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Biggest flirts, p.1
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       Biggest Flirts, p.1

           Jennifer Echols
 
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Biggest Flirts


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  For my son,

  an awesome drummer

  1

  “YOU MUST BE TIA CRUZ.”

  I glanced up at the guy who’d sat next to me and said this quietly in my ear, in an accent from elsewhere. We were on the crowded back porch with the lights off, but beyond the porch ceiling, the summer night sky was bright with a full moon and a glow from the neon signs at the tourist-trap beaches a few miles south.

  The diffuse light made everybody look better: smoothed out acne, canceled a bad hair day. And I definitely had on my beer goggles. Boys grew more attractive when I was working on my second brew. This guy was the hottest thing I’d seen all summer. He was taller than me by quite a bit—which didn’t happen too often—with dark hair long enough to cling to his T-shirt collar, a long straight nose, and lips that quirked sideways in a smile. But I wasn’t fooled. In the sober light of day, he probably ranked right up there with the eighty-year-old men who wore Speedos to the beach.

  What drew me in despite my misgivings was the diamond stud in his ear. Who knew what he was trying to say with this fashion statement. Unfortunately for me, I was a sucker for a bad boy, and his earring flashed moonlight at me like a homing beacon under a banner that said THIS WAY TO PIRATE.

  I told him, “I might be Tia.” What I meant was, For you, I am Tia. I’ll be anybody you’re looking for. “Who wants to know?”

  “Will Matthews. I just moved here.” We were sitting too close for a proper handshake, but he bent his arm, elbow close to his side, and held out his hand.

  “Really!” I exclaimed as our hands touched. Our small town was stuck in the forgotten northwest corner of Pinellas County, on the very edge of the Tampa Bay metropolitan area. The guidebooks called us a hidden gem because of the artsy downtown, the harbor, and our unspoiled beaches, but the thing about a hidden gem was that it tended to stay hidden. Some tourists came through here. A few newcomers did move here. But most of them were, again, elderly men in banana hammocks. The ­families who serviced the snowbirds and tourists had lived here forever. My friend Sawyer had shown up only a couple of years before, but even his dad had grown up here. New kids at school were rare. Girls were going to be all over this guy: fresh meat.

  Will pointed toward the house. “I introduced myself to your friends inside. They told me I would find you by the beer.”

  “My friends are a riot.” My best friends, Harper and Kaye, didn’t drink. That was cool with me. I did drink, which was not cool with them. Over the years, though, Harper’s reasoned arguments and Kaye’s hysterical pleas had mellowed into concerned monitoring and snarky jokes.

  This time their witty line wasn’t even correct. I was not by the beer. Along with six or seven other people from school, I was sitting on a bench built into the porch railing, and the cooler was underneath me. Technically I was above the beer. Drinking on Brody Larson’s back porch was standard operating procedure. Most of the houses near downtown were lined up along a grid, backyards touching. When parents unexpectedly came home, interrupting a party, somebody would grab the cooler as we escaped through the palm trees to another daredevil’s house to start over. If this was the first thing Will learned about our town, he was my kind of guy. I reached into the cooler, my braids brushing the porch floor. I fished out a can for myself and handed him the beer he’d come for.

  “Oh.” He took the can and looked at it for a moment. He was expecting, maybe, a better brand of free beer? Then, without opening it, he swiped it across his forehead. “Are you even sweating? Perspiring, I mean.”

  “Why do you want to know whether I’m perspiring, Mr. Matthews?” I made my voice sound sexy just to get a guffaw out of him.

  “Because you look . . .” He glanced down my body, and I enjoyed that very much. “. . . cool,” he finished. “It’s hot as an ahffen out here.”

  I popped open my beer. “A what?”

  “What,” he repeated.

  “You said ‘ahffen.’ What’s an ahffen?”

  “An ahh . . .” He waited for me to nod at this syllable. “Fen.” Suddenly he lost patience with me. Before I could slide away—actually I would have had nowhere to slide, because Brody and his girlfriend Grace were making out right next to me—Will grabbed my wrist and brought my hand to his lips. “Let me sound it out for you. Ahhhffen.” I felt his breath moving across my fingertips.

