Restaurant Wars prequel
“How much do you love me?” Camille wrapped her arm around Ethan’s neck, jostling the tray and ten spider cages he carried into Elf Hollow High’s gymnasium for the science fair.
He slid out from under her arm. “Depends what you did this time. You’re not known for your subtlety.” His best friend was as subtle as a Minnesota Vikings linebacker.
She folded her hands under her chin and batted her lashes. “I may have switched the booth assignments and a certain sophomore may now be sandwiched between all you hunky seniors.”
Ethan froze on the second step. “No. Tell me you didn’t.”
She braced her hands on her hips and looked down on him from the upper step. “Time’s running out. We graduate in two months and if you don’t ask Nica to prom, someone else will. You’ll lose the love of your life and wither away in lonely bachelorhood.”
If he could have wrung his hands, he would have. Ringing her neck wasn’t an option.
Thank goodness the spider tray demanded his attention. The fragile webs were the keystone to his science fair presentation. They needed to arrive to his table in pristine condition, so he could wax on about their design and he could pass biology, add another A to his transcript and push him into contention for admission to the University of Minnesota in the fall.
He did not need any complications tonight. Especially of the five-foot-two, volleyball-playing, cute-as-a-button, and sexy-as-all-get-out variety. “I told you not to meddle.”
Camille slapped his back. “When has that ever worked?”
“I hold out hope.”
“It’s my job to see you happily matched and settled.”
He stepped around her. “We’re eighteen.”
“Time’s a wastin’.”
“The science fair is hard enough. The presentation.” Public speaking—any kind of speaking in front of a group—left his skin itchy and his armpits sweat stained. “I don’t need the pressure of Nica standing three feet away. I’ll stumble over my words and make a fool of myself.”
He’d had a crush on Nica since she’d trounced a group of seniors in Jeopardy during her freshman orientation two years ago. “She’ll never go out with me.”
It didn’t matter he was two years older and should have been able to sweep her off her feet. He was handsome enough, got good grades, and people found him entertaining, but he knew what he was deep down, and that wasn’t the kind of person Nica would give the time of day. She was smart, sarcastic, witty, and out of his league.
Camille tugged on the woven bracelet around his wrist she’d made for him when they were six years old. “I’m playing the best friend card.”
He shot Camille a side eye. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Liar. You and Bridgette teamed up with that card and made me break up with Eddie.”
“He was using you to cheat in calculus.”
“You’re not allowed to date anyway.”
“What Mom and Amma didn’t know wouldn’t have killed me. And stop trying to distract from the task at hand.” Camille held open the door. “Nica’s waiting.”
Sweat, popcorn, and lemon floor polish wafted out of the gym. Thirty tables formed aisles under the florescent lights. He’d been assigned the table smack in the middle of the room. A majestic buck painted on the wall greeted them as Ethan wove to the end of the first row. His feet wouldn’t carry him any further.
Nica stood at the table next to his, straightening a model of an orca. Her dark brown hair trailed down her back. The floral skirt she wore swished ever so slightly as she stepped around to gather another item from the box on the floor.
Camille placed her hand on his arm and nodded toward his table. “She’s one in a million, Ethan. Someone else is going to see it and steal her if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity.”
His throat swelled like he was coming down with the flu. “What do I say?”
He was that cliched boy struck dumb by the sight of this beautiful girl. The only times he’d sputtered out more than three or four intelligent words in her presence were when he’d pretended to be someone else, like the characters he acted when his mom had an episode.
If he pretended to be the Class Clown or the Eloquent Poet, he produced monologues rivaling Shakespeare. But Nica’s eyes always darted past him, like she was looking for a nice way to step out of their conversation without hurting his feelings. He couldn’t talk to her like a normal person. He didn’t know how.
“Compliment her project. Ask her questions. Don’t put on a face or use a weird voice. Be yourself.”
He’d never been able to just be himself.
But… didn’t Nica deserve for him to try?
Fate hated her. There was no other explanation for why her assigned table was next to Ethan Cole’s. Why wasn’t she with the rest of the sophomores like she should be?
Ethan barely condescended to look her in the eye when they were forced to interact. He made her feel like the dust on the highest shelf in the public library, easily overlooked and ignored, until you needed a book from said shelf, then you groaned and complained about how gross it was.
