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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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As I headed home, passing the majorettes on my way back to the fence, Chelsea said, “Wait a minute, Tia. I thought
you
were dating the new guy.”

Still walking, eyes on the ground so I didn’t step on glass in my bare feet, I told her, “That was yesterday.” Not that I cared or that Will’s date with Angelica was any of my business, because I didn’t want a boyfriend. But some days this was hard to remember.

***

I snagged my flip-flops from where I’d left them on the wrong side of the fence. At home I grabbed a quick shower, which everybody would appreciate, and another pack of Pop-Tarts for lunch, then hopped on my bike to pedal to the antiques shop.

On the last day of school my sophomore year, I’d biked through the historic downtown, thinking that I needed a summer job. There’d been a
HELP WANTED
sign in the shop window. I’d walked in and applied. A job was a job, or so I’d thought. I never would have set foot in there if I’d known what I was getting into: Bob had cancer. When his treatments didn’t agree with him, he needed time off from the shop, and Roger took care of him. I sat through a very stressful half hour while they explained this to me and asked me to work for them. I didn’t want to take on that kind of responsibility. My aversion warred inside me against my desire to help them out and my blooming interest in the bizarre junk that cluttered their hideous store.

So I’d accepted the job. And I’d done whatever Bob and Roger asked me to do—a long list of responsibilities that had expanded over the past year and two summers to include inventory, bookkeeping, and payroll. When Bob took a turn for the worse, sometimes I got so stressed out that I cleaned and organized the shop. That just made them love me more, raise my pay, and load more responsibility on my shoulders. It was terrible. I didn’t know how to get out of this vicious circle.

Today wasn’t so bad. Bob was recovering from his last round of chemo, and he and Roger were both in the back office, so I wasn’t technically in charge. I patted the shop dog for a few minutes, then took over manning the front counter from Smokin’ Edwina. Almost as soon as I slid onto my stool behind the cash register, Kaye and Harper bopped in with a clanging of the antique Swiss cowbell on the door. I always welcomed a visit from friends, because it might make me look less responsible and more like a frivolous teen to Bob and Roger.

This time, though, I could have done without, because I knew what my friends were there for. They wanted the scoop on Will. I would rather have done payroll.

They both stopped to pat the shop dog too. Everybody did. But when they straightened in front of the cash register with their arms folded, without so much as a “How you doing?” I amended their mission. They didn’t want a scoop. They were there to scold me.

“You left with the new guy last night before we could stop you,” Harper said. Admittedly, it didn’t seem much like a scolding coming from a soft-spoken artist in retro glasses and a shift minidress straight out of the 1960s.

“You sent the new guy out to meet me,” I protested. “If you hadn’t done that, I might not have met him at the party at all.”

“Was he still at your house when Aidan and I came by?” Kaye demanded. She wore her tank top and gym shorts from cheerleading practice, and her hair stuck out all over in cute twists. No matter how adorable she looked, though, she made a lecture sound like she meant it. “At the time I thought Will couldn’t have been at your house. It was so late. But after the rumors I’ve heard this morning, I’m not so sure.”

“What’s wrong with him being there late?” I asked. “You and Aidan were still out then.”

“We were on a
date
,” Kaye said. “Girls are supposed to say yes to a date, then no to manhandling. You’re not supposed to say yes to manhandling, then no to a date.”

Ah, so that’s what this was about. It had already gotten around that I’d dumped Will at the end of the night. I needed to talk to him about revealing personal information to cymbals.

“First of all,” I told Kaye, “
you
are not saying no to manhandling.”

She uncrossed her arms and put her fists on her hips, cheerleader style. “That’s different. Aidan and I have been dating for
three years
. You were manhandled by someone you knew for an hour.”

More like two, by my estimate. “And second, I
want
the manhandling. I don’t
want
the dating. That stuff is fake anyway. The guy is taking you on dates just so he can manhandle you later. You’re not being honest with each other.”

Kaye gaped at me. “Aidan and I have a
relationship
that is built on—”

“You know what?” Harper asked, sliding a hand onto Kaye’s shoulder. “This is more confrontational than we talked about, and it’s not productive.” She flashed me a look through her glasses. We’d tried our best to support Kaye’s relationship with Aidan. On paper it looked perfect. They were involved in a lot of the same activities, and they were neck and neck with a few more people for valedictorian. And we loved Kaye. We simply didn’t like him.