  “Oh, an oven!” I giggled. “You’re kidding, right? It’s ten o’clock at night.”

  He let my hand go, which was not what I’d wanted at all. “I’ve been here one whole day, and I’ve already gotten my fill of people making fun of the way I talk, thanks.” He sounded halfway serious.

  “Poor baby! I wasn’t making fun of you. I was just trying to figure out what an ahffen was.” I elbowed him gently in the ribs.

  He still didn’t smile. That was okay. I liked brooding pirates. I asked him, “Who made fun of you?”

  “Some jerk waiting tables at the grill where my family ate tonight. We can’t cook at home yet. Most of the furniture showed up, but apparently the refrigerator got off-loaded in Ohio.”

  “Uh-oh. Was that all you lost, or did the moving company also misplace your microwave in Wisconsin and your coffeemaker in the Mississippi River?”

  “Funny.” Now he was grinning at me.

  Warm fuzzies crept across my skin. I loved making people laugh. Making a hot guy laugh was my nirvana.

  He went on, “I’m sure we’ll find out what else we’re missing when we need it. Anyway, the waiter at the restaurant seemed cool at first. I think both my little sisters fell in love with him. He told me I should come to this party and meet some people. Then he started in on my Minnesota accent and wouldn’t let go.” Will pronounced it “Minnesoooda,” which cried out for imitation. Plenty of people around here talked like that, but they were retirees from Canada. I decided I’d better let it drop.

  “Was this grill the Crab Lab downtown?” I pointed in the direction of the town square, which boasted said restaurant where I’d worked until yesterday, the antiques store where I still worked (or tried not to), the salon where my sister Izzy cut hair, and Harper’s mom’s bed and breakfast. The business district was rounded out by enough retro cafés and kitschy gift shops that visitors were fooled into thinking our town was like something out of a 1950s postcard—until they strolled by the gay burlesque club.

  “Yeah,” Will said. “We had misgivings about a place called the Crab Lab, like there would be formaldehyde involved. If there was, we couldn’t taste it.”

  “The Crab Lab may sound unappetizing, but it’s an unwritten rule that names of stores in a tourist town have to alliterate or rhyme. What else are you going to call a seafood joint? Lobster Mobster? Hey, that’s actually pretty good.” I doubled over, cracking up at my own joke. “The slogan would be, ‘We’ll break your legs.’ Get it? Because you crack open lobster legs? No, wait, that’s crab.”

  He watched me with a bemused smile, as if waiting for me to pull a prescription bottle out of my purse and announce that I’d missed my meds.

  I tried again. “Calamari . . . Cash and Carry? I set myself up badly there. Okay, so Crab Lab is a stupid name. I’m pretty attached to the place, though.”

  “Do you eat there a lot?”

 
“You could say that. I just quit serving there. Did this jerk who was making fun of you happen to have white-blond hair?”

  “That’s him.”

  “That’s Sawyer,” I said. “Don’t take it personally. He would pick on a newborn baby if he could think of a good enough joke. You’ll be seeing lots more of Sawyer when school starts.”

  “The way my summer’s been going, that doesn’t surprise me at all.” Will stared at the beer can in his hand. He took a breath to say something else.

  Just then the marching band drum major, DeMarcus, arrived to a chorus of “Heeeey!” from everybody on the porch. He’d spent the past month with his grandparents in New York. A few of us gave Angelica, the majorette DeMarcus was leading by the hand, a less enthusiastic “Hey.” The lukewarm greeting probably wasn’t fair. It’s just that we remembered what a tattletale she’d been in ninth grade. She’d probably changed, but nobody gave her the benefit of the doubt. As she walked through, some people turned their heads away as if they thought she might jot down their names and report back to their parents.

  I stood as DeMarcus spread his arms to hug me. He said, “Harper told me you were back here sitting on the beer. I’m like, ‘Are you sure? Tia is in charge of something? That’s a first.’ But I guess since it’s beer, it’s fitting.”

