Better than Perfect


  “Not gonna happen. You’re wastin’ your time.”

  “I have a week to change your mind.” She takes a calculated sip of tea, then sets the cup on the table. “You will give me a week, Derek. Won’t you?”

  “Give me one reason I shouldn’t walk out that door right now.”

  “Because it’s what your mother would have wanted.”

  Chapter 42

  Ashtyn

  It’s the first day of practice, where we’ll be assessed and placed onto teams for scrimmages. I wake up when my alarm rings at five and head to the showers. There’s a big sign on the door of the bathroom:

  5:00 a.m.–5:45 a.m.

  CLOSED FOR FEMALES ONLY

  Someone crossed out FEMALES ONLY and wrote FREMONT’S BITCH instead. The words cut deep.

  I stand under the hot shower. I want to go home. Maybe Landon was right, that I got accepted to Elite because I’m a girl and they wanted to fill some sort of quota.

  What am I doing here?

  I leave the bathroom and pull off the sign. I’m not about to tattle for a stupid sign calling me Fremont’s bitch. I’d lose respect for not being able to take a joke. Five guys are already standing in line with towels around their waists, waiting to enter. One of them is Landon. He snickers when I walk past him and says something to the guy standing next to him.

  Back in my room, I glance at my cell phone and notice I’ve got five texts.

  Jet: Find us a new QB who’ll transfer to Fremont, even if you have to sleep with him! Take one for the team. JK (kind of)

  Vic: Don’t fuck up! jk (kind of)

  Trey: Don’t listen to Jet or Vic. (Monika told me to write that. She’s sitting next to me.)

  Monika: Good luck! XOXO

  Bree: R cute guys there? Txt me pics!

  They remind me that I have a job to do now that Landon turned out to be a jerk and abandoned our team. If I can get scouts to come to Fremont and watch me play, every player will get a chance to be seen. I can’t give up or back down.

  My phone rings right before I head outside for practice. It’s Derek. I ignore the call. I have so much to say to him, but I can’t say it now. I need to focus on football this week, nothing else.

  On the field, the head coach blows his whistle. While the players gather around, he gives a lecture on sexual harassment. Way to make the guys resent me even more . . . All eyes are on me and I just want to disappear until it’s over. I don’t even hear the pep talk before we do calisthenics and drills, because I’m still aware of all the stares. It’s a closed practice, so parents and scouts are not allowed to attend today. None of the guys stand near me or talk to me.

  The kicking coach, Coach Bennett, has the kickers work on technique for a long time, then in the afternoon has us kick the ball starting from the goal line. He increases the distance by a yard after every successful kick. I’m the best of the group, until Coach Bennett assigns the quarterbacks as holders so we can practice kicking and they can practice a trick play in a fake field goal situation.

  Landon is assigned as my holder. He saunters over to me with an arrogant smirk on his face. I would ask Coach Bennett to assign me another holder, but nobody likes a player who complains. What would I tell him, that Landon is my ex-boyfriend and I don’t want to play nice with him? He’d probably laugh in my face, then send me packing.

  Football isn’t for the weak, physically or mentally.

  I can do this. I look around at the other kickers who are called on first. They’re all at the top of their game, like specially trained machines who know what to do and when to do it. A bunch of guys I’ve only heard about but never met are on the field, mini celebrities with big egos to match their talent. I can imagine everyone here playing at the college level and beyond.

  When Bennett calls me and Landon up for our turn, I get ready for the snap and attempt to execute a perfect kick right through the middle of the goalposts, but Landon tilts the ball at the last second and the ball tumbles on the ground after I kick the tip of it instead of the sweet spot. He does it so subtly that nobody else besides me can tell, unless you had a video camera and could replay it in slow motion.

  “You whoring around with Derek?” Landon mumbles when I get back in position for a second attempt.

  I ignore Landon and focus. This time, when the ball is snapped to Landon, he lets go of his hold on the ball at the last second so I miss it completely and fall hard on my ass.