“Tell us more about Will,” Harper said. “He’s
so hot
. Everybody stared at him as he walked through the party last night.”

“That’s because he’s new,” I lied.

“He seems kind of stuck up,” Kaye said.

“Takes one to know one,” I said.

“Hey!” Kaye stomped her athletic shoe in protest. The dog looked up at her reprovingly, like she had a lot of nerve, then settled back down.

Harper talked right over Kaye. “I heard he stands next to you in band.”

“He does.”

“I heard he took drum captain from you,” Kaye said. “Did you throw it?”

“How could you accuse me of that?” I asked, looking her straight in the eye. “You and I had that talk recently about me taking personal responsibility. You speak and I listen.”

Harper, heeding the signs that Kaye and I were about to lay into each other, switched the subject back to Will. “I heard that he took his shirt off during band, and he was very white and very built.”

“He was wearing a drum harness,” I said, “so I didn’t notice.”

Harper and Kaye muttered their disbelief. Because they were talking over each other, I couldn’t hear everything they said, but I picked out “sunscreen” and “bullshit.”

“But you probably got an eyeful last night,” Kaye told me.

“Well,
somebody
got an eyeful of
somebody
,” I admitted.

Kaye raised her eyebrows. Harper emitted a cute, embarrassed snort, wringing her hands as if the whole prospect worried her. “Is he like Sawyer?”

Girls at my school were captivated by Sawyer. He was fun to watch. He was likely to fly off the handle at any moment. And when he chose to be, he was downright sultry. One time he’d talked dirty to me during an assembly in the high school auditorium, just for fun, in a way that made me want to rip my clothes off for him right there in front of Mr. Moxley and the championship tenth-grade robotics team.

But most girls wouldn’t hook up with Sawyer, in the same way that they wouldn’t hook up with a train wreck. That task was left to me. And Harper and Kaye didn’t want
me
hooking up with him either. They’d gotten very upset the first time they’d caught me with him in a compromising position at a party. Kaye told me that if she ever found me with him again, she and Aidan would not be my designated drivers anymore, and I would have to ride home from parties with the trumpets, who listened to a lot of lite jazz.

Kaye and Harper had gotten used to the idea of Sawyer and me after a while, and now, frankly, they were fascinated by our relationship. Harper was more obvious in her enthusiasm. Kaye listened quietly to my Sawyer stories. That told me she was more interested than she wanted to let on, since she was used to asserting herself in student council meetings and was rarely quiet about anything.

“Will is like Sawyer,” I said, “but better.”

“Better!” Harper exclaimed. “Better how?”

Better in that I felt myself flush every time Will looked at me. Sawyer and I had agreed a long time ago that we were too much alike to have any real chemistry. That didn’t stop us from making out when nobody else was available, of course, but it had kept us from trying for anything more than friends with bennies.

The thing was, I didn’t
want
more than that out of a relationship with Sawyer. Or even with Will.

“Better . . . taller,” I said. Sawyer had only half an inch on me. It wasn’t often that I encountered a guy who made me feel downright dainty. I thought of Will looking down at me during band practice, and wondered again what he’d been thinking when I couldn’t see his eyes behind his aviators.

“It doesn’t matter, though,” I said. “Will’s out to lunch right now with old Angelica.”

“Angelicaaaaaa!” Harper and Kaye moaned in despair. Once, in ninth-grade science class, they’d been passing a note back and forth about Kaye’s crush on Aidan. Angelica, instead of passing it along the row like she was supposed to, had turned it in to the teacher, who had read it out loud. That had led to Aidan asking Kaye to homecoming. So the outcome could have been considered a good trade-off if you thought Aidan was a prize, which I didn’t.

Or if you had not been completely mortified by the incident, which Kaye had. I could hear it in her voice still as she cried, “How could you let
Angelica
have Will?”

“It wouldn’t have worked with Will and me,” I told them honestly. “He would get as exasperated with me as you are right now.”

They both opened their mouths to say awww, they weren’t exasperated with me (Harper), or they
were
exasperated with me but only because I consistently sold myself short (Kaye). I was saved by the cowbell on the door. After petting the shop dog, a customer asked to see the women’s jeweled watches I’d posted to the shop’s website. That was going to take a while because we had fourteen, which was why I’d been trying to move them out of inventory. I waved good-bye to Kaye and Harper and led the customer back to the display case, with the dog following.

