Main Girl at Heart

Girl at Heart

As the daughter of a successful Major League pitcher, Charlie Hastings has baseball in her blood. Unfortunately, being the only girl on her high school baseball team, Charlie has always been just one of the guys. When her best friend, and secret love of her life, asks another girl to the prom, Charlie is devastated. She’s tired of being overlooked by boys because she’s not like other girls. Suffering a massive identity crisis, she decides to hang up her cleats and finally learn how to be a girl. But with only two weeks until the state championships, the Roosevelt High Ravens can’t afford to lose their star catcher. Team captain Jace King makes her a deal: Don’t quit the team, and he’ll help her become the girl she’s so desperate to be. After all, he’s got four sisters, one of whom happens to be a cheerleader. He knows a thing or two about girls. (And if he can win her heart in the process, all the better.)
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Table of Contents

TITLE

ALSO BY KELLY ORAM

NEWSLETTER

COPYRIGHT

DEDICATION

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

THANK YOU

ONE OF THE GIRLS

ABOUT KELLY ORAM





by Kelly Oram





Also by Kelly Oram Serial Hottie

Joni, Underway





If We Were a Movie

The Ghost of You and Me Sixteen Kisses

The Cinder & Ella Series:

Cinder & Ella





Happily Ever After

The Jamie Baker Series:





Being Jamie Baker





More Than Jamie Baker





Remember Jamie Baker

The Science Squad Series:

The Avery Shaw Experiment The Libby Garrett Intervention The V is for Virgin Series:





V is for Virgin





A is for Abstinence

The Supernaturals Series:





Chameleon





Ungifted





Scion





FREE READ! SIXTEEN KISSES, BY KELLY ORAM

All Cassie Caldwell wants for her sixteenth birthday is to finally be kissed. When Cassie’s older brother and his best friend—the lovable, sexy cowboy, Jared—discover her secret, Jared takes it upon himself to make sure her birthday wish comes true.

SUBSCRIBE to Kelly’s newsletter to get your free copy!





Published by Bluefields Creative Copyright © 2019 by Kelly Oram Edition 1.1

Edited by Jennifer Henkes (www.literallyjen.com)

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

ISBN: 978-1-7341812-0-3





For all my fellow baseball fans.





Today’s the day all of my dreams come true. Eric Sullivan will finally be mine. I’ll confess my undying love for him, he’ll ask me to prom, and we’ll get married and live happily ever after, making cute little baseball prodigy babies. Or… He’ll reject me, and I’ll die of both embarrassment and a broken heart. But either way, this pining after my best friend thing ends today. As soon as I work up the guts to come clean.

“Hastings!”

I shake myself from my mental pep talk—which isn’t really working—and look around, trying to figure out who’s calling my name.

“Yo, Charlie!”

Diego Escobar, the Roosevelt High Ravens’ varsity center fielder, is standing at the back sliding glass door, giving me an impatient look. Once he has my full attention, he points his thumb over his shoulder. “You care if I eat the leftover pizza in the fridge? I’m starving.”

I pull myself out of the pool with a roll of my eyes, and Kevin Jones, our third baseman, climbs onto the diving board with a groan. “Dude. You’re always starving.”

Diego makes a face. “Whatever. You eat more than I do.”

I laugh. “Kevin eats more than everyone.”

Eric, the pitcher to my catcher and secret love of my life, nods toward Kevin from where he’s leaning back on the steps of the pool, resting his elbows on the pool deck. “Yeah. The proof is in the size of his butt.”

We all laugh at Kevin’s expense. Eric isn’t wrong, though. Kevin’s butt is a little on the big side. Kevin scoffs. “You’re all jerks.”

Diego snaps his fingers at me to gain my attention again. “So, can I?”

I wave him off. “Have at it.”

He disappears into the house, and the rest of us go back to our contest of doing flips off the diving board. It’s only the beginning of May, so it’s 75 degrees at most today, but the pool is heated, and it’s tradition for my friends to come over once we finally have the pool uncovered for the summer.

Kevin, Eric, and Diego have been my best friends since T-ball, back before we all realized a girl playing baseball is weird. We clicked right away, but we became thick as thieves once other boys in the league started making fun of me or telling me that girls can’t play baseball, and Eric, Kev, and Diego started having to defend me. Sure, the three of them can give me all the crap they want, but if anyone else does, they’re going to get punched.

I’m eternally grateful for all three of them, but I’m by far closest with Eric. It comes from us having to work so much together as catcher and pitcher. He also comes from a broken home, getting shuffled back and forth between two self-centered workaholic parents, so he spends most of his time with my dad and me. We’re together nearly 24/7.

“Cannonball!” Kevin screams, taking a running leap off the diving board and pulling his knees up to his chest. The resulting splash is impressive. He surfaces with a huge grin. “Beat that, losers!”

I snort. “We can’t. None of us have as big a butt as yours.”

Kevin laughs. “Like you can talk, thunder thighs.”

“I’m a catcher!” I cry, laughing to cover up how horrified I am by the taunt. “I practically live in a squat!”

Sadly, Kevin isn’t wrong about my thighs any more than I am about his butt. I have huge thighs. It’s all muscle, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about it. At least I’m tall. (Five feet, nine inches.) And I have a decent chest. (D-cups, thank you very much.) My long dirty-blonde hair is kind of boring, but my big, blue eyes are pretty. I don’t think I’m hopeless in the looks department, but that doesn’t mean I want my guy friends all laughing about my thunder thighs.

The guys all roar with laughter and only howl harder when I glare at them. “I hate you all. Go home.”

“Aw, come on, Hastings,” Diego says, now standing on the back patio with a large slice of pizza. “You know none of us care what you look like.”

“Not when you hit the way you do,” Kevin adds.

I frown. “What’s wrong with the way I look? I’m not ugly.”

Kevin pulls himself out of the pool and wrings his board shorts out on the deck. Diego shoves a huge bite of pizza in his mouth and talks with his mouth full. “I didn’t say you were ugly, but I’m definitely not checking you out.”

He makes gagging noises, while Kevin shudders. “Yeah, Hastings. You’re like a brother to us.”

I scoff. “A brother? Seriously?”

I look to Eric with a silent plea for my defense, but he shakes his head and laughs. “You don’t exactly act like a sister.”

Okay, that’s not boding well for the idea that he returns my epic crush. Unless…maybe that’s his way of saying he doesn’t see me as a sister, but he’s too chicken to admit he sees me as girlfriend potential. Yeah, I don’t believe that, either. Maybe I shouldn’t tell him.

“Ugh! I. Am. A. Girl. You jerks!”

The guys all crack up again.

I push Kevin into the pool on my way to the diving board just because I can, and I sneak a glance at Eric, hoping that he’ll contradict Kevin and tell me he loves the way I look, and that I’m beautiful, and that he can’t go another day trying to hide his true feelings for me. And then he’ll scoop me into his big, strong arms, and he’ll stare down at me with those beautiful golden hazel eyes. He’ll smile softly at me and cup my cheek gently, then slowly, slowly, slowly he’ll lean down and—

“Hastings!”

“Huh? What?” Startled once again, I look around, praying none of them caught me ogling Eric while fantasizing about our first kiss. All three of them give me strange looks. Eric looks just as confused—and, thankfully, oblivious—as the others, so I live to hide my crush another day. Or, at least, for a couple more hours, because today is the day I’m going to tell him. I swear. I’m totally going to do it.

When our eyes meet, he cocks his eyebrows. “You just going to stand there all day, or what?”

Right. I’m on the diving board. It’s my turn. Cheeks blazing red, I take a deep breath and jump. I mean to do a double flip, because I know I’m the only one of us that can, and I need to redeem myself after that embarrassing display of my daydreaming. Problem is, I’m distracted. As I jump, I slip, fall forward, and splat on top of the water like a bug hitting a car windshield.

Even beneath the surface of the water, I can hear the collective “OOOOHHHHH!” of my friends. For years to come, the guys will razz me for this one. At least none of them had their phones out, so there’s no video evidence of my diving fail.

I come up sputtering and can’t even be bothered by their hysterical laughter and taunting because every part of the front of me is stinging from the epic belly flop. Wading to the edge of the pool, I haul myself out of the water and roll onto my back with a groan. “Oh, it hurts.”

“You okay, Charlie?”

I glance toward the back door at the sound of my father’s voice. He’s dressed for work in his Pittsburgh Pirates polo and black slacks, and he’s holding up a cell phone with a wide grin on his face.

“No, Dad. Tell me you didn’t.”

“Oh, no, Chad, tell me you did,” Diego says, doubled over, holding his gut. “Please, oh please, tell me you got that.”

Dad’s grin turns wicked. “The whole thing. It was a great shot, too.”

Eric pulls himself out of the pool and crashes down onto one of the deck chairs. He grabs a towel and starts drying off his glorious chest.

“I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you text me the video,” Kevin offers my dad.

“No!” I shriek. “Dad, don’t you dare!”

My dad, who loves to torture me as much as the guys do, laughs. But thankfully, he slips his phone back in his pocket. “You don’t have a hundred bucks, Kev,” he says.

“Yeah, you don’t even have five,” Eric teases, flinging his towel over his head to dry his hair.

“You owe me ten,” I say.

Kevin sticks his tongue out at me and then does another flip off the diving board. I pull my aching body up and crash on the chair next to Eric, reaching for my water bottle on the small table between us. “Please delete that, Dad. I’m begging.”

Dad smirks. “No, I think I’ll hang onto this video to save for your wedding day.”

“Ha ha,” I say, though I might have to break into his phone later and delete the video, because I wouldn’t put it past him to actually play that video at my wedding.

He winks at me, then scans the lot of us. “All right, boys, party’s over. Get out of my pool, and go to your own homes.”

He laughs at the round of groans, protests, and straight-up whining he gets from the guys. “Can’t we stay and watch the game?” Diego pushes out his bottom lip and bats his eyelashes. “Your theater room is so much better than my crappy living room TV that I have to share with my little brothers and sisters.”

Dad snorts at Diego’s pout. “Sorry. Just because I like you doesn’t mean I trust you all not to burn my house down while I’m gone. Especially you, Mr. Metal in the Microwave.”

“One time!” Diego cries. “And I was eleven!”

Dad smirks. “Still almost burned down my kitchen.”

I pull my hair from its ponytail and start to scrub it with my towel. “Besides, I won’t even be here to watch it with you.” Because I’ll be watching the game from my amazing seats in the front row right behind home plate.

My dad, the great Chad Hastings, used to pitch in Major League Baseball—mostly for Pittsburgh. He was awesome. Three-time Cy Young winner, six-time All-Star, and he won eight—count them, eight—Gold Gloves. He even pitched two no-hitters.

After he retired, he got a degree in broadcasting and is now one of the commentators for the Pirates’ televised games. Once I was thirteen and old enough to sit in the stands on my own, he got me a pair of season tickets so I could come to work with him when the team is home. I’ve been going to all the home games ever since, and for just as long, the guys have all taken turns coming with me.

