Before The Boys Say No

Before Boys Say No front coverBeatrice is a seventeen-year old debate champion defending her title, an Italian girl with a big fat mouth and a high school senior… who’s never had a date in her life.

Brody is the new boy at school with blonde hair and the deepest blue eyes she’s ever seen, totally scrumptious to every girl at school… and completely off limits to someone like her.

But she’s got a plan. And those delicious pink heels are part of her story.


 

Chapter 1

Let’s just say I’m a large girl. Oh, I’m not talking about being huge, but I’ve got some junk in my trunk. I come from a long line of Italians where the women have big hips and boobs. My mom says I’m proportionate. I think she’s just trying to make me feel better about my self image. When I look at all the skinny girls on campus, I can’t help but feel self-conscious. They must count every calorie that goes into those tiny bodies. Italian households don’t count calories; we consume them.

I don’t have a chance to look like them because not only do I live in an Italian home, but my family also owns the Italian restaurant–the one with the great reputation for papa’s homestyle food. It’s been in the family for years.

I work in the restaurant with my brother, Dean. He cooks with my father while I wait on tables. Dean likes working in the family business. I detest it. My customer service stinks and I’ve had to apologize to customers more times than a human should be expected to. I really should have been fired by now. My father tolerates me because I’m family and he doesn’t have to pay me. I work for those tips. And trust me, it’s a lot of work to get a tip in this town.

After the midday shift, I find my thoughts drifting to my debate team. I scrub at dried tomato sauce on the tables and run different arguments in my mind. My debate coach calls me a “spirited debater.” He’s always cautioning me not to let my emotions control the debates. What can I say? I’m Italian–we always speak our mind. Except when I’m around the skinny, popular girls. I freeze up and get tongue-tied. I can’t stand the judgmental looks they cast my way and how they roll their eyes and whisper. About my hips, no doubt.

And then there are the guys. It seems like all the guys go after those thin girls. The only guys who have ever shown interest in me have been the gross ones who don’t even have the confidence to look at the skinny girls.

Peter Wiles in seventh grade. He played with the retainer in his mouth, pulling it in and out with the saliva dripping onto his dirty fingers. It was enough to even muster a polite smile when he tried to flirt with me. I finally just had to get frank with him so he would leave me alone. He went out of his way to avoid me after that.

Then there was Ian Paul in ninth grade. It’s not that he was ugly; more like, just plain. But he had a problem with gas–we’re talking real stink bombs. No way could I see myself even sitting next to him. Yeah, I shut him down, too–with my big fat mouth.

Last year, Sam Davis asked me to the Junior dance. I really wanted to go that dance, and yes, it would’ve been great to go with a guy, but Sam never takes a shower. His hair is always greasy–natural grease, you know? Not the kind that comes from hair products. His body odor is so foul it would make Ian Paul’s stink bombs smell good–okay, maybe not good, but at least tolerable.

So here I am, ready to start my senior year at school. I had pretty much lost interest in boys by now because, well, I hadn’t met anyone that inspired me. Yeah, even though I’ve never been on a date, I have high standards. My mom says to drop the standards; she’d like to see me date at least once in high school. I didn’t see that as a possibility–until he walked in.

Summer had just started, and with it, our restaurant got really busy. With teenagers ordering pizza. Dad yelled at me from the kitchen. I was used to it. Most of the customers were too. I rolled my eyes and went to see what he wanted. He was talking to one of the cutest guys I had ever seen. Instantly, I ripped off the sauce-stained apron.

“Beatrice,” my father coaxed me over, his Italian accent thick with excitement. “Meet Brody, my new cook. Brody just moved here from Michigan.”

My dad had been looking for someone to replace Dean as he was headed off to college in the fall. I knew he’d hired someone, but this was the first time I’d met him. I looked into the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. He was tall with blond hair and was already sporting a tan. And, of course, I got nervous as I always did around cute guys. I couldn’t say a word.

“Look at that,” my dad crowed. “Your good looks have made her speechless, no?”

I felt the heat rise up in my cheeks. I couldn’t believe my father had just said that. Out loud. In front of Brody. I threw him the most vicious look I could. He just laughed.

“Nice to meet you, Beatrice,” Brody said with a warm smile.

I awkwardly reached out to give his hand a shake and muttered something in reply. My father crossed his arms, watching me with a gleam in his eyes. I tightened my lips and refused to look at him.