And I tried to shake the uneasy feeling my friends had left me with. Will and I had shared an unwise night together. Okay. We’d had another argument this morning, yes. But we’d made up, and when things had gotten awkward between us again, that was probably because he was preoccupied with asking Angelica out. Things would be better tonight, and for the next three days of band practice. By the beginning of school on Friday, we would have no problem getting along in the drum line.

I honestly believed this, because I was not the best at foreseeing trouble and planning ahead. I had no idea our friendship was about to go south.

5

BAND CAMP WENT OKAY AT
first. I had ten times more fun with Will than I’d ever had standing between a past year’s seniors. They’d taken their shirts off, all right, but they hadn’t looked as good as Will did, or laughed like he did at my jokes. And they hadn’t had an earring. I’d become a big advocate of the earring.

The thing about Will was, he took being drum captain
very
seriously, and he seemed determined to prove his worth to Ms. Nakamoto after his Monday-morning meltdown. A lot of drum lines I’d talked to, from high schools on the University of South Florida side of town, had student teachers as percussion instructors. Up here in our far corner, we were on our own. And that meant when the drums broke off from the rest of the band, Will ran rehearsal, with Ms. Nakamoto occasionally peeking her head into the palm-tree grove where we’d retreated for shade, making sure we hadn’t all killed each other yet.

She would have been right to worry if I’d been in charge. I would have pulled out my braids the first hour I had to deal with these people. But Will was an amazing drum captain. Jimmy and Travis might give him a hard time when Ms. Nakamoto reprimanded him on the field, but they didn’t cross him in drum sectionals. Maybe it was because he obviously knew what he was doing and cared that we got the music right. When the bass drums got tangled up in their complicated rhythms, he took the time to figure out exactly which sophomore was tripping them up and why, and he taught that guy a new, less confusing way to count off the measures. He was equally patient with the cymbals and their crashing-at-the-wrong-time issues.

More likely, nobody crossed him because he seemed so serious most of the time, with the worry line between his brows visible behind his shades. And that’s what made it all the more delicious when I got a giggle out of him. Sometimes he looked like he wanted to shush me on the field when Ms. Nakamoto or DeMarcus frowned in our direction, but he couldn’t shush me if he was too busy laughing.

Best of all, our friendship had stabilized. Will didn’t hint about asking me out or being jealous of Sawyer. He was dating Angelica now. And I didn’t worry too much about what he was
doing
with Angelica. With night practice lasting until ten, she probably didn’t let him so much as come over to watch TV and feel her up, because she needed to be fresh for insulting other girls’ outfit choices the next morning. They had only the afternoon to spend together, and how much trouble could anybody get into in the afternoon?

The one thing that bothered me about my week with Will was that we kept touching each other and getting in trouble for it with Ms. Nakamoto. The whole band turned around to stare at us when this happened, including Angelica with her arms crossed. It wasn’t like we
meant
to touch each other. We just started talking about TV or music or, God, I don’t know. We could make a joke out of anything. And then I pretended to sock him for something he said, and he grabbed me, and we were in trouble again.

Boys with girlfriends had propositioned me before. This made me uncomfortable. I had turned them down. I didn’t want to feel like the mistress of a married man. But I wasn’t Will’s mistress. He wasn’t married. This was just being friendly without fooling around. And if he did have some exclusive understanding with Angelica that he was not to touch other girls, that was his problem, not mine.

The only reason I felt uneasy was that I liked him so much. Every time he put his hands on me, I liked him more. This was dangerous.

As problems went, however, it was a happy one to have. I wasn’t late to band again, because the minute practice was over I was pretty much dying to see Will again. But toward the end of the week, a couple of things happened to ruin my paradise.

First, at band practice on Thursday, instead of breaking at noon and then meeting up on the football field again at six, we reconvened on the beach at four. Attendance had already seemed pretty good at practice, and you could bet all hundred and eighty of us would be at a party. DeMarcus’s dad grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for us. A lot of other parents brought delicious grub. Ms. Nakamoto laid down her whistle, donned a little white one-piece, and frolicked in the surf with her husband and her children like a real person.

