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    Ryan

    I’M NOT INTERESTED IN SECOND PLACE. Never have been. Never will be. It’s not the style of anyone who wants to play in the majors. And because of my personal philosophy, this moment sucks. My best friend is seconds from scoring a phone number from the chick working the Taco Bell counter, placing him in the lead.

    What started as a simple dare twisted into a night-long game. First, Chris dared me to ask the girl in line at the movies for her number.

    Then I dared him to ask the girl at the batting cages for her number. The more we succeeded, the more momentum the game gained. Too bad Chris owns a grin that melts the hearts of all girls, including the ones with boyfriends.

    I hate losing.

    Taco Bell Chick blushes when Chris winks at her. Come on. I chose her because she called us redneck losers when we ordered.

    Chris rests his arms on the counter, inching closer to the girl, as I sit at the table and watch the tragedy unfold. Shouldn’t she be having an epiphany right about now? If not, can she find some self-respect and tell Chris to beat it?

    Every single muscle on the back of my neck tenses as Taco Bell Chick giggles, writes something on a piece of paper, and slides it over to him. Dammit. The rest of our group howls with laughter and someone pats me on the back.

    Tonight isn’t about phone numbers or girls.

    It’s about enjoying our last Friday night before school begins. I’ve tasted everything—the freedom of hot summer air in the Jeep with the panels down, the peace of dark country roads leading to the interstate, the exciting glow of city lights as we took the thirty-minute drive into Louisville, and, lastly, the mouthwatering taste of a greasy fast-food taco at midnight.

    Chris raises the phone number like a referee holding up the glove of the prize champion.

    “It’s on, Ryan.”

    “Bring it.” There’s no way I’ve gotten this far to have Chris outdo me.

    He slouches in his seat, tosses the paper into the pile of numbers we’ve collected over the evening, and tugs his Bullitt County High baseball cap over his brown hair. “Let’s see.

    These things have to be thought through. The girl chosen carefully. Attractive enough so she won’t fall for you. Not a dog because she’ll be excited someone gave her a bone.”

    Mimicking him, I shift back in the chair, extend my legs, and fold my hands over my stomach. “Take your time. I’ve got forever.”

    But we don’t. After this weekend, life changes—my life and Chris’s. On Monday, Chris and I will be seniors starting our last fall baseball league. I only have a few more months to impress the professional baseball scouts or the dream I’ve been working toward my entire life will dissolve into ashes.

    A shove at my foot brings me back to the here and now.

    “Stop the serious shit,” Logan whispers. The lone junior at the table and the best damn catcher in the state nods toward the rest of the group. He knows my facial expressions better than anyone. He should. We’ve been playing together since we were kids. Me pitching.

    Him catching.

    For Logan’s sake, I laugh at a joke Chris told even though I didn’t hear the punch line.

    “We close soon.” Taco Bell Chick wipes a table near ours and gives Chris a smile. She almost looks pretty in the glow of the red neon Drive-Thru Open sign.

    “I may call that one,” says Chris.

    I lift a brow. He worships his girlfriend.

    “No, you won’t.”

    “I would if it weren’t for Lacy.” But he has Lacy, and loves her, so neither one of us continues that conversation.

    “I have one more try.” I make a show of glancing around the purple Tex-Mex decorated lobby. “What girl are you choosing for me?”

    A honk from the drive-thru announces the arrival of a car full of hot girls. Rap pounds from their car and I swear one girl flashes us. I love the city. A brunette in the backseat waves at me. “You should pick one of them.”

    “Sure,” Chris says sarcastically. “In fact, why don’t I hand you the title now?”

    Two guys from our table hop out of their seats and go outside, leaving me, Logan, and Chris alone. “Last chance for hot city girls before we drive back to Groveton, Logan.”

    Logan doesn’t say anything one way or another, nor does his face move an inch. That’s Logan for you—unmoved by much. Unless it involves a feat associated with death.

    “There she is.” Chris’s eyes brighten as he stares at the entrance. “That’s the girl I’m calling as yours.”

    I suck in a deep breath. Chris sounds too happy for this girl to be good news. “Where?”

    “Just came in, waiting at the counter.”

    I risk a look. Black hair. Torn clothes. Total skater. Damn, those chicks are hard-core. I slap my hand against the table and our trays shift.

    Why? Why did Skater Girl have to wander into Taco Bell tonight?

    Chris’s rough chuckles do nothing to help my growing agitation. “Admit defeat and you won’t have to suffer.”

    “No way.” I stand, refusing to go down without a fight.

    All girls are the same. It’s what I tell myself as I stroll to the counter. She might look different from the girls at home, but all girls want the same thing—a guy who shows interest. A guy’s problem is having the balls to do it. Good thing for me I’ve got balls. “Hi. I’m Ryan.”

    Her long black hair hides her face, but her slim body with a hint of curves catches my attention. Unlike the girls at home, she isn’t wearing marked-down designer labels. Nope.

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