Kevin shrugs and throws his arm over Diego’s shoulder. “So? Your theater room is still better than either of our TV viewing options. We can watch the game without you. Promise to lock up on our way out.”

Dad smirks. “Nice try, boys. Go home. Your parents probably miss you.”

I laugh. “That’s debatable. But go home anyway. And have fun watching the game from your crap living room TVs.”

Eric slides up next to me and throws his arm over my shoulder, shooting Diego and Kevin a smug grin. “Yeah, boys, have fun. We’ll wave to you from the front row.”

His arm feels like magic around my shoulders, and tingles shoot through me where our sides are touching. I suck in a breath and do my best not to start trembling or blushing.

Dad laughs, and both Kevin and Diego scoff in disgust. “I take it tonight’s your turn?” Dad asks Eric.

Eric grins. “Against the Cubbies, baby.”

Dad narrows his eyes. “It almost sounds like your rooting for Chicago…”

Eric gasps. “Chad, I would never!”

I snort and elbow him. “Yeah, he just has a man crush on Bryce James.” Not that I blame him. I have a crush on Bryce, too. I mean, he is the most talented, friendliest, most gorgeous man in baseball right now. IMHO.

Dad stops eyeballing Eric and chuckles. “Okay. Yeah. I get it. Even I can appreciate James. Their bullpen is one to beat, too. Should be a good game.” He claps his hands together as if he’s calling us all into a huddle. “All right, Eric and Charlie, hurry and get ready. We’re leaving in twenty. Kevin and Diego…go home.”

Kevin and Diego both sigh long, suffering sighs, but they pick up their things and head out. Eric and I both hit the showers. Separately, of course. He uses the one in the guest room that’s basically his since he stays over a lot when Dad’s on the road or his parents are MIA, while I run upstairs to my en suite and use the twenty minutes to psych myself up for the evening. Because tonight’s the night. I’m going to tell him. I’m definitely going to come clean. I am. I can feel our relationship forming already.





I wait to make my move until the eighth inning. Not because I’m a chicken and can’t seem to get the words out, but because I’m a giant chicken and can’t seem to get the words out. Also, there’s the fact that if I’d asked in the first inning and he rejected me, then the rest of the game would be super awkward. I figure the eighth is late enough. Plus, it’s one of those one-to-nothing games. (Super exciting.) I’ll take any kind of drama I can get at this point.

The pitcher releases the ball, and Eric sighs next to me. “Your dad wasn’t kidding about the Cubs’ bullpen. Castillo’s knuckle curve is a work of art. It truly is. I need to learn to throw a pitch like that.”

I watch Castillo let loose another pitch. Slider. It looks almost as good as his knuckle curve. “You learn to throw a good knuckle ball, and you’ll have every team in the league fighting over you instead of just half of them.”

The corner of his mouth tips up, but his eyes stay on the pitcher. Fastball in. “As long as it’s the same half that’s fighting over you.”

I roll my eyes, but my heart warms at the praise. Eric elbows me. “When we get drafted, we’ll just have to stipulate in our contracts that we go together. I don’t want anyone else catching for me.”

I sigh. As much as I love the encouragement, it’s unrealistic. No girl has ever played in the Majors. My dream stops after high school. End of story.

“Hey.” Eric finally takes his eyes off the game to frown at me. “Don’t give me that depressed sigh. You know there’s no rule in Major League Baseball that says girls can’t play.”

“Yet, no girl ever has.”

“So you’ll be the first.”

“Pipe dream. I’m done at the end of this season. You know it, and I know it. It was fun while it lasted, though.”

Eric glares at me. “Charlotte Hastings, you are the best hitter in our division, and you have the best stats of any catcher in the state. You have every bit as much of a chance as the rest of us, and you deserve it even more because you work twice as hard as all of us put together.”

That isn’t true. Eric works just as hard as me. Dad’s been coaching us both since we were four. And a good lefty pitcher is hard to come by. He already has tons of scouts watching him. As long as he finishes this season without getting hurt, he’s a shoo-in to get drafted out of high school.

It won’t work that way for me. That’s just reality. Still, if Eric wants to tell me I’m good enough to play in the Majors, who am I to stop him? The thing is, he’s not just saying it. He genuinely believes it. I may be a realist, but Eric will be surprised when no college or pro teams come knocking on my door.

Eric throws his arm around the back of my chair and gives me a squeeze. I want to melt into a giant puddle from the hug. Eric’s hugs are second only to Dad’s. “Don’t be down on yourself,” he says. “Things will work out. You’ll see.”

He squeezes me again and then leaves his arm on the chair behind me. My heart races into overdrive. He’s got his arm around me! That’s new. Maybe I do have a shot. And speaking of… I take a deep breath. It’s now or never. “So…” I clear my throat. “Total subject change here, but…”

Eric shoots me a sideways look, waiting for me to spit it out. It’s not like me to be so nervous. I mentally kick my chicken butt and strive for a nonchalant shrug when I say, “Do you have any plans for prom?”

He grins. “Yeah. I’m taking Shelly Turner.” He says this like it’s nothing. Like it’s the most casual thing in the world and not the life-ending confession it is.

My thoughts come to a screeching halt. He’s already got a date. I lean forward, and his arm falls off the back of my chair. He moves it back to his own space.

“Shelly Turner?” I ask. We’ve never spoken, but I suddenly hate her.

Eric’s smile widens. “Hot, right?”

“Sure, she’s hot. If you go for the too-perfect, curvy redhead Jessica Rabbit/Scarlett Johansson bombshell look,” I grumble. I can’t help it. I’m battling heartbreak and the green-eyed monster at the same time.

Eric looks at me as if I’m crazy. “Um. Duh. Every guy is into that look.”

I roll my eyes and focus back on the game. The Pirates are up now, and we walk the first batter. Ugh. Our bullpen should take notes from Chicago. (Don’t tell Dad I said that.)

As if the news of Eric and Shelly isn’t bad enough, he has to go and ruin my night even more by saying, “Some of us guys on the team are getting a limo together.”

My mouth falls open, and a new kind of hurt settles in my chest. “Diego and Kev, too?”

Eric frowns at my frown. “Yeah, and a couple of the others.”

I don’t know what to say. My own teammates—my best friends—made plans for prom together, and none of them invited me. That actually hurts worse than Eric having a date. “So what, you all made plans and just didn’t want to invite me?”

I can’t keep the hurt out of my voice. It’s enough to make Eric take his eyes off the game again and gape at me in surprise. “We didn’t think you’d want to go.”

Didn’t think I’d want to go to my own senior prom? Everyone wants to go to their senior prom. “Why not?”

Eric blinks at me a couple more times, and then a small laugh escapes him. “Hastings, come on. You’re not exactly the formal dance type.”

The pain in my chest cuts a little bit deeper, and I have to swallow a lump in my throat. I fold my arms and try not to glare at him. I’m unsuccessful. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shakes his head, still smirking. “You know you’d have to wear a dress, right? And do your hair and your makeup, and wear girly shoes or whatever? And you’d have to dance. Plus, you’d have to find a date. No one goes to prom alone.”

It’s like he has no clue how insulting he’s being. The pain is trying to swallow me whole, but now he’s making me angry, too. Anger is good. I can work with anger. Anger will keep me from doing what I really want to do, which is run away to the bathroom and cry in a toilet stall like a loser until the end of the game.

“You don’t think I could get a date?”

Eric shrugs and goes back to watching the game. “Honestly, I don’t want to think about you dating. Diego was right before. You’re practically a sister to me. I don’t want to see you making out with guys or whatever.”

I scoff, but Eric only smirks at me. “Besides, no guy is good enough for you. I’m going to be as bad as your dad when it comes to guys trying to date you. Diego and Kev will, too. We’re all going to have shotguns. I’m afraid you’re screwed.”

I’m so angry, and I’m hurt, and my heart is breaking, but at the same time a sick part of me is touched. Eric thinks no guys are good enough for me? It’s just sweet enough to keep me from bursting into tears. But when he shoots me a playful smile, I respond with one that’s more of a grimace.

I can’t look at him anymore. I turn all of my focus back on the game and concentrate on not crying. Eric definitely doesn’t return my undying love. A part of me knew this was coming, but that doesn’t mean I was prepared for how much it hurts.

“Hey. Hastings. You okay?”

I slump down in my chair and pull the brim of my baseball cap lower over my eyes. “I’m fine.”

“Are you mad at me?”

I don’t dare look at him, though I can feel his eyes burning a hole in my head. “Why would I be mad at you?” If he doesn’t know, I’m not going to spell it out for him.

“I don’t know, but you seem mad.”

“Well, I’m fine,” I snap. Yeah, that was totally believable.

Eric sits back with a glare. “Geez. Relax. I honestly didn’t think you’d want to go. But if you do, then find a date and come with us. You know you’re invited. You don’t have to get all huffy about it.”

I grind my teeth. At this point, it’s better to not engage. “Yeah, sure, whatever. I’ll let you know.”

That seems to appease Eric, and he goes back to the game while I sit and stew and agonize in silence. My life will never be the same again. I just want to go home where I can sneak a pint of Ben & Jerry’s into my bedroom and cry my eyes out over some cheesy teen rom-com on Netflix. It’s a good night for The DUFF. I totally feel Bianca’s pain.

At least I waited until the eighth inning. I only have to sit through one more before I can go home. And hey, even a one-to-nothing snoozefest is still a Pirates win. So at least something went right today.





I barely eat or sleep the rest of the weekend. How can I, after Eric crushed me? I’m flat-out exhausted by the time Monday morning rolls around, and I fall back to sleep after I shut off my alarm. Dad realizes I slept in and wakes me up soon enough that I get to school just as the bell rings. But I didn’t get a shower or breakfast, and I barely scoot into my first hour without earning detention.

I slump down into my chair only to face the curious stares of my tablemates, who also happen to be my teammates. I’m not a social person. Eric, Diego, and Kevin are my only friends. The only other people I even know in this school are my teammates. Luckily, I have three of them in my chemistry class, so I didn’t get paired with a bunch of strangers all year. Right now, I kind of wish I did, because as soon as Mrs. Kendrick explains the day’s lab and lets us get to work, the guys start in on me with a million questions.

At first, I don’t know what their problem is. They don’t usually pay me much attention. I’m part of the group, but I don’t talk much, and they don’t try to make me. I’m not shy, just really introverted, and it’s easy to sit back and let Reynolds, Cabrera, and Springer do all the chatting.

I’m not sure why they’re all staring at me this morning, but they seem to be waiting for something. Reynolds grins at me and then starts the conversation off with “You look like crap, Hastings.”

I roll my eyes but smile, too. I like Reynolds. Mark Reynolds is a utility outfielder and the team goofball. His teasing is always all in good fun. Aside from Eric, Diego, and Kevin, Mark and his best friend, Jace King, are the only guys who really make an effort to talk to me. But Jace is the team captain. He probably feels obligated to include me, and I’m sure he encourages Mark to do the same. No one else bothers.