As far as sexytimes went, there wasn’t much new to see, because most of us had already taken off our clothes during band. But something about Will lying on a towel in the sand with his front to Angelica’s back, both of them apparently asleep, got my blood boiling. Sure, for the past three days he’d sat on my towel in band with his shirt off, and I’d taken my shirt off too to show my bikini top underneath. The only differences between that scene and this one were that he was now wearing a bathing suit instead of shorts, she was wearing bikini bottoms instead of shorts, and they were lying like lovers.

Oh—and the girl by his side was Angelica, not me.

I sat with Chelsea on a big rock under palms, taking pics of the great view: the Gulf, the boats sailing in and out of the town’s small harbor, and all the boys we claimed not to like
that way
. I didn’t take a pic of Will, though. I couldn’t believe Will voluntarily lay in the sunshine rather than the shade. His tan wasn’t dark enough yet to protect him. And he definitely hadn’t gotten used to the heat. Sometimes in band he seemed almost sick with it. He and Angelica must have lain down when that part of the beach was in shade. Now the sun had moved.

As I was steaming about this, I got a text from Sawyer, just a question mark. He was asking if I wanted to hook up after he got off work.

I texted back, “At marching band party, geeking out. Come crash. Great food. I will find you some vegan.” I really did want to see him. I wanted Will to see me
with
him even more.

No such luck. Sawyer texted, “KILL ME NOW.”

And a second later, when he realized that was a little mean, even for him, “Thx but no thx.”

I plopped my phone down on my lap in frustration. I ordered Chelsea, “Go down there and tell old Angelica she has to get Will out of the sun. He doesn’t understand that the five o’clock rays will still fry him.”

“I’m not getting in the middle of this,” Chelsea said.

“In the middle of what?” I asked innocently. But I felt myself blush at the idea that Will and I were in a messy love triangle.

“Besides,” Chelsea said, “if that player fries, he deserves it.”

“What?” I asked. “Will? Why is he a player?” My heart sank at the thought that he might have dropped Angelica off to go night-night after practice, but he had another girl on the side. This hadn’t occurred to me.

Chelsea gasped. “He went home with you after Brody Larson’s party, then dumped you for Angelica the next day, and now he’s here feeling her up at the beach after he basically felt you up at band practice all morning! Don’t you even care?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant when she said he’d felt
me
up. True, at every practice, Ms. Nakamoto called through her microphone, “Mr. Matthews, get off Ms. Cruz.” In fact, Jimmy had taken to looking at his phone and announcing the elapsed time between her reprimands—“One hour, forty-five minutes”—like we were going for a record. But in one of those instances, Will had been helping me adjust my snare harness. It only
looked
like he was molesting me. On another occasion, he caught me in a headlock, which I really enjoyed, after I mentioned lutefisk to see what he would do. So that was my fault. And several of those times, he was spreading sunscreen on my back at my request. Ms. Nakamoto simply didn’t catch me when I was lotioning
him
up.

“He’s cute, though,” Chelsea said. “I look forward to seeing that around school this year. I’m not helping you, but, yeah, you should go warn him before he gets burned. Hey!” When she called out to DeMarcus, who was passing by, he helped her backward off the rock. They walked toward the open-air pavilion where the food was, abandoning me to carry out my own mission.

I scrambled down to the beach. But as I moseyed toward Will and Angelica, who were oblivious that I was about to disturb their romantic moment, I felt less and less like a friend aiming to avert a medical tragedy and more and more like a scheming bitch. Will was seventeen years old, and he could put on his own sunscreen. He couldn’t reach his back, though. And he didn’t seem to have a lick of sense when it came to the Florida sun. I ought to let Angelica take care of him, but obviously she wasn’t willing or able.

So I knelt in front of them—I knew I should not be doing this as I did it—and said in a low tone that spoke of my mature health concerns, “Angelica, you can’t let Will get burned out here, no matter how much you’re enjoying second base.” I waited only until she sat up and scowled at me in outrage. Her movements jostled Will’s sunglasses down on his nose. He opened one eye and frowned at me.

Mission accomplished. I walked down the beach and got drafted into a volleyball game, baritones versus tubas. They thought I would be good to have on the team because I was tall. By the time they figured out I
wasn’t
good at volleyball, it was too late for them to kick me out. I ate until I was stuffed—I realized suddenly that I’d been living on Pop-Tarts for the entire week, now that I wasn’t working at the Crab Lab and scarfing free food—and then lounged on the beach with my friends, swam, and got into a splash fight with Jimmy and Travis (which I won).

