Bren Mickler raced to her room, tossed her shopping bags on the bed, and headed straight for her computer. She’d called an emergency chat room meeting at TodaysGirls.com, a private website she shared with five of her closest friends.
But now, thanks to a stop at the mall, she would be the last one to log on. Bren’s friends loved to tease her mercilessly about her marathon shopping trips and how half the mall’s employees knew her by name. But this time her shopping craze was justified: She was madly, passionately, dizzyingly in love with a guy who didn’t even know she existed.
She clicked her Internet icon as soon as the browser popped up, and as she waited for the connection, she imagined herself casually sauntering past “him,” her sandaled feet clicking across the school’s tiled floor. She thought of her black beaded tank, tucked into her new white pants . . . perfect with the especially hot white leather jacket—short with a pointed collar and a smooth band at the bottom. He will definitely notice me now, she thought as she typed in her password and leaned impatiently closer to the screen. Amber’s Thought for the Day popped up, and Bren clicked it away almost as quickly as it had appeared, mousing straight into the chat room.
I knew it, she thought, almost everyone’s already in here! Jamie, Maya, Alex, and Amber were already online.
TX2step: Ack! Maya has 2 dates lined up for Saturday nite. QTs, both
rembrandt: No fair! 1 BF to a customer
nycbutterfly: Stop it! It’s NBD. they’re not really BFs–not yet anway
Maya might be feeling casual about the guys in her life, but Bren was serious—and she didn’t even know Romeo’s name. She only knew that he’d somehow released a swarm of butterflies into her stomach yesterday afternoon.
She also knew it was bad netiquette to jump in and change the subject, but she did it anyway. She’d called this meeting to discuss the love of her life, not to marvel over Maya’s latest admirers.
chicChick: 4get that BFx2 stuff! I’m in love! Need i.d. on tall hot, Mak look-alike ASAP
rembrandt: FYI u r late! Where were U? As to Mak clone, don’t know who U mean
nycbutterfly: Me either. Where was the sighting?
chicChick: 2nd floor near gym–4th block
nycbutterfly: Sorry GF. No clue
faithful1: Don’t worry. U’ll have him following U around like a puppy. They all do.
chicChick: This 1 seems resistant. Had 2 spring 4 hot new outfit
TX2step: LOL2! Make that, ROFL
Bren shook her head. Someday when she was a top designer for DKNY or Versace, they’d be begging her for discounts. But for now, she had to make them understand that this was no casual crush. Never had she felt so totally overwhelmed by a guy. It was a little scary—make that a lot scary—but it was also as exhilarating as a wild ride on the dueling coasters at Six Flags.
chicChick: Help! I need advice. Will somebody please come over here?
nycbutterfly: No can do. Geometry calls my name
rembrandt: All right already! I’ll B there b4 work. K?
Bren was glad it was Jamie who’d agreed to come over. She loved all her friends, but she and Jamie Chandler had a special bond. As different as they sometimes seemed, they complemented each other like French fries and ketchup.
“Well, what do you think?” Bren asked, flopping onto her bed as Jamie scrutinized the new clothes.
“Cute,” Jamie answered. “But I don’t see why you’re so stressed. All the guys love you. We should all be so lucky. Or at least I should.”
Bren stretched out on the bed and groaned. “Oh, Jamie, you don’t understand. I walked right by him, and he didn’t so much as glance at me. I even stopped and talked to somebody I don’t even know so he could pass me.
You know who I mean—that girl with the Cleopatra hair and the great big feet? She walks sort of funny— her knees go way up in the air. Kind of like a Tennessee walking horse, you know, because they put weights on their feet or something. I bet her shoes are really heavy and that’s why she walks—”
“Focus, Bren,” Jamie said softly. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do,” Bren insisted. “That senior who asked me if I was adopted because she thought anybody who was half Asian had to be adopted?”
Jamie laughed and slipped the white jacket back in its bag. “I know who you mean. But let’s fast-forward, okay? If I’m late for work, Mr. Cross will have my neck. He got a new deep fryer, and we all have to be there early for one of his training sessions.”
Bren sat up. “Okay! Okay! The thing is, even after I gave him a second chance, he looked right through me. You’d have thought I was a ghost! Did you ever see Casper? It was really for little kids I guess, but—”
“Why didn’t you just say ‘hi’ to him?” Jamie asked, interrupting the digression. “Wouldn’t that have been easier than all this shopping and agonizing?”
“No waaaaaaaay!” Bren moaned. She stood up and rummaged through the plastic container she used to store her makeup. “Which of these do you like better?” She held out a tube of chocolate lipstick and a small silver container of something called Lip Shine.
“If that’s gloss, I vote for that,” Jamie replied pointing to the silver disk. “You don’t want to be too obvious.”
The next morning, Bren arrived at school early, her lips slicked with the rose gloss, hoping to spot Romeo before first block while she still looked her absolute best. But he was nowhere to be found. At lunch she took out her black wire-frame glasses, perched them low on her nose, and scanned the crowded lunch-room. Again, nothing. Either Romeo didn’t have her lunch period, or he was on a starvation diet.
By the time the bell rang signaling the end of third block, she felt like she was going into an auto self-destruct mode, imminent implosion at any moment. If she didn’t see him now, well then, he must have been a figment of her imagination. Her heart pounded as she retraced yesterday’s steps toward the gym.
“Hey Bren!” a voice called behind her in the hall. Bren turned and spotted Amber Thomas, her right hand waving above the throng of students’ heads.
“Come here a sec!”
