Vaughn Yarborough is ready to trade the fame and glory of the international junior pro tennis circuit for college and a more settled life. First stop: spearhead a summer camp for underprivileged kids. The girl who’s agreed to run it with him has him more intrigued by the minute, but with the strict no-fraternizing rules, he’s got to figure out how not to fall for her.
When the boy Carlyn Sadowski has crushed on for years asks her to work with him for the summer, she has to pinch herself. When his world-famed coach offers her training for free, she can’t believe her luck. He could actually help her follow in her mother’s footsteps by playing college tennis. But when she finds out the catch is she’s got to convince Vaughn to go pro, Carlyn will have to decide between her dreams and the boy currently stealing her heart.
I can’t believe this is happening. Years of conditioning and hitting a million forehands and backhands and a jillion serves, all in preparation for this single, precious moment, and I’m about to psych myself out of the whole thing…
All because of him.
What is Vaughn Yarborough doing here? He sits on row two, watching these tryouts like they’re nothing to him, like I’m going to breeze through them laser-focused and not screw everything up now that my arms have turned to jelly. He catches my gaze and lifts his chin just barely in acknowledgment. I attempt a smile, but I can’t look him in the eye. I wish he wouldn’t stare at me. In all fairness, he’s been following the play on the court, but still.
All the coaches of us girls showing off for this Avery University scout line the fence, watching their players with intense scowls or encouraging nods. My dad stands at the end of the line, concern etched across his features, wanting this for me as much as I want it for myself. He tries so hard. How could I ever let him know he does more damage to my game than good?
It’s not like we have a choice. We can’t afford a real coach, and he’s trying. But he doesn’t know what he’s doing any more than I do. He gives me this serious nod with a discreet thumbs-up. He has all the hope and faith in me that I don’t have in myself. My guilt-ridden heart sinks as I plaster on a smile and give him a thumbs-up in return, which makes him grin like everything’s falling right into place…directly off a cliff.
On row two, Vaughn scoots over to make room for his famed coach, Jeffrey Lyons, as if this day couldn’t get worse. That’s just what I need to calm the nerves, a man who’s competed in all four grand slams watching me go for my last chance to make the team of my dream school.
“Carlyn,” the Avery assistant coach barks.
I jerk into reality and move my butt to the baseline to accept some forehands. My first shot lands in the alley, the second bounces out behind the baseline, and the third smacks into the net and suspends itself in midair for what seems like seven thousand years, and then drops unceremoniously back on my side of the court, rolling off to the ball boy who snatches it up and pockets it.
“Next,” the coach shouts.
Rebecca meets me by my tennis bag on the hill with all the others. “Oh, Carlyn. I’m so sorry.”
I unzip my bag and fish for my racquet cover. “It’s fine.” I’m trying hard to sound upbeat, but my words are a huge lie.
She puts her hand on my back and leans in close. “What happened?”
My traitorous eyes glance at row two without my permission, meeting his gaze for the briefest second before I look away. Vaughn shouldn’t make me this nervous. He’s just a guy my own age, like any other guy at this club…just with an enormous amount of international success and notoriety. I wince as I think about the mixed doubles tournament from last summer. There was another lost opportunity. A chance to play on a team with one of the best junior players in the world, and I lost the match for us. Way to get noticed, Carlyn.
I zip up my racquet with a little more gusto than necessary. “It’s okay. I don’t have to play for Avery. Just going there is enough.”
She smiles, her lips tight. She knows how much making this team meant to me, and now it’s over.
Dad steps in front of me, his face ghost white. He runs his fingers through his hair. “Well, maybe there’s still a chance. That one serve you hit just about caught the line. I—”
“Dad,” I interrupt. “It’s over. It’s fine. I’m fine.” His frown is so deep I think he’s etching new lines into his forehead. “Rebecca and I are going to Sonic to get a soda, okay?” I ask, needing desperately to be away from him right now, because if we’re together this afternoon, we’ll just talk about what was at stake and what’s been lost, and I’ll start crying, then he’ll try to stay strong for me but tears will form in his eyes, and I cannot deal with my dad’s tears, not today.
“Okay,” he says. “But come home for dinner by six. I’ve got a roast in the slow cooker.”