It’s not that the team doesn’t like me—at least, I don’t think it’s not—we’re just not close. A) I’m a girl. The guys are used to me now, but it can still be weird sometimes when they fart or make jokes about girls and stuff, and B) Since I mostly keep to myself, the guys on the team are friendly with me, but we’re not friends. Not really. More like acquaintances. We don’t hang out outside of team stuff.

I want to argue with Mark about the state of my appearance, but I do have dark circles under my eyes, and I’m a frazzled mess this morning. He’s right. I look like crap. “Just what every girl wants to hear, Reynolds. Thanks. For your information, I didn’t sleep last night.”

There’s a heavy pause that I don’t understand.

“Bad night?” Reynolds asks, probing for something. All three of them watch me intently again. It’s so weird.

“Yeah, I guess,” I admit.

Then Springer shocks me so much I nearly fall out of my chair. “Tough breakup, huh? You okay?”

“Breakup?” I honestly have no clue what he’s talking about.

Cabrera elbows him, but Springer’s got chronic foot-in-mouth disease and never knows when to shut up. “You and Sullivan. He’s going to prom with Shelly Turner. The whole team’s trying to figure out who dumped who.”

Mark kicks Springer under the table. “Dude. Shut up. That’s rude.”

Springer’s face turns red, and he grimaces at me. “Sorry.”

It takes me a moment to process what he said, because it feels like it came out of left field. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they all assumed Eric and I were a couple. We’re always together. But I am surprised. We’ve never held hands or kissed or done any of the things couples do. I’m also shocked that the team has been talking about us. I wouldn’t have thought they cared so much. Eric is just like me—part of the team but somehow still separate. I guess we kind of live in our own little bubble. “Um.” My face feels like it’s on fire. I shake my head and try to get my brain started again. “Eric and I aren’t…I mean, we’ve never…we’re best friends, but…”

Now it’s their turn to look shocked. “You weren’t dating?” Springer asks. “Seriously?”

“This whole time?” Reynolds asks.

I shake my head.

“Are you gay?” That’s Cabrera. I’m not surprised by his blunt question. Alex Cabrera is the team’s instigator. He doesn’t really have a filter and is always starting fights, both accidentally and on purpose.

I’m embarrassed and a little put out that he asked, but I guess I can’t blame him for wondering. I play a boys’ sport, I wear nothing but jeans and T-shirts, my hair’s always in a ponytail, I don’t own makeup, and I’ve never been in a relationship. I’ve never even been asked out on a date.

All three of them lean in, waiting for my answer. None of them know. I’m not sure how to feel about that. It’s not like how boyish or girlish a person is is always an indicator of their sexual preference, but it hurts a little that none of them can guess. I really don’t need this blow to my ego after last night.

I want to crawl into a hole, but I can’t let them see that the taunting is getting to me. I’d never live it down. “No.” I give him a flat look. “I’m not gay.”

Cabrera holds up his hands in an I’m backing off gesture, Springer is blushing like he’s embarrassed for me, and Reynolds nods absently as if he’s considering my answer and what it might mean. When I shoot him a questioning look, he wipes the scheming look off his face and gives me a smile. “So, if Sullivan’s taking Shelly Turner to prom, who are you going with?”

And I thought the Are you gay? question was embarrassing. At least with that one, neither answer would have made me look dumb. Now I have to tell them that no one has asked me to the dance. (Boy or girl.) Instead, I deflect and turn the question back on him. “Who are you going with?”

For one brief second, I wonder if he’ll ask me. Like maybe that was the reason he looked so contemplative when I said I was straight and then he promptly asked me if I already had a date to prom. But he doesn’t ask. Instead, an adorably proud grin spreads across his face and he puffs out his chest. “I’m taking Rachel Judge.”

It takes me a minute to figure out who he’s talking about. “The cheerleader?”

His grin widens, and he nods enthusiastically. “She’s good friends with Jace’s sister Leila. She hooked me up.”

I nod, impressed. Rachel’s really popular and super pretty. Not that Mark doesn’t deserve a girl like her, but he’s more a class clown than a popular star athlete. Maybe I’m stereotyping, but I assumed the cheerleader would go with one of the football players. “Congratulations,” I tell him, and I mean it. “She’s really pretty.”

“Super hot,” Cabrera agrees. “I’m surprised she agreed to go out with your sorry behind.”

Mark frowns and finally cracks open his textbook. I forgot we’re supposed to be working right now. “Man, shut up,” Mark says. “We’re athletes. We’re about to be state champions, too. We’re every bit as popular as the dumb football team.”

Cabrera snorts and opens his book as well. “Sure. Keep telling yourself that.”

A shadow falls over our table, and when Mrs. Kendrick clears her throat, I quickly open my book. “Get to work, or you’ll all be finishing this lab during lunch.”

We get busy, and the subject of prom is dropped.

. . . . .

All second hour, I can’t stop thinking about prom. Or, more accurately, how none of the guys included me in their plans. Eric asked Shelly, and both Diego and Kev have dates that I know nothing about. It’s only just starting to hit me that the guys never talk about girls with me or around me. I always thought we told each other everything, but apparently not.

I can’t believe they made their plans and none of them, not once, asked me if I have a date or if I wanted to come with them to dinner or ride in their limo. They asked Mark and Jace to come with them, but none of them thought to ask me. Because I’m not girly enough to like things like prom. Never mind the fact that none of them are “the formal dance type” either, and they’re all excited for prom. Double standard much? Why do they get to like prom, but I can’t?

By third hour, I’m completely fixated on the idea that there’s something wrong with me. That I’m a freak or something. I’m not a guy, but no one can accept me as a girl, either. Eric doesn’t want me. Kev and Diego gag at the idea of having to tell me I look nice. The guys on my team can’t tell if I’m gay or straight.

As much as I hate it, they’re all right. I’m not a normal girl. I’ve never considered myself a tomboy. Not really. It’s not that I don’t like girly things. I’m just surrounded by guys all the time. My mom died when I was six. I was raised by my single dad, his baseball team, and my grandfather. I’ve never learned how to be a girl. I’ve never had anyone to show me.

A soft “Hey, Charlie” startles me from my thoughts.

Jace King slides into the desk beside mine. He’s the only other member of the team in this class, and he always sits beside me. I try to muster up a smile for him, because I like him. Besides Eric, Kev, and Diego, Jace is my favorite member of the team. He’s really talented. Second best batting average on the team behind mine, and he’s fast. Most stolen bases in the whole division. He plays shortstop, and he’s really good at it. He’s the only guy on the team with a shot at playing collegiate ball besides Eric and the only one who takes the game as seriously as both Eric and me. And he’s a really good captain. He’s always so thoughtful and nice. He genuinely cares for every member of the team. I admire him.

As if he can tell something’s not right, his smile slips from his face and his brows crinkle with concern. I murmur a quick “hey” back, then turn away from him and start doodling in my notebook. I don’t want him to ask me what’s wrong. I don’t feel like talking about it.

I’m trying so hard to avoid him that I hear him speak to me, but the words don’t register. My aversion to being rude kicks in, and I force myself to pay attention to him. “Sorry, what?”

Surprisingly, his cheeks turn a little pink and he starts fidgeting. He has to clear his throat before he repeats himself. “I said I saw you on TV on Saturday.”

On TV? What?

“You were at the baseball game with Sullivan Saturday night,” he prompts. “They showed you on the broadcast. They were talking about us being in the running for the state finals. Your dad told the story of how you became a catcher because you played catch with him so much that the better you got at catching the ball, the harder he started throwing to you. He said your position was inevitable.”

“Oh. Right.” Duh. “He tells that story at least once every season. I keep saying he needs new material.”

I fall quiet again and go back to my doodling. Him bringing up the game Saturday night only reminds me of Eric. I’m such an idiot. How did I ever think I had a shot with him?

“Hey…so I was thinking… If you like going to the games, maybe we should go some time. You know…together?”

Of course Eric asked someone else to prom. He thinks of me like a sister. You knew that, Charlie. That’s why you weren’t surprised. Wait. Jace is talking to me again. What did he ask? Crap. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Jace grimaces, and I feel bad. I’m hardly good at conversation right now. He looks like he wants to run away from me, but then he squares his shoulders and forces a smile onto his suddenly determined face. “I asked if you’d like to go to a game with me sometime. I can’t afford seats behind home plate or anything, but the nosebleeds are still fun, right?”

I blink once. Then twice. Did he just ask me out? Did Jace King just ask me out? I’m shocked. Frozen. Stunned. Dumbfounded. Astonished. Bewildered. All the other synonyms for surprised. I stare at him, unable to speak while my mouth opens and closes like a fish.

Jace is way out of my league. He’s gorgeous, first of all. Six-two with wavy blond hair that he keeps styled just a little messy. Or maybe the slightly messy look is natural. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to stress too much about his hair. He’s a really laid back guy. He has deep chocolate-brown eyes. But, like, dark chocolate. The good stuff. And his smile… His smile is like sunshine. It lights up his whole face and makes you feel all warm inside.

On top of his good looks, he’s smart, talented, a great leader, easygoing, nice, thoughtful, and genuine. What in the world is he doing asking me on a date? Is it a date? Or is he asking me as a friend? Are we even friends? Does he consider me a friend? I wouldn’t have thought so. He’s never invited me to do anything with him before. No one has. Is this a pity invite because he believes I’m so depressed over my “breakup” with Eric?

He’s looking at me, waiting for an answer, and I still haven’t spoken. I force my voice into action, and what comes out of my mouth is, “You’re asking me to go to a baseball game with you?”

Smooth. We’ve already established that, Charlie. And now he thinks I’m a moron. Why? Why am I such a spaz?

Jace’s mouth curves up into a crooked smile as though he thinks I’m adorable. It makes me blush. “Yeah.” He chuckles. “I’m asking you to go to a baseball game with me. If you want to.”

That sounds like a date. An awesome date. Not the usual dinner and a movie. But a casual outing where we can just hang out and watch the game we both love. But, do I want to go on a date with Jace? Why shouldn’t I? Eric doesn’t want to go out with me.

After a moment’s deliberation, in which Jace patiently waits for me to answer him, I decide why not? Pity invite or not, Jace is nice. It could be fun, and I could use the distraction. “Okay.”

Jace’s eyebrows fly up in surprise, but he flashes me that killer smile as if I’ve just made his day. “Really?”

I’m not surprised by his surprise. I know everyone on the team probably thinks I’m the stuck-up rich girl because I don’t talk much and never invite people to do stuff. I’m not stuck up. At least, I don’t think I am. I don’t think I’m better than anyone; I’m just awkward.

Jace is totally surprised that I said yes. It’s obvious he expected me to say no. But he’s clearly happy with the outcome. I can tell. Maybe it’s not a pity invite after all.

Something flutters in my stomach. Just a quick flash of pleasure and excitement. I push it down, though, and try to play it cool. “Yeah. I mean, I already go to all the home games. I have season tickets. I usually take one of my friends with me, but if you want to come sometime, they can sit one out.”

