I debated this course of action.
But what other choice did I have?
See, here’s the thing. I sucked at school. I tried. God knows I worked my butt off, but my grades stunk. If it wasn’t for basketball, college would likely never happen for me. But even with basketball, Mrs. Abney, my guidance counselor, made it very clear that I’d need to get my grades up to even be considered. I’d always struggled, but this year…well, this year I was failing big time.
So, I was desperate. But the tough part was—no one knew how desperate I was. No one but my parents understood that I was struggling at school, and even they didn’t know the full extent of it. Mrs. Abney kept threatening to bring them in, but I had until midterm report cards before she’d sound the alarm and set off the parental panic.
Not even my best friends and teammates knew how badly I was doing. Why? Because they wouldn’t get it. All of my friends were naturally smart. Or that’s the way it seemed, at least. It all came so easily to them. Oh sure, Lisa failed that one math test that one time and we never heard the end of it. But that’s the thing. Failing a test was a huge deal for her. For me? Not so much. I mean, it still sucked every time. No one wanted to see a big fat F on the top of their paper, but I was used to it. I was immune.
My parents and Mrs. Abney would have made me drop basketball if we all didn’t know it was my best chance to get into school. As it was, they’d made me drop everything else. I used to do all kinds of volunteer work and extracurriculars. Now I was lucky to have assistant coaching once a week, and I only got to keep this position because I’d argued the case that I still needed some sort of extra-curricular to show the schools I was well-rounded.
Anyways, I’m getting off topic. Earlier that day Mrs. Abney and I met again. I hung out with her more these days than I did my teammates. Her news was grim, as was her expression. Her normal wide smile had been replaced by pursed lips and her brows pulled together into a concerned furrow behind her wire-rimmed glasses.
Her message had been clear. Pull up your grades or risk staying behind. Worse, get your grades up or be cut from the team.
Okay, maybe being left behind would be worse. I don’t know, it was a toss-up. A terrible, no-win toss-up. I didn’t want either to happen.
She’d mentioned tutoring but I’d balked. My parents had hired a tutor the year before and it had not gone well. The guy was in college and he’d spent most of the time texting his girlfriend and sighing with irritation when I didn’t understand what he was talking about.
I was used to those exasperated sighs—from my teachers, from my parents, from my older brother, who’d apparently gotten all the brains in our family.
What about one of your friends? Mrs. Abney had suggested.
I’d stared at her in horror. Now, I’m not in one of those mean girl cliques. I have sweet, supportive friends, but they still wouldn’t understand. Or, maybe they would understand, but I just couldn’t tell them. It was humiliating. Being an idiot was freakin’ embarrassing.
If I told one of them, everyone would know. I would be the dumb one, the charity case who everyone had to help. And they would help. They were nice like that. But, you see, I’m the one people usually turn to for help. I had a reputation for being reliable, hard working, friendly…smart.
Only that last one was a lie.
I had an image to protect and a team to lead. I wasn’t just the best player on the team—and I say that with all humility—I was also the team captain. It was rare for a junior to be made captain but the vote had been unanimous. I lived and breathed that team. I kept morale up after losses, I stayed after to help girls with their game. They relied on me. They needed me.
If the team found out I might be cut because I was too dumb to pass my classes all that hard work would be in vain. Team spirit would be obliterated.
But they wouldn’t find out. I wouldn’t allow it. I was a captain and I would handle this just like I did every other semester.
I straightened my spine and squared my shoulders as I headed toward Connor, who was still staring at his phone. I had a minute, maybe two, before Gina came barreling out and interrupted my one chance to talk to him.
I guess I could have asked him at school, but that would defeat the purpose. You see, Mrs. Abney gave me a list of prospective tutors to look over. Most of the names were the obvious ones. I knew them. A lot of them were my friends, or at least friendly acquaintances. We hung in the same crowds. They were nice and smart and…exactly the kind of people I was trying to keep from knowing that I was failing.
Then, there was Connor’s name, jumping out on the list like a glaring beacon. That song ran through my head. You know, the one from Sesame Street. One of these things is not like the other…
I’d even pointed to it and showed Mrs. Abney. “Connor Matthews?” I’d said, my nose scrunching up in obvious confusion. “That can’t be right.”