“I need to get back out on the floor,” I said, and quickly made my exit. I could hear my father chuckling behind me.

Ugh. Why did I have such a problem talking with beautiful people? Put me up in a debate room and I thrived on driving them into the ground. In a social setting, it was different. I lost all my confidence. I was so mad at myself that I took it out on poor old Joe when he held up his coffee cup for a refill.

“How long you been coming here, Joe? Get it yourself. You know where it is,” I snapped. I didn’t even feel sorry when I saw the hurt look on his face. I just needed some privacy to pull myself back together.

I darted into the bathroom and locked myself into one of the two stalls. I sat down on the toilet and crossed my arms. I had to get a plan of action together if I was going to be working with such a cute guy all summer. I’m a planner–that’s what debate is all about. Being better prepared than your opponent.

I don’t know how long I stayed in the bathroom, but it was long enough for Roma to come looking for me. She’s my aunt and helps wait on tables with me.

“Beatrice?” I heard her voice from the other side of the stall.

“Yeah,” I sighed.

“You coming out? I could use your help.”

I reluctantly opened the door. She had a sympathetic look on her face. I loved Aunt Roma. She was like a second mom. She was the one person I could confide in.

“Sorry, Auntie. Dad just really embarrassed me.”

“The new guy?” she asked softly.

I don’t know how she did it. She always seemed to have insight on what was bothering me. I nodded. “Did you see how cute he is?”

Roma gave a hearty laugh. “He’s a cute one, all right. You gonna be able to work with him?”

“Help me,” I pleaded. “I can’t even get a sentence out.”

She laughed again. “I’ll give you good advice. Treat him like he is one of the customers.”

“Our customers aren’t usually so cute,” I said. “And if they are, I always have a problem waiting on them.”

“Well, maybe he is the one,” she said with that same gleam in her eyes that my dad had. They were always trying to find me a date.

“I am way out of his league,” I grimaced.

“Perhaps he is out of your league, Beatrice.”

I loved my Aunt Roma. She had a way of making me feel good about myself. Of course, I didn’t buy what she was saying; still, it made me feel good to know that someone valued me so much. I gave her a quick hug then scurried to the sink to wash my hands before heading back on the floor. Frizzy pieces of my red hair had gotten out of my ponytail. I had my mom to thank for that uncontrollable mess. Her Scottish roots came out in her red hair and white skin. I got that and the Italian body. Not much I could do about that, I lamented.

With a sigh, I refastened my ponytail and joined my Aunt Roma. I caught old Joe’s eye and mouthed “sorry.” He grinned. He was almost family as much as he came into the restaurant. I really needed to work on controlling my emotions better. I darted to the back and pulled on a fresh apron.

My father was showing Brody how to chop vegetables. I loved watching my father with a knife. He could slice faster than anyone I had ever seen–even those professional chefs I saw on television. Not that I enjoyed watching those shows. They were personal favorites of my family. What can I say? We own a restaurant.

“You apologize to Joe?” my father asked without looking up.

“Everything’s fine,” I said, swiftly knotting the apron ties in the back.

I caught Brody’s blue eyes looking at me. He grinned in an attempt to be friendly. All of a sudden it hit me. I needed to stop looking at him as anyone who would ever have a romantic interest in me. He was only interested in skinny girls–all guys like him were. He was trying to be nice and I was freaking out. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head. The pressure left me. I didn’t have to try to pretend I was pretty or interesting. I would never have a shot with him in a million years.

I was able to smile back at him. “Watch that knife,” I warned. “Dad cut off the tips of his fingers years ago.”

“Maybe that’s why I can cut so fast now,” my dad laughed. “The fingertips were just slowing me down.”

Brody laughed. “Well, I’d like to keep my fingertips, sir. I wouldn’t be able to play football without them.”

Great. He was one of those–the popular guys. He would fit right in with all the beautiful people at school. If he played football, he probably wasn’t planning to work at the restaurant when summer ended. I wondered if my father realized that.

Dean stuck his head around the corner. “You gonna stand there all day, Bea? Table three needs these bread sticks.”

I grabbed the breadstick order and started out, but my brother stopped me again.

“Take out table six’s salads while you’re at it,” he ordered.

“Table six isn’t my table,” I retorted and started walking away.