Jace studies me a minute, as if he’s trying to figure out some hidden meaning in my words, but then he nods like he’s solidifying our plans. “Sure. That would be awesome.”

Oh my gosh, I just planned a date with Jace King. I have a date with Jace King!

I try to reassure myself that this is a good thing and that I’m not betraying Eric. Just because I’m excited that I got asked out on my first date, and just because I like Jace as a person, doesn’t mean I’m suddenly in love with him and over Eric. And what does it matter? Eric doesn’t love me back. I need to get over him. What better way than going out with Jace? It’s not like Eric will be mad about it. He’ll be happy for me.

Suddenly, I realize I just made plans with Jace, and I have no idea what to do next. Shyness grips me to the point where it’s crushing my chest. My face catches fire, and I can barely meet Jace’s eyes. I tuck a lock of hair that’s fallen free of my ponytail behind my ear and try to speak. “Um…” My voice shakes, and I have to clear my throat. “Okay, yeah. Great.” Ugh. I sound like an idiot. “Um, do you have a favorite team you’d like to see?”

Jace gives me a weird look. “Uh. The Pirates?” His lips twitch, and he adds, “Duh.”

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. I am a SPAZ! “Right.” If my face gets any hotter, it’s going to melt off. “Of course the Pirates. Um, I meant any opposing team you’d like to see play?”

He gives me that smile again and sits back in his chair. “Nah. I don’t really care who we’re up against so long as they lose.”

Good answer. Perfect, actually. I finally crack a smile. Probably the first one of the day. “All right. I’ll text you the schedule for the rest of this home stand, and you can let me know which day works best.”

Jace pauses. “You already have my number?”

“Yeah. It’s on the team roster…Captain.”

I can see the mental facepalm Jace gives himself. “Right. I knew that.” He cringes, and his cheeks turn the slightest shade of pink. It’s really cute, and I smile again. Jace has officially cheered me up.





Jace and I walk to lunch together where we always sit with each other. Sort of. Kinda. Okay, we’re at opposite ends of the same table with pretty much the entire baseball team and a few random girlfriends and whoever between us. Today, when we split up—him to go sit by Reynolds, and me to sit next to Eric—he gives me this small smile that seems to say we’re sharing a secret. My stomach does that fluttery thing again. “See you at practice,” I mutter before I can blush more.

His grin turns playful, almost sly. “I look forward to it.”

It’s all I can do to keep my eyes their normal size. Did he just flirt with me? Guys don’t flirt with me. Ever. What am I supposed to do now? Am I supposed to flirt back? I don’t know how to do that!

Maybe I don’t keep the surprise off my face as well as I hoped, because Jace chuckles. “I’ll see you later, Hastings.”

“Bye,” I croak, and hightail it to my end of the table.

When I sit down between Eric and Diego, they’re talking about prom…again. They both lean forward so they can talk to each other around me. “We have to go somewhere nice,” Eric says.

“Yeah, but not too nice, rich boy. Kev and I aren’t country club members like you and Hastings.”

Eric waves off Diego’s concern like it’s nothing. “Don’t sweat it. My dad already paid for the limo. All I have to do is tell my mom he did, and she’ll fork out the money to make sure we go to the nicest restaurant in town.”

While Eric’s not as rich as me, his parents are both really successful attorneys. He’s not hurting for cash, and his parents love to spend it on him. Mostly because they like to one-up each other. Sure, it bothers Eric that they use him as a pawn in their dysfunctional relationship and both think that caring for their child means throwing money at him, but he has no problem working the system to his advantage.

“Sweet.” Diego doesn’t hesitate to accept Eric’s offer to pay. He and Kevin have learned over the years to let Eric and me spoil them. I love that they let us and don’t make it weird. They know we’re not trying to throw our money in their faces. Eric and I—and especially my dad—are all generous, and we love being able to do nice things for the people we care about.

I’ve always felt insecure about being so rich because it makes me different from everyone else around me. Dad could have put me in some pretentious private school with other super wealthy kids, but he comes from a humble background and wanted me to have at least some exposure to how most of the country lives. (Heaven knows I need it, considering my home life is definitely Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.) Plus, Roosevelt has one of the best athletic programs in the state, so public school it was. And then he talked Eric’s parents into letting him attend, too. They’ll do anything my rich and famous father asks. Especially if it’s about their son, whom they live to brag about and show off like he’s some kind of trophy.

“Awesome,” Eric says. “I’ll talk to my mom. Where do we want to go?”

I open my lunch, a little hurt that they’re having this discussion as if I’m not even here.

As if Eric senses my feelings, he nudges my arm with his elbow. “What do you think, Hastings? Where do you want to go?”

Diego drops his sandwich and grabs my shoulder. “Whoa, wait. You coming with us, Hastings? Seriously?”

The guy may be as shocked as Eric was on Saturday that I’d want to come, but I’ll give him this: he grins like he’s excited that I’m joining them. Unfortunately, I’m not going. “I would, but I don’t have a date,” I mumble. “Nobody’s asked me, and I’m pretty sure prom is one of those things you don’t go to by yourself.”

Diego frowns. “Hmm. That is a pickle.”

Geez. Does he need to make it sound like it’d be impossible to find me a date? I might be pouting a little as I dig into my lunch.

“Who can we get to take Charlie?” Diego asks Eric. “She has to come. Charlie in a dress? That I have to see.”

I frown. “I’ve worn dresses before. At my dad’s award ceremonies and stuff.”

Diego rolls his eyes. “That was years ago. Now that you’re all…you know…grown up…” He mimes having boobs. “I can’t picture it.”

I knuckle punch his arm, and Eric reaches behind me and punches his shoulder. “Dude. That’s Charlie you’re thinking of.”

“OW! Stop!” Diego punches me back, lighter than I punched him but hard enough. Then he leans across my plate to punch Eric, too. “I was not thinking of Charlie like that. Gross.” He shudders. “I was just saying I can’t picture her looking like a girl.”

I growl in frustration. “I am a girl. How many times do we have to have this conversation?”

Kevin, having been shoved when Diego hit Eric, decides to join the conversation. “You’re a girl?” He gasps with mock surprise. “How did I not know this?”

“Ha, ha. You’re so hilarious.”

He grins. “I know. What are we talking about?”

Diego elbows me. “Hastings wants to go to prom.”

Kevin blinks at me, and I sigh. “Yes. I’d like to go to prom. Is that so wrong?”

“You wearing a dress, with your hair all done up and stuff? Dancing? Dating?” Kev nods. “Yes. That’s all kinds of wrong.”

This time when I frown at my lunch, I’m not pouting. I’m genuinely hurt.

“Don’t sweat it, Hastings,” Eric says. “I’ve got you covered.” He raises his voice and shouts to the whole table, “Hey! Listen up!”

Everyone shuts up. They’re all shocked that Eric is addressing them. Seriously, he’s worse than me at being social. I’ve never known anyone more in his own world than Eric. I’m just lucky I’m part of that world.

When Eric has everyone’s attention, he throws his arm around my shoulders. “Hastings here is in need of a prom date. Any of you dateless shmucks desperate enough to volunteer as tribute?”

I suck in a breath. I know he’s joking, but still. Desperate enough to volunteer as tribute? Like a guy would have to be desperate to want to ask me, and going with me would be akin to surviving the Hunger Games? Jerk!

My face is on fire again. I’ve never been so insulted, and so humiliated. Eric has no idea what he’s just done. And then, as if that’s not bad enough, there’s a pause while the entire team gets over their shock, but then they all burst into wild laughter.

I swallow hard and glare at my lap. I hate being the center of attention, and I really hate being the butt of a joke. It happens enough at games because I’m a girl. I don’t need it in my social life, too.

“Hastings?” somebody cries, laughing hysterically. “At prom? In a dress? Yeah right!”

Diego elbows me playfully. “Nah. Hastings will probably show up in a tux.”

Everyone laughs again.

Nobody offers to be my date to the dance.

Nobody realizes that I’m upset.

The laughter dies down, and people go back to their lunches. I put mine away. I’m not hungry anymore.

. . . . .

I’m on the brink of tears the rest of the day. I can’t tell my friends I’m upset. They wouldn’t understand. They’d just accuse me of being on my time of the month and tell me to relax. I have no one else to talk to.

I can’t do this anymore. I’m sick of being the only girl in an all-boy world. I’m sick of being overlooked and laughed at. I’m tired of feeling like a freak or that I can’t let myself feel things. I always have to be strong. I have to try to be like the guys all the time, but I’m so sick and tired of it. I’m not them. But I don’t have any girl friends to hang out with instead.

When school ends and I have to go to practice, I feel like I’m about to break. My heart is hammering, my eyes are stinging, and I think I’m having a panic attack. I don’t want to go out there. I don’t want to face any of them. I don’t want to be the freak girl on the guy’s team anymore. I want to be normal. A normal girl, who looks nice and hangs out at the mall with her girl friends drinking smoothies and checking out cute boys. Is that so much to ask?

Instead of heading for the girls’ locker room, I go to the athletic office, hoping to catch Coach Stanton before he heads out to the field. His door is open, but he’s talking to someone, so I sit down on the bench outside the office to wait.

“Heard back from anyone yet?” Coach asks, his voice easily carrying to the door. I don’t hear any reply before he speaks again. “Try not to be too disappointed. There’s still time left. A lot of places don’t make offers until after the season ends, and there’s still the state finals. There’ll be plenty of eyes on us then.”

It must be Jace he’s talking to, because they’re talking about scholarships, and like I said, Jace is the only one besides Eric who has a shot at one. Sure enough, Jace mutters, “You mean eyes on Sullivan and Hastings.”

I’m a little surprised by the tone of his voice. He’s usually not a negative guy, but he almost sounds bitter.

There’s a long pause. I’m sure he’s getting one of Coach’s famous looks. Coach is really good at those looks that weigh a hundred pounds and say a million words. He isn’t one to let us ever mope or feel sorry for ourselves, either.

“Sorry,” Jace says, sounding defeated.

His voice isn’t as easy to hear as Coach’s, but if I listen carefully I can make it out. It’s a total invasion of privacy, but I can’t make myself stop listening.

“I’m happy for them both,” Jace says. “I know they deserve the attention. It’s just tough to play in their shadows, you know? Sullivan is one of the MLB’s top prospects for this year’s draft. There’s no doubt he’s going pro. And Hastings, well, she gains a whole different kind of attention.”

I cringe. There has been a lot of media coverage of our team this year with all the rumors of me playing collegiate ball circulating. A lot of people have asked me for interviews. They make a big deal out of me being as good as I am and being a girl. I’ve even had scouts and other various coaches that have come to check out Eric compliment my game. But that’s where it stops for me. They’re looking because I’m a novelty. They aren’t taking me seriously.

“I’m no Sullivan,” Jace continues. “I know that. I’m not even as good as Hastings. But with them both on the team, it doesn’t matter how many scouts and recruiters come to see us play. They’re only looking at the two stars. The rest of us are just background.”

