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Authors: Jennifer Echols

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Social Issues, #Friendship, #General

Biggest Flirts (12 page)

BOOK: Biggest Flirts
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“So I’m sorry for the way I acted after the picture yesterday. You didn’t know what’s going on with me. I came down a lot harder on you than you deserved. And I understand why you challenged me. I drove you to it. I wouldn’t want to stand next to me either.” He looked down at my hand on his knee. Then he glanced over at the door like he hoped Harper would relent and open it. I wished he would put his hand on mine, some sign that we were cool again, but he seemed only to want to be alone.

“I consider you a friend,” I said quietly. “I think we’re having such a hard time getting along because, the first night we met, we read each other completely wrong. We went a lot farther than you were expecting, and I was surprised at how you reacted.”

He held my gaze and said grimly, “That’s not why.”

As I watched his eyes, looking dark now rather than blue in his shadowed face, I felt warmth spread across my chest and up my neck. I was more confused and more turned on than I’d been yesterday morning when we kissed, because his words were weightier than his lips on mine. We both understood we had a connection. I’d told him, over and over, that I didn’t want a boyfriend. He’d made progress toward getting a different girlfriend. And whatever we said we wanted, we kept ending up close to each other, touching.

That scared the hell out of me. I took my hand off his knee.

He glanced toward the door again, nodding like he accepted what I was telling him: that we would never be together. Not the way he wanted. And he was ready for Harper to come along and let him go.

He’d confessed his feelings to me, and his motivations. I was glad Harper had made us talk. But when he walked out that door, he would still be lost in Florida. The school would still view him as the dog who couldn’t stick with one girlfriend—even worse than Sawyer, who at least was up front about his inability to commit. And Will would still be second chair on snare.

“Will you challenge me?” I asked him. “Tell Ms. Nakamoto during band this afternoon, and we’ll have another tryout tomorrow.”

“No,” he said firmly. “You won. I lost. If we went through it again tomorrow and
you
lost, I’d know you threw it. So would everybody else. You’ve already undercut any authority I might have had with the drums.”

“That’s not true. You get your authority from being a great drum captain. I don’t
want
to be in charge. You’ll see in practice this afternoon. If we’re so unfortunate that Ms. Nakamoto tells us to have a sectional, Jimmy and Travis will laugh me out of the parking lot.”

His brows knitted, deepening the worry line between them. “Can I ask you something personal?”

“More personal than ‘Do you like it when I put my mouth on your nipple?’ ”

A blush shot through his face. He pursed his lips, trying hard not to laugh. I noticed that goose bumps broke out on his skin too—possibly the only time in the last week that he’d felt a chill, unless he’d been taking cold showers. I wondered if he realized he was rubbing his arms with his hands to warm himself as he said, “I’ll take that as a yes. The question is, what were you in charge of that you screwed up?”

I shrugged. “Nothing. I’ve never been in charge of anything.”

“Then why are you so scared?”

“I
will
screw it up,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“Everybody tells me I will. Everybody says, ‘Oh, you’d better not put Tia in charge of anything—watch out.’ ”

“Who says that?”

“My sisters. Everybody at school. You heard the drum line, and DeMarcus. They were so freaking relieved that
anybody
was drum captain besides me.”

Will squinted at me. “Don’t you think that’s because
you
go around saying, ‘You’d better not put me in charge of anything’? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

What he was telling me seemed to glimmer in front of me. “No,” I said. “You wouldn’t think that if you’d known me for more than a week. The people around here have known me forever.”

“I just got here,” Will said, “and that’s exactly why I can see you so clearly.”

Suddenly I was the one who was cold. I crossed my arms but tried to disguise the move by putting my chin in one hand.

“Girls look up to you.”

“Ha!” I crowed. “That is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.” I felt my smile dropping away as he watched me silently without laughing along. I asked, “Are you serious?”

“Yes. The girls in the drum line, especially. They watch your every move. They practice the twirls you do with your sticks when you’re thinking about something else.”

I suspected he was making this up. “I never noticed.”

“They wait until you’re walking away.”

“Well, God help them,” I said. “If I can do one positive thing for them between now and when I graduate, it will be to give up drum captain and never be put in charge of anything again.”

“That’s not a goal,” he said. “It’s an anti-goal. It’s an aggressive stance against any sort of goal, like
that’s
going to help you.”