  “Oh, no! You okay?” Landon asks with fake concern. He holds his hand out to help me up, but I swat his hand away.

  “Hold the fucking ball so I can kick it!” I yell as I get to my feet.

  He twists his fists in front of his eyes. “Boo-hoo. Feeling sorry for yourself because you and your team are gonna suck without me?”

  “McKnight, on the bench. Hansen, replace McKnight as holder!” Bennett calls out.

  As Charlie Hansen jogs on the field to replace Landon, the two quarterbacks slap hands as they pass each other.

  I get in position and Hansen takes the snap. At the last second, he tilts the ball slightly so I can’t kick it right. It’s an epic fail. I can hear snickers on the sidelines from the guys watching.

  At dinner I sit alone at one of the tables. I’m sore, tired, and defeated.

  The next two days are repeats of the first. I’m assigned a team, but none of the guys talk to me. I’m perfect when I’m kicking off the tee, but when the guys are holding the ball for me nothing I do will work. Somehow Landon has managed to sabotage me.

  After evening practice on Wednesday, the head coach, Coach Smart, calls me into his office. It’s in the main building near where I registered the first day. As I enter the office in full football gear, Coach Bennett is standing next to Coach Smart with my stats for the day.

  “What’s the problem, Parker?” Coach Smart asks me. “We brought you here because we saw potential. Not many female players make it past the high school level, but we thought you had what it takes to beat the odds.” He points to the stats. “To say we’re not happy with your performance so far is an understatement.”

  “I’m not happy with my performance, either. The guys are sabotaging me.”

  There’s no sympathy or understanding—just a coach itching to get more out of his player. “You gotta figure out how to play through whatever drama is going on behind the scenes. There’s always gonna be guys who want to create trouble and make other players look bad. It’s up to each individual to rise above it and figure a way to make it work. We’ve got scrimmages the rest of the week, and a big game on Friday night. There’ll be parents, scouts, the media . . . a full house. You want to go home and give up, Parker, just say the word.”

  “I don’t want to go home.”

  “Did you come here for a reason?”

  I nod. “Yeah, Coach, I did.” I had just forgotten what it was.

  “All right, here’s the deal.” He leans forward. “If you want to play Friday without embarrassing yourself and this program, you have two days to get it together and figure out how to make these guys want you on their team.”

  I swallow, but there’s a lump in my throat. “Yes, sir.”

  After leaving his office, I tell myself it doesn’t matter why or how I got here—I’m here and need to prove myself now more than ever. You can do this. I silently repeat Derek’s words in my head over and over, hoping I’ll soon believe it.

  I’m about to walk out of the building, when I stop to check out the pictures of players on the wall who’ve attended the Elite program and have gone on to have solid NFL careers. They even have a wall of fame with pictures of their top players.

  I stop and blink at one of the photos on the wall. No, it can’t be. Below it is a small gold-plated plaque engraved with the words DEREK FITZPATRICK “THE FITZ”—MVP. Above the plaque is a photo of a player leaping over a bunch of linemen for a touchdown.

  MVP at Elite? It can’t be the same Derek Fitzpatrick who couldn’t throw a football in a spiral to save his
life. The same Derek Fitzpatrick who makes my insides melt every time I’m with him. The same Derek Fitzpatrick I almost made love to in the tent.

  I step closer to the picture. There’s no mistaking it—it’s Derek. His eyes, his intense focus . . . that cocky, lopsided grin. His features are so familiar to me now.

  I’ve known Derek for weeks. I’ve slept in the same bed with him. I’ve fallen for him . . . and yet he’s made sure I never saw the real him that hides behind a bunch of lies.

  The burning feeling in the middle of my chest is fueled when I think about Derek just standing there listening to me while I stressed over the fact that Landon ditched us and we’re left without a decent quarterback. He knew I’d do just about anything to find a solid quarterback for Fremont. Yet he never even hinted he was a trained quarterback, an MVP.