My heart sinks for him. He’s probably right. It’s hard enough for me to be playing in Eric’s shadow. I can’t imagine Jace having to play in mine.

There’s another long pause and then another apology mumbled on a sigh. “I don’t mean to be jealous. I’m just frustrated. I need a scholarship, or I don’t know how I’m going to pay for college. My parents have five kids to take care of on a teacher’s and a firefighter’s salaries. Leila and I are both going to school in the fall. I can’t afford not to get at least a partial scholarship. My grades are good, but not scholarship good. Baseball’s my only shot. Not to mention, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if my career ends with high school. I can’t imagine not playing anymore.”

My chest is heaving by the time he’s done with his rant. I’ve never seen Jace lose his composure, but he sounds desperate. Why do I feel like it’s my fault? If I weren’t on the team, would he be getting the attention he deserves? Have I been hurting his chances this year? I shouldn’t even be on this team. It’s pointless. I’m not going to get to play college ball. All I’m doing is hurting Jace’s chances.

I can’t do this anymore.

Unable to take it any longer, I stand up and knock on the open door. When they both look up at me expectantly, my throat closes up and my body starts shaking. My panic attack is coming back.

Jace hops up from his chair across from Coach Stanton’s desk and guides me to it. I’m out of it enough that I simply let him make me sit.

“Hastings? You okay?” Coach Stanton asks.

I shake my head in quick, jerky movements. “Sorry to interrupt. Can I talk to you, Coach?”

The word privately is implied, and both Jace and Coach Stanton pick up on it. Coach gives Jace a look. “We’ll talk more later.”

Jace nods. His eyes flick to me, face full of concern, but he doesn’t ask what’s wrong. “See you on the field,” he says instead.

No, you won’t.

Once Jace leaves, Coach says, “What’s wrong, Charlie?”

I close my eyes, trying to hold off tears. Now that I’m face-to-face with Coach, all of my feelings hit me full force.

“Charlie?”

“I’m quitting the team,” I blurt out. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do it anymore.”

Coach’s head rears back in shock, and Jace, who was clearly eavesdropping the same way I was earlier, comes storming back into the office. “WHAT?”

I flinch at the outburst, and Coach throws Jace a reproachful look. It doesn’t do any good. Jace is in serious freak-out mode. “What do you mean, you’re quitting? You can’t quit. We’re two weeks away from the state finals. We need you.”

The next look Coach gives Jace has more warning behind it. Jace takes a breath and clamps his mouth shut like he’s afraid he’ll be kicked out of the room, and he really wants to be part of this conversation. He’s not making this any easier.

“Jace, calm down. Charlie, honey, take a deep breath, and let’s talk about this. What do you mean, you’re quitting? What happened?”

Coach’s concern has my emotions storming again. He’s a good guy. I’ve really come to respect him over the four years I’ve played for him. The way he cares about all of his players and helps us to be our best is unlike any coach I’ve ever had before him. Even the worst guys on the team are important to him, and he’s constantly pushing us to be better both on and off the field. He deserves better, but I just can’t do two more weeks of this. I’ll crack.

“I’m sorry.” I clear my throat, but my voice still shakes and cracks several times. “I’ve already made up my mind. You guys don’t need a girl on the team anyway. With me gone, people will stop laughing at us, and the scouts will take you all seriously.”

Jace grabs fistfuls of his hair and glares at me. “Nobody’s laughed at us since you shut them all up freshman year, and you know it. We need you.”

Why is he making this so difficult? This will be good for him. “You have Springer. You’ll be fine,” I say, but the argument is weak. Springer sucks.

Sure enough, Jace shouts, “Springer? Springer’s a mess! Glorified JV!”

“Jace,” Coach warns.

Jace lowers his voice and tries to speak calmly. “You have one of the highest batting averages in the entire state, and your catching stats are the best. You haven’t let anyone steal a base on you in two years. Not one. Don’t give up on us now. We have a real shot at winning the state championship. There’ll be scouts and scholarships…”

“Not for me,” I croak. I’ve been kidding myself. Wasting my time. And I’ve been missing out on so much. There’s so much about being a girl that I don’t know because I’m too busy trying to be one of the guys. It has to stop.

Jace’s frustration vanishes, and he shocks me by pulling me out of my chair and wrapping his arms around me. I’m stunned, but I melt into the embrace. He feels so solid while everything inside of me feels like a chaotic mess. “Charlie,” he murmurs. “You don’t know that for sure.”

And that just killed the mood. I pull away from him and glare. “I do know it. You know it, too; you just don’t want to admit it. No college is going to take me. My competitive baseball days end here.”

“Then don’t you think you should finish it out?” Coach asks quietly. “I don’t want you to regret walking away so close to the finish line.”

I close my eyes, but this time it’s not enough to keep the tears at bay. Several drops roll down my cheeks. Part of me will regret not finishing the season, but a bigger part of me needs more than just baseball. It can’t be my entire life anymore. If that means quitting the team, then that’s what I need to do. “What I regret is wasting so much time on something completely pointless. I need to start focusing on something that will actually help my future.”

Jace takes both of my hands and squeezes them. “Charlie, what’s really wrong? Forget the team. This is about more than just baseball. Whatever it is, quitting isn’t the answer. Tell us what’s going on, and we’ll figure it out together. We can help you.”

He’s very sweet. There’s a reason he’s the captain of our team. He’s so thoughtful, and he genuinely cares about everyone on the team. But what am I supposed to say? That I’m tired of living like a guy? Tired of being laughed at for wanting to act like a girl? That I want to learn how to shop for cute clothes and make friends with girls? Yeah. I don’t think so. I shake my head and swipe at my wet cheeks. “I’m sorry.”

Unable to take their looks of shock and disappointment, I whirl around and run out the door.





I’m not surprised to find Dad waiting for me with a worried look on his face when I get home. Of course Coach called him. When I walk into the living room, he takes one look at me and opens his arms. I fling myself at him and sink into his hug. My tears have dried up—I’ve never been a big crier, and I’m embarrassed that Jace and Coach saw me do it—but my eyes are still red and puffy, and my face is splotchy. Dad holds me tight and rocks me gently. I soak up the affection like it’s the magical cure to all my problems.

“Baby, what happened?”

I’m not about to tell him I’m heartbroken over Eric. And honestly, I’m not even sure that’s really what the issue is. I mean, yeah, I’m devastated that he doesn’t like me that way, but that’s not what drove me to quit today. It was the way the guys left me out of their prom plans and the way the entire team laughed at me.

I melt against his chest, still not able to pull myself out of his hug. “Nothing happened. I’m just tired of being a freak.”

Dad pulls me back by the shoulders so that he can frown at me. “Where is that coming from?”

I shrug. “I’m tired of being a spectacle. I’ve spent my entire life working so hard for something that has no real future for me. What’s been the point of it all? And what have I sacrificed to be this person?”

Dad’s frown deepens as if he’s insulted. “What’s that supposed to mean? What’s wrong with who you are?”

I whirl around and throw myself down onto the sofa. “I’m not normal, Dad. I’m not like other girls. They don’t want to be my friends, and guys don’t want to date me. Nobody knows what to do with that tomboy chick who plays a boy’s sport, never dresses cute, or does her hair pretty or wears makeup, and has only guy friends. The attention I get from the press doesn’t help, either. The kids at school laugh at me. Even my own team laughs at me. Even Eric, Kev, and Diego laugh at me. I’m tired of it.”

Dad’s face falls. I feel bad for admitting this because I know he’s going to think it’s his fault even though it isn’t. We lost my mom when I was six. Since then, I’ve been the only girl in Dad’s life. Consequently, I’ve also been the only girl in my life.

Right as I have the thought, Dad plunks down on the couch next to me and scrubs his hands over his face. “I’m sorry, Charlie. This is all my fault. I’m no good with all the girl stuff.”

I place my hand on his knee and give him a comforting squeeze. “It’s not your fault. You’ve always done the best you could. Mom died. Grandma passed away years ago. You, Grandpa, and the team raised me, and I’m proud of who I am. I’ve loved my life. I just…need to figure some stuff out.”

We fall silent and sit there staring off for a few minutes until Pitbull’s “Fireball” blares through the quiet room. Dad gives me a questioning look when I silence Eric’s ringtone without answering it. “I don’t want to talk to him right now,” I admit.

Dad hesitates, like he wants to say something or at least ask more questions, but he just says, “Is there anything I can do?”

I’d let him help if I had any idea how. I don’t even really know what I want, much less what to do about it. I just know I’m upset, and Eric is the last person I want to see. “No. I think I’m just going to go hit some balls. I need to work off some energy.”

Dad watches me a minute, then nods. “Want me to pitch?”

“Nah, I’ll just use the cage.”

“Okay. You still coming to the game tonight?”

I think about it. Stay home and sulk, or go to the ballpark and lose myself in the game for a few hours. No contest. “Yeah. I’m coming. I’ll just fly solo tonight.”

Dad gives me a small smile. “All right. I’m leaving in an hour and a half.”

“I’ll be ready.”

Dad leans over and pulls my forehead to his lips. “I’m here for you, kiddo. Whatever you need.”

“I know, Dad.” I slowly rise to my feet. “See you in a bit.”

“Feel better.”

I change into my practice clothes and head out back to the batting cage. (Perks of having a millionaire baseball nut for a father.) I happily lose myself in the game for the next hour. I’m in the zone, and I’ve worked up a good sweat when two male voices come out of the back of the house. One of them is Dad, but I’m not sure about the other one. It’s not one of the guys. It’s too quiet.

I turn off the pitching machine and exit the cage just as Dad walks up with Jace. I freeze, unnerved to see him here, at my house, standing in front of me, with my dad. As much as I’m sure the team would love it, I’ve never invited them over to my house. I don’t know why. I’m a private person, I guess. I don’t like people I don’t know well invading my space. But also, I just know that my house is a bit insane. I feel awkward showing it off. The team already treats me differently because of who my dad is. If they had to experience the 14,000 sq. ft. mansion I live in with the batting cage and baseball diamond in the backyard, among the million other cool features, no one would ever treat me normal.

I also have no idea how to act with Jace right now. We’ve never been close. He’s a nice guy—great shortstop and a good captain. We’re friendly with each other, but we’ve never really talked outside of baseball. Until today, when I think he asked me out on a date. I’ve never been asked out before. Ever. I was so shocked my brain crapped out on me, and I must have looked like a complete idiot.

Jace is gorgeous, and sweet, and way more popular than me. He could date almost any girl he wanted. I’m not sure why he’d bother with me. If that’s even what he was doing. He didn’t specify that he wanted to take me out on a date. He might have meant we should go as friends. I don’t know. I don’t know how these things work. I have nothing to compare it to.

And then there was that hug in Coach’s office. Actually, it was more than a normal hug. I think he held me. I’ve never been held by a guy like that before. It was nice. Really nice. Does that hug make us friends? Like, real friends, and not just teammates? How am I supposed to act around him now? And what the heck am I supposed to say to him? Oh, hey, Jace. I know we’re not really friends, but let me just dump all my psycho drama on you. I don’t know how to be a girl, and Eric doesn’t like me…wah wah wah… Yeah. I’m not looking forward to that.

