Chapter 24

"Is it just me, or is James Stirling looking especially hot tonight?"

A girl giggled. "It's just because he's free game now. No more Taylor Hampton to keep him busy."

Her friend tossed her hair. "I never understood that anyway. They are so not right for each other."

I cleared my throat awkwardly, unable to ignore the conversation right behind me.

"Holy fuck," Summer said with an angry look over her shoulder. "Do they not realise we're sitting two rows in front of them?"

I shrugged. "They're idiots. It doesn't matter."

I scanned the court, watching Christie dodge a steal and bounce pass to Dannie. Julie weaved in, turned for the pass and then the ball was twirling up towards the basket to sink in a three pointer.

I whooped in delight as Dallington High screamed their appreciation.

It was Wednesday night – and our semi-final playoff. With three quarters down and ten points keeping us in front, things couldn't have been better. I was itching to play, and I could barely keep my seat whenever the pace picked up. I took that as a good sign. I would be ready for the championship.

As the cheering quietened slightly, I saw Summer shoot me a look. "It does matter. They shouldn't be talking about you like that. They don't even know the half of what happened between you two. You should stand up for yourself, Tay. Shut all those stupid girls up."

I rose an eyebrow, sending her a smile. "I'll keep my fight for the court these days."

She laughed. "It seems like you've got your love for the game back."

I grinned. "Sure do. I can barely stand being on the sidelines anymore."

"It's funny to think you almost quit a couple of weeks ago."

I stilled for a moment, not knowing what to say. "Just goes to show how much James screwed me up, I guess."

Glancing at Summer when she didn't reply, I saw her frowning across the court.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

She sighed and looked back at me. "You ever think it's your dad that screws you up, and not James?"

I turned away, and she continued hastily. "I mean, I know it's not my business… and I've never met your dad… but it just seems like he's the one that pushes you too hard. He's the reason why you're afraid to fail, why you're exhausted, why you can't-"

I stopped her there. "Summer… can we please not talk about this?"

She was cut off again as the buzzer blared loudly and I whirled around to the scoreboard in surprise. The quarter had passed so quickly. Relief sagged through me just as quickly as I saw that we'd won by five points. I let out a deep breath, realising just how tense I'd been the entire game. I'd almost been the captain-who-sprained-her-ankle and led her team to third place. I'd almost been the daughter that failed spectacularly.

"Championship here we come!" Dannie yelled happily, running up and slinging an arm around my shoulders.

"Nice work, ladies." Coach said as he walked up, patting Julie on the back.

"Aw, c'mon Coach, that was better than 'nice'" Maya laughed.

He grinned, shrugging his shoulders, saying, "I'm saving my excitement for the championship."

Christie laughed happily. "Two more weeks and we get to take on Drummer again!"

"And victory will be sooooo sweet." Maya added.

"Hit the showers, girls, and make sure you rest up before practice tomorrow night. We've got to be ready for that game." Coach said as he grabbed his clipboard, looking at me pointedly as he walked back to his office.

I swallowed, feeling the pressure already. Two weeks.

Christie slung an arm around my neck. "So… you ready to take back your rightful position, Hampton? You ready to lead us to victory?"

I glanced over at Lara. "You were awesome, Lara. That steal you made in the third quarter was so good."

She grinned, looking embarrassed and saying, "Thanks! But I'm about ready to let you take over again. Point guards have way to much pressure."

I laughed. "Tell me about it."

"To the showers!" Dannie proclaimed, pointing towards the locker rooms.

"I'll meet you guys after." I called out to them, turning towards the bleachers and searching for Josh and Summer.

Pushing through the crowd and grinning as people talked excitedly about the game, I heard someone shout my name a couple of minutes later.

"Taylor!" Josh rushed up, his face flushed. "I have like the worst news in the world. Well, okay, not as bad as when Paris got arrested or when Britney shaved her head but still averagely depressing when compared. Okay, take a deep breath. Travis told Michael who told Christie who told Maya who told Summer who told me that James is going out with Mercedes tonight."

I felt my heart wrench.