He nods at Rebecca, squeezes my shoulder, and then starts toward the parking lot but is stopped by another dad who extends a hand, and they settle into a conversation. Rebecca and I head off toward the main building for the locker room, but when we round the corner by the concession building, my heart jumps up into my throat as we’re met with Vaughn and Jeffrey Lyons, who plant themselves right in front of us. I glance around the corner to find my dad still standing there with that other dad, his back to us, thank God.
“Hey.” Vaughn nods in the direction of the court. “Sorry about…”
My ears sizzle, sending tingles of humiliation down my neck. “Oh, it’s fine. It just wasn’t my day.”
Jeffrey nods at Rebecca. “I heard you got a scholarship to Brannigan. Congratulations.”
“Thank you, sir,” she says.
Jeffrey looks at me, and a fresh wash of humiliation rains down on my chest. “Rough day for you, huh?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, my words coming out strangled.
“Well, Vaughn and I have an opportunity for you that may take the sting out a bit.”
“For me?” I blink, wondering what in the crap the two of them could have in store for me. Do they want me to be a ball girl at some tournament? Not that I’m above it, but that’d be par for the course of this day.
Jeffrey smiles, and for a split second, I see what the fuss is about for all these middle-aged women around the club. All tall and tanned, full head of dark brown hair. He may have been hot when he was young. Hard to tell. But for me, the interest has way more to do with the fact that he’s the kind of coach who makes the careers of young tennis players of his choosing.
“Yes, for you,” he says, as if there isn’t another soul on the planet at this moment more important than me. I wonder what the catch is.
“Okay,” I say dumbly.
“Vaughn has organized a tennis camp for underprivileged kids this summer.”
I’m a little surprised to hear this. I guess I never thought of Vaughn as the type to want to help kids, but admittedly, I don’t know him that well.
Rebecca smiles at Vaughn. “Nice.”
We all look to Vaughn to expound upon this idea, but he pockets his hands and glances around like he’d rather be anywhere on the planet but here.
“It’s a two-month program,” Jeffrey says. “Kids will cycle in and out, but a couple who are interested in really learning the game will stay the duration, going home on weekends, of course.”
“Sounds great,” I say.
Jeffrey Lyons grips Vaughn’s shoulder. “We’re glad to hear you say that, because we were wondering if you might want to spend the summer there with us.”
My heart sinks. This is humiliation on a whole new level. They’re targeting me as one of the kids who needs the whole summer to learn the game, not to mention an underprivileged one. My dad doesn’t have near the amount of money as most members of this club, but I wouldn’t call us underprivileged. Sure, I’m wearing a tennis skirt from a few seasons ago, but it is lululemon. That should count for something.
“Oh, well, I appreciate the offer, but I need to find a job this summer. I have to pay for my own car and gas, insurance. I’m also saving for a new racquet. I have to pay for that, too.” I turn toward the main building of the club. “I was actually going to see if they needed help in the tennis center here so I could get a discount.” I have no idea why I’m babbling on to these people. I don’t owe either of them an explanation, but still, I’m offering up a buffet of them.
They eye each other, and Jeffrey gives Vaughn a significant look. Vaughn turns to me, his face flushed. “No, I can pay you. I mean, the fund will pay you…the investors. You’ll be paid.”
Oh, geez. Now I’ve got them thinking I’m some sort of charity case. It isn’t like that. My dad just tries to teach me about money by having me pay for certain things. He won’t buy me a racquet because the one I have is only two years old. I have my eye on another one that’s lighter with a slightly bigger head. It’s three hundred dollars, and since he doesn’t see anything wrong with my current racquet, he said I would have to pay for it myself, which I’m fine with. But these rich kids at this club probably can’t conceive of paying for their own equipment.
“No, I don’t think you understand. We aren’t poor. I mean, we are compared to a lot of families around here, but we live in Heartsville. I go to Jackson High. It’s a good school. It’s not Cedar Prep, but the academics are outstanding for a public school.” I know I need to shut up, but the words continue to vomit out of my mouth. “We’ve got a really good marching band. They won some championship last year.”