  “Those New Yorkers really honed your sense of humor.” I sat down to pull out a can for him. Obviously it hadn’t occurred to him that, unless a miracle saved me, I was drum captain. Starting tomorrow, the first day of band camp, I would be in charge of one of the largest sections and (in our own opinion) the most important section of the band. I’d spent the whole summer pretending that my doomsday of responsibility wasn’t going to happen. I had one night left to live in that fantasy world.

  As I handed the beer up to DeMarcus, Angelica asked close to his shoulder, “Do you have to?”

  “One,” he promised her. “I just spent ten hours in the airport with my mother.”

  Will chuckled at that. I thought maybe I should introduce him to DeMarcus. But I doubted my edgy pirate wanted to meet my band geek friend. Will made no move to introduce himself.

  As DeMarcus opened his beer and took a sip, I noticed old Angelica giving Will the eye. Oh, no, girlfriend. I lasered her with an exaggerated glare so scary that she actually ­startled and stepped backward when she saw me. I bit my lip to keep from laughing.

  With a glance at Will, DeMarcus asked me, “Where’s Sawyer?”

  Damn it! Sawyer and I hung out a lot, but we weren’t dating. I didn’t want to give Will the impression that I was taken. “Sawyer’s working,” I told DeMarcus dismissively. “He’s coming later.”

  “I’m sure I’ll hear him when he gets here,” DeMarcus said. True. Sawyer often brought the boisterous college dropout waiters he’d already gotten drunk with on the back porch of the Crab Lab. Or firecrackers. Or both.

  As DeMarcus moved along the bench to say hi to everybody else, with Angelica in tow, Will spoke in my ear. “Sounds like you know Sawyer pretty well. Is he your boyfriend?”

  “Um.” My relationship with Sawyer was more like the friendship you’d fall into when there was nobody more interesting in prison. Everybody at school knew he wasn’t my boyfriend. We tended to stick together at parties because we were the first ones to get there and the last ones to leave. I wasn’t sure how to explain this to an outsider without sounding like a drunk floozy . . . because, to be honest, I was something of a drunk floozy. Not that this had bothered me until I pictured myself sharing that information with a handsome stranger.

  I said carefully, “We’ve been out, but we’re not together now.” Changing the subject so fast that Will and I both risked neck injury, I asked, “What city are you from? Minneapolis?”

  “No.”

  “St. Paul?”

  “No, Duluth.”

  “Never heard of it.”

  “I know.” He raised the unopened beer can to his forehead again. Perspiration was beading at his hairline and dripping toward his ear. I felt sorry for him. Wait until it got hot tomorrow.

  “What’s Duluth like?” I asked.

  “Well, it’s on Lake Superior.”

  “Uh-huh. Minnesota’s the Land of a Thousand Lakes, isn’t it?” I asked. Little had Mr. Tomlin known when he interrogated us on state trivia in third grade that I would later find it useful for picking up a Minnesotan.

  “Ten Thousand Lakes,” Will corrected me with a grin.

  “Wow, that’s a lot of lakes. You must have been completely surrounded. Did you swim to school?”

  He shook his head no. “Too cold to swim.”

  I couldn’t imagine this. Too cold to swim? Such a shame. “What did you do up there, then?” I ran my eyes over his muscular arms. Will didn’t have the physique of a naturally strong and sinewy boy such as Sawyer, but of an athlete who actively worked out. I guessed, “Do you play football?”

  His mouth cocked to one side. He was aware I’d paid him a compliment about his body. “Hockey,” he said.

  A hockey player! The bad boy of athletes who elbowed his opponent in the jaw just for spite and spent half the period in the penalty box. I loved it!

  But my reverence for him in my mind didn’t make it to my mouth. I had to turn it into a joke. “Ha!” I exclaimed. “Good luck with that around here. We’re not exactly a hockey mecca.”

  “Tampa Bay has an NHL team,” he reminded me.

  “Yeah, but nobody else here plays. The NHL rinks are probably the only ones in the entire metropolitan area. A high school guy playing hockey in Tampa makes as much sense as the Jamaican bobsled team.”