And now he was staring at her with that same disdain from across the gym. She straightened the clay, 3-D model of an orca she’d carved. She didn’t need to. Her presentation on types of whales and their role in the global food chain was set up. Her note cards ready. She’d memorized her presentation for the judges.
But nerves jangled her stomach. So much was riding on tonight.
She’d heard Ethan’s project was about spider web design and its application in engineering. He was totally going to win his grade level.
When the judge arrived, she needed to remind them she was a sophomore, so she didn’t get graded against the seniors. If she won the sophomore prize, advanced to regions, and won, the prize money would be enough to send her to marine biology camp in Key Largo, Florida next summer.
Then she could stop pestering her parents about sending her. She couldn’t stand another half-hidden eye roll from her dad. He worked long hours driving big rigs as it was. Extra miles would kill him.
She needed to put on her best smile, give the presentation of her life, and ignore Ethan.
Who was she kidding? Who could ignore a guy like Ethan Cole?
Ethan’s shoulders sagged and he wiped the self-flagellating expression from his face. “Fine. I’ll ask her.”
Camille did a little victory dance.
“Help me get set up first.”
“Nope. I’m not crashing your party or giving you a way to back out. People mistake us for a couple too often anyway. She doesn’t need the pressure of me watching over your shoulder.”
Ethan dropped his head back. “You’re the worst best friend ever.”
“Too bad for you. There aren’t any left at Best Friends R’ Us, so you’re stuck with me.”
“That’s not true. Where’s Bridgette?”
“Stop stalling.” Camille shoved him forward.
He juggled his spider-laden tray. “Careful, these are fragile.”
He stepped back to let a girl carrying a paper mâché volcano pass. A boy slammed into his side, knocking them to the ground. Spider cages clattered across the honey-brown wood.
“Watch where you’re going,” the freshman squeaked. The small boy scrambled to his feet and ran down the aisle, not bothering to help clean up the mess he’d caused.
“Come on!” Ethan righted his tray. He gathered the closest cage. The moss and twigs inside looked like the aftermath of a tornado. The web dangled from a broken branch. “Fuhhh! They’re ruined.”
Camille handed him a cage. “This one’s ok.”
Ethan gathered the rest of the plastic boxes and carried the tray to his table. He arranged the surviving webs in a line along the middle of his table.
Three out of ten still contained functional webs. They looked lonely and incomplete. “Stupid, bloody, dimwitted, irresponsible freshmen,” he mumbled.
“Everything ok?” Nica asked.
Ethan looked around. Camille was gone. Nica blinked at him.
“Peachy.” He rapped his knuckles against the table. He wanted to find that kid and scream at him, shake him, and explain in detail how the project was screwed. He wanted to flip the table and just be done with this whole stupid science fair. If he didn’t need the grade, he would walk out.
Nica stared at him. “Can I help?”
He stashed the cages with the destroyed webs under the table. Out of sight, out of mind. “No.” He tried to keep the bark out of his voice, but he couldn’t. He’d nurtured those spiders for months, tested their tolerance to different temperatures and humidity. He’d rearranged their physical environments hundreds of times, cataloguing each iteration.
He still had his photographs and poster explaining how the environment affected web design in Camille’s car, so maybe he’d be ok.
But the spiders were the cool part. Watching them spin their webs and overcome obstacles was the genius of the project. And now all that work was splattered in the little boxes like when his mom had an episode.
He let out a growl.
“Oh, ok. Well, good luck.” Nica backed away.
He dug his thumbs into the crater of frustration forming on his forehead. “I’m sorry, Nica.”
“That bad?” Her voice held unrestrained awe.
“Must be bad if you’re apologizing.”
“I was rude. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
“You’re always rude.”
He twisted his neck and tilted his ear like he couldn’t hear her. “I am? I didn’t… I… umm…” He stood there with his mouth hanging open. Was he always rude to her?
Tongue-tied, inarticulate, fearful. He’d readily confess to those character flaws. What teenage boy wouldn’t be around the girl he’d crushed on for years?
Criminently, he could see how she interpreted his behavior that way. His short, one-word conversations when his throat seized could have been brush offs. Running away when he couldn’t think of anything to say could have been interpreted as not wanting to be around her. Playacting instead of being honest with her could have been not taking her seriously.
“It’s ok. I get it. Dumb freshmen, right?”