I had a lot of fun, like always. But the entire time, I was aware of where Will was, and what he was doing with Angelica. My scolding seemed to have shaken them out of sun-worshipper mode, and they secluded themselves on a shady bench. When the sun went down, they joined everyone in the pavilion. DeMarcus’s parents had hauled in their huge TV and hooked up their dance-competition video game. Dorks who didn’t mind embarrassing themselves in public (including me) participated in the dance throwdown (which Chelsea won). Will and Angelica sat to one side, near a fan, close and still like a mature couple too lost in each other to have fun with anybody else—another reason never to have a boyfriend. I didn’t envy Angelica if dating Will meant acting like they were already in the nursing home.

Yet despite everything else going on, I went over and over that scene in my mind, Will lying behind Angelica on the beach, her body folded into the sheltering curve of his body, his hand on her bare skin, and wondered what that had felt like.

Thank God they stayed until the end of the party. I suspected he took her straight home afterward.

Because Friday was a school day! And that was the second thing that shook me out of my comfort zone with Will. Homeroom was combined with first period, which for me was calculus, through no fault of my own. Years ago the principal and the teachers had conspired to keep me in the college-track classes no matter what I said or how little homework I turned in. At the back of the class sat Will, also not too much of a surprise now that I knew more about him. And just as on the first day of band camp, he looked completely different from the previous night. I walked through the door, headed for the desks, and actually exclaimed to the already half-full classroom, “Your eyes are blue!”

“And your eyes are a lovely shade of shit brown,” DeMarcus told Aidan, not missing a beat in their conversation.

“Shut up,” I told them as I passed them in the row.

Will watched me as I approached, waiting for me to explain what was so astonishing about the color of his eyes. I’d never noticed in the five days I’d known him. His Minnesota Vikings baseball hat and aviator shades seemed like a part of him. But when I saw that devastatingly handsome guy with intense blue eyes staring back at me—that’s when I realized what I’d been missing.

I slid into the desk behind him, then shrugged helplessly. “I’ve only seen you from a distance, or wearing your sunglasses, or in the dark.”

“In the dark, huh?” asked Brody, across the row from me. “Yeah, that’s what I heard happened after my party.”

“Do you mind?” I asked him.

But when I turned back to Will, he gave me a small smile like the interruption didn’t faze him. He leaned over the desktop between us and squinted at me. I’d thought from the beginning how adorable he was when he squinted. Coupled with the blue eyes, the look made my heart flutter. He said, “Your eyes are so dark, I can’t see your pupils. Do you even
have
pupils?”

“Yes, or I wouldn’t be able to see,” I said, because when I was under pressure, I was nothing but romantic. In my defense, his own comment about my invisible pupils was the kind of pickup line you’d hear at a sci-fi convention. Or possibly he wasn’t
trying
to sound romantic, because
he had a girlfriend
.

As if sent to remind us of this fact, Chelsea walked in, calling, “Uh-uh, not during school. Break it up, you two. Keep it classy.”

We both straightened the slightest bit—knowing she was right, but not wanting to give in to her teasing, either. And I wasn’t done with Will. “Your hair,” I said quietly, reaching out to finger the back of it, which was gone. All the bad-ass length of it had been cut short. Yet he retained that look of dangerous energy, possibly because there was no hiding his earring now. He watched me with such an intense expression that I hardly dared touch him. But of course I did, running my fingers up his shorn nape. “Oh my God, you weren’t kidding on the field,” I said. “You
were
hot!”

“Let me tell you something, Tia,” he deadpanned. “I’m
still
hot.”

I threw back my head and cackled at that, not really caring who heard me, because now it was close to time for the bell, and the room was crowded and loud.

When I collected myself and grinned at him again, he was grinning at me, too, and doing that cute squint. “I didn’t want to cut it. I just hated the thought of band practice today. Mornings and nights were bad enough, but from two to three in the afternoon? It’s going to be so hot out there.”

“Like an ahffen!” I exclaimed.

Before I could back away, he’d pushed me to the side of my seat and bent me over in the aisle with his arm around my neck—gently but very firmly. He growled in my ear, “Every time you make fun of the way I talk, you’re going in a headlock.”

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