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Authors: Anne Mateer

Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050, #Christian fiction, #Love stories

Playing by Heart (20 page)

BOOK: Playing by Heart
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28

C
HET

The strains of “My Country, 'Tis of Thee” pulled my ballplayers' attention to the music students instead of our half-time huddle.

“Look at me, not at them,” I reprimanded.

Of course, I peeked that way, too. But all I could see was Lula's back as she directed the ensemble celebrating the National Week of Song with a patriotic tune. Patriotic music in the background as we raised funds for war bonds. Fitting, to be sure. But distracting.

“We've got to settle down and play. Blaze, try to get the ball inside, to Virgil. Clem, I need you to block out their center. He's scored too many baskets already.” All three boys nodded. I looked each player in the face before continuing. “These guys won't give us anything for free. Now let's get this game back under our control!”

The singing stopped just before I finished speaking, my final words echoing through the sudden silence. Lula turned and frowned at me as if I'd interrupted her students' performance instead of putting an exclamation point on their anthem.

But I couldn't spend time thinking about her now. We had a game to win.

The Bulldogs were down by three points. After all the boys' hard work, we faced the end of our undefeated season and quest for a new gymnasium.

Minutes ticked by. My boys tried hard, but still we trailed. I slouched on the bench, my eyes on Blaze as he took the ball up the court. If only I could call out a play or an encouragement, remind them to keep their feet moving and their concentration on the ball. But I couldn't. There was no coaching allowed during play.

Blaze to Clem to Virgil. Virgil bounced it twice, waiting for Flip, one of my shortest players, to break free from his defender. The ball swung in Flip's direction. Flip passed it back to Blaze, who shot it in.

34 to 35. I wished we were the 35.

We followed the Millersville boys back down the court, each of my players focused on the ball, on the player assigned to them, anticipating the next move. The building could have caught on fire at that moment and they wouldn't have noticed. I gripped a towel between my hands, pulling and twisting to try to relieve the stress.

Less than a minute. It appeared our whole season would live or die on the final shot. The pounding in my chest thundered in my ears along with the buzzing of the crowd.

The ball left a Millersville player's hands, arced upward. I couldn't swallow. Couldn't breathe. Blaze jumped up with it and batted it away from the rim before it began its descent. I shot to my feet as the crowd cheered. The referee gave me a warning look that told me to get a handle on my spectators. But I couldn't fault them.

Time for one more run up the court, one more attempt at a goal.

Jump ball.

Clem snatched the ball out of the air after Virgil's hand slapped the leather. He tossed it to Blaze. Blaze dribbled toward our goal, passed to Flip. My eyes followed the ball from guard to forward to center. Left and right. In and out. Then Blaze stood alone at the top of the key—just beneath the free throw line. Clem received the ball, flung it to Blaze. Blaze caught it, shot—

Scored! My arms flew into the air as the final whistle sounded. The boys from our bench rushed the court, all of them gathered around Blaze. I held back. I'd have my turn at congratulating him. I glanced over the crowd. Lula smiled at me from her seat, and I couldn't help but smile back. Then Miss Morrison appeared in front of me, her hand curling around my elbow.

“That was so exciting! However do you manage to stay so calm?” She flapped a lace hankie in front of her face.

I eased my arm from her grasp and pointed toward my team as I moved away from her. “Thanks, Miss Morrison. I have to go.”

Then there were slaps on the back, hands pumping mine up and down. School board members. Fellow teachers. Parents. Miss Morrison, I noted, was pushed out of the way and looked none too happy about it.

I pressed through the crowd, seeking Lula. Then the sea of people parted. Instead of Lula, the weather-hardened face of Archie Clifton rose before me, the hostility usually directed at Blaze now turned full force on me.

“Coach!” Blaze's arm waved over the heads of those still in attendance, his back to his father, not yet aware of his presence.

I made my way to my team and started the congratulatory process again. But when my boys gathered around, I turned
sober. “You didn't give up. I respect you for that. Enjoy this victory, but remember we still have two more games in which to prove ourselves.”