Dad clears his throat and breaks up the awkward moment. “Look who I found.”

Jace gives me an awkward smile. “Hey, Charlie.”

“What are you doing here?”

He grimaces, and I wince. That was rude. Way to make things even more uncomfortable, Charlie. Good going.

He rubs the back of his neck and looks at the ground. His cheeks turn pink. They did that earlier when he asked me to go to a game with him, too. It’s really cute. “Sorry. I should have called first. I was just worried. I wanted to check on you. You were so upset earlier.”

I narrow my eyes. “So you’re not here to talk me out of quitting?”

He looks back up, and his lips quirk into a crooked smile. “Maybe that, too.”

Dad watches us like we’re a Ping-Pong match, and I can see the wheels in his brain turning. Dad doesn’t want me to quit. I could see it in his eyes earlier. And he knows Jace is my team captain. Because of his job, he doesn’t get to come to most of my games, but he’ll stalk my practices when he can. He knows who all the guys on the team are. He even asks me all the time why I don’t invite them over. He’s always trying to get me to be more social than I am.

He looks at me again, and then once more at Jace, and something flashes in his eyes. When he opens his mouth, I know what he’s going to say before he says it, but there’s no way for me to stop him. Not without being a super big jerk to Jace. “You busy tonight?” Dad asks Jace. “Want to hit the baseball game with us? Charlie’s got excellent seats, and I could show you around. Maybe introduce you to some of the guys?”

Jace’s eyes widen so much I fear they might fall out of their sockets. It’s cute. I have to turn my head and suck in my cheeks to hide a smile.

That’s the other thing: I’ve never brought the team home, and I’ve never really brought Dad to them, either. They know who he is, and they’ve seen him come to our practices and games when he can, but I’ve never done the whole meet-and-greet thing. Seems a little selfish, I guess, but I just feel so awkward. Dad doesn’t get it. He’s all about doing what he can for people. He’d get season tickets for the whole team and a private practice on the field with the players, if I’d let him.

Dad looks hopeful, and Jace looks surprisingly torn. Most guys would jump all over that offer without thinking twice, but Jace looks to me with a question in his eyes, like he’ll say no if I don’t want him there. I think the fact that he’s worried about my feelings is what makes me nod. It’s sweet of him. When I give him the okay, he beams a smile at my dad. “I’d love that. Thank you, Mr. Hastings. Let me just text my parents and make sure it’s okay.”

“Cool. Tell them you’ll bring your homework and do it at the game. That’s what Charlie does. You won’t have time to finish it otherwise.”

Jace sends a text off to his parents, and Dad takes my bat from me. When Jace puts his phone away and tells us his parents said he’s good to go, Dad grins and holds the bat out to Jace. “You want to take a few swings? See if you can hit one off me? I may be old, but I can still bring some heat.”

Jace’s mouth falls open. “Seriously?”

Dad shrugs. “Sure. We’ve got about twenty minutes, and stinky here’s got to hit the showers before we go.”

A second passes before I realize what my father just said. My eyes bug out, and I choke on some spit. “DAD!”

The jerk snickers, and Jace bites back a smile.

I want to die. Jace was the first boy to ever ask me out, and my father just called me stinky in front of him. I glare at him. “I really hate you.”

Dad grins and pulls out his cell phone. “Hey, Jace, you want to see a video of Charlie’s awesome diving skills?”

I shriek again. “Dad! Don’t you dare! I will kill you!”

Dad bursts into laughter. “Better hurry up, then, slugger. Twenty minutes, and I can’t be held responsible for any photos or videos Jace sees.”

I can’t even look at Jace right now. My face is on fire, and I want to murder my father. I thrust my helmet at Jace and point a very menacing finger at my dad. “I will kill you. Literally. Murder you dead.”

I walk off to the sound of his laughter and pray he doesn’t show Jace that dumb video. He probably will. The man cannot be trusted.





When Jace and I reach our seats, he lets out a long whistle. “I was wrong this morning. The nosebleeds actually do suck.”

I laugh. “Yeah, I’m totally spoiled, and now I’ve just ruined you, too.”

He nods, eyes wide. “You really have.”

It’s been surprisingly comfortable with Jace so far. He and my dad talked baseball all the way to the stadium, and their enthusiasm and laughter went a long way in helping me relax. Plus, Jace has been fun to watch since we’ve been here—all starstruck and whatnot. We got a tour of the place, including the clubhouse, and Jace got to meet a few of the players while dad talked up his game to them. (He did hit a few off my dad earlier. Go, Jace!) It’s been fun watching him try not to fangirl about everything.

With so much going on, we haven’t had to talk about my mental breakdown, but I know it’s coming. He waits until we’re all settled in and the first inning is well under way. After the Pirates rack up their first strikeout, and we hear the naughty words the hitter grumbles at the umpire, Jace turns to me, grinning so hard it looks like it hurts. “This is incredible. It’s like we’re on the field with them.”

“We practically are. I like these seats because I can see the pitches come at me pretty well. Eric and I sit here trying to identify each pitch as it’s thrown. It’s great practice.”

“Yeah. I can imagine.” Jace shakes his head in disbelief. “Thank you for bringing me tonight. I know you probably didn’t want to after everything today. It was really cool of you to let me come anyway.”

I shrug and train my eyes on the pitcher to avoid Jace’s gaze. “You should really thank my father. I wouldn’t have extended the invite.”

“Still. You could have said no.”

I finally glance his way. “I couldn’t. Not after seeing the look on your face when Dad offered to show you around.”

Jace winces. “I knew I looked like a dork.”

I laugh. “Little bit. But it’s understandable. I’ve grown up with it, so the coolness of it all is lost on me. It’s nice to see someone enjoy the perks.”

Jace looks around at our awesome seats again and nods. “I’m definitely enjoying the perks. Seriously, thank you.”

“Eh. You’ve been decent company.”

Jace’s eyes slide to mine, and he grins this small half grin that’s almost cocky. “Yeah?”

I shrug, and my face heats up under his gaze. “So far, yeah.” I give him a pointed look and add, “Don’t ruin it.”

He chuckles and shakes his head. “Sorry. I’m about to make it awkward. I’m team captain. It’s my duty to force this conversation. And now, thanks to your dad, I have several hours where you can’t run from me.”

I snort and glance behind me up toward the announcer booth. “No doubt that was his plan all along.”

“He doesn’t want you to quit?”

“Of course he doesn’t.”

Jace cocks a brow at me. “Then maybe you shouldn’t.”

I sigh.

Jace lets us fall into silence for a few minutes. I’m more than happy to watch the game and pretend we’re not doing this. I’m not going to talk if he’s not going to make me.

At the inning switch, Jace sits back and stretches out, resting his arm on the back of my chair. It’s not really around me like he’s trying to cuddle. It’s more like he’s just getting comfortable. Still. It’s strange to be so close to him like this. And, just as strange, my body is totally reacting to it.

I like how comfortable he is with me. It’s different than how Eric is, or even Kev and Diego are. It’s not flirty, exactly, but it’s charged in a way. Maybe I’m imagining it, but there’s some tension there. Something magnetic. Something that’s drawing me toward him.

While I overanalyze what his arm on my seat means, he suddenly says, “Sarah Hudek.”

I sigh. Of course I know that name. In 2015, she became the first female to ever be given a college scholarship for baseball.

Jace takes one look at me and knows I know exactly who he’s talking about. “Sure, it wasn’t a Division 1 school,” he says, “but it was still a scholarship. And you’re better than her. And then, of course, there’s the Knuckle Princess, Eri Yoshida, and Melissa Mayeux.”

Okay, Yoshida is one of my heroes, playing professional ball in the Japanese leagues, and the others are cool, but it’s not enough. “Mayeux eventually made the transition to softball,” I point out just to be argumentative. “So did Sarah Hudek.”

Jace shrugs one shoulder. “Doesn’t mean you’d have to. Look, it’s rare, but it’s not impossible. Under NCAA rules, a men’s team can give a scholarship to a female.”

He’s not telling me anything I don’t already know. That I haven’t been telling myself and hearing from my father for years. I appreciate that he’s trying, though. “Yeah, they can. But they won’t.”

He cuts me a flat look. “They won’t, if you quit.”

I sink down in my chair, deflating. “Look, I know all of this, all right? I’ve been giving myself this same pep talk for years. So has my dad and all the guys in the organization who’ve watched me grow up. That’s not it.”

Jace removes his arm from my chair and leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Then what’s the real problem here, Hastings?”

I grind my teeth. “How about the fact that you—and everyone else—call me Hastings? I have a name, you know.”

Jace sits back up and frowns in confusion. “Yeah, I know. It’s Charlie.”

“It’s actually Charlotte. Newsflash: I’m a girl. Not that anybody knows that. At least, no one treats me that way.”

Jace rears back, blinking at me in disbelief. “You’re upset that we treat you like one of the guys?”

My anger seeps out of me, and I become embarrassed to be admitting my insecurity. I shrug and mumble, “I’m not a guy.”

Jace shakes his head like he still can’t believe we’re having this conversation. “We figured that’s what you’d want—for us to treat you like one of us. Like an equal.”

“Like an equal, yeah. But not like they can’t recognize the fact that I’m a girl. Eric told everyone I needed a date to the dance today, and they all laughed.”

Understanding flashes in Jace’s eyes. “That’s what this is about? The prom?”

“Not the prom, just the fact that no one can believe I’d want to go. They laughed at me. They couldn’t believe I’d ever put on a dress. They shuddered at the thought of having to be my date, because none of them see me as a girl. Not even my own friends. Eric, Kev, and Diego made all these plans for prom, and they didn’t even invite me to join them. My best friends. Not just as their dates, but at all. They weren’t even going to tell me. They just assumed I wouldn’t want to be a part of it.”

Jace takes a moment to process everything I just dumped on him, then very slowly, as if trying to clarify, asks, “So…you quit baseball so that people will start treating you like a girl?”

It sounds ridiculous when he says it. “No.” I sigh, because that’s not quite right. “I just want to feel normal. I want to be comfortable in my own skin.”

Jace’s brow furrows. “I always thought you were. You’re so confident, and you do what you want no matter what people say.”

I tip my head to the sky and blow out a puff of air. How to explain it? “I am comfortable with myself, and I’m also not. I like who I am, but at the same time, I’m always self-conscious, and I’m terrified of the future. What happens to me when we graduate? I have exactly three friends. Eric is headed for the MLB. Kev is going into the military, and Diego is headed out of state for school. Wherever I end up, I’ll be all alone, and because I won’t be playing baseball, I won’t have a team to support me anymore, either.

“I have no idea how to be a girl or how to interact with them. I haven’t had a mother since I was six, and I’ve never had a single friend that was a girl. I won’t know how to live with a roommate. I won’t know how to date guys or even act like a normal girl around them. Somehow I don’t think Eric, Kev, and Diego have taught me the right way to act with a guy if I want him to like me. I’ll scare off any guy dumb enough to ask me out.”

