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I shut the door to my truck and took a deep breath, unable to suppress a grin. I’m home.
Palm Beach High lay stretched out before me, a collection of gray buildings with the occasional panther drawing, prom poster or plaque on the outer walls. It was a lowly community high school to some, but the best place in the world to me.
I passed a group of girls while walking across the student parking lot. A cute blond among the brood stopped mid-sentence when she caught sight of me. She forged a path between her friends, tousled her hair, and smiled.
I didn’t know her from Eve, but I smiled back all the same. “Hey.”
She twisted around to giggle with her friends. I smirked and continued on my way.
I paused in the middle of the hallway and turned to see the leader of the Mathletes approaching. He was panting when he caught up, sweat making his glasses slide down the bridge of his nose.
“Tyler…dropped out of…Mathletes on Friday.”
I gripped his elbow before he could pass out on me. “Take a minute and catch your breath, man.”
He did that, pulling out an inhaler from his pocket. Two puffs later and he was breathing normally again. He smiled and pushed his glasses back, somewhat sheepish. “I’m good. So, I was saying…”
“Something about Tyler leaving the Mathletes? I already told you. I can’t jump in. The baseball championship game is on the same day as the Mathletes’ face off with Lakeview High.”
The kid groaned, shoulders sagging. “We’re doomed.”
I chuckled, and tapped a light punch on his arm. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. Sorry I can’t help. See you around.”
“I heard you won the game for us on Wednesday, Brian,” Mr. Henderson called when I passed by his open classroom door.
I poked my head in the room to flash him a grin. “Sure did, sir.”
He stopped writing the morning assignment on his whiteboard to smirk at me. “I hope you found the time to finish that paper on…”
“The effects of the feminist movement on today’s politics.” I nodded and waved a hand, already walking away. “It’ll be the first one on your desk come fifth period.”
A guy from the baseball team saw me from across the hall and came to thump me on the shoulder. “Thanks for catching that last fly ball on Wednesday night. I swear it came out of nowhere. I didn’t even see it until after you dived and straightened up with it in your glove. Man! How did you manage that? Weren’t you playing left-center?”
I shrugged. “You have to be ready for anything. That’s my motto. See you at practice.”
While putting two numbers into my three number combination lock, the girl from my Friday night date popped up beside me. It was like being suffocated with a giant bubble gum wrapper. She reached up on her tiptoes to whisper breathlessly in my ear. “Hey, you.”
I leaned back as discretely as I could, smile frozen in place while I tried to remember her name. “Hey…”
“I had a great time on Friday.” She pressed her chest against me and smirked like we were sharing a secret.
“Glad to hear it.” The lock popped open and the door swung out, giving me an excuse to put some distance between us. “Listen, I thought I was ready to get back out there, but Friday made me realize that I’m not over my ex yet. I don’t want to string you along so…there won’t be a second date. I’m sorry.”
“You sure about that?” She clasped her hands behind her back, thrusting her boobs out even more. “Because I think we could have loads of fun together.”
I focused on her large nose, then her pouty lips, shimmering with way too much lip-gloss, and settled for a safe spot in the middle of her forehead. “Yeah, I’m sure. It’s for the best, but listen.” I draped an arm across her shoulders and turned her casually away. “If I ever get to that place where I’m ready to date again, I’ll call you, okay?”
“Okay.” She placed a hand on my chest, and reached up to kiss my cheek. “I’ll be waiting.” Then she sashayed down the hall.
I shuddered, wiped the lip-gloss off my cheek and returned to my locker. One of the greatest things about being the king of high school was also one of the worst: everybody wanted me, even people I didn’t particularly want. I glanced at the little square mirror taped up to the inside of my locker door and whistled. “You have to stop being so damn charming, Royland, or she’s never going to leave you alone.”
I ran my fingers through my messy-on-purpose hair. Turning this way and that, I watched the effects the fluorescent lights had on the natural golden highlights in my hair. A grin spread across my face. Even if I was less charming, there’s no way she could get over this face.
I slapped the locker door closed, turned to continue on my way and bumped shoulders with something solid.
Eric held his opened soda can out before him, dark eyes examining the front of his hockey jersey.