Rebecca steps on my foot, and I bite my lip, partly to ease the pain in my foot and partly to shut my trap.
Vaughn shakes his head in frustration. “No, we don’t want you to attend as a student. I mean, we want you to work with us at the camp.”
My hopes spring up for a moment, but then I come down a notch when I imagine myself in the cafeteria wearing a hairnet, slopping mashed potatoes onto kids’ trays.
“You’d assist Vaughn and me on the court with drills and games,” Jeffrey says. “We’ll break off into smaller groups frequently, and you’ll lead one of the groups. We can pay you five hundred dollars a week, and your food would be covered. But the catch is you’ll have to live there at the camp. We’d like you to stay in the cabin with the girls during the week. The program is about more than just tennis. It’s about mentoring, and with your experience at the center downtown, we think you’d be the perfect candidate. You’ll probably even know some of these kids.”
I stand there, mouth agape, willing words to come out, but none seem to surface.
Rebecca looks between me and the two of them. “So, what ages are the kids?”
“Twelve to sixteen,” Jeffrey says. “I already spoke with Tom at the center, and he gave you a glowing recommendation.”
I think these two are for real. They want me to come and work at a camp with them. Vaughn Yarborough, national champion; Jeffrey Lyons, famed coach and Wimbledon quarterfinalist; and me. I huff a laugh at the insanity of this. Vaughn stands there, running his fingers through his wavy blond hair, which leaves it sitting perfectly tousled on top of his head, and he wasn’t even trying. For someone who’s out in the sun all the time, he has this really clean skin on his neck and the bit of chest that shows through his polo shirt, like he’s impervious to sunburns. He blinks, holding my gaze with his clear blue eyes, and I think about how unfair it is for one person to be so good at something on top of being so unbelievably attractive, kind of like Tom Brady or Steph Curry.
Rebecca nudges me. “I think she’s very interested, right, Carlyn?”
I glance over at my dad laughing with that other dad, his back turned to us, so oblivious to this conversation. If he sees me even talking to Jeffrey Lyons, he’s going to freak out with a capital F.
To say my dad hates Jeffrey Lyons would be the understatement of the millennium. My dad’s dating life has been dismal since my mom died fourteen years ago. He’s had a few relationships, but he was never ready to commit to another marriage…until Shannon.
He took her to this fancy restaurant, which he would never typically go to, got down on one knee, and received a big fat no. Three days later, word spread like wildfire around the club that she was Jeffrey’s jam of the month and had been for a couple of weeks. That was three years ago. He has yet to go on another date.
I glance back over at my dad, who looks like he’s wrapping up his conversation. I take a quick step behind the building, hoping he won’t look this way and see me talking to these two.
Jeffrey points at him. “Is your dad the issue? That’s no problem. I’ll talk to him.”
“No!” I scream and practically lunge for Jeffrey, grabbing his arm. My hands fly off him a second later as I realize I’m touching him. Like I need my dad to see that.
Jeffrey looks a little taken aback, and then chuckles. “Carlyn, it’s fine. Your dad knows me. I’ve seen him around the club for years. I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced, but I’ll take him for a beer and have him won over in no time.”
Oh my god. This couldn’t be worse. He doesn’t even remember that he stole my dad’s future fiancée, or whatever she was. Of course he doesn’t. He dumped her about a week after she dumped my dad.
“And it’s not just you and Vaughn at this camp,” Jeffrey continues. “There’s a couple who live on the premises. It’s their campground. They’ll be there twenty-four seven, and they’ll have a security guard for the cabins for after dark. I’ll explain all this to your father.”
I stand there trying to figure out how I can possibly pull this off. My dad will never let me do this. Me alone at a camp all summer with his nemesis and teen tennis’s player of the year, and I’m not talking about just on the court. My dad doesn’t see me as a girl who’s going to be eighteen at the end of the summer and be an actual adult. He sees me as the little girl he’s raised all on his own since I was three. I’m all he has…his protected little princess. He’d think he was tossing me to the lions.
I close my eyes, trying to figure out how I could possibly convince him of this. “Um, I’m just not sure this can work out.”