Mrs. Abney’s concerned scowl warred briefly with amusement. “I just signed him up today,” she’d said.
Mind blown. Seriously. I didn’t know which was more alarming, that Connor Matthews was helping people or that he was smarter than me. I guess I’d kind of assumed that the slacker who I’d heard pulled his hood up and slept through Mr. Ronwell’s American Lit class wasn’t a top student. But apparently I was wrong because you had to have a minimum GPA to become a tutor. Which meant that even the class bad boy was smarter than me.
I was officially the stupidest one in our class. Maybe even in our school. Did I get some sort of award for that?
That thought made me smile—albeit a sad, rueful smile—so when I reached Connor’s side and he lifted his head, I met his glare with a grin.
“Hey Connor,” I said. My voice sounded way too chirpy as I tried to force a casual tone.
He stared at me. And then he stared some more. All of this staring was done in total silence since we were now alone in the gym.
Sweet. This was going super well.
He hadn’t moved so I was kind of hovering over him. Nope, not awkward at all. Finally, he stood. I was tall for a girl, but he was taller. And broader.
He was a big guy. Standing this close to that fierce frown and the towering size…I was getting an entirely new perspective on just why this kid was so feared.
But the guy carried his little sister’s backpack, which had a unicorn on it, I might add. How scary could he really be?
That thought gave me a jolt of confidence, but it seemed it was too little too late.
I heard shoes squeaking behind me. Gina was coming. That’s why he’d stood. Holy rudeness, he was going to walk away and ignore me entirely!
He started to move past me and I reached out to touch his arm. He froze, looking down at my hand on his arm like a giant squid has just grabbed him.
Jeez, was I really that repulsive to him? I shook off the thought. I didn’t have to like the guy and he didn’t have to like me. But I needed help and he was the only person on that stupid list who wasn’t one of my friends or friend-adjacent. So really, him being disgusted by me was a point in his favor.
Still, I dropped my hand. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
He stared for another second, his gaze studying my face like I was an alien life form. “Isn’t that what you’re doing?”
Now it was my turn to stare. Gawk really. That voice. Man alive, that voice. It was only then that I realized I’d never heard him speak before. His voice was low and rumbly and…sexy as hell, to be honest.
I found myself blinking rapidly as I tried to regroup. What had he said? Right. Blah, blah…rude. Whatever, he could be rude as long as he helped me.
Gina reached my side. “Hi Juliette.”
I smiled down at her. Despite her brother’s grouchiness, it was nearly impossible not to return this bubbly girl’s grin.
Two things happened at once. I said, “Do you mind if I talk to your brother alone for a minute?” and Connor said, “Come on, Gina, let’s go.”
He had a hand on her shoulder, guiding her toward the exit, and the poor girl looked between the two of us, clearly confused.
“Gina,” Connor said, his sexy low voice holding a note of warning. He sounded just like my stern older brother in that sense, though Jeremy’s voice had never rumbled like that.
Gina was about to cave and I was going to lose my chance. I wouldn’t see him alone again until next week, and next Wednesday would be too late. I had a Spanish test on Monday.
Technically I could try to talk to him at school but that would garner so much attention I couldn’t even consider it. I mean, why would I be voluntarily approaching the school’s bad boy?
I was not into bad boys. That was not my thing. I knew there were girls who were, but that wasn’t me. You know that whole Twilight craze? Yeah, I was team Jacob. Anyone in her right mind would be team Jacob, I might add. A, he was nice and B, he wasn’t dying to kill her.
Right, I strayed off topic there, but I think you get my point.
Gina was still looking torn so I made the decision for her. Giving her a bright smile, I said, “I’ll bring him right back.” Then I grabbed his arm and tugged.
Jeez, he was heavy.
But I was strong. I tugged harder and soon he was following me a few steps away. It wasn’t totally necessary to move since Gina had taken that as her cue to run back to her friends who were gathering near the door to wait for their respective rides.
This meant that while not totally alone, we were out of earshot from anyone else.
I forced a bigger smile. When in doubt, kill them with kindness, right?
Connor was frowning down at me. I guess he’d never heard that saying. I half expected him to start growling at me like some feral animal. He didn’t growl, but he was just as rude as before. “What do you want?”
He sounded…suspicious. Which was odd. It’s not like I had a reputation for being a mean girl or anything. I refused to let my smile drop. I was known for being nice.