I joined him in the search for stains. “Sorry, did you spill some on yourself?”
“I don’t think so.” My friend pointed at me with the hand that held the soda. “You should be more careful.”
“You shouldn’t walk around with an open soda while wearing white,” I retorted.
Eric shook his head. “Found a date for the prom yet?”
I surveyed the girls passing us. “Not yet, but I’m not stressing too much. I still have time.”
“You have six weeks, Bry. You’re out of time,” Eric said, leading the way outside.
“If all else fails, I could always go with you. Aren’t you going stag?”
Eric yawned. “I’m not going at all. You know I can’t dance.”
“I don’t know that, actually. I’ve never seen you dance.”
“Hey, you can always take Hannah. Captain of the Cheer Squad is bound to have rhythm off the green.”
I wrapped my arms around my stomach, pretending to gag. “Take an ex to the prom? It would ruin me faster than zits and buck teeth.”
Eric gave me that parent look he so loved to give. “Life is about more than reputation, Bry.”
“Not when you’re the king.” We finally left the hall of lockers and entered the courtyard between the library and the English building. I smiled and winked at a group of cheerleaders. “Hey, how’s it going?”
They giggled and hurried on.
Eric rolled his eyes again. “What about your mystery running partner? Have you thought about asking her?”
“She’s playing hard to get. She still ignores me during fifth and sixth period.”
Eric stifled another yawn. “Do you even know her name?”
“Give me a break. I’ve only spoken to her once. What’s up with you? Why’re you so tired?”
My friend rubbed his eyes with his free hand. “Band practice wasn’t over until after midnight. We’re playing at the Black Java tonight and Will’s nervous. He wanted to make sure we could play every song perfectly.”
“Brian!” Alisha called from a bench by the library.
“Here we go,” Eric muttered when I stopped to let her catch up.
Our student body class president was wearing a bright pink camisole and jean miniskirt combination that was very flattering. She beamed at Eric before turning her attention to me and adopting a desperate look. “Tony’s not being helpful. Can you please tell me if these colors are too girly for the prom? I want to appeal to both girls and boys in the décor.” She shoved two color swatches in my face.
I gently brushed them aside. “Alisha, you have a party planning committee for these kinds of things.”
I placed a hand over the small of her back and directed her to her bench, where Tony the apathetic vice president sat, staring down at his phone. “Listen, you have to learn to delegate or you’re going to drive yourself crazy. Trust me. I was student body president once too, remember? I know what I’m talking about.”
Alisha deflated. “Oh, all right.”
I left her so that I could rejoin my friend.
“You love that, don’t you?” Eric said.
I gave him my best innocent look. “Love what?”
A snort. “Never mind.”
“What were we talking about before…?” Remembering, I snapped my fingers. “Oh, yeah, Will’s dictatorship. Why do you let him call the shots? You should be allowed to call it quits when you feel like you’re ready enough.”
Eric opened the door to our English class and walked in. “He’s the songwriter and the lead vocalist. He’s earned the right to call the shots. We wouldn’t really be a band without him.”
I followed him inside. We were cutting it close this morning; the classroom was already full and Mr. Farney was scribbling the discussion questions on the board. The monkey pointing his finger at me from out of the giant poster condemning tardiness seemed especially disapproving.
“What about your other vocalist?” I asked.
“Iris? Yeah, I wish she’d take over. She barely has the time to practice, much less write songs. She has a job and a big family.”
I did a double take. “Whoa! She has kids?”
Eric gave me a flat look. “No, stupid. She has a lot of brothers and sisters, and her mom is single. She has responsibilities.”
I eased into my usual seat towards the front of the classroom. “Ahh, she’s domesticated. No wonder you like her so much.”
Eric took the seat beside me and elbowed me in the ribs. “Shut up. She’s just a friend.”
I grinned. “Uh-huh. Sure.”
“I’m serious. She’s cool, and I respect her a lot, but she’s a little too intense for me. Besides, she’s way out of my league.”
“No one is out of your league. You’re Eric Tyson, the best Linebacker to wear the green and gold colors of the Panthers. Everyone remembers the number twenty-seven because of you.”
