The next day after school, Mike stood in the throwing circle for his first ever shot-put throw at his first ever meet. A bead of sweat traced his spine, dripping slowly along the skin on his back.
He tuned out the distant sounds of kids laughing and yelling in the stands, the crowd cheering, the coaches shouting encouragement and tried to focus on the eight-pound metal ball he held in his hand.
The bright sun overhead added to the heat, and he wiped his free hand across his forehead. Determined not to make an ass out of himself at his first meet, Mike squeezed the shot to his neck and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. Visualized the throw. Leg muscles tightened with anticipation. He exhaled and spun toward the toe board. Then, pushing all the tension and frustration he’d felt this week into his arm, released his throw.
The shot arced through the air, glinting in the afternoon sunshine. It landed in the dirt and Coach Ebbs clapped. “That’s the way to do it! Well done, Mike.”
The judge measured the distance and raised his eyebrows. He called out the result. “Fifty-five feet, two and a quarter inches.”
Mike ignored the smattering of applause from the spectators. He glanced around and disappointment tightened his chest. She’d missed his first throw. He stepped out the back of the ring and went to where Hayden stood waiting for him.
“That was an awesome throw. Only five more feet to qualify for state.”
Mike shrugged. “Yep.”
“What’s wrong?” Hayden asked with a grin. “Not every throw can be state qualifying.”
“Yeah.” Mike scanned the area again.
Hayden smirked. “Don’t worry, she isn’t ditching you. She and Molly are warming up for the four by one.”
Heat filled his face. Damn, was he that obvious?
“Still think I’m bad?” Hayden joked.
“Yes. And I think you’ve infected me with your wussiness.”
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with expressing your emotions.”
Mike snorted. “Not if you’re a girl.”
“This wussy can still outrun your ass.”
“Good thing. That will help when you need to outrun my fist.” Mike laughed, punching Hayden on the arm.
“Asshole.” Hayden laughed.
They watched the competitors for a while and Mike completed his next two throws, gaining an inch with the last one. After he finished, they walked toward the track to wait for the girls’ race to begin.
Mike searched for Cindy, smiling when he found her on the infield practicing hand-offs with Molly and the rest of their relay team. Focused on her warm-up, she didn’t see him, but he couldn’t look away.
“Final call, girls’ varsity 4X100 meter relay.” The announcer’s voice blared from the PA followed by the crackle of static.
“Come on. Molly is lead leg and Cindy is anchor. Let’s go stand by the finish so we can yell at them.” Hayden jerked his chin toward the track.
Mike followed Hayden through the crowd along the fence surrounding the track. They squeezed into a spot just before the finish line. Leaning his arms on the fence, Mike stared at Cindy, waiting for her to make eye contact. She looked everywhere but at him.
“What the hell?” Mike muttered to himself.
Molly waved to Hayden and tapped Cindy’s shoulder, pointing to Mike. Cindy glanced at him.
He waved to her, but his stomach clenched. “Fuck.”
“What’s wrong?” Hayden asked.
“I don’t know. Cindy’s looking at me like I’m the stupid I want my two dollars kid in Better Off Dead.”
“You’re imagining things,” Hayden said, looking across the infield. “You know, you girls are emotional.”
Mike smirked at the joke. “Takes one to know one.”
The girls walked onto the track and his gaze followed Cindy. He tried not to stare at her body while she slid off her warmup pants. Tried. Swallowing hard, he raised his gaze to her face and caught her laughing as she jogged to her mark at the other end of the track.
He shook his head but couldn’t help peeking again at her warm skin shining in the sun.
“Let’s go, Molly!”
Mike jumped at Hayden’s yell. On the track, Molly bounced in lane four in front of the blocks. She ignored Hayden, staring straight ahead while she hugged her knee to her chest.
Maybe he was being too sensitive about Cindy. Hayden didn’t whine about Molly not looking at him.
“Runners, on your mark.”
Molly jumped, raising her knees to her chest, then knelt and set her feet in the blocks, planting her fingers behind the line.
Mike glanced sideways, laughing at Hayden as he bit his thumb nail. “Need me to hold your hand?”
Hayden exhaled. “Only if you want to, honey.”
The crowd hushed for a moment and Mike’s stomach flipped. Their soccer games were noisy, no time to get nervous.
The gun fired and the noise returned. Parents, teammates, coaches, everyone screamed at the runners. He found himself caught up in the hype, screaming at Molly as she bolted out of the blocks.
“Go, Molly!” He joined Hayden’s shouts. He could hear their teammates hollering from the other side of the track as Molly flew past them. She handed off ahead of the other teams to the second runner, a junior named Lexi, who took off down the straight on the other side.
“Damn, Molly’s fast,” Mike said. “I’ve only seen her run cross country.”
Hayden nodded. “Wait until you see Cindy. Her race pace is faster than you’ve seen in practice.”
Lexi reached the exchange zone in the lead, and passed the baton to Andrea, the newest member of their relay team. She ran through the curve, arms swinging, teeth bared in a determined snarl. She pumped her legs, struggling to maintain the lead. As she approached Cindy, her pace slowed slightly.
Cindy took her lead off steps and reached back for the pass. Andrea all but fell into her outstretched hand. Mike cursed under his breath as the girl in lane five pulled ahead of Cindy.