Bren nudged her way toward Amber, who not only swam her team’s best backstroke but created most of their website all by herself. Bren glanced nervously around the hall as she shuffled through, not wanting to miss Romeo.
“What’s up?” Bren asked, glancing at Amber and then scanning the sea of bodies surging in both directions.
“Coach Hunter left this note on my locker,” Amber said, holding it out so Bren could see. “He wants you at swim practice next time. No excuses.”
“Sure. Whatever.” Bren’s well-manicured hands folded the paper and stuffed it into her bag. “Listen, I gotta run. I’ll catch up with you later, okay?” What difference did it make if she showed up at swim practice? It’s not like she was really on the roster. The only reason she swam at all was to hang out with her friends. She wasn’t a strong enough swimmer to compete in meets.
Bren rejoined the river of bodies moving down the hall. She craned her neck to spot a tall blond head looming over the crowd. At first she didn’t see him and then—all of a sudden—there he was! Maneuvering her way through a clutch of giggling freshmen, she positioned herself behind his broad shoulders. For a few seconds she walked behind him, then tucked her shoulder-length hair behind one ear, and casually passed him. At the gym doors, she stopped and pretended to look for something in her bag.
“Ha-ha! Like I care, man!” a male voice rumbled. She looked toward its owner and saw Romeo jab at one of his noisy buddies, almost connecting with the Cleopatra girl instead. “Sorry!” he muttered, jumping back. The heel of his giant sneaker crashed down on Bren’s pink toenails.
The pain almost left her breathless. She instinctively reached down to massage her wounded digits, sending her shoulder bag crashing to the crook of her arm. She watched in horror as it executed a perfect forward flip and rained makeup, pens, coins, hair clips, and Kleenex all over the floor. Bren dived to the ground, wishing she would turn into Casper again.
“I think you dropped this,” she heard from somewhere up in the stratosphere.
Bren looked up. Romeo held out the small fuzzy red Elmo doll her father had given her for Christmas! Nobody—not even the TodaysGirls—knew that she and her dad still watched Sesame Street together. Bren managed a weak smile, snatched up the doll, shoved it into her bag, and ran, leaving a pile of tissues and a couple of pens lying in the hall. By the time she fell into her desk in math, she felt like she’d just escaped a kidnapper.
She spent the rest of the block planning her transfer to St. Bridget’s Academy for Girls.
After the final bell, Bren gathered up her books and went to her locker. She looked around for Jamie, then remembered that she was riding with Maya to the Gnosh Pit, the fifties-style diner where they often worked after school and on weekends. Maya and Morgan’s dad owned the Gnosh, and Maya gave Jamie a ride sometimes, especially when they were both working.
Bren traded two of the books in her arms for the poetry book they’d begin tomorrow in English Lit. Then she slammed the door of her locker and headed out into the cool, early spring air. She wanted to get home but felt guilty about brushing Amber off earlier. She decided to wait by the side door near the swim team office where Amber was no doubt reporting to Coach Hunter that her mission was accomplished: Bren Mickler would duly report for swim practice.
“Yeah, later, Charlie!” a now-familiar voice called.
Bren felt her pulse quicken. She looked up just as Romeo emerged from the side door of the school. He glanced at her, then tapped his bare wrist.
“Hey, you got the time?” he asked her. “I forgot my watch.”
Bren looked at her own wrist. She’d been so busy searching for her onyx studs this morning she’d forgotten her watch, too. She shook her head no, mumbled, “sorry,” and pretended to be busy examining the new poetry book. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him pacing back and forth like he was waiting for someone to pick him up.
This is your chance! she thought. Don’t blow it. Do something, for heaven’s sake!
The small, insistent voice screamed inside her head. She glanced up and thought for a second. After what happened this afternoon, he probably thought she belonged back in middle school. What could she do to convince him that nothing could be farther from the truth? No way did she want to talk to him. It would be way too obvious. Much better to pretend like he didn’t exist.
Bren reached into her bag and pulled out the cell phone her parents insisted she carry for emergencies. She held it to her ear and waited a second before letting out a little yelp of surprise.
“Oh! It never even rang!” she said into the empty phone. “I was just about to dial out. What’s up?”
She waited for what she thought was enough time for her “caller” to say something.
“Really?” she said. “Well, I don’t know if I can do it THAT fast. I have a design on the table right now. By the time I finish it and make a prototype . . . ” She allowed her voice to drift off in a noncommittal cloud and sneaked a peek at Romeo.
It was hard to tell whether or not he was listening. He was still pacing and looking up the street toward the center of town. “The new design? Oh, it’s a commission piece. A prom dress.” She hoped the word prom jingled a bell in his brain. “Yes, prom,” she repeated, feeling braver. “A sheath—black with jet beads on the bodice.”
She caught herself before she launched a full description of the dress. Until this second, it hadn’t even existed in her mind.
“Well, let me think about it and get back to you, okay? Okay. Ciao.”
The last word was a touch of genius, she thought, as she shoved the phone back in her purse. She had absolutely no idea where it came from. Even the most sophisticated people in Edgewood, Indiana, didn’t run around saying things like ciao.
Romeo glanced over at her and sort of smiled. Or maybe smiled. It might actually have been a smirk. Bren couldn’t tell for sure. Just then a dark green SUV glided to the curb. She watched him climb in, and she noticed the casual way he carried himself. He started to slam the door, then looked over at her.
“Hey! I’ve got a tip for you,” he called. “Next time you use your cell phone, press the ‘on’ button. I hear it works better.”