“Hey, Brian,” said the twin brunettes who sat in the next row.
I winked, and they exploded into a fit of giggles.
Eric chuckled. “Everybody knows my number because I hang out with Brian Royland. I’m just your sidekick.”
“Ever the lowly, Eric ‘The Tank’ Tyson.” Mitch sauntered down the aisle in his lazy gait and plopped down into one of the seats in front of ours. “At least he’s accepted his place.”
I poked him in the shoulder. “Thanks, Michelle. I know I can always count on you to destroy what I’m trying to build.”
Mitch shrugged and tossed his binder onto his desk. “I’m honest and I speak my mind. I have no regrets.”
“You’re feeding his low self-esteem.”
Eric flipped open his notebook. “I don’t have low self-esteem. Did either of you do the homework?”
“I think it had something to do with Hamlet,” Mitch replied.
Eric frowned. “I guessed as much. We’ve only been reading it for the past three days.”
I unzipped my backpack and went digging around for my binder. “I did it. What’s up?”
“I had a question about…”
Trey slipped into the seat in front of Eric’s with his dark eyes dreamy and unfocused. “Natasha, Natasha with hips so fine. Come to my bedroom, climb by the vine…I swear, someday I’ll see her naked.”
We each took turns slapping him upside the head, starting with Eric and ending with Mitch.
“Quit being a pig,” Mitch muttered.
“It’s too early,” Eric said around another yawn.
“You’ll never get a girlfriend if you keep talking about chicks that way,” I said. “Have some respect, or at least pretend you have some respect.”
Trey scowled and rubbed the back of his head. “I don’t know why I hang out with you guys. You’re abusive.”
“You hang out with us because nobody else will take you,” Eric said. “If you weren’t such a potty mouth, maybe you’d have fewer bumps on your egg-shaped head.”
Trey patted his close cropped curls, brow meshed in anxiety. “Dammit, I knew they cut it too short!”
“Stay away from Natasha,” Mitch said, wagging a thin finger at Trey. “I’ve been working on her for months. She’s mine.”
“I’m pretty sure a girl like Natasha would appreciate a guy who knows the difference between a good joke and a lame one.” Trey shoved the finger out of his face, causing Mitch to rock in his seat. “When’s the last time you smiled, dude?”
“Girls dig the tall, strong, silent types who have great hair.” Mitch gestured to his shoulder-length skater hair. “Everybody knows the short, Chihuahua chatter guys get on their nerves.”
Eric tried to stifle his laugh. I didn’t bother.
Trey’s eyes narrowed. “Did you just compare me to a rat-wanna-be-dog that spoiled, rich chicks like to carry around with them?” A grin broke out across his face. “Right up against their boobs? Yeah, that’s the life for me.”
Our English teacher shot us a look of disapproval when Trey grunted three more times in pain. “All right, settle down.”
“Yes, Mr. Farney,” we chorused like good little girls.
Trey rubbed the back of his head for the second time. “How about we both go for Natasha and see who she likes best when the prom comes around?” He smirked. “Unless, of course, you’re afraid she doesn’t like you as much as you think she does…”
Mitch coolly leaned back in his seat. “Give it your best shot, freshman. It’ll be fun to watch you make a fool of yourself.”
Mr. Farney raised his voice so that he’d be heard over everyone else’s chatter. “Quiet down everybody. That was the late bell. Take out yesterday’s homework and we’ll go over the answers after roll call.”
Trey twisted around in his seat to beam at me. “I think I found you a date for the dance, Bry-Bry.”
Mitch rolled his tawny, emotionless eyes at me. “Don’t listen to him. He probably asked around until he found a desperate enough virgin.”
Trey shot him the stink eye before turning back to me. “I was talking up some of the cheerleaders and this chick walked past us. She’s smart, hot and unpredictable. The cheerleaders hate her.”
“How do you know she hasn’t already gotten a date?” I asked.
Trey tried to conceal a mischievous smile. “Trust me. It takes a real man to ask her out. I asked around to make sure the cheerleaders weren’t just making shit up. She’s up for grabs. She’s not going to be easily wooed, but you’re always up for a challenge, right? I think you should go for it. It’ll be fun.”