Jace gives me that crooked, amused almost-cocky smile again. “You’re worried about dating?”

I blush. I can’t believe I just admitted all that to him. And yet, the word vomit just keeps coming. “I’m worried about being normal. I don’t know how to relate to people unless it’s about baseball. I don’t know anything else. I only have a few weeks of school left to figure some things out before I’m on my own without a clue. If I spend those weeks so wrapped up in baseball and being that freak girl who thinks she can play collegiate level ball, I won’t get anywhere. We’ll play the state championship, and then it’s all over. I still won’t get to play college ball, and I won’t have a team anymore. I’ll have no one. I’m screwed. I quit because I don’t want to be just Hastings anymore. I need to learn how to be Charlotte.”

Jace narrows his gaze on me and sucks his top lip between his teeth. Then he turns toward me and throws his arm across the back of my chair again. “How come you can’t be both Hastings and Charlotte? You don’t have to quit the team to feel like a girl, or start making some friends that are girls, or start dating. Charlie, I know you. You’ll hate yourself if you quit now. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

His words hit with the punch he intended. He’s right. I will regret not finishing the season. I haven’t worked my whole life just to walk away two weeks before it’s over. I’d never forgive myself. Having no comeback, I swallow hard and turn my attention back to the game. Somehow, we’re already in the fourth inning.

Jace is quiet for a minute, and when he speaks again, his voice is contemplative. “What if I can help you? Will you finish out the season?”

I slide him a questioning glance. “Help me how?”

“I have four sisters. I know a few things about girls. One of those sisters is my twin, and she’s seriously awesome. I know she would love to show you the ropes of being a girl. She’d probably kill for the chance to make you over, and she’d be your friend—no questions asked. All I’d have to do is introduce you. But if you were brave enough to explain to her all the stuff you just told me, she’d bend over backwards to help you. I know she would. You’d have a friend for life.”

I’m speechless. Jace’s sister Leila is one of the most popular girls in school. I mean, she’s going with the quarterback to prom and everything. She’s also super girly. She always looks amazing. I’d be scared out of my mind to try and befriend her, but Jace wouldn’t throw me to the wolves. I gulp again. “Are you sure?” I sound like a total chicken. “She wouldn’t mind?”

Jace’s face softens as though he understands that I’m scared and totally gets it. “Positive,” he promises. “She’s the kindest person I know, and she loves everything about being a girl. She can help you. And I’ll keep her in check. I’ll be there with you and won’t let her get too crazy. I won’t let her turn you into Baseball Barbie or anything.”

My eyes widen. I hadn’t thought about that. That she could be too much of a girly-girl and turn me into some kind of scary Barbie clown. I must look terrified, because Jace laughs. “It’ll be okay, Hastings. I promise.”

I chew on my lips, and my knee starts bouncing.

“What do you say?” Jace asks.

I lean forward, resting my elbows on my knees, and almost have the urge to put my head between them. Can I really do this? Will it really help? Do I have any other options? “Okay,” I whisper. “Okay, let’s do it.”

“You got it. I’ll talk to Leila tomorrow.”

“Thanks.”

Jace’s deep brown eyes stay locked on mine. “And you’ll come back to the team?”

I sit back up and meet his steady gaze. “Yeah.” I nod. “I’ll stay. You’re right. I’d really regret quitting now.”

Jace gives me a soft smile. “I’d regret it, too. And not just because we’d crash and burn without you.”

My chest warms at the idea that he’d miss me if I left. I’ve never been close with Jace, and suddenly I wish I’d gotten to know him sooner. I sit back in my chair and finally relax. It’s not until I reach back to pull my ponytail free of the chair that I realize Jace’s arm is still behind me and that I’m full-on resting against it. Moving to avoid touching him would make things awkward, so I just go with it and stay put. It feels kind of nice, anyway, and the silence between us is comfortable. “You know? You’re a pretty good team captain.”

Jace slides me a smirk. “Nah. I’m just a sucker for female athletes.”

I suck in a breath, and my entire body clams up. What did he mean by that? Is he flirting with me again? When I finally have the guts to sneak a glance at him, he’s waiting for me to look. He smiles at me, then he winks and gives my shoulders a squeeze with the arm he’s draped around me. There’s no questioning it now. His arm is around me. Not just resting on the back of my seat.

He grins like he knows exactly how nervous I am and leaves his arm right where it is. My mouth dries up. It takes me a million years to relax, but I eventually manage to slow my breathing and loosen my muscles. And when his fingertips start brushing my shoulder in slow, soft touches, a little part of me dies.





I turned off my phone during the game last night. If Dad needed me, he could send someone on staff to come get me. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone else. By the time I turn it on again the next morning, I have over twenty missed calls and texts from the guys. Most of them are from Eric. As I listen to them over a bowl of Grape-nuts in almond milk, wariness creeps over me. I’m going to have to face him; I just don’t know how to explain myself. What came out so easily to Jace feels impossible to say to Eric.

When I get to school, Eric is leaning against my locker waiting for me, and my wariness morphs into something else. I missed him. He and I haven’t had many fights over the years. I hate it. Everything feels off when we’re mad at each other. I don’t want to be mad at him, and after my talk with Jace last night, I realize I’m not. None of this is his fault. He’s never done a single thing to give me the impression he’d want a relationship with me. I came up with those feelings all on my own. This is my issue to work through. I can’t take it out on him.

When he sees me, he peels himself away from the bank of lockers and holds out his arms. I fall into them, close my eyes, suck in a deep breath, and let him envelop me in a hug. We don’t hug often, but every time we do, it leaves me breathless. “You ready to talk to me?” he asks, letting me go and stepping aside so that I can get into my locker.

I spin the lock and concentrate on the combination. I’m grateful for having something to keep me from looking at him, because the truth is I’m not ready to talk to him. Not about this. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to talk about it with him. But I’d crack under his gaze. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. I was just having a really bad day, and I needed to step away from everyone for a few hours.”

“From everyone?”

I glance up, startled by the bitterness in his voice. He folds his arms and stares me down with an emotion I can’t name. “You sit right behind home plate, Charlie. You’re on camera with every single pitch. I saw you at the game with King.”

Jealousy? Betrayal? Confusion? All of the above? I can’t tell what he’s thinking, but I want to make it go away. He hasn’t smiled even once since I got here. I miss his smile. “He showed up at my place last night, and Dad invited him to the game. He did it so I couldn’t run from Jace because he knew Jace was there to talk me out of quitting the team.”

Eric jerks back, eyes wide. “Quitting? What do you mean? You quit?”

I shove my last book into my locker and slam it closed before frowning at Eric. “Didn’t they tell you?”

“Coach told us you weren’t feeling well. King pulled me, Diego, and Kev aside and said you were having a rough day and asked if we knew what was going on with you. But nobody said anything about you quitting.”

He looks half worried/half mad, like he doesn’t know what to do with this new information. “Don’t worry,” I say, shouldering my backpack. “Jace did his job. I’m not going to quit.”

That answer isn’t good enough for Eric. He folds his arms tightly across his chest and stands in front of me, feet shoulder width apart, like some kind of security guard. “What’s going on with you, Charlie?”

“Nothing.” He doesn’t relent. It’s a lie, and he knows it. I sigh. “Look, I’m just going through some stuff right now. I’ll figure it out.”

“What stuff?”

Yeah. Still don’t want to tell him. Avoidance, it is. “Just stuff. Look, I have to go talk to Coach Stanton before class, but I’ll see you at lunch, okay?”

Something flashes in Eric’s eyes. Hurt? More betrayal? I can’t deal with it right now. Cowardly? Yes. But it is what it is. “I gotta run. Bye!”

I practically sprint away from him. It’s the first time I’ve ever not been completely honest with him, and it doesn’t feel good.

. . . . .

My stomach is full of anxious butterflies as I walk into third period. I’m nervous to see Jace. Surprisingly, it’s not the same kind of apprehension I had seeing Eric. It’s the opposite. I had a nice time with Jace the night before, and something changed between us. I think…well, I think we’re friends now. Real friends. Not just teammates.

Jace is already in his seat when I arrive. His whole face lights up when he sees me, and those butterflies in my stomach explode into a frenzy. Strange. Usually that only happens when I’m around Eric. Only…it didn’t happen around Eric this morning. I’m not going to examine that too closely. “Hey!” Jace greets as I plop down into my chair.

I’ll never get tired of his beautiful smile. I didn’t realize he was so hot. With his golden hair, dark brown eyes, and easy smile, he’s a study in contrasts with Eric. Eric’s dark auburn hair, hazel eyes, light layer of stubble, and harsh features make him look like a bit of a menace, whereas Jace is all ease and friendliness. They couldn’t be more different. Both gorgeous, just in different ways.

“Hi.”

“Feel any better today?”

“A bit, yeah. Mostly thanks to you.”

Jace smiles again, pleasure oozing from his every pore. “I do what I can.”

I get out my notebook and a pen and then remember I wanted to tell Jace something. “Oh, hey—” I reach out and place my hand on his. We’re both a little surprised by the contact. I’m not a very physically affectionate person. I’m not prickly, but people would definitely call me standoffish.

Jace looks down at my hand covering his, and I pull back, embarrassed that I touched him without even thinking. Jace quickly snatches my hand back and holds it in his. His eyes meet mine, as if he’s daring me to pull away. “Yeah?”

My eyes stray back to our clasped hands, and my face heats up. Are we seriously holding hands right now? We are. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. My stomach erupts with more butterflies. “Um…” I gulp. What had I been trying to say? “Thanks for not telling the team I quit yesterday. I talked to Coach this morning, and he told me you kept it just between the two of you.”

Jace shrugs and starts brushing his thumb on the back of my hand. Goose bumps form on my arms. I meet his eyes again, and he must see my confusion and nervousness, because he gives me a soft smile that seems to say, Relax, Charlie. Everything’s okay. I’ve got you. “We were hoping we could convince you not to quit, and figured if we did, then you wouldn’t want everyone to know what happened. We would have told them if you didn’t get on the bus with us to go to today’s game.”

Some of my nerves ease up. That was really considerate of them both. And they were right. I’m really relieved that the team doesn’t know I almost quit. “Thank you.”

Jace gives my hand a squeeze and then lets it go. I’ll be able to think a lot more clearly now, but I’m kind of disappointed to lose the contact.

Jace takes out his own notebook and pen. “I hope you don’t mind,” he says, “but I talked to Leila this morning.”

Those butterflies in my stomach turn into lead weights. “You told her?”

Jace nods slowly. “I was going to wait for you, but she knew I went to the game with you last night, and she freaked out about it. She gets all weird about me and girls. I don’t date much. It makes her nuts. She’s been trying to pin me down with a girlfriend for years.”

The air is sucked out of my lungs. It takes everything I have in me not to react. His sister was excited that we went out? He doesn’t date much? Does that mean last night was a date? Did he consider it a date? Does his sister think we’re dating now? Does he? He was just holding my hand. Are we dating now? Ugh. I don’t know. Why am I so hopeless?