It’s not that I don’t like to help out my aunt; it’s just that I refuse to let my brother order me around. We have a balanced relationship, as I call it. He does his thing and I do mine. Dean was pretty popular in school. He got the dark Italian looks and the charm to go with them. He spent high school avoiding me because I had embarrassed him on more than occasion when he brought his dates home. It was kind of funny watching him squirm as I told his dates about his smelly feet or any other number of embarrassing details about him they may be unaware of.

“Beatrice,” my father barked after me.

I stopped in my tracks. I knew that voice. I reluctantly turned back around and headed straight for the salads. I tried to control myself as I slammed the bowls on my tray. The whole time I could feel Brody’s eyes on me. He would get used to our Italian attitudes soon enough.

“And take a cafe mocha out to the blonde waiting on the to go order,” Dean added with a sly smile.

“Are you serious?” I asked him. I could feel my nostrils flaring, which wasn’t a pretty sight. But right then, I didn’t care how. “We are not going to give away free food to every girl you find attractive.”

“It’s Marge,” my father said behind me.

My anger suddenly left me. Marge was a large blond woman who had been a close family friend since I could remember. She was a traveling sales rep and must have come back into town. Now I felt embarrassed at my sudden outburst. Dean clacked his spatula on the grill and bent back down, whistling.

I took a deep breath and left the kitchen, conscious of my hips swaying as I walked away from them. I really needed to control myself. I forced a smile to my lips and dropped off the bread sticks and salads. Somehow, a smile seemed to produce bigger tips; most days, it was hard to plaster one on my face, even though it did bring me more money.

Marge engulfed me in a huge hug. My face got buried between her large bosom. I felt like I was suffocating between two soft pillows. It was all good. I loved Marge’s vivacious personality. She made friends easily and was alway laughing.

“You got any summer plans, honey?” she asked in her loud voice.

I shook my head. “Nope. Just work and debate stuff.”

“You need to get out, have some fun before you graduate,” she scolded.

I shrugged. “How about you? Where you headed next?”

“Oh, just a small vacay to the Caribbean,” she crooned. “Wanna join me? We can wear our bikinis and drink some margaritas–”

“No, thank you,” I cut her off. No way was I going to be caught dead in a bikini in public–or private, for that matter.

Her small red lips pursed into a pout. “I’ll get you on a cruise ship some day, Beatty.”

I snorted and inclined my head to the other customers. She understood I had to get back to work. Dean was bringing her order out anyway. She planted a kiss on my cheek before I left her to tend my tables. By experience, I knew I had a lipstick mark that I’d have to rub off when she was out of sight.

Then I heard the giggles. It was a group of those girls. They were here for pizza, no doubt. How they were able to eat it and not gain a pound was a mystery. I recognized Lanie, the beautiful blonde cheerleading captain. She had her barbie doll hair pulled into a high ponytail. Her short jean shorts bared her long toned legs. With the blue cami highlighting her blue eyes, she drew more than one stare from the customers waiting at the register.

She led her troupe of girls to the register. They all seemed to wear the least amount of clothes to show off their tiny figures. My brother wasn’t immune to the beauty standing before him. He grinned like a dufus as Lanie batted her eyes at him.

“Is Brody here?” I heard her ask.

I stopped in my tracks and turned to openly stare. Dad had said Brody just moved here. How did the popular girls already know him?

“Brody!” Dean yelled to the back.

Brody came out, wiping his hands on a towel. He grinned when he saw the girls. “Hey, Lanie.”

She gave her husky laugh. You know, the low, sexy kind of laugh that let’s a guy know you’re flirting with him. “We thought we’d surprise you on your first day of work.”

“Great,” he said with a smile. “You want to order some pizza?”

She placed her hands on her small waist and stuck her chest out. “Do you really think we eat pizza with these figures?”

The girls started giggling and whispering. Poor Brody lost his smile and looked confused. Lanie must have sensed it because she cleared her throat and smiled sweetly at him.

“Actually, we don’t have to watch what we eat because we’re just naturally made this way. Besides, with all the jumps and tosses and–”

She seemed at a loss for words, so one of her friends threw in, “and flips–”

“Yeah, that’s right. All those flips and things we do for cheerleading keep us in such great shape. Don’t you think, Brody?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Brody said.