Vaughn and Jeffrey exchange a look, Jeffrey nodding in my direction and Vaughn looking irritated, but then finally turning to me. “I need you for this camp. You’ve got the experience, and you’re good with kids, according to your boss.” His words are matter of fact, not complimentary, which sort of makes them more of a compliment. He looks at me…like, really looks at me. “I need someone like you.” The tone of his voice has dropped, low and serious, and my belly warms a little.
I wonder if this means I’m forgiven for blowing that mixed doubles match last summer. I’ve been sick over it for a year now. I cringe at the thought of how many clicks that YouTube video is up to now.
Vaughn sort of scrunches up his face, and then lets out an agitated sigh. He meets my gaze again. “Will you consider it? Please?”
Jeffrey peers at us, his eyes squinting in thought. “Rebecca,” he says. “Can I show you something I noticed earlier today on your backhand?”
Rebecca’s eyes widen again. “Sure.” She gives me a sorry glance, and then takes off with Jeffrey, leaving me alone with Vaughn.
This is the first time he and I have had a one-on-one conversation since the mixed doubles match. It’s not like we were friends before that. We know of each other, being around the club together and all, but it’s not like he’s here much. He’ll grace us with his presence a handful of times in a year, but he plays the international junior circuit and has since he was like fourteen, I’m pretty sure.
I lift my eyebrows, closing my mouth tightly, waiting for him to make his next move. I might be having a little fun with this. I’ve never seen Vaughn Yarborough beg for something.
Crossing his arms over his chest, he lifts his chin so he’s looking down his nose at me. “What’s it going to take to get you to do this? More money?”
Holy crap. “Can you do that?”
He drops his arms to his sides. “Look, you really are the best person for this job, hands down. It’s important to me that the camp goes well. I don’t want to screw this up. I could use your help, with the kids. I mean, what do I know about working with underprivileged kids? I haven’t done anything like this before. I’ve been on the road the past four years.”
Vaughn Yarborough needs my expertise on something. The irony is almost laughable.
“I’m serious,” he says. “If you don’t do this, I’ll have to cancel the camp. Do you want to be singularly held responsible for disappointing all those kids?”
“Cancel the camp? That’s kind of extreme. There’s plenty of girls around here you can ask.” I say, wishing I could learn how to keep my mouth shut. The more I think about this, the more I want it. It will take some convincing for my dad, but it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.
His cheeks color a little. Is Vaughn Yarborough blushing? “Well, it’s kind of complicated, why I need you specifically.”
I lift my eyebrows, waiting on him to clarify.
He rolls his eyes. “I’ve got an image problem.”
“What’s wrong with your image?”
“Well, I’ve sort of…dated a lot…publicly.”
I inwardly roll my eyes, knowing exactly what he’s talking about. Rebecca and I have spent more than a couple of nights scrolling through pages of images of him with CW celebrities and it girls. I cross my arms over my chest. “So what does that have to do with this camp?”
“Avery’s a squeaky-clean school, so I sort of need a squeaky-clean girl to do this with.”
He holds my gaze as I let his words sink in. He thinks I’m squeaky-clean. He thinks I’m a total goody. He’s not completely off-base, but still.
He waves his hand toward me. “Well, you’ve got this background of working with underprivileged kids, and you’re going to Avery on a full-ride academic scholarship, right?”
I still, a little freaked out that Vaughn Yarborough knows where I’m going to school…and my scholarship status as well. “Yeah.”
“You’re kind of perfect for this. They love you already over there. Jeffrey knows people in the admissions department.”
I’m not sure if I should be flattered or feel stalked. I shake my head, trying to make sense of all this. “So, what does Avery have to do with this camp?”
“I can’t get my scholarship without this camp.”
I’m a little shocked. “Scholarship? To college?”
“Yeah, of course. Avery.”
A little wave rolls through my belly. “You’re going to Avery?”
“If you agree to work this camp with me, yeah.”
“You’re not going pro?”
His gaze averts down to the ground. “No.”
“Wow,” I say. “I just assumed—”
“Well, that’s not happening.” His words are rushed and tinted with frustration. He closes his eyes tightly, as if talking himself off a ledge for a second, and then opens them back up and meets my gaze with nothing short of desperation. “So will you help me or not?”
