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Authors: Jennifer Echols

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

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BOOK: Biggest Flirts
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My phone rang in my pocket, a snippet of a salsa tune, and vibrated too. I pulled it out and glanced at his number with an unfamiliar area code. “That’s titillating. Call me anytime.”

He laughed, and I sighed with relief. I hadn’t realized how nervous I’d gotten when he looked so pensive.

I tensed right back up again when he asked, “Are you busy tomorrow afternoon?”

I countered suspiciously, “What do you mean?”

“I thought I could take you to lunch, and then you could show me around town.”

I didn’t know what to say. Truthfully, I would be busy tomorrow. But he wasn’t asking about just tomorrow. I could tell from his tone that if I wasn’t able to go to lunch with him, he would ask for another date. Eventually we would hit on a time that I could fit into my schedule. But I didn’t
want
to fit it into my schedule, and I couldn’t let him go on thinking that I did. I might have been a lot of things, but a tease wasn’t one of them.

A hookup after a party would have been fine with me. But the idea of a deliberate-sounding date made my stomach twist. All three of my sisters had gotten excited about a date. They’d been smitten quickly. The boys they’d dated became the most important people in their lives overnight. My sisters left high school before graduation to be with those boys. Two out of three boys had already abandoned them.

“Let me guess.” Will took my hand and stroked my palm with his thumb, sending a shiver down my arm. “It’s such a small town that showing me around would take five minutes, and then what would we do?”

I laughed softly, because his guess was so far off. I pulled my hand away. “No. It just sounds kind of serious.”

His brows went down. “Serious? What do you mean? It’ll be fun.”

“I mean, you’re moving too fast.”

“Too fast!” He looked around the ceiling. “Weren’t you the one who invited me into your bedroom when your parents weren’t home?”

So I was a little, shall we say, open with boys. I didn’t see how that hurt anything. What bothered me was when boys participated equally, and seemed to enjoy it, then complained about it afterward like I was somehow at fault.

“You know what?” he backtracked. “I’m sorry. I got to Florida yesterday. It’s a huge change, and I’m going through some other stuff. Maybe what I said didn’t come out right. I didn’t mean to creep you out and move in on you. We could just have lunch and that’s all. Or just ride around and that’s all. Or . . .” Searching my eyes, he ran out of words.

“No,” I said, “I mean I don’t want a boyfriend. Period.”

Not a muscle moved in his face. I couldn’t read his expression. He stared at me for a long time, as if he’d never heard of such a thing as a girl who didn’t want a boyfriend. He wasn’t taking this well.

Finally he nodded very slowly, then looked toward the ceiling again. “What I said
definitely
didn’t come out right.” He stood up and walked out of the room, headed for the front door. His eyes must have adjusted fully to the darkness, because not once did he scream out in pain as though he’d veered off the path and hit something sharp.

As I trailed after him, I reviewed the night, searching for the point when it had gone wrong. He wasn’t the type of guy who just wanted a hookup. How had I missed this? I
was
that type of girl and made a point never to hide it. Why did it surprise him now?

Surely he hadn’t been so attracted to me that he’d known I was wrong for him but pursued me anyway. I was okay looking, nothing special. A lot of guys seemed to like my auburn hair, but that usually got canceled out when they saw that I was almost their height. And while some boys enjoyed a flaky girl, others said I was stupid and couldn’t stand me. At least I wasn’t so flaky that I didn’t know I was flaky.

But I felt like the biggest flake in Florida as Will opened the door, letting the warm, humid night mix with the air-conditioning. As he turned to face me, his earring glinted, and I felt myself flush all over again with the longing I’d felt when I first saw him. I
did not
want a boyfriend, but it felt wrong to let Will go.

He looked into my eyes, then gazed at my lips. I thought he would kiss me again. And then—just maybe—we could return this night to the place where we should have left it.

No such luck. Without touching me, he stepped off the stoop and onto what was probably the sidewalk under all those magnolia leaves. “Good night, Tia,” he said over his shoulder.

“Are you sure you can get home?” I asked.

“I have GPS.” He took out his phone and wagged it in the air. “If I can remember my own address.” When he reached the street, he walked backward as he called, “Go inside and lock the door so I’ll know you’re okay.”

“It’s my house,” I said defiantly.

“I’ll worry.” He stopped and watched me.