If Jace notices my internal freakout, he doesn’t say so. “Anyway, she grilled me for every detail. Sorry. I totally cracked under pressure.” He grimaces, but it’s sheepish.

“It’s okay.”

“I swear she’s going to join the CIA one day and interrogate terrorists or something. She’s that relentless.”

I laugh. “It’s okay, Jace. We were going to ask for her help anyway, right?”

He looks relieved and gives me a smile and a nod. “She’s onboard. I said the words Charlie and makeover, and she lost it. She went crazy like one of those little yappy dogs that spazzes when the doorbell rings.”

I cringe, and Jace chuckles. “I’ll rein her in, I promise. But she’s really excited to meet you. Will you come with me after class and let me introduce you? I mean, she’ll find us anyway—even if we try to hide—but I figured I’d at least ask you before that happens.”

“Sounds more like you’re warning me.”

Jace bursts into laughter. “Yes. That. So much that.”

I’m not sure what I’ve gotten into here, but at least she sounds excited for this little project. And Jace gets this cute expression of affection on his face when he talks about her, so she must be really nice. Cheerleaders usually have a rep for being the school mean girls, but in our school, that’s not really the case. They’re all pretty cool, as far as I can tell. “And you won’t let her turn me into Baseball Barbie?”

He holds up a hand like he’s being sworn in on a witness stand. “Not unless you want her to.” When I wrinkle my nose, he shrugs. “You never know. You’ve never tried any of this stuff before. You might be surprised what you like and what you don’t. But we’ll figure it out.”

Maybe. “Let’s aim for something subtler than Barbie.”

Mr. Musgrove brings the class to order before Jace can respond, but he shoots me another smile, and this time I smile back.





After class, Jace and I head to the cafeteria together like we always do. We don’t even get halfway there before a very excited, overly happy voice shouts, “There you are! I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”

Leila opens her arms and steps forward, but instead of hugging her brother like I assumed, she tackles me in a death grip. “Charlie! I’ve watched all of Jace’s home games since freshman year, and I’m so excited to finally meet you. You’re just so talented, and confident, and cool. I totally look up to you. I’ve always wished we could be friends, but Jace never brought you home to hang out. I’m so glad you two are finally getting to know each other better. You’re so cute together, I can’t stand it.”

“Leila,” Jace warns, sounding horrified in the same way I get when my father says something outrageous. His cheeks turn as red as I’m sure mine do.

Leila King is the female version of her brother, all the way down to the easy, dimpled smile. But where Jace is laid back and low-key, Leila is outgoing and bubbly.

Leila lets me go and steps back. Jace hovers beside me, looking worried, but even though I’m shell-shocked and not much of a hugger, I smile at Leila. She’s so friendly and sweet and genuine that you can’t help but like her. “Nice to meet you.” My face heats up, and I grip the straps of my backpack. “And thanks for helping me. I know it’s a little crazy.”

Leila dials back the enthusiasm, and her smile softens. “It’s not so crazy. I’d be lost without my mom and my girlfriends to keep me sane. A girl’s got to have her girl time. That’s lesson number one.”

“I don’t even know what that means.” I shake my head, but I’m still smiling. Girl time. It sounds like something in a movie. I didn’t realize that was something girls really did.

Leila grins at me with a gleam of excitement in her eyes. “Oh, don’t worry. You’re going to love it.” She links her arm through mine and starts walking us toward the cafeteria. Jace falls into step on my other side. “So does Sunday work for you?” Leila asks. “I already looked at Jace’s schedule. You have a game Saturday, but you’re off Sunday.”

I gulp. This is my last chance to back out. I have no idea what “girl time” entails, but the whole point of all of this is to learn. Leila seems like a whirlwind, but she also seems really sweet. She pulls us to a stop in front of the cafeteria doors and waits for my answer. She’s watching me with such hopeful eyes, and when I look at Jace, he gives me an encouraging nod. He’s right. I can do this. “Um. Yeah, I guess that’s all right.”

Leila’s whole face lights up, and she claps her hands. “Yay! Okay, if you want to expand your wardrobe, I’ll need to go through your closet first to see what we have to work with. Can I meet you at yours?”

“Um.” My house? I don’t know why I didn’t expect that. But she’s right. She needs to help me with clothes. And Jace has seen the place already. “Okay. Yeah. My house at nine?”

“Perfect.”

I glance at Jace again. “You’ll come, too, right?” The thought of being alone with Leila makes me panic. I think I need to be eased into this girl-time thing.

“Promise.”

I breathe a sigh of relief, and Jace grins. Leila wrinkles her nose, but when she sighs, there’s no real annoyance behind it. “All right, fine. He can come.” She glares at her brother and points a warning finger at him. “But it’s girl time, understand? We’re going to do girly things, and you can’t complain about it.”

He holds his hands up in surrender. “I’ll be good.”

Leila narrows her eyes. “You’d better.”

The two of them are really cute together. Makes me wish I had a sibling.

Jace must convince Leila, because she suddenly gives up on glaring at him and flashes me another beautiful smile. “Nine a.m. Sunday at casa de Charlie. Can’t wait.” She pushes through the cafeteria doors and nods toward the popular table. “You want to join me today? I could introduce you to some of the girls.”

I glance at the table full of cheerleaders and football players, and my face pales. One new person at a time, I can handle. A whole table full of them? Yeah…I don’t think so. Thankfully, Jace comes to my rescue. “Maybe we should ease her into this, Leelee. You first, then the rest of them.”

He grabs my hand and chuckles when I cling to it for dear life.

“Aww,” Leila says. “I didn’t think you’d be shy. Sorry. I can take it easy on you.”

I squirm with discomfort. “I don’t know that I consider myself shy, just really introverted.”

Jace laughs again. “I feel your pain.”

Leila winces and nods gravely. “It’s true. He’s the biggest introvert there is.” She perks up again. “Which makes you guys perfect for each other. Okay, fine. Go be introverts together at your table, and we’ll keep things low-key on Sunday.”

“Sounds good.”

She pounces on me with another hug and then skips off to join her friends, hair bouncing in springy ringlets behind her. It takes me a moment to recover, and by the time I do, Jace is tugging me to our table by the hand that he’s still holding. I stumble a little when we head toward Mark Reynolds—who’s grinning at us in a way that has me blushing. When I tug my hand, Jace gives it up, but he nods toward Mark and says, “Will you sit with me today?”

My heart flutters. Jace is as sincere as his sister, and right now he’s putting himself out there just like he did yesterday in class when he asked me to the game. I may have spazzed then, but I’m not a complete idiot. Jace is interested in me. He has to be. All signals point to it.

My gut reaction is to freak out and worry what Eric thinks about this, but then a surprise surge of indignation bubbles up in me. Eric doesn’t want me, so why should I be worried what he thinks? Jace is hot, and nice, and I get butterflies when he shows interest. Those butterflies deserve to be explored.

Decision made, I shrug and give Jace a small smile. “Sure.”

Surprise flitters across Jace’s face, and then is replaced with pure pleasure. Knowing that I’ve just made him happy causes those butterflies to flare up in my stomach again. I feel confident until we reach the table and Mark’s knowing smile. Jace starts to sit beside him, and Mark pushes his shoulder. “No way. You shove down. This spot is reserved for Hastings.”

Jace scoots over, and Mark pats the open seat between him and Jace. “Sup, Hastings? How’d King convince you to join us little people today?”

I knew it. The whole team thinks I’m stuck up. I want to change that. I may be awkward most of the time, but thanks to all the time I spend with three obnoxious guys, I can do banter, so I muster up all my sarcasm and say, “Actually, it was the thought of getting to be in your godlike presence that did it.”

Mark blinks at me like my sense of humor surprises him, and then a wide smile spreads across his face. “I like your style, Hastings. Feel free to stroke my ego anytime.”

I snort and open my lunch container. I stir up the Asian chicken salad I find inside and pause before opening the dressing container. “Neither of you have some severe peanut allergy that will kill you if I open this, do you?” Both Jace and Mark look at my lunch and forget about their own. “Whoa,” Jace says while Mark says, “Fancy.”

I cringe under their scrutiny and force myself to answer their unspoken questions. Letting people see how I live is part of making new friends. I can’t change my life. This is me. They can either accept it and be my friend or be freaked out by it and I’ll stick with Eric, Kev, and Diego. “Yeah, um, well, Dad has Eric and me on strict diets as part of our training, so he has my chef pack our lunches.”

“Nice,” Jace says.

Mark nods as if he agrees, but he’s eyeing my salad like it might bite him. “I don’t know if I envy you or pity you.”

I laugh. “Probably a little bit of both. But, seriously, I’m not going to kill you with my peanut dressing?”

Mark smirks. “Only if you make me eat it.”

Jace laughs. “Mark is the pickiest eater you’ll ever meet.”

Mark reaches into my lunch container and pulls out two small packs of cookies with sticky notes on them labeled Kevin and Diego. “What’s this?”

Figures he’d be interested in the cookies. “Ross—my chef—loves to bake, but Dad, Eric, and I can’t eat that stuff, so he only ever packs it for Kevin and Diego.”

Mark lifts a package to his nose and sniffs. He looks closely at the cookies and then wrinkles his nose again. “Raisins? What a way to ruin a cookie.”

“You really are picky, aren’t you?”

“Much to my mother’s dismay.” He puts the cookies back and tackles his own lunch. It’s my turn to wrinkle my nose. “Bologna? Are you five?”

Mark pouts, as if offended. “What? It’s good!”

Nasty. “To each his own, I guess.”

I get about three bites into my salad when Mark hits me with another question. “So, Hastings, Jace says your house is dope.”

Jace reaches around my back to punch Mark’s shoulder. Mark glares at Jace. “What?”

“Don’t be rude.”

“How was that rude?” He ignores Jace and asks me, “So how come you never have the team over?”

“Mark.”

He frowns at Jace again. “What? I’m just asking.”

I cringe. “I don’t know. I just feel awkward. My house is…a bit over the top.”

Mark grins. “Which means it’s dope. And probably the perfect place for the team party…”

My anxiety kicks in, but then Mark gives me these puppy dog eyes that I can’t help laughing at.

Jace leans around me to glare at his friend. “Mark. Shut up. She doesn’t want the team at her house.”

That makes me feel bad. It’s always been true, but Jace is great and Mark seems nice. It’s kind of sad that these guys have been my teammates for four years and I barely know any of them except for Eric, Kev, and Diego.

Mark throws his arm around my shoulder. “Aw, come on, Hastings. It’s not like we don’t all know you live in a mansion. Four years together, and you’ve never invited any of us to it. We’re all dying of curiosity.”

He has a point. The guys may not have seen my house, but it’s not like they don’t know about it. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have them over. Jace was a little starstruck by it, but he’s been cool.

Jace suddenly knocks Mark’s arm off my shoulder, and Mark shoots him a knowing smirk before turning to me with a full-on pout. “Please? Just this once?”

He