A chorus of “Yes, Coach” followed my words. Then I sent them off to change.

Blaze lingered behind. “How's it working out at your Uncle Sal's?” I asked him.

“It'll do.” His mouth twitched into a grin. “Although Miss Delancey—or rather, Aunt Rachel, is a bit . . .”

I laughed, imaging Miss Delancey prancing about her new domain.

Blaze cleared his throat. “I guess I can make it until graduation.”

I schooled my expression to neutral. He wouldn't want me to make a fuss. “Good. Mind if I ask how you came to that conclusion?”

His head dipped. “Nannie and I talked again. She thought it would be best to wait.” He looked up. “She's smart. I trust her.”

I nodded, thanking God for a girl with common sense. Then my gaze strayed over Blaze's shoulder. Archie Clifton's eyes bored into mine. “Your pa's here.”

Blaze looked as panicked as a boy atop a runaway horse. I gripped his arm, wishing I could impart strength and courage with a touch. But I could only advise—and pray. “He came to see you play. You ought to at least speak to him. Be a man, Blaze. Prove you have it in you to live your convictions without resentment toward those who don't understand or agree.”

He nodded, but the fear didn't leave his eyes.

“I'm praying for you. Right now.”

“Yes, sir.” He took a deep breath and approached his father. With his every step, I battered heaven with my requests. For
strength. For humility. For kindness and patience and rock-hard resolve.

The conversation lasted less than a minute. Mr. Clifton didn't look pleased when he left. Blaze threw his arm around Nannie's shoulder, his face tight and pale. Nannie tugged at his jersey. He glanced down at her adoring grin and relaxed.

My eyes sought Lula again. I'd hoped to share the excitement of the victory with her, but as I searched among the small clusters of fans that remained, she was nowhere to be found.

In spite of Lula's disappearance after the game the night before, I felt like a schoolboy on Christmas morning. Ma had arranged the seating at the Red Cross dinner and dance as I'd asked—and without an untoward look or comment. Lula would sit beside me, Jewel and Bo beside her. If only Lula would have agreed to let me drive her there and back. But she'd been insistent. She'd come with Jewel and Bo.

When she arrived at the town hall as promised, I inhaled at the sight of her, from the feathered round hat to the beige dress of lace that billowed out around her slim ankles. A shiny band of blue circled her waist.

“You look lovely.” I lifted her gloved hand to my lips while she surveyed the athletic venue turned banquet hall. In just a few short hours, the seating and basketball goals had disappeared. Tables swathed in red, white, and blue bunting had taken their place. If only the army recruitment posters weren't staring down accusingly and the sea of khaki uniforms, soldiers from Fort Sill, didn't leave me feeling naked in my plain suit.

“Talking basketball, I see?” Principal Gray reached out to shake my hand. Lula slid her fingers from mine, stepped closer
to her sister. I returned the principal's smile, but the glint of steel in his eyes put me on alert. Had one of my boys gotten in trouble? Had I forgotten to turn off the lights or lock up after our game last evening?

Before I could determine the cause, he sauntered away, greeting others, appearing amiable. I wiped a hand over my forehead, drying the thin glaze of perspiration. My nerves were too high. That was all. Like the boys at the start of a game.

Lula sat herself at our table and began talking with Ma and Bo about JC's latest antics. I sat down beside her, but Lula barely noticed. During the meal, she picked at her food, hardly ever looking my way. My chest tightened with disappointment. Maybe such a public venue hadn't been a good idea. Not if I desired intimate conversation with her.

After dinner, the band tuned up. Jewel's arms crossed her chest, and her eyes glistened—dark eyes so much like Lula's that the grief in them twisted my heart. Bo slid an arm around Jewel's shoulder and whispered in her ear. She nodded and stood. I hopped to my feet, as well.