“What’s her name? Maybe I know her.” I had to know her. I knew pretty much every girl in our grade.
“I’ll point her out to you at lunch,” Trey said.
“Why do I get the feeling she’s nothing like you’re making her out to be?” Eric asked, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Trey tried and failed to look innocent. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I didn’t trust Trey as far as I could throw him, but Eric was right. I was running out of time. “Don’t fail me, freshman,” was all I said.
Trey scowled. “Stop calling me that.”
“Mr. Becker,” Mr. Farney said. “What did I just say?”
Trey swiveled around to face the front. “What?”
Snickers sounded across the room.
Mr. Farney wasn’t amused. “See me after class.”
Trey sagged in his chair. “Yes, sir.”
Eric was late getting out of his third period class so, by the time the rest of us had trekked across campus to get to the cafeteria, the line was so long that Eric was still standing outside his classroom. Trey was insufferable. Apparently, he’d missed breakfast that morning and was hungry enough to eat all of us. After twenty minutes of listening to him gripe, Eric snapped that it wasn’t his fault, and we should just be grateful that he’d saved us a spot at all. Finally, after a lot of grumbling and shoving, we walked away from the cashier with trays full of food. We shuffled to our usual table in the middle of the cafeteria. It was a well-known fact that I didn’t like to be disturbed while I ate, so there was no one lying in wait when we arrived.
“Okay, freshman,” I said, once I was seated. “Where’s this perfect prom date you were talking about?”
Trey looked around until he spotted her. “The right corner. Dark hair, listening to music and reading a book by herself.”
I easily found the girl Trey described.
She had thick, black curly hair that went down to her lower back, and bangs partially hiding green eyes. She tucked one of her long locks behind her ear to reveal small white earbuds and the cord that trailed down her hip into her pocket. She had a round face and perfect nose; not too long, not too short, and just slightly upturned. She wasn’t delicate or petite, but she was in shape which was what caught my attention the first time I’d seen her running on the beach wearing only a sports bra and shorts.
Now, she wore a T-shirt with a foreign band’s name written all over it and dark skinny jeans with neon green sneakers. She dipped carrot sticks into a glop of dressing with one hand, and turned the page of a thick novel with the other.
There was nothing special about her that would immediately catch someone’s attention. If I was honest, the thing that struck me (aside from her awesome bod) was how real she looked. How natural, down-to-earth and smart. She wasn’t plastic, over-achieving or attention-seeking in any way, which made her different than any other girl I’d dated. She was surprisingly…refreshing.
“Dude, that’s the girl who runs my route along the beach.”
Eric did a double take. “That’s Iris Newman, my band’s female vocalist.”
I perked up. “Seriously? Has she mentioned me at all?”
“No, but that isn’t too surprising,” Eric said somewhat distractedly. “She doesn’t like your type.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You mean she doesn’t like handsome jocks who just so happen to be good at math and good with people?”
He finally tore his eyes away from Iris to give me an apologetic look. “That came out wrong. What I meant to say is that she’s picky when it comes to guys.”
Trey guffawed around his mouthful of chicken sandwich. “She’s picky when it comes to people in general.” He swallowed his mouthful of food. “I hear she has a serious chip on her shoulder and no tolerance for people she doesn’t like. Plus, she made last year’s wrestling champion cry.”
Mitch dropped his bag of potato chips, eyes wide. “She’s the girl who made Justin Mendez cry? What a badass!”
“Okay, you can’t just say things like that without telling the whole story,” Eric interjected. “He wouldn’t stop hounding her for a date so she did the only thing she thought would make him stay away. She’s not proud of it, but at least it worked, right?”
“What did she say to him?” Mitch asked with an eager smile.
“None of your business, Michelle.” Eric’s expression became less severe when he turned to me. “Don’t bother her, Bry. It’s not worth it.”
Naturally, my ego wasn’t going to let that one go. “How do you know how she’ll react? What is it about me that she’d find so repulsive?”
Eric sighed. “It’s not that. I know Iris. Under that tough exterior, she’s really great, but this past year has been hard and she’s still recovering. She doesn’t have the time or the energy to deal with too many people outside her own family. You start bothering her and I guarantee she’ll end up making you cry, too. That’ll look worse than you going to the prom dateless.”