I wasn’t prepared for him to look over their shoulders at me. When his baby blues met my brown eyes, I felt my heart jump unexpectedly. Lanie looked back to see what had drawn his attention away from her. She snorted when she saw me. I remembered the lipstick mark from Marge and immediately tried to rub it off. It was too late. The skinny girls had seen it. They broke into a loud laughter.

I felt the blood rush into my face. It always happened when I was embarrassed or mad. I was turning to leave when I heard the most awful comment. It was from Marge, who thought she was sticking up for me.

“What are you girls cackling at Beatty for? She’s got more class than all of you put together,” Marge’s loud voice boomed across the restaurant.

I froze right where I was and slowly turned back around to face the train wreck. I know my eyes were wide but I couldn’t close them from pure shock. The girls were shocked too. They stood with their mouths open as if they couldn’t believe what had come out of Marge’s mouth. Dean swallowed hard and darted around the counter to Marge. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and whispered something in her ear. She started to protest, but he gently urged her to the door. She shot a look of distaste at the girls but left peacefully.

I threw a grateful look at Dean. He winked back at me. No matter our differences, I knew he would have my back when it came down to it. He used his head to point to the customers. No need to tell me twice. Best to get out of the way of the vicious laughter that I knew was coming.

“Cackling at Beatty?” I heard one of the girls shriek.

Yep. Just as I walked out, they burst out laughing. I kept my head up and moved through the tables. Thankfully, the other customers didn’t seem to be aware of what just happened. I stayed out on the floor for as long as possible. I couldn’t ignore the requests for dessert for much longer though. I had to go back into the kitchen. That meant passing the girls who were waiting for their pizza order.

I took a deep breath and marched toward the kitchen. It wasn’t too bad. I heard just a few snickers as I passed them. My shoulders sagged with relief when I entered the kitchen. Dean threw me a sympathetic look from the grill.

I pulled out the cheesecake from the fridge. It was still a little frozen in the middle, but a little extra whipped topping and berries should disguise that. As I plated the cheesecake, I couldn’t help but squirt the whipped topping on my finger and plop it in my mouth. I loved the swirl of the creamy froth on my tongue. I had just plopped a second finger of the creamy goodness in my mouth when I heard Brody behind me.

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry for how those girls treated you,” he said softly.

I whirled around, quickly swallowing the whipped topping. “I’m used to it.”

“You shouldn’t be. I don’t understand why they get like that.”

I gave a slight frown. “Why they get like that? Exactly how long have you been here? I thought you just moved.”

“A couple of weeks ago. Lanie lives next door, so she’s been great to introduce me to some other kids here. Plus, I started football practice.”

“Does my father know you’re planning to play football?”

“Of course,” he said with a smile. “He’s going to work around my schedule.”

“Hmm,” I replied and crossed my arms. “I’m surprised he hired you. I mean, football’s going to take up a lot of time–”

“Yeah, but I’ll work all I can. I really need this experience.”

“Why? You gonna open up a pizza parlor?” I asked sarcastically.

His face grew serious. “Actually, my dream is to open a restaurant in Italy one day.”

I felt like my eyeballs were going to pop out of my head. “Seriously? You want to open a restaurant? In Italy?”

He nodded and bit his lower lip. I realized I must have offended him with my reaction. “Sorry,” I said. “It’s just–well–it’s just surprising. I mean, you play football and everything.”

“So football players can’t own restaurants?”

“Of course. That was stupid of me. I just wasn’t expecting you to say that,” I mumbled. “I gotta get these desserts out.”

“Yeah. Right,” he said and moved away from me.

I felt him watching me as I finished squirting big blobs of the whipped topping on the rest of the cheesecake. I spooned a generous amount of mixed berries on each one before arranging them on a tray.

I saw Dean moving toward the register with a pizza box. That was probably for the girls. I lingered at the counter. I knew Brody was still watching me, but I didn’t want to face the giggling girls again.

“Bye, Brody,” I heard Lanie yell.

Brody didn’t say anything. I turned to look at him to see why he hadn’t responded. His arms were crossed over his chest and his eyes were on me. I raised my eyebrows in a silent question. A grin broke his serious expression.

“You need help carrying out all those desserts?” he asked me.

“No. I’ve carried even more than this before.”

Brody gave a soft whistle. “Talented girl.”

I lifted my apron and gave him a small curtsy. “Well, now, that’s real talent, Mr. Brody,” I replied, using a strong southern accent.

He laughed. “That’s really good. You do any other accents?”