“You’re a sophomore.”
Her cheek twitched. “Ok, then dumb underclassmen. Still.” She picked up one of his cages and examined the spider inside. “Why spiders?”
He didn’t answer. Her fingers traced the air vents on the lid, down around the edge to where the spider sat on a clump of moss. She angled the box toward the light and examined the intricately spun web. Light refracted like crystals through the web across her nose and throat. Her pulse barely visible next to the necklace’s pearls.
She was his version of perfect.
And she thought he was rude and inconsiderate. No way she’d agree to a date.
She replaced the cage on his table, gave a little one-handed wave. “And that’s my cue.”
He shook off his stupor. “No. I’ve been replaying every time we’ve talked. I didn’t mean to be rude. I…” He dropped his gaze to his threadbare tennis shoes. Time to be brave. “You make me nervous.”
She tapped her toe.
He peeked at her. “You do.”
She straightened her white blouse and smoothed her skirt. “I don’t believe that.”
“It’s the truth.”
Was he really going to come out and tell her he had a crush on her? Right there in the middle of the crowded gym? The tightening in his throat worked its way down into his chest.
He could do this. He stepped closer, almost toe to toe with Nica’s strappy sandals and violet-painted toes. She held her ground, leaning ever-so-slightly toward him.
“Because…” He licked his lips, forced himself to focus on the freckles around her eyes instead of her mouth.
A microphone squealed. Nica jammed her fingers in her ears and hunched into his chest.
He wanted to wrap his arms around her, but that required more courage than he could muster before she stepped away.
The microphone squealed again. “Students to your tables. The judges are making their way around the room.”
Nica retreated to her table. “Good luck.”
“Wait. I wanted to ask –”
“Miss Monroe.” Ms. Nichols, the twelfth-grade biology teacher, stepped between them with a clipboard in her hand.
Nica’s eyes darted to Ethan’s then back to the teacher.
Ms. Nichols pointed at Ethan with the tip of her pen. “Did you need…”
Ethan waved his hand. “We’ll talk later.”
“Right. Miss Monroe, tell me about your project.”
Nica took a deep breath and launched into her presentation. Ethan stepped behind his table. He tried to answer questions posed to him by his fellow students and parents making polite conversation, but his attention drifted to Nica.
She talked with her hands, moving them through the air like they were dolphins playing in the waves. She swished from one end of the table to the other, pointing at her display. Joy effervesced from her being as she talked about the animals she was passionate about.
Her gaze never once darted back to him.
That moment between them, it must have been his overly hormone-driven imagination.
If Nica looked at Ethan, her words would garble. She’d stutter, lose her place, and lose the competition.
She couldn’t turn into a boy-sick-nincompoop now.
But the way his eyes caressed her face couldn’t be ignored. She’d never noticed how they were more green than blue, with little flecks of hazel along the edges. He smelled like lavender and mint. A weird combination for a boy, but the scent drifted to her even as she tried to ignore it.
Don’t be one of those girls.
Hair tickled the back of her neck. She should have put her hair in a ponytail, but her mom convinced her she looked more sophisticated with it down and wavey.
She tried to ignore the tickle as it scurried from the collar of her shirt to below her ear. She flicked her finger at her hairline.
Sharp burning spread from her ear, down the back of her neck, along her shoulder. She clapped her hand against her collar. Something squished. “Ahhh.”
Her hands scrapped and clawed against her fabric. Something crawled into her hair across her scalp.
What was in her hair?
She screamed, flipped her hair, and scrubbed her hands through the strands.
She was vaguely aware of the room silencing. People stopping in their tracks and staring at her.
She didn’t care. She wanted whatever it was gone.
Something was very wrong with Nica. Her scream vibrated along the bleachers and basketball hoops.
Her hands flailed around her body. Her long hair whipped back and forth like she was possessed by a demon.
Ms. Nichols tried to calm her down, but Nica swatted the helpful hands away.
Mouths gaped and fingers pointed. Someone in the back started laughing. The laughter grew louder as more kids took up the feeling. It started as a nervous what’s going on chuckle, growing in intensity, until it became like a monster of look at that crazy girl. Parents and teachers tried to shush the kids, but the monster wouldn’t be denied.
And all Ethan could do was stand and watch.
He should step in to calm her down. He should figure out why she was screaming.