I fought the impulse to groan. Serious baggage? She just became a lot less attractive.
Trey rolled his eyes. “Oh, please! He’s not asking her to marry him! It’s just prom night. I’m sure her job and family issues can be put on the back burner for a couple of hours. I know getting laid always makes me feel better. Maybe all she needs is some good loving.”
Eric rose in one fluid motion. For a six foot two, three hundred pounds guy, he could move fast. He glared down at Trey. “If you like your jaw attached to your head, Gibson, you won’t talk about Iris ever again.”
Trey cowered in his seat. Mitch snorted.
Eric picked up his tray and shot me that same death glare. “Do what you want, Bry, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. There will be hell to pay if you hurt her. I don’t care how crippling it would be for your rep; I’ll help her kick your ass.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “I’m not going to sleep with her. I just need a hot girl to walk into the building with me on prom night.”
“Then find someone else!” Eric snapped. “I’m sure there’s an airheaded bimbo freshman somewhere in this school who’d love to be seen with the great Brian Royland.” And, with that, he marched away.
“So much for bros before hoes,” Mitch muttered.
I rounded on Trey. “You really struck a nerve, Gibson. Couldn’t you have watched your mouth just this once? Now, he’s not going to talk to us for weeks!”
Trey puffed out his chest and adopted a superior look, as if he hadn’t been about to piss himself a minute ago. “Just because the big guy threw out my real name doesn’t mean everybody else has to start using it. Who needs him anyway? All he does is bitch about the ‘bad’ and ‘irresponsible’ things we do. He was holding us back.”
I waved his words away, still irritated. “He looks out for us. He always has.”
Mitch munched on a handful of chips. “As much as I hate to stick up for Bry’s boyfriend, he has a point. Eric’s always had our back.”
“Whoa, Eric’s not my boyfriend!”
“He’s referring to your bromance, dude. We all know you dig chicks,” Trey said behind his hand.
“I don’t have a bromance with anyone! Eric’s just…” I tried to find a way to describe him without sounding like a girl.
Trey grinned. “Your bestest friend in the whole wide world?”
I slugged his arm. “This is your fault. Why’d you have to go and bring Iris into this?”
“I thought it would be fun to watch you try and ask her out!” Trey insisted, rubbing his arm. “We know you’re great with girls. Dating stopped being a challenge for you years ago. I thought this could, you know, spice things up for us…I mean, you.”
I glanced at Iris out of the corner of my eye. I had been considering asking her to the prom even before Trey brought her up. I had no intention of getting some that night. (I’d be the first to admit I was a flirt, but I wasn’t a sleaze.) I knew Eric had good intentions…but he had overreacted a little. He knew me. How could he assume the worst just because Trey said it? That stung, but what stung the most was that he had assumed Iris wouldn’t be interested in me. As if I wasn’t good enough.
“What’re you thinking, Bry?” Mitch asked. “You’ve got that look on your face.”
“I don’t know. It almost doesn’t seem worth it.”
“Are you going to let Eric tell you who you can and can’t ask out?” Trey challenged.
“Can it,” I snapped. “Eric isn’t the boss of me.”
Trey smirked. “You sure about that?”
I twisted the cap off my vitamin water and started chugging it.
Trey sighed dramatically. “All right, I hate to do this to you but you’ve left me no choice. I dare you.”
I choked on my drink. “How old are you? Ten?”
“Maybe if I word it differently you’ll see how serious I am.” Trey’s smile widened as he leaned his elbows on the table. “I bet you fifty bucks you can’t get Iris Newman to go to the dance with you.”
Well, that did it. “You want to see me fail, don’t you, you little weasel? You’d love to see me make a fool of myself and then pay you for watching. Iris isn’t going to be a challenge. I’ll get her to go to the prom with me. I’ll get her to worship the ground I walk on like everyone else. You just wait and see!”
Trey’s smile never wavered. “Fine.”
“Fine!” I snatched my plastic fork and dug into my spaghetti.
“Real mature, Bry,” Mitch murmured.
“Shut up! I know what I’m doing.”