“Scottish–and Italian, of course.”

“You’ll have to let me hear sometime,” he said.

Dean was crossing back to the grill so I knew the girls had left. I gave Brody a smile and lifted the dessert laden tray, balancing it on my shoulder as I made my way back to the floor. The interaction with Brody had lifted my spirits. I actually had a real smile on my face as I handed out the desserts. Maybe working with him wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

Chapter 2

Let me make one thing clear. Debate is my passion. I mean, when I’m up in front of a judge and the other team is squirming because they don’t have any evidence to refute my arguments, that is pure pleasure. I’m having a problem finding a debate partner though. The other kids feel like I’m too much of a bully and don’t want to be with me. I don’t understand their small minds. I mean, don’t they want to win?

My team has won state for the last three years. That’s almost unheard of for a freshman to win. At first, I had kids clamoring to be on my team. I guess they have a problem with my big fat mouth. If they make a mistake during a tournament, I make sure they understand in no uncertain terms what those mistakes were and how to avoid them in future debates. My debate coach pretty much lets me run my debate team. I’m that good.

So here’s the dilemma. Without a partner, I’m not going to be able to debate. Even Sue Nelly won’t agree to partner with me. She’s that bad. She would be my last choice for a partner. But Jason Partridge picked her. That really irks me. I’m left with one option. I’m going to have go out and find someone without any debate experience and train them. That really stinks.

Mr. Robarb, my debate coach, just shook his head when I told him my plan. He didn’t think it was a good idea but said he would support me. I’m confident enough that I’ll be able to do all the work for my partner, but I’m not confident I’ll be able to find someone who will agree to spend all the time it takes to prepare. Especially if they haven’t had an interest in debate before.

So, I made my way back to school. A lot of the clubs were meeting over the summer. That was the only hope I had to find someone. The theatre club was my first choice. I envisioned finding someone who could deliver a bold argument in the language of Shakespeare; or perhaps, a soft-spoken southern belle who would argue in the style of Mark Twain.

What I found were a bunch of loud mouthed kids all trying to outperform each other. They seriously made my big fat mouth seem mild in comparison. Besides, with all that ego floating around, there wouldn’t be room for two of us on a team. Seriously.

So I headed to the Honor Society. My friend, Johanna, is president of that club. At least the kids in that club are smart and should be able to pick up debate quickly. I don’t understand why that club meets in the summer; I’m sure Johanna told me, but my mind has been too focused on debate–so in one ear and out the other.

Johanna met me at the classroom door where they were meeting. Her brown hair was neatly braided down her back. She always looked so perfect–and boring. I was so used to her wearing khakis that it was a surprise to see her in a summer dress. She’s pretty slender so she can get away with spaghetti straps.

She raised her eyebrows. “Hi, Beatrice. What’s up?”

“I need help,” I said with a heavy sigh. “I need a debate partner.”

“You still don’t have one?”

I shook my head. I knew she couldn’t partner with me. Grades consumed her life. She had her sights set on several ivy league colleges and would never risk making less than perfect grades. Even for a friend.

“Let me check with the others inside,” she said.

I waited outside the door, swatting at the bees that floated around my head. They were attracted to the trashcan outside the door. I moved into the sun to escape getting stung. I tried to avoid sunlight because I always get burned. It wasn’t long before I felt the sweat run down between my boobs. I frantically fanned myself with my hand. I didn’t want to walk around with sweat stains on my T-shirt.

Johanna popped her head out the door with a tentative smile. “Sorry, Beatrice. Everyone’s concentrating on grades this year. Hey, you want to come over after work?”

“I have to close so I won’t get out till about midnight.”

“Bummer,” she said with a grimace. “Well, call me so we can hang out.”

“Sure,” I replied and walked away.

I didn’t have time to hang out. I had already missed debate camp and not having a partner was looming over me. I made my way to the music hall. Surely one of the singing Bluejays would have an interest.

Mrs. Whittaker answered my knock on the door and held up a finger to her lips. I waited patiently while she listened to the singing onstage. She was as consumed with music as I was with debate. She took great pride in her choir, which typically placed in the top ten in competitions throughout the state. But she had never won first place. When the music subsided, Mrs. Whittaker turned to me. “What can I do for you, Beatrice?”

“I need a debate partner, Mrs. Whittaker, and wondered if I could ask your students