I frowned, but I backed inside and turned the deadbolt. Even Sawyer made me lock the door when he left.

I navigated to my room, lifted a slat in the blind, and watched Will. He turned the corner and disappeared up a dead-end street. I waited.

Sure enough, he came back to the corner, focusing on his phone. Then he gazed up at the sky like a seafarer lost on his Great Lake, looking to the stars for guidance.

He headed down the street toward town.

3

I WOKE TO THE SOUND
of my Dad’s truck in the driveway, which meant it was seven a.m. Bright morning light streamed through the window blind. I scowled, remembering what had happened the night before. I didn’t understand Will, but I knew enough that I didn’t want to. He was so hot, and kissed so well, and that earring! He was the type of guy I could get really attached to if I wasn’t careful. And though I might not seem like the most conscientious person most of the time, I was always careful about boys.

Besides, I’d never been one to lament what happened the night before. I had a great day ahead of me.

All summer I’d been looking forward to band camp. I’d spent two and a half months closed up in Bob and Roger’s antiques shop. They’d given me a raise last month. They were talking about promoting me to assistant manager, so I’d have to boss around Marvin of the too-small T-shirts printed with cat designs and Edwina of the constant smoke breaks.

I’d have to quit soon if Bob and Roger went through with their threat of giving me more responsibility. Just in case, I’d taken a second job at night, waiting tables at the Crab Lab. That hadn’t been ideal either. Sawyer’s brother kept coming on to me, which was going to work if he gave me any more beer, and it was getting hard for Sawyer to keep him off me.

Just as something bad was about to happen, I was saved by band. Because there were only four days until school started and two and a half weeks until our first game, we would practice on the football field a
lot
: eight a.m. to noon, then six to ten p.m., splitting the day to avoid the ridiculous heat of a Florida August. There went half my shift at the shop, and going in to the grill wasn’t even worth it.

I looked forward to seeing my friends, and beating the hell out of my drum. The only reason I dreaded band this year was that I was drum captain, by virtue of the fact that the three guys and one girl ahead of me last year had graduated. I should have been more careful to place lower during tryouts last spring, but thinking ahead was not my forte. Since then, the other snare drummers had refused to challenge me for drum captain, no matter how nicely I begged them.

So I was saddled with the responsibility of rehearsing all the drums and keeping them in line, which was going to require a constant vigilance of which I wasn’t capable. If I didn’t convince someone to take over my position, we would make a bad score at a band contest in the fall, I knew it. I didn’t mind personal failure so much, but I did
not
want to cause anybody else to crash and burn.

I was holding out for a miracle.

I wandered into the kitchen, where my dad, in grease-stained jeans and a polo shirt with the logo of the boat factory where he worked, stared into the open refrigerator. Good luck finding anything in there. It was packed to the brim, and most of the contents were no longer edible. I was pretty sure the meat drawer contained ham that my sister Violet had bought before she moved out last March.

I kissed my dad on the cheek. “Morning.”

“Hey there,
lucita
.” He hugged me with one arm while drawing a questionable bag of bagels out of the fridge with his other hand. In Spanish he said, “I thought band camp started today.”

“Not until eight,” I answered in English. My Spanish was rusty now that my sisters were gone.

“I’m late getting home because we had a safety meeting.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s eight-oh-five.”

“Shit!” I squealed. “I don’t have time for a shower! Do I smell?”

He sniffed the top of my head. “On a scale of one to ten? Six point five.”

“I’ll take it.” I didn’t ask whether six point five was closer to the stinky or the odorless end of the scale. I dashed for the bathroom, scrubbed my face and brushed my teeth in thirty seconds flat, and grabbed sunscreen and a beach towel. I spent considerably more time in my bedroom looking for my drumsticks and my flip-flops and a big hat and a bag to stuff everything into. I didn’t have time to stuff it then. It was just another part of the panicked bundle. I ran back to the kitchen for a sports drink, which was safe to drink because it was sealed, and a pack of Pop-Tarts from the box on the counter. I didn’t feel too hungover, but something told me that might change in the heat of ten a.m. if I didn’t put something in my stomach. “Love you,” I called to my dad, who’d given up on the fridge and disappeared. He was probably in bed already.