“I'll see Jewel home. I assume you can escort Lula later?” Bo's expectant look told me we'd joined forces in our pursuit of the sisters. I nodded, glad to have him as an ally instead of an enemy. But Lula's chair scraped the floor right behind me.

“No, I'd better—” She wrung her hands, her gaze racing between her sister and Bo.

Jewel pressed Lula back into her chair. “You stay. Have a good time with the rest of the young people.”

Lula's lips pressed into a tight line as she stared across the room. I glanced that way but couldn't figure out what had drawn her attention. The first song began. Couples crowded the dance floor. Bitsy Greenwood waved at us from Carl Whitson's arms.
My back went stiff, wondering what Giles would think. But Lula relaxed into her chair, her expression loosening. “Of course you're right, Jewel. You go on. We'll be fine.”

What had just happened? What had she seen? I looked back at my two friends, my colleagues, on the dance floor and scratched at the back of my head.

Women. Would I ever understand them?

A nudge from behind pushed me forward. I looked back. Ma. Eyebrows high, nodding toward Lula.

Did she mean for me to ask Lula to dance? I swallowed hard. Of course I wanted to. But did this mean Ma wanted that, too?

I extended my hand in Lula's direction. “Shall we?”

Her cheeks pinked, and her white teeth peeked over her rosy bottom lip. I wanted to yank her into my arms and never let go. But I stood patient. Waiting.

She rested her fingers on mine. A shy half smile lifted her lips as my hand settled at her waist, hers at my shoulder.

I blessed the crush of people that forced her closer, so close I could smell lilac soap on her neck. I couldn't take my eyes off her rosy cheeks, her quiet eyes, her bright lips. Was her hair done up in a new style? It seemed . . . softer somehow.

No longer was she the stoic Miss Bowman who'd arrived at school in October. Nor the haughty one who'd declared herself a better math teacher than me. This Miss Bowman had a vulnerability I found endearing. A spark of life that warmed me whenever I was in her presence.

We moved to the music while a singer crooned words of endearment. I held more tightly to her hand, pressed the fingers of my other hand into the small of her back, drawing her closer still. I stared into the depth of her eyes, hoping she read all my heart wanted to say.

Her gaze slid away. “Your boys played a great game last night.”

My hold on her loosened. Either she couldn't read my feelings or she couldn't return them. Either way, I had no desire to make a fool of myself over her. Best to keep our conversation on equal footing. “Thank you. And your girls have improved so much.”

Her eyes jumped back to mine. I tried to smile, but my face wouldn't override my heart. I wanted more than basketball talk from her.

“I . . . um . . .” She cast a sweeping look over the dance floor. “I've never watched anything quite so exciting as that game.”

I shrugged. “We work hard in practice for games such as those. The boys proved themselves well. I am very proud of them.”

“As you ought to be. I just hope my girls can acquit themselves as well by the end of the season.”

“You only have two more games, but I think the girls have a shot at a win. They played especially well last night. Looks like you've had a good teacher.” I winked, hoping to get back to our natural camaraderie.

Her blush deepened to red. “I told the girls I'd ask you if you could come up with some plays. Things we can do to direct the action instead of just reacting to the other team.”

Now I couldn't quash my grin. Slow and wide. She'd been listening. Quite attentively, apparently. Basketball had been an easy illustration to throw Blaze's way because I knew he would understand it. I hadn't imagined it would work in the opposite direction with Lula—life explaining basketball rather than basketball explaining life.

Our steps adjusted to the rhythm of a new song.

“You did an amazing thing with Nannie and Blaze,” she said. “I know I told you that before, but it's really true. Nannie seemed back to her old self last night.”

I nodded. “Blaze, too. I doubt he would have led us to victory the way he did without some stability in his life these past couple of weeks. His uncle agreed to let him stay there until graduation. His pa couldn't complain much. Archie's always doted on his baby brother. And Sal is the only family Archie has left, besides Blaze. Having him living in town means he's spent a fair amount of time at my house, too.”

BOOK: Playing by Heart
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