I let out a frustrated sigh. He was starting to sound like Kaye. Besides,
I
wasn’t the one who needed help.
He
was the one who feared the school would show up at his house with pitchforks and torches. And I could use that to my advantage. “Listen, would you challenge me for drum captain if I did you a favor?”

He grinned at me. “What kind of favor?”

He looked so adorable when he smiled. I
wished
I was suggesting that kind of favor. “I’ll explain the situation to Angelica,” I said. “I’ll tell her the picture yesterday was my fault.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” he murmured. “Not totally. We agreed on that.”

“Still, I’ll try with her. I’ll convince her to give you another chance. You can go out with her again. You and I will keep our hands off each other. Then all your problems will be solved.”

His fingers tapped a beat on one knee. “Knock yourself out.”

“And you’ll challenge me?”

“Yep.” He was looking at the bare bulb in the ceiling. He didn’t seem very invested in this conversation. I would show him, though. Getting out of drum captain was at stake here.

Then he asked, “If Harper really doesn’t come back until the end of the period, we have a few minutes. How should we spend them?” There was absolutely no innuendo in his voice. I knew Will, though. He was flirting with me again, whether he meant to or not.

I handed him the spray bottle.

11

THANKS TO OUR EFFORTS—ACTUALLY
more Will’s efforts, because I lost interest in cleaning once I felt better—the storage room was organized. Or, not
organized
per se, but no longer ready to avalanche its contents on top of anybody. At the beginning of band practice, I was able to extract my drum pretty quickly rather than struggling to free it as usual from a tangle of harnesses and cases and music stands and “silks” and sketchy-looking lost-and-found hoodies. I hurried across the parking lot (yes, while banging out a salsa beat—why not?), where I blew a kiss to Will, who was standing behind the trunk of his car. This was not flirting at
all
. I carefully descended the stadium steps and found Angelica exactly where I thought I would: on the sidelines, practicing baton twirls that she could perform perfectly already, working hard despite the heat because she was so dedicated to her craft, ten minutes before the start of band.

I marched right over. “Hey there, old Angelica. How’s it hangin’?”

She lifted her chin and looked down her nose at me. Possibly I deserved this. I wasn’t making things any easier by greeting her in the style of drug dealers at a downtown Tampa gas station.

I started again. “Can we talk for just a second?” I even removed my harness and propped my drum nicely against the fence so that my distracting protrusion wouldn’t hover between us.

She swallowed before saying, “Sure,” almost like she was dreading this convo as much as I was.

“Can you lay down your weapons?”

She bent at the knees to place her batons daintily on the ground, then followed me along the fence to stop a few yards beyond where Chelsea and the other majorettes would gather. When they arrived, they could still inch toward us to overhear, but only if they wanted to be super rude. Which I did not put past them, honestly.

I took a deep breath and belted it out. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry for kissing Will when we were taking yearbook pictures yesterday. It wasn’t planned. We were together at Brody’s party, when you were still with DeMarcus.” I thought it might help my case to remind her that she wasn’t the only lady getting around, even if hers was a G-rated version of playing the field.

She grimaced, still sensitive about her breakup with DeMarcus. Good.

“Will and I are friends,” I said. “Definitely. But we’re nothing—”

I stopped as a large foam beak blocked my view of Angelica. Sawyer stood beside us in his pelican costume, nodding at me as if he was participating in the conversation.

“Sawyer,” I snapped, “I swear to God.”

Sawyer put his wings up, just like Will put his hands up when he got in trouble. I watched Sawyer sashay along the sideline toward the cheerleaders, exaggerating the wag of his big bird booty, until I was sure he couldn’t hear us.

I turned back to Angelica. “Will and I are nothing more than friends,” I said. “Except for that one night, we haven’t seen each other outside of band and school. And the picture . . . we were discussing what to do in the picture, and then the kiss just sort of happened.” I was telling the truth, and yet not. It was an accurate depiction of the events, if not of how I’d felt when they happened. Funny how everything that had gone down between Will and me since that first night had been pretty innocent on the face of it, and underneath, so very guilty.

“Will was upset about the picture,” I said, “because he was worried about what you’d think. With good reason, judging from the way you chewed him out yesterday.”

She raised her artfully plucked eyebrows at me. Her meaning was clear:
And your point would be
what
?

“I promised him I would try to explain it to you,” I said. “He’s sorry about what happened and how it looked. He knows he embarrassed you. He was embarrassed too. He’s been cheated on himself, and, um.” I still doubted he’d told Angelica about Beverly, and I didn’t think his treacherous and extremely recent ex back home was a selling point. “He would like to go out with you again.”