Outside on the porch, I locked the door—my keys were still in my pocket from last night—and found my sunglasses in my other pocket. I dashed down the street to the school fence and pitched my drumsticks over, then the sunscreen and my drink and the towel and the bag and the Pop-Tarts. I kicked off my flip-flops, knowing from experience that I couldn’t climb the fence with them on, and hiked myself over. I was lucky I had long legs. Kaye refused even to try this stunt. Too-adventurous-for-her-own-good Harper had attempted it and gotten stuck with one leg hooked over. The trick was lifting myself high enough that the rough tops of the boards didn’t scrape my thighs. Triumphant, I dropped to the other side and gathered up the stuff I’d thrown over.

The drums were already rehearsing. Their racket carried out of the football stadium, around the school, and across the parking lot. And then I realized that I’d left my flip-flops on the other side of the fence. There was no time to go back.

“Shit shit shit.” I took off across the parking lot, loose shells from the pavement cutting into the soles of my feet. I couldn’t even go straight to the stadium. I had to stop at the band room first to drag my drum out of storage. By the time I made it to the field, I was twenty minutes late instead of five.

The stadium entrance was at parking-lot level, but the bleachers rose above me and also sank into the ground. As I hurried through the gate, I was high enough in the stands to see that Ms. Nakamoto had put DeMarcus to work pushing flutes into place according to the diagram she’d drawn for the start of the halftime show. Ms. Nakamoto had backed the drums into a corner of the field and appeared to be lecturing them. Maybe I could sneak up behind her and pretend I’d been there the whole time. Maybe I would also be elected the senior class’s Most Likely to Succeed. Fat chance.

As I left the stands, hit the grass, and hurried past the majorettes tossing their batons in a bored fashion, Angelica asked, “Isn’t that the same thing you were wearing last night?”

Despite that I was
very late
, I stopped. Angelica wasn’t normally one to confront people or throw insults—at least not at me. She was more crafty, getting people in trouble behind the scenes. For her to call me out like this, she
definitely
had shared a look with Will last night. Since I’d screwed up everything with Will, he was sure to move on to another girl. It was none of my business, but I didn’t want that new girl to be old Angelica.

I told her, “Why, no. Last night I was wearing that new guy.”

A couple of majorettes standing close enough to overhear us cackled loudly. My friend Chelsea said, “Girl, you are
crazy
.”

“It’s a little early to be dressed to impress,” I told her, talking over Angelica’s scowling head. Angelica would be sorry she insulted me before nine a.m. I was not a morning person. I turned my back on them and waded through the dewy grass to the drums.

One of whom was Will Matthews.

I didn’t recognize him at first in his mirrored aviator shades. He hadn’t shaved, so his dark stubble made him look even scruffier than he had last night. But he wore a Minnesota Vikings baseball cap. And he stood tall like a warrior, out of place in our dopey drum line. He’d already taken off his shirt in the oppressive morning heat. His snare drum harness covered most of his chest and hooked over his shoulders, but he held his muscular arms akimbo, with his hands and sticks folded on top of his drum. His earring winked at me from underneath his dark hair.

What was
he
doing
here
?

As I tried to sneak past Ms. Nakamoto into the end of the drum line, a rumble through the drummers told her I was coming. She glanced over her shoulder at me, then down at her watch. “Ms. Cruz!” she called sharply. “You’ve been challenged, and you were about thirty seconds from forfeiting.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry,” I said with a sigh, trying to sound sad that I would have to give up my drum captain position if someone beat me. Really I was ecstatic. I’d been saved!

And I’d arrived at just the right time. She wasn’t making me forfeit. If she had, I would have been dead last in the snare drum line, which could have been a fate worse than being first. Then I would have had to stand between some scared freshman on snare and a timid sophomore on quads. I had a tendency to frighten underclassmen.

With everyone staring at me, including Will, and a couple of juniors, Jimmy and Travis, who were making a point of looking bored to death, I pitched everything I’d been carrying off the top of my drum. Sunscreen, bag, drink, towel, Pop-Tarts. Ms. Nakamoto watched the process like she’d come to count on this sort of thing from me. Then I started the part of the drum cadence that we used for tryouts.

As my too-loud notes echoed around the stadium, I felt that high I loved so much. Playing drum stressed me out a little, because there was no room for mistakes, and mistakes were pretty much my modus operandi. But when I was under pressure, I loved to put things in their proper places, like bubbling in the correct answers on a standardized test. Beating a snare drum was the ultimate pastime if you occasionally enjoyed precision in your otherwise scatterbrained life.