Mike screamed, “Dig, Cindy! You got this!”
Lip curled, arms and legs pumping fast, Cindy narrowed her eyes and dashed toward the finish. Hayden was right, Cindy was faster than Molly. She closed the gap with the leader and pulled ahead with fifty meters to go. She blasted past and crossed the finish line a second ahead of lane five.
The crowd cheered and Mike joined in.
“Did you see that? She kicked ass after that bad hand off.” Mike slapped Hayden on the back.
He laughed. “She’s tough. She wasn’t about to let that other girl win.”
“Yeah, she wants to win, that’s for sure.” Mike watched Cindy hug Molly. She turned and met his eye, giving him a thumbs up. She pointed at him and Hayden like they had better win, too.
He nodded and laughed.
“Hey there, Hayden.”
They turned and came face to face with a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair. If the deep brown color of their skin wasn’t enough of a clue, Mike knew they were Cindy’s parents from Cindy’s smile that laid on her dad’s face. Mike returned it.
“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson.” Hayden held his hand out to Cindy’s dad, glancing at Mike. “This is my friend, Mike Ryan. Mike, these are Cindy’s parents.”
Trying to keep it from shaking, Mike held out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Her dad grasped it and Mike’s hand shook more from the extra tremors. Why hadn’t Cindy told him her dad was not well?
“Good to meet you too, Mike.” He smiled. “You must be the goalie Cindy mentioned.”
“Uh, yeah. That’s right.” She’d told them about him?
Her mom nodded. “She said you were new to the team. You like it so far?”
Mike met her direct gaze. “It’s different than soccer, but I like it.”
She didn’t seem too scary. But then, she didn’t know he made out with her daughter whenever he could.
“Mike’s great at the shot-put. He has a solid chance at going to state this year.” Hayden said.
Mike glanced at Hayden from the corner of his eye and raised his eyebrows.
Cindy’s dad gave a low whistle. “That’s impressive for someone new to the sport.”
“Thanks. I still have a way to go, but I’ll get there.”
“I like that determination.” Her dad patted her mom’s hand. “Just like Cindy.”
“Good luck,” her mom said. “Cindy’s goal is to get to state, too. They might make it if they keep focused. Right, baby?” She returned her husband’s gesture.
“Well, she’s still gotta have fun. She’s a kid, too.”
Mike agreed. Cindy should bypass her mom and just tell her dad about them. He seemed to be more reasonable.
“You know how I feel about that. Fun can come later, once she’s done with school.”
Mike and Hayden exchanged a glance.
“Mama? Daddy?” Cindy approached them with wide eyes. She met Mike’s gaze and her head bobbed as she swallowed.
“Great race,” Mike said.
She nodded then hugged her dad. “Hey, Daddy. What are you doing here? Are you sure you should be out? It’s kind of chilly. Where’s your jacket?”
“Quit fussin’. I’m fine, fine.” He patted her back and nodded at Mike. “Hayden, introduced us to the next shot-put record holder.”
Mike laughed. “I don’t know if I’d say that.”
“Yeah, he’s good.” Cindy glanced between him and her dad then bit her lip. “Thanks for cheering us on guys.”
“That’s what boy…teammates are for.” Hayden’s cheeks reddened and he glanced at Mike. “We’re here to cheer on the girls’ team.”
Mike bit back a laugh. “Right. So they do the same for us.” He met Cindy’s wide-eyed stare.
“Go team.” She raised a fist in the air.
Cindy’s mom cocked an eyebrow, pressing her lips together.
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson.” Molly hugged Cindy’s mom and dad, then went to Hayden’s side. He put an arm around her waist and kissed the top of her head. “Good job.”
“Thanks.” She smiled at Cindy’s parents. “Did you see our race?”
Cindy’s mom put her hands on her hips. “I did. Andrea better get her stuff together if you want to make it to state this year.”
Cindy frowned at her mom. “She will. You know, first time jitters. She’ll work it out.”
“Hmm mmm,” was her reply. She pursed her lips at Hayden, and he let go of Molly.
As Molly talked to Cindy’s dad about the details of the race, Mike tried to catch Cindy’s eye. But she bent to the ground, untying and retying her shoe. He drew in a slow breath, lost in memories of her soft skin. Imagining those fingers in his hair, in his hand, against his lips, he grinned.
Not the place to fantasize about your girlfriend, idiot. Track suits don’t hide much.
He raised his gaze—right into her mom’s watchful stare. His face burned.
Her mom crossed her arms. “Did you tell Tavis about the meet, Cindy? Is he coming to watch you?”
Mike’s gaze flew to Cindy’s face. A cold tingle ran along his neck.
“No, Mama,” she stammered, glancing at Molly.
Mike did, too and got another punch in the gut. Molly blushed and Hayden glanced at the ground. Who the hell was Tavis?
“Well, I’m sure he wanted to come. He probably had to work. You can call him later and tell him how you did.” Her mom turned to Mike and Hayden, her gaze on Mike’s burning face.
“Good luck with your season boys. I’m taking Carl to the stands where we can sit.”
Mike met her steady gaze. Her comment still ripped through his chest like a bullet—and she knew it. He no longer doubted Cindy’s reason to hide their relationship from this woman.
But apparently, he wasn’t Cindy’s only secret.
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