"Josh!" Summer said as she reached us. "I can't believe you. She doesn't need to hear something like that. Anyway, it doesn't matter. James is just rebounding to the easiest place possible."

"It doesn't matter…" I began.

"Of course it matters!" Josh yelled dramatically, waving his hands in the air and causing people to stare. "I mean, honestly, what do I have to do to get you two together? Do I have to organise another kiss in the rain? Another steamy hotel damsel in distress move? Another naughty gambling scandal over who's better at sinking a three pointer in sexy black shorts?"

"Calm down Josh. Stop obsessing over romantic fantasies." Maya said as she walked up behind him, following by the rest of the team.

He looked down. "I'm sorry. I just don't deal well with unhappy endings."

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. "Look, guys, we really have to stop this. This thing with James is over and I'm moving on, okay? We should all just stop talking about it. How about we go get something to eat before everything closes? This is the first night that I don't have an assignment to do and I want to have fun for once."

"Amen, sister." Christie said as she wrapped an arm around my shoulders. "Everyone to the car."

Five minutes later, we were all piled into Christie's car and heading to the nearest pizza parlour. As I stared out the window, I tried to push thoughts of James away. He was out with a different girl tonight. He was probably kissing her right now. I closed my eyes as my stomach flip-flopped.

"We should get a slice of every single kind of pizza." Dannie said as Christie drove into the parking lot.

I laughed and got out of the car. Glancing into the restaurant, I saw that it was still fairly busy and there were quite a lot of students from our school crowded into the booths.

"Looks like we picked the right place." Josh said happily.

"Michael told me everyone was going here after the game." Christie told him over her shoulder as she opened the door.

"Everyone?" I asked without thinking.

She sent me a worried look. "No. I doubt it."

I shrugged and followed them in, smiling as some people shouted out greetings. I heard Michael call Christie over, and followed my friends towards a table in the back corner.

"Nice game, ladies." Nathan shouted out as he shoved some pizza into his mouth.

"Pepperoni pizza!" Dannie exclaimed as she grabbed a slice, and Christie pulled me in to sit next to her as the guys shuffled over to give us some seats. I watched as Cody kissed Julie and pulled her in to sit with him, and swallowed as I told myself that I didn't care where James was.

I spent the next half an hour laughing and talking as everyone analysed the game. Summer and Josh had wandered off to different tables, so it was purely basketball talk and pizza.

"So you ready for Sarah Bright again, Tay?" Cody asked me across the table.

I nodded, taking a bite of my pizza. "I think so. I feel… different. If I'm not ready for her this time I don't think I ever will be."

"Nah man, you've beaten her before. You can do it again." Travis said with a nod. "Plus, she's got a fucked up three pointer."

I glanced over to the door as the noise level temporarily rose, and wondered why people were suddenly crowded around the entrance. I shrugged and grabbed another slice of pizza.

"Stirling! What you doing here, man?"

I looked up automatically, watching as James approached the table. He was dressed down – wearing the usual combo of basketball shorts and a grey hoodie. His dark hair was a jaunty mess around even darker eyes. Something seemed lacking as he walked, but he grinned nevertheless when he reached us.

"Thought we'd stop by and congratulate the girls." He said, without a glance around the table.

"Plus, I just couldn't stay away from the crowd. Gotta show off my new guy." Mercedes said as she appeared from behind James, winding an arm around him. He grinned down at her and slipped his own arm over her shoulders.

I choked on my pizza, looking away quickly as half of the table glanced at me. Christie sent me an alarmed look, patting my back as I coughed and took a sip of coke.

"You okay, Tay?" Mercedes asked sweetly.

In the space of a second, I hated James. I felt every single moment of competitiveness between us that had ever passed rise up in me. This was just another steal, another dodge around an opponent. Another lay-up with a double team in the way. He wanted me to breakdown. He wanted me to leave the table in a mess of tears. He wanted me to act out the jealous girl who got rejected.

I cleared my throat. "I'm fine. Just surprised to see you. I thought James would have taken you somewhere a little nicer."