She faced Will across the field, lowering her chin to look at him through long, thick lashes. I didn’t turn around to follow her gaze. I was trying to get these two back together so I could hand off the drum captain position to Will and keep him as a friend. But if I actually saw him gawking at this girl like I imagined he was right now, I wasn’t sure my heart could take it.

“You know,” she said, still gazing in his direction, “Will is sooooo good looking.”

Yeah, I knew.

“And he’s pretty nice.”

Pretty
nice? Try
nicest guy ever
! What was wrong with this chicklet?

She opened her hands and let out a high-pitched sigh. “I don’t have to settle for a good looking, pretty nice guy who acts half the time like he prefers another girl.”

I nodded, but I was frowning. “Or a guy who will have a beer at a party.”

“Or a guy who will have a beer at a party,” she confirmed, enunciating her words and opening her eyes wide at me, like she’d already had this argument with DeMarcus and her perspective should have been obvious by now.

I stepped back and looked at Angelica, really examined her, maybe for the first time ever. She gave the impression of being a gorgeous girl, but she wasn’t really, or wouldn’t have been without carefully applied makeup and a flattering top hanging at exactly the right length over her shorts. She had taken a lot of shit throughout high school for stuff she’d done in ninth grade, but I’d never heard of her breaking down about it. She just took care of herself, came to school, and plowed through. I’d always viewed her as a stubborn stick-in-the-mud with no personality, but now I was realizing that being a stubborn stick-in-the-mud
was
her personality, and she deserved kudos for being true to herself.

Surprising myself, I told her, “I like you, old Angelica.”

She didn’t seem moved by this admission. “You like everybody.” Then she nodded at something over my shoulder. “We’ve got to go.”

Turning around, I saw that DeMarcus was on his podium. “Oh, shit,” I said. He officially started band practice every day by calling us to attention, but we were supposed to keep track of time and find our places on the field before he did that, so people weren’t scrambling. As I ran for my drum, I tossed over my shoulder, “Thanks for the talk, Angelica. See you around!” I thought she rolled her eyes at me, but I didn’t hang around to see.

I grabbed my harness and tried to fit it over my shoulders while hightailing it across the field to the drum line. Panicked about getting caught on the forty-yard line when DeMarcus called us to attention, but elated about the way Angelica and I had resolved our differences in a nonviolent manner, it occurred to me only gradually that “You like everybody” might have been a dig rather than a compliment.

And it wasn’t until I’d almost reached Will that the other shoe dropped. I thought he was in the wrong place next to Travis. Then I remembered I was the drum captain at the end of the line now. And I realized that Angelica had said no to dating Will. My mission to get her back with him had been a complete failure. What if I was stuck as drum captain forever?

Just as I reached my place, DeMarcus must have made the motion to start practice. Will played the riff that the rest of the drum line echoed, snapping the band to attention.

I held my breath. I wasn’t in trouble. But I felt like my body, not to mention my brain, was still rushing across the field.

“At ease,” DeMarcus called.

As I exhaled and everyone relaxed, Will immediately whispered, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to step on your toes, playing your riff like that.”

“You didn’t!” I exclaimed.

“You did that for me before and saved me from getting in trouble, so I thought I’d return the favor.”

“I know!” I sighed, so frustrated in my first few hours of being drum captain that I could hardly stand it. “Look, this is going to be completely insufferable if we’re tiptoeing around each other. Let’s make a pact that whatever happens for the rest of the year, we will always have each other’s backs.”

“Deal,” he said, sticking out his hand.

My palm touched his. We gripped hands. He slid his fingers down my arm. We touched elbows. “And then like this,” I suggested, linking arms with him. It was a badass secret handshake if I did say so myself.

“And now we’re flirting,” he scolded me.

I wiped my hands on my shirt. “Ew, flirt germs.”

I’d hardly gotten this out of my mouth when Will played the riff again. Ms. Nakamoto had finished giving us instructions, which obviously had been very interesting to me, and DeMarcus was calling us to attention to run through the show. This time I realized what was happening in time to echo the riff with the rest of the drums, just like I used to, but damn. This drum captain thing required a lot of concentration and did not agree with me.

It wasn’t until we’d played through the entire halftime show, and my ears were ringing with the ending squeals of our trumpets, who really were awesome if you were listening to them rather than looking at them, that Will asked, “What did Angelica say?”