“I need a tutor.” There. I’d said it. Just like ripping off a Band-Aid except that it was my pride that stung instead of my flesh.
He looked a little confused for a second. “You need a tutor.” He repeated it slowly like I was speaking a foreign language, or maybe talking in code.
I nodded. I was seriously starting to doubt this plan. Not the getting a tutor part, but the Connor part. How smart could he be if he couldn’t grasp this simple concept?
The confusion cleared and his gaze sharpened, like he was seeing me for the first time. Really seeing me, I mean. Up till now he’d been glaring, and he’d been watchful. But now?
Now I saw the intellect. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I could see it there in his eyes. I could practically hear his neurons firing as he studied my face, my hair, my smile. Here’s what he saw: a tall, averagely pretty sixteen-year-old with strawberry blonde, wavy hair that came halfway down my back when it wasn’t pulled back in a ponytail like it was right now. I was still wearing my basketball uniform since I’d come straight from practice.
At the end of this uncomfortable scrutiny some of his fierceness seemed to fade a bit. No, that wasn’t quite right. He still looked like a tough guy, but I didn’t get the sense that it was aimed at me, it was more like he was bitter with the world at large.
Cool. I could take that. It was the one-on-one conflict I really despised. I mean, on the court I lived for the competition. But in real life? I was kind of a wuss.
His gaze darted past me to where his sister was talking loudly with her friends. To be fair, they were all talking loudly, and their voices bounced off the walls of the gym, turning the sweaty-smelling open space into a cacophony of young, giggly voices.
“I think you’ve gotten some faulty information,” he said in that low voice. It was hard to hear him over the girls so I leaned in closer.
I then wished I hadn’t because as I moved in, his gaze shot back to me and I’m pretty sure his look said “What the hell are you doing?”
I moved back. I suddenly felt like some pervert creeper who was trying to sniff his aftershave or something when all I’d wanted was to be able to hear him.
I folded my arms over my chest, trying to focus on his words and not the weird subtext of his glares or the fact that he did smell really nice. I mean, I hadn’t been sniffing him like a weirdo but it’s not like I could ignore the fact that he smelled like leather and soap and…
Oh forget it. The point was, he was turning me down. He was already starting to walk away.
“Wait,” I said, following closely. “Mrs. Abney said—”
He stopped short and I bumped into him, but he didn’t seem to notice. His head fell back slightly at the mention of her name and I heard him mutter a swear word. It looked like he was cursing out the gym’s ceiling, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case. He rubbed a hand over his face before turning to face me again. “Look, I just told her I’d do it to get her off my case.”
I couldn’t help the laugh that slipped out but I pressed my lips together quickly to smother it. But seriously, it was kind of hilarious. I mean, here was the big bad wolf basically saying that granny had forced him to be a tutor. But I got it, I totally got it. Mrs. Abney had this way of looking at you like you were crushing her soul when you disappointed her.
I wasn’t sure her guilt tactics were ethical but they worked.
“So,” I shifted uncomfortably, suddenly aware that A, I was alone with said big bad wolf, for all intents and purposes and B, this could very well mean that I was back to square one in the tutoring department. I bit my lip, taking a moment to make sure my desperation wasn’t obvious. “So, you’re not available to tutor then?”
He drew his brows together slightly as if confused by my response. It wasn’t like I was speaking in tongues here, guy. I needed a tutor, he was on the sign-up sheet for tutors. Where was the confusion?
He shook his head. “Look, I’ve got to get my sister home so…”
So nothing. He took off, not even bothering to finish that sentence.
Awesome. My one brilliant plan on how I might possibly be able to dig myself out of this dire situation and he was walking away from me.
I had to bite my lip again to call out after him. Whatever, I might be desperate but I wasn’t pathetic. If he didn’t want to help me, I wasn’t going to fight him on it. I watched him place a hand on his sister’s shoulder and lead her out toward the parking lot.
It wasn’t until he was out of view that I grabbed my bag and headed out myself.
There had to be someone who could help me, right? Someone who wasn’t a jerk, preferably, and someone else who wasn’t friends with my friends.
Quite frankly it sounded impossible to find someone by the weekend, but with my team counting on me and my entire future at stake?
Yeah, I’d find a way.