He could be the one to rescue her from whatever embarrassing situation this was morphing into at the expense of her dignity.
“Nica?” Ethan used his most soothing voice. “Nica? Can you hear me?”
Something small and black flew from her head onto the table next to her orca. She shook her body, clawed her hair out of her face.
One of Ethan’s spiders scurried across the table. She grabbed her orca by the tail and beat it against the table, trying to smash the bug.
Ethan lunged for the model. “Stop! Don’t!”
She either couldn’t hear him or ignored him. He couldn’t tell. She hit the table over and over and over. Chunks of clay broke. The dorsal fin flew into the crowd.
He lunged, wrapped his hands around the orca, and wrestled it from her.
She turned reddened eyes on him. She gasped in a huge lungfuls of air. “Give that back.”
“Stop killing my spider.”
Her eyes widened. “What?”
“I need it for my presentation.” He should have smacked himself in the face with orca. Why didn’t he ask what happened? If she was ok?
“That thing attacked me.” She pulled her hair off her neck. A circular red welt the size of a silver dollar pulsed below her ear.
Ms. Nichols turned Nica to get a better look at the bite. “Come with me. Are your parents here?”
Nica glared at Ethan but answered. “No.”
“Let’s call them. The nurse will decide if you need to go to the hospital.” She tugged Nica away.
Ethan scooped what remained of his spider into his hand. The three spiders on his table were still in their cages. Underneath, one of the cages had a crack in the corner. Just the right size for a spider to escape. It must have thought Nica’s skirt was a plant, her dark hair a good place to hide.
And he’d never asked if she was ok.
Nica arrived at school Monday morning with a gigantic bandage taped to her neck. She entered the combination to her locker, kids pointing and talking behind their hands as they passed her. Someone whisper-yelled, “Watch out, Spaznica. There’s a spider.”
By lunch, Spaznica echoed through the halls, was chanted when she left a room, and was found scrawled on mean-spirited notes shoved in her locker.
She walked down the corridor toward her English class, books clutched to her chest. Her gaze never landing on anyone else’s.
Ethan stood at his locker with Camille and Bridgette. He laughed at something one of them said. When his eyes landed on her, his smile died. His tan cheeks flushed. Camille elbowed him. He shook his head.
He turned his back on Nica and shoved a book in his locker.
It was the worst kind of insult. He was popular enough, he could have approached her, washed away some of the humiliation with a kind word. He could have apologized for setting his spider loose.
Instead, everyone noticed his brush off. The whispers doubled.
A baseball player patted him on the back. He smiled back and did the complicated high five handshake thing the cool kids did.
He never looked at Nica again.
She shrank deeper into herself. He must have released the spider on purpose. He’d won the competition after all.
“Nica?” Alex Marshall held open the door to her classroom.
He looked up at her from under his eyelashes. His crooked grin somewhere between mischievous and adorable. “I’m sorry everyone’s been so mean to you. Can I take you out for milkshakes after school?”
She glanced around at the other kids in the hall. Alex had graduated last year but visited the auto shop teacher a couple times a month, or so she’d heard.
He had a reputation as a bad boy. Not a troublemaker, just someone who wrote his own rules, lived life the way he wanted to. He drove the same car as in the Knight Rider show her parents loved, had tattoos down both arms, attended school when it didn’t get in the way of his adventure-seeking.
He was popular enough to soothe her reputation.
Did she want to go out with him? She didn’t want to use him or lead him on.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Why would a guy like me ask out a girl like you?” He leaned in and whispered in her ear. “The better question is, why would a girl like you go out with a guy like me? You’re obviously smarter than I am. You’re beautiful and funny. And I’m just a guy who likes to have fun. But maybe there’s more to me. Maybe you can bring out the best in me. I think we’d both like to find out the answer.”
She nodded. It was a good line. He delivered it well. And she did want to find out if she was that kind of girl.
Camille punched Ethan in the shoulder hard enough to knock him into the lockers. “You are the dumbest boy in the history of stupid boys. Look.” She gestured to where Alex leaned into Nica.
Her cheeks wore that beautiful blush Ethan loved so much. But he wasn’t the one putting stars in her eyes or the rose in her cheeks.
He was the idiot who let her get away. He couldn’t even muster the courage to apologize. He’d hidden in his locker.
And now it was too late.