I heard Christie make a small sound from beside me, and saw people around the table shift uncomfortably.

Mercedes smiled and leant her head on James' shoulder. "Oh, okay. I was worried that you might hate me because things ended so badly between you two. I just can't help thinking that I played some part in that."

I nodded, picking my coke up from the table. "No hard feelings."

A moment of silence passed, and I heard Nathan lean forward and mutter into his plate, "Well, this is as uncomfortable as fuck."

Mercedes twirled a finger through James' hair. "So, can we sit down with you guys?"

Maya snorted. "Fuck no."

Julie elbowed her and hissed a quiet, "Maya!"

Christie was shaking her head anyway. "Sorry, but there's no room."

I tilted my head. "It's okay, I was just about to leave anyway-"

"Nah, man." Cody said to me. "We still haven't finished discussing your strategy for Sarah Bright. You can't leave."

Travis looked over to James. "Guess you'll just have to find another table."

Mercedes made an indignant noise and glanced up at James. Even I found myself watching him to see his reaction.

He shifted on his feet. "We'll stand."

Mercedes frowned, but leant forward to grab some pizza. "Yeah. We'll stand."

"Suit yourself." Travis said, and then turned away to look at me. "I wasn't joking when I said that Sarah Bright has a fucked up three pointer. Seriously, watch her under double teams. She can't create space at all."

I swallowed some pizza and thought about what he'd said. "But she's too good at finding outlets. Drummer have always had faster plays than us."

Michael shook his head and leant forward. "But you're the fastest point guard in the state. And Christie and Maya know how to double team without fouling – why don't you back off Sarah and cover the top?"

I raised my eyebrows. "Play court instead of players?"

Mercedes coughed. "Can we talk about something other than basketball?"

"Play court instead of players." Cody said decidedly.

Christie looked excited. "That could work!"

"I don't know what you guys are even worried about. We've beaten them before and Tay is so much better than Bright." Dannie said as she munched away happily on her pizza.

I heard his voice before I registered what he was saying.

"Let's not forget that Taylor hasn't played in weeks."

Maya frowned up at James. "She hurt her ankle."

"And that she hasn't even come close to her point average from last year."

Christie slammed her drink onto the table and glared at him. "Are you really keeping that close of a track?"

The table went quiet, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. James stared at her, but didn't say anything. Christie looked livid, and everyone else seemed to be distracted by slices of pizza or cups of coke.

Sighing, I stood up. "Well, I'm off. I think I'll just catch the bus home."

I shuffled past people and ignored their calls to stay.

"No, really," I continued. "I'll probably have more fun on the bus-"

"Dude." Cody interrupted me. "Sit back down. We'd rather talk to you."

Mercedes gasped indignantly and looked up at James again, but he made no reaction.

I cleared my throat, saying, "It's cool. Honestly. I'll see you guys tomorrow at school anyway."

By this point I had already awkwardly made my way away from the table and was waving goodbye. I paced towards the door, aware that people were watching me as I left, and quickly dodged out of the pizza place. I took a deep breath as soon as I was outside, glad to be leaving. Looking down the street, I spotted a bus stop and made by way towards it.

My stomach was whirling. As much as I wanted to ignore it, I knew my heart was breaking just a little bit more. He was with Mercedes now? I cringed as I thought about them hugging… kissing… walking down the hallways together, hand in hand.

"Uh. Whatever." I whispered, shaking my head.

I had more important things to think about. In 2 weeks time I would be facing Sarah Bright again. She'd be opposite me, taunting and dodging and trying to tire me out. I knew that if I could beat her this time, if I could remember what it felt like to win, I would be able to forget about James. I wouldn't let him get to me. I was going to win that championship, beat Sarah Bright, and show everyone just how good I really was.

A bus pulled up, and the double doors opened in front of me. I stood up, smiling. I was going to forget about James Stirling and fall back in love with the game.

Author's Note: I'm sorry that this took so long. For the reviewers that stuck with me… I owe you a lot and I'm very thankful for you. There are two chapters to go, and they are dedicated to you. Thank you.