Tasmyn has just moved to King, a small town in central Florida. This is just the latest in a series of relocations, and she isn’t hoping for much more than getting by until she can graduate. On the very first day, all those illusions are shattered by two people: Nell Massler, a very hostile classmate who makes it clear that Tas isn’t welcome in King, and Michael Sawyer, a very hot guy who seems very happy to meet her. To Tasmyn’s astonishment, he even asks her to eat lunch with him.
The cafeteria was located near the center of the school. There was indoor and outdoor seating, and at the moment I approached, a long line of students snaked out the doorway.
I joined the throng, looking around for Michael. I didn’t see him, but it was so crowded, I could have easily missed him. Having so many people around me was also making it hard to keep up my mental walls, and I frowned in concentration. The last thing I wanted was a headache with my lunch.
I finally made it through the doors. It was a typical high school cafeteria. Long tables with attached benches were set up along the walls. I saw another door leading to the outdoor eating area. Immediately in front of me were the tray pick up and the food line. The room was filled with milling students, choosing their food and then their seats. The tables were nearly all filled, and I began to panic not only about finding Michael, but about finding a place to sit at all.
As my eyes swept the room, I saw Nell sitting at a table, along with Liza and Casey and four other girls. Ah, yes, I thought, that would be the in-crowd right there: Nell and her posse. She was clearly the center of the group, leaning on the table in the bored, self-assured attitude of one who was positive of her place in the world. I sighed at the injustices of life.
“Hey, you made it!” I heard Michael’s happy thought before I saw him. He was smiling and holding an overflowing tray in one hand.
“Yeah, here I am. . .” Well, that was a truly inspired reply. I tried not to wince at my own lameness.
“We’re right over there.” With his free hand, he pointed to a table in the corner, where two other boys and two girls were sitting. They were all watching us with great interest.
“Are you sure there’s room for me?” Oh, please say yes, I begged silently.
Michael’s thoughts were a warm and happy buzz in my mind, but I focused on listening to his spoken reply. “Oh, yeah, plenty of room. Grab your food and come on over. I’ll save you a spot.”
My hands were still shaking as I picked up a tray. My experience with boys was fairly non-existent. It was all part of the blend in, fly under the radar and don’t make a fuss theory of life to which my parents subscribed, at least when it came to me. Michael was not only a boy, he was an incredibly hot one who actually seemed to be interested in me.
I made it through the line, grabbing only a small salad, a pack of crackers and a bottle of water. Holding the tray in a death grip—what would be worse than to drop it at this point?—I carefully wended my way through clumps of people who were trying to find seats themselves. When I finally reached Michael’s table, he slid along the bench and patted the spot he had just vacated.
I put my tray on the table and dropped onto the bench, still warm from Michael. My heart was pounding so loudly in my ears that between its noise and the crowd of thought voices, I could barely hear Michael introducing me to his friends.
“Hey, guys, this is Tasmyn. She’s new.”
They were all looking at me already, and the rush of attention brought their minds into sharper focus for me. I couldn’t quite pick out who was thinking what.
Michael, with a girl at the lunch table. . .pretty. . .what was her name?. . .hey, she’s in my speech class. . .ooooh, Michael has a girlfriend!
I flushed and frowned, trying to concentrate on keeping my wall up and the voices out.
“Are you okay?” Michael dropped his voice low and looked at me with concern.
I forced a smile and nodded. “Yeah, sorry. Just—you know—a little headache. I’m probably just hungry.”
Michael’s expression cleared, and he turned back to the rest of the table, dropping a hand on my back. I smothered a gasp as a surge of electric feeling shot through me. I was immediately feeling everything he was feeling, and it was dizzying.
He pointed to the opposite bench. “So, over there, that’s Dan, Brea and Jim.” They each smiled in turn, and the girl, Brea, sketched a small wave. “And here on this side, Craig and Anne.”
Anne leaned over and beamed at me. “Don’t worry, there’s no quiz on this stuff. You’ll figure us all out sooner or later.”
One of the boys sitting across from me nodded. “Yeah. So where are you from?”
I kept the smile pasted on my face, trying hard to focus on the conversation and not on Michael’s hand—still on my back—or the curious thoughts buzzing around the table.
“I’ve lived all over, actually. We move about every two years. This last time, we came down here from Wisconsin.”