But this time there was a catch. I had to be very careful to make a mistake. Otherwise I’d end up right back where I’d started, as drum captain. And because everyone else had already taken a turn without me here to listen, I didn’t know whether to make a bunch of mistakes or just one. In the end I settled for missing the syncopated part that tended to trip people up in the middle. I’d never heard Will play, but something told me my pirate hadn’t missed a note.

Sure enough, a moment after I was done, Ms. Nakamoto made a mark on her clipboard, then read off the new order. Will was first on snare, and the new drum captain. I was second.

My hero! I could have relaxed all summer if I’d known that my knight in shining armor would ride out of nowhere—Minnesota, actually, which amounted to the same thing—to save me from my own success, and my certain failure.

There was a lot of confusion as drummers reordered themselves according to Ms. Nakamoto’s ruling, purposely knocking each other with their drums as they reshuffled. Then they took off their harnesses and set down the heavy drums. Now that the challenge was over, we were just waiting for Ms. Nakamoto or DeMarcus to pull us into the proper position for the first set. We didn’t need to wear our drums for that. Eight snares, four bass drums, three quads, and four pairs of cymbals lay on the grass like the excavated skeleton of a dinosaur. The drummers themselves borrowed space on towels to sit down with the trumpets and trombones near the back of the band, or moved up front and tried to tickle the majorettes.

Normally I would have made the rounds and talked to all my friends whom I hadn’t seen during the summer. But I wasn’t passing up the perfect opportunity to question the mysterious Mr. Matthews on the percussion skills he’d suddenly acquired. I retrieved my towel from my pile of stuff and spread it out on the grass. “Join me?” I asked him.

“Ssssssure.” He eased his big frame down onto half of the towel and leaned back on his elbows, showing off his abs. The guy had a six-pack. Every girl in band—and some of the guys—turned to stare, then faced forward again like they’d just been looking around casually. It wasn’t that six-packs were unusual at our school. Athletics were important. But the chiseled chest was less common in band.

Allowing the uncomfortable silence to stretch on, I smoothed sunscreen across my arms, legs, and face. I held the bottle toward him. “Need some?”

“We’re in the shade,” he said.

True. The high bleachers on the home and away sides provided a lot of shade in the morning and evening, and the ends of the stadium were surrounded by palm trees and live oaks that shaded the grass even more. But because the field sat lower than the surrounding ground, it got no breeze. None. The heat turned the stadium into a hundred-yard pressure cooker and ensured that somebody, sooner or later, was going to die of heat exhaustion. Though the sun wouldn’t make us crispy by the end of practice, skin as white as Will’s would turn an unhealthy pink. The sun was sneaky and would find its way to him.

“Trust me,” I said.

He took the bottle grudgingly and squirted lotion into his palm to spread along one muscular shoulder. “You’re saying I look like I’m from Minnesota.”

“You look like a hockey player from Minnesota,” I clarified. The flutes stared unabashedly at him as his hands moved over his own body, as if he was putting on a peep show. I asked, “Want me to get your back?”

He watched me sidelong for a moment. At least, I thought he did. His mirrored shades were in the way. All I could see was the shadow of his long lashes.

“Sure,” he said again, leaning forward.

I spread sunscreen across his broad back, kneading his shoulders and neck as I went. All the way across the field, the majorettes were looking. Chelsea actually pointed at me. I waved cheekily at her. I wished I could see old Angelica’s face from this distance.

I said softly in Will’s ear, “You don’t seem as surprised to see me here as I am to see you.”

Through my own sunglasses, I couldn’t tell whether a blush crept across his cheeks. His long silence spoke volumes, though. Finally he said, “I told you last night that your friends had sent me to find you and introduce myself to you.”

“Yes, you did,” I acknowledged, “but—”

“When I walked into the party, I said I was new and I played percussion in the marching band. They said, ‘Oooh, you have to meet Tia Cruz, the drum captain.’ ”

I liked the way he imitated Harper and Kaye—not in the high faux-girly voice boys used when they didn’t think very much of girls. The pitch of his voice stayed the same, but he smoothed over the
oooh
like they’d made me sound delicious, and he’d agreed.

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