  Coach Bennett comes up to me. I gesture to the offending picture. “How good was he?”

  “Fitz? He was the best quarterback I’ve ever seen. There are some guys who are born to play football. Fitz was one of ’em. Blew everyone away with his talent and ability to read the defense.”

  “What happened to him?”

  Coach Bennett shrugs. “He quit playing and never came back. Shocked the hell out of us, that’s for sure. Haven’t seen anyone with that much natural talent since.”

  “What about Landon McKnight?”

  Coach Bennett nods. “McKnight is decent.”

  “He’s an all-state player and almost went undefeated last year,” I tell him.

  “The goal is to be undefeated, not almost undefeated. Right?”

  I nod.

  “With enough training and practice, McKnight is definitely on his way.” He taps the picture of Derek. “As a freshman and sophomore, Derek Fitzpatrick led his team to the state championship.”

  That statement lingers in the air. Derek went to State. Wow. What would it be like to play in the state championship? Derek knows.

  Back in the dorm, I pull out my cell and search “Derek Fitzpatrick Football.” The first thing that comes up is a news article about a boy football prodigy who’d had the attention of Division I schools since he was fourteen. By his sophomore year in high school, he’d gotten three offers for full scholarships to college after he graduated. Another article’s title is Derek Fitzpatrick, Prodigy Quarterback. At the end of the article is a picture of the boy wonder himself.

  I follow links to article after article, one more impressive than the next. It’s hard to think the person who dominates my thoughts had a secret past he never revealed. Did the thought of playing for Fremont with me ever cross his mind these past few weeks?

  The betrayal cuts deeper than Landon’s ever did. Landon and I dated, but I know now that it was superficial. He never really loved me. I was trying to fill a void in my life, an emptiness that I’d been living with. He played me for a fool and schemed with Bonk from Fairfield.

  Truth is, Derek has played me for a bigger fool. You can do this, he’d said. Did he mean it, or was it another one of his jokes?

  We agreed to stay out of each other’s lives, but that’s not going to happen. I call a cab to come get me. Back home, Coach Dieter always tells us to play clean.

  I disagree. It’s time to play dirty.

  Chapter 43

  Derek

  I’m staring at the expensive designer suit the butler Harold laid out on my bed. I’m sure my grandmother told him to place it there so she can keep trying to mold me into the grandchild she always wanted. I’ve been here for three days now, and I’ve been counting down the days until I can pick up Ashtyn and head back to Illinois. I abandon the suit and find the old lady in her oversize dining room.

  She takes one look at me and frowns. “Derek, make your grandmother happy by changing into something other than those rags you call clothes. Didn’t Harold bring up the suit I bought for you?”

  “He did, but I’m not wearin’ it.” I reach out and take a piece of bread off the large buffet, but she slaps my hand away. “Wait for the guests.”

  “Guests?” A sinking feeling settles in my chest. “What guests?”

  She looks way too proud of herself. That fake smile she’s trying to hide is an indication that she’s up to something. “I’ve arranged a little get-together with some of the teenagers in town, that’s all.” She takes my face in her hands. “I know many single debutantes who have impeccable bloodlines, Derek.”

  “Bloodlines? You plannin’ on setting me up with a mare? C’mon, isn’t that a little old-fashioned, even for you?”

  “Do you have a lady friend?”

  “If you mean a girlfriend, the answer is no. I’m not lookin’ for one, either.”

  “Nonsense. You need to be fixed up. It’s as simple as that.” She walks with purpose to the opposite side of the room. “You’re tall, handsome, and you happen to be the grandson of the late Kenneth Worthington. It’s time you embrace the fact that you’re the heir to Worthington Industries, the biggest textile distributor in the world. You, my dear grandson, are a catch.”

  “I don’t want to be caught.”

  “That attitude means you haven’t met a girl worthy of your attention. You’ll want to be caught if the right girl comes along.”

  I grab a piece of bread from the buffet and take a big, obnoxious bite out of it. “Thanks for the offer, but I don’t need to be fixed up,” I say with a mouth full of bread.