The boy at the end of my bench snorted. “That’s gonna be a change. So which are you, a skier or a surfer? Are you going to miss the cold or love the heat?”
I shook my head. “Not at all. I was really over the whole snow thing. I like the idea of year-round summer.”
There were snickers all around the table, and I realized I had just fallen into the typical new Florida resident trap.
Michael dropped his hand from my back and shot a mock-angry look at his friends. “Cool it, guys. We’ve all lived here forever. Tasmyn hasn’t had a taste of—uh, year-round summer yet.”
I ventured a glance at him. “Really? You’ve all been here always?”
“Yup.” Michael nodded. “At least, in Florida. Craig, Anne and I have been together since kindergarten, and everyone else came to King at different times.”
“That must be nice.” If my voice held just a touch of envy, Michael ignored it. He smiled and then looked at my tray.
“Where’s the rest of your lunch?”
“What do you mean?” I was lost.
“You’re going to eat more than a salad and water, aren’t you? You can’t get through an afternoon on just that.”
“I think I’ll make it,” I answered, not even attempting to hide my amusement.
He shook his head and shoved a small paper container of French fries toward me. “Here. Eat these at least. I don’t want to hear about you passing out in—whatever class you have this afternoon.”
I picked up one fry between two fingers and nibbled on it delicately. First days always gave me a queasy stomach, and I didn’t want to tempt fate.
“What do you have this afternoon, anyway?” Michael asked.
I pulled out my schedule and scanned it. “American history and trig.”
“Cool. I have English and botany.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Botany? Really? That’s not your typical high school science class.”
Michael grinned. “It’s an elective for seniors. Retired professor from University of Florida teaches it.”
“You’re a senior?” I hadn’t picked that up in his mind. Which of course isn’t surprising; who goes around thinking of their vital statistics all the time?
“Yup. We all are here.” He indicated the table with a flip of his thumb.
I managed a crooked smile. “Does being a junior mean that I get tossed off this lunch table?”
Michael laughed. “Nah, we don’t discriminate against age.”
I clapped my hand to my heart and feigned a swoon. “What a relief!”
He smiled again, but his eyes—those deep green eyes—stayed riveted to mine. And then suddenly I could hear him, as though he were whispering into my ear.
Don’t want to come on too strong. Ride home? Maybe. Work today. . but it could happen. . .
Too late, I realized I was staring. Michael’s expression had turned quizzical again, and I tried to remember the last thing he had said aloud. Before I could figure it out, he spoke again.
“Do you drive to school? I mean, if you need a ride. . I live way outside town, so pretty much every neighborhood is on my way home.” He was trying to sound nonchalant, but even without hearing him think, I picked up the eagerness. It made my heart start flopping all over again.
“I didn’t drive. Actually, my mom is picking me up.” I felt the redness creep up my neck. Could I sound any more like a five year old?
But Michael didn’t even blink. “Okay, maybe another time. If you needed a ride to school or home or whatever. I’m just saying it’s on my way.”
The girl on the other side of Michael leaned around him, mischief dancing in her eyes. “What he’s trying to say is that he has a really cool car that he likes to show off, and you’d be doing him a favor if you let him drive you somewhere.”
Michael rolled his eyes and gave her a gentle shove. “Shut up, Anne. You’re just jealous because I don’t let you drive her.”
Anne laughed. “See that? ‘Her.’ His car is the real love of his life.”
The bell sounded, interrupting any comeback Michael might have made. Everyone stood up, grabbing books and any trays still left on the table. Michael took mine along with his, stacking and carrying them on one arm.
I took a deep breath. “Well, here I go. Nice short afternoon, anyway.”
Michael grinned and followed me as I pushed through the crowd. At the door, I paused and looked up at him.
“I think I need to go this way,” I said, pointing to the left.
He nodded. “Sounds right. I go in the opposite direction.” But he didn’t turn away.
“Well. . .thanks for letting me sit with you guys today. It’s one of the hardest parts of a new school, you know—having someone to eat with.”
“I hope you’ll sit with us permanently. I mean, all the time. You’re welcome to, anyway.”
“Thanks.” I drew in a deep breath. “I guess I’ll see you later?”
Michael’s eyes were drilling into mine once again. “Definitely.” He turned and disappeared into the throng of people on the walkway, and I stood watching after him.