“Just so I understand, what does this camp have to do with you getting a scholarship to Avery? I would think they’d be pumped about you choosing them. I mean, you pretty much had your pick, didn’t you? You’re the national champion.”
His face and neck color, and he averts his gaze to the ground. “It’s not that simple. My test scores aren’t good.”
I wonder how not good, but I know better than to ask. “So this camp is a way around that?”
He gives a slight grin, his crystal-eyed gaze practically sparkling as a dimple is revealed. I had no idea he had one, but of course he does. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him smile. “There’s always a way around.”
Oh, for the love of Cole Sprouse.
Jeffrey walks up with Rebecca. “So, did we get this sorted out yet?” Vaughn gives him a look, and Jeffrey narrows his gaze at me. “You botched that Avery tryout pretty good today, huh?”
I swallow hard, my neck heating. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
“What if I work with you?”
My eyes go so wide I can feel the wind blowing in them.
“I’ll be there anyway working with Vaughn. It’s no trouble to work with you while I’m there.”
I glance at Rebecca who’s trying desperately to play it cool, but her smile is exploding through her tight lips.
“Um, we can’t afford lessons from you.”
He waves me off. “I won’t charge. Consider it part of your employee benefits package.”
I motion toward Center Court. “The tryouts are over though.”
“For scholarships, but there’s a walk-on tournament.”
My heartbeat picks up speed. “But I’ve been checking for one, in case today didn’t go well. There’s nothing mentioned on their website.”
“Eh, I’ve got the inside scoop there. It’s happening. Trust me.”
“August. But to prepare for that, you’re gonna have to work hard this summer…harder than you’ve ever worked before.”
I nod quickly, adrenaline flowing through my veins. “Of course.”
“What I saw out there today wasn’t near D1 material, but you’ve got potential. I can get you where you need to be, but you’ve got to show up.”
I swallow hard. “Mm-hmm.”
He holds his hand up in a wave at someone across the way. “I’ve got to run. Think about it. Let Vaughn know what you decide.” And he’s off.
I meet Vaughn’s gaze and he holds out his hand. “Can I have your phone so I can set up my contact?”
“Oh, yeah.” I pull it out of my bag and hand it to him. Rebecca and I sneak a glance at one another while he types into my phone, the moment seeming surreal. He hands it back to me as his own phone dings, and then thumbs into his phone before pocketing it. “Let me know what you decide.” His gaze hovers on mine for a significant moment, and then he walks away.
Once he’s safely gone, Rebecca turns to me. “Oh. My. Freaking. Gosh.”
I grin like an idiot. “I know.”
“I can’t believe you have his number now.”
“I guess I’m supposed to text him my answer.”
Rebecca bites her lip. “What’s that gonna be?”
We both look in the direction of my dad. “I’ve got to figure out how to present this to him.”
“He can’t say no. You’re a graduating senior. You’ll be off at college in months.”
I purse my lips. “I’m not eighteen yet.”
“You’re close enough.”
I let out an exhausted sigh. “I know. He’s gonna have to let me, but there’s gonna be guilt on my part.”
“What’s a little guilt when you’re getting coaching from Jeffrey Lyons?”
“I know. This is insane.” My heart sinks a little, though, as I remember why they want me. “Oh, so listen to this. The reason they want me is because Vaughn needs to clean up his image and they think I’m totally straitlaced.”
Rebecca raises her eyebrows, an apologetic look on her face.
I backhand her. “I’m not.”
“You do play it pretty safe.”
“So do you.”
She rolls her eyes. “I know. But we’re talking about you. Anyway, who cares why they want you. They do. And Jeffrey has offered to coach you for free, Carlyn…free.”
I blow a hard breath out of my mouth. “This is so crazy.”
My dad turns back toward me and holds up his hand in a wave as he heads to the parking lot.
“We need to come up with a plan to get your dad on board,” Rebecca says.
I let out a defeated sigh. “Yep.”
She nudges me. “Come on. We’ll do it over our vanilla Cokes.”
I smile. “Okay.”
She bites her lip. “If we can pull this off, you may be able to play Avery tennis…just like your mom.”
A tear forms in my eye. “Just like my mom.”