  I’d meant it to be funny. But his mouth twitched to one side again, this time like I’d slapped him. Maybe he was considering for the first time that our central Florida high school might not have a varsity hockey team.

  I sipped my beer, racking my brain for a way to salvage this conversation, which I’d really been digging. He held his beer in both hands like he was trying to get all the cold out of it without actually drinking it. His eyes roved the corners of the porch, and I wondered whether he was searching for Angelica as a way to escape from me if she and DeMarcus got tired of each other.

  Before I could embarrass myself with another gem from my stand-up routine, the porch vibrated with deep whoops of “Sawyer!” The man himself sauntered up the wooden steps to the porch, waving with both hands like the president in his inauguration parade—but only if he’d bought the election. Nobody in their right mind would elect Sawyer to a position of responsibility. The only office he’d ever snagged was school mascot. He would be loping around the football field this year in a giant bird costume.

  What didn’t quite make sense about Sawyer De Luca was his platinum hair, darker at the roots and brighter at the sun-bleached tips like a swimmer who never had to come in from the ocean and go to school. The hair didn’t go with his Italian name or his dark father and brother. He must have looked like his mom, but she lived in Georgia and nobody had ever met her. A couple of years ago, she sent him to live with his dad, who was getting out of prison, because she couldn’t handle Sawyer anymore. At least, that’s what Sawyer had told me, and it sounded about right.

  After shaking a few hands and embracing DeMarcus, Sawyer sauntered over and stood in front of Will. Not in front of me. He didn’t acknowledge me at all as he stepped into Will’s personal space and said, looking down at him, “You’re in my place.”

  “Oh Jesus, Sawyer!” I exclaimed. Why did he have to pick a fight while I was getting to know the new guy? He must have had a bad night. Working with his prick of an older brother, who ran the bar at the Crab Lab, tended to have that effect on him.

  I opened my mouth to reassure Will that Sawyer meant no harm. Or, maybe he did, but I wouldn’t let Sawyer get away with it.

  Before I could say anything, Will rose. At his full height, he tow
ered over Sawyer. He looked down on Sawyer exactly as Sawyer had looked down on him a moment before. He growled, “This is your place? I don’t think so.”

  The other boys around us stopped their joking and said in warning voices, “Sawyer.” Brody put a hand on Sawyer’s chest. Brody really was a football player and could have held Sawyer off Will single-handedly. Sawyer didn’t care. He stared up at Will with murder in his eyes.

  I stood too. “Come on, Sawyer. You were the one who told Will about this party in the first place.”

  “I didn’t invite him here.” Sawyer pointed at the bench where Will had been sitting.

  I knew how Sawyer felt. When I’d looked forward to hooking up with him at a party, I was disappointed and even angry if he shared his night with another girl instead. But that was our long-standing agreement. We used each other when nobody more intriguing was available. Now wasn’t the time to test our pact. I said, “You’re some welcome committee.”

  The joke surprised Sawyer out of his dark mood. He relaxed his shoulders and took a half step backward. Brody and the other guys retreated the way they’d come. I wouldn’t have put it past Sawyer to spring at Will now that everyone’s guard was down, but he just poked Will—gently, I thought with relief—on the cursive V emblazoned on his T-shirt. “What’s the V stand for? Virgin?”

  “The Minnesota Vikings, moron,” I said. Then I turned to Will. “You will quickly come to understand that Sawyer is full of sh—”

  Will spoke over my head to Sawyer. “It stands for ‘vilification.’ ”

  “What? Vili . . . What does that mean?” Knitting his brow, Sawyer pulled out his phone and thumbed the keyboard. I had a large vocabulary, and his was even bigger, but we’d both found that playing dumb made life easier.

  Will edged around me to peer over Sawyer’s shoulder at the screen. At the same time, he slid his hand around my waist. I hadn’t seen a move that smooth in a while. I liked the way Minnesota guys operated. He told Sawyer, “No, not two L’s. One L.”

 
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