“She said no. But you have to challenge me for drum captain, because at least I tried,” I burst out. I’d been worrying about how to say this through three numbers and a drum break. Clearly I’d needed more time to think it through.

“No way,” he said. “You promised you would convince her to give me another chance.”

“Blugh,” I said, shaking out my arms. My shoulders were sore from wearing the drum harness so long without a break. I looked past Will down the line of drums. I was only one person higher in the line than I’d been yesterday, but from this perspective, the snares seemed to continue forever like they were reflected in two mirrors pointed toward each other.

“Don’t give up so soon,” he said in the tone of a basketball coach in an inspirational TV movie for preteens. “Tell you what. You and I will go out for a few days, just to make Angelica jealous. That will get her interested in me again.”

I snorted, remembering how flatly she’d rejected his offer of reconciliation. “I don’t think that’s going to work.”

He said, “It worked on you.”

I felt my face flush red underneath my hat. He must have known how attracted I was to him, but I thought we had an unspoken rule that we wouldn’t mention it. My soul seemed as bare to him as my body had been on my bed our first night together.

But he was right, wasn’t he? Dating would make Angelica jealous if she felt anywhere as strongly about Will as I did. I’d sworn him off, promising myself our flirtation meant nothing and I didn’t want him or anyone as a boyfriend. And one glance at him lying on the beach with his hand on Angelica had transformed me into a scheming freshman.

I jumped as Will played the riff, calling the band to attention again. This time I completely missed echoing him. If I kept this up, Ms. Nakamoto would kick me out of the drum captain position on my own lack of merit. But I had more pride than to leave that way. It was throw a challenge or nothing for me.

I was hopeless.

“Say yes,” he whispered, standing stock still at attention and moving only the corner of his mouth as he spoke. “Get Angelica back for me, and I’ll challenge you. Think how carefree you’ll be as a civilian again.”

“Don’t talk at attention.” I sounded so silly trying to throw my weight around like a drum captain that I almost laughed at myself.

But by the time we’d played through the show a second time and Ms. Nakamoto had sent the band to one end of the field to learn the drill for the pregame show, I’d made up my mind that Will was right. I was lucky there was nothing I could mess up today other than the call to attention. Sometime soon, Ms. Nakamoto was sure to send the drum line to the parking lot to rehearse on our own, and I would spend an hour ordering people around, convincing them to hate me, and generally inviting Armageddon.

“All right,” I told Will calmly as we walked toward the goalpost together, though my stomach was turning flips.

“Great,” he said just as evenly. Most of his face was hidden by his shades and hat. His cheeks and chin shone with sweat. He betrayed no emotion other than disgust at the heat. “But we’re not confiding in anyone that we’ve engineered this. You can’t tell Harper and Kaye. That’s going to get back to Angelica. Kaye will hop over here wanting to know how the plan is going before she remembers she’s not supposed to say that out loud.”

True. Or I would leap to the sidelines, eager to update her on the same thing. Will was observant. I would just tell Kaye and Harper that Will and I were giving dating a trial run, which wasn’t too far from the truth. I didn’t like discussing bad news anyway. Pretending there
was
no “cockamamy scheme,” as Harper had called my thwarted plan to throw the drum challenge, sounded like the perfect way to deal with my problems.

“Can you go out tonight?” he asked. “Might as well get it over with.”

“No, I have to work late,” I said. “I promised Bob and Roger that I’d train them on the inventory database I set up. I tried writing down the directions, but old people can follow instruction manuals fine until they involve computers, and suddenly their brains explode. I’m going to have to hold their hands and lead them through it.”

Will nodded. “Wednesday night? Or are you busy then, too?” He sounded suspicious, like he was afraid I was making up an excuse about tonight and he expected one for tomorrow. I thought we knew each other pretty well, but obviously he didn’t understand that I tried not to make excuses. If I hadn’t wanted to fake-date him, I would have told him so.

“Tomorrow night,” I agreed, “as soon as I get off work.”

“Great,” he said again, emotionlessly. “What kind of date would you like to go on? We can do anything you want, as long as we’re likely to be seen so the news will get back to Angelica.”

I imitated what he’d said our first night together. “I want you to take me to lunch, and then I can show you around town.”

He turned so suddenly that his drum knocked into mine—a mistake I made all the time when I was talking to people on the field, but he did not. This time I could hear the hurt in his voice as he said quietly, “I want to do this, and help you out, but not if you’re going to take stabs at me.”

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