  Her top lip curls in disgust. “I thought you went to a private school. Didn’t they teach you basic manners?” I open my mouth to answer, but she holds a hand up. “Don’t answer with your mouth full. Just . . . go upstairs, put your suit on, and come down when you’re decently attired. Guests will be arriving shortly.” When I don’t look the least bit interested in dressing up for her shindig, she flashes me a practiced, superficial smile. “Please, Derek. Humor me for one night.”

  “If you’re gonna say my mother would have wanted me to wear that suit, I swear I’m walkin’ out that door and never comin’ back. Don’t pretend to know anything about my mother, because you were the one who disappeared from her life.”

  “I know my daughter more than you think, Derek.” When I shake my head and am about to tell her off, she motions me to follow her out of the room. “Come with me. I need to show you something.”

  My instinct is to act like a stubborn asshole and walk out, just to make a point. But a voice in my head urges me to stay and follow the old lady.

  My grandmother leads me to a big room filled with enough books to fill a small library. She closes the door and slides one of the shelves aside to reveal a safe. With agile fingers, she carefully opens the safe and pulls out an envelope.

  “Here,” she says, sliding a letter out of the envelope and handing it to me.

  I glance at the paper and immediately recognize my mother’s handwriting. The letter was dated two weeks before my mom died. She’d been weak back then and knew she didn’t have much time left. I’d asked her if she was afraid . . . I couldn’t say the rest of my sentence out loud. “Of dying?” she asked. When I nodded, she took my hand in hers and said, “No. Then I won’t be in pain anymore.” A few days later she stopped talking and lay in bed all day, waiting to die.

  My grandmother stands in front of me with her head bent as I read my mother’s words.

  Dear Mother,

  I remember when I was a little girl I didn’t talk because I was shy, but you told the other moms I was too intelligent to speak. I found out you paid off one of the judges of the beauty contest I entered in junior high so I’d win. I never told you the manager at The Burger Hut said he couldn’t hire me the summer before my senior year of high school because you wanted me to intern with Daddy at Worthington Industries instead.

  For a long time I thought you did those things to control my life. As a mom myself, I realize now that you wanted to create this perfect life for me because you loved me.

  Take comfort in the fact that I’ve lived the perfect life. Steven Fitzpatrick is my one
true love. Derek is my little football star and an amazing son—he’s funny and handsome like his father and strong-willed and wild-spirited like me. He’s perfect.

  I have one request. Please take care of my son when Steven can’t, Mom. Look after him, because I won’t be around to do it much longer.

  Love always,

  Katherine

  I fold the letter up and blink back tears as I hand it back to my grandmother. “I’ll go change,” I say.

  No other words need to be said. I get why I’m here and why she wants me to stay.

  A half hour later I walk down the stairs in the suit she bought me. I leave the tie upstairs and unbutton the top two buttons of my shirt as a statement that my mom’s wild spirit lives inside me, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

  The foyer is crowded, full of teenage girls in bright-colored dresses and big hair. Knowing how my grandmother operates, she already has a suitable bride picked out and the prenuptial papers drawn up and ready to be signed.

  Lucky for me, guys are also invited, so I’m not the only buck on display.

  Ashtyn would laugh at a party like this, where you gain popularity points by how much money and status you have instead of how much alcohol you can ingest before you puke. I’ll bet nobody here has ever played Fact or BS with Jell-O shots. Or shaved their ball sacs, for that matter.

  “Derek!” my grandmother calls out as she winds her way through the mass of people milling around. “You forgot your necktie.”

  “No, I didn’t.”

  She reaches out and buttons the top two buttons of my shirt. “It’s customary to wear a tie when you’re at a formal function. You look like the gardener.”

  I hold her face in my hands, like she did to me less than an hour ago. “This might be a formal function to everyone else, but to me it’s a dog and pony show. You want me to pretend to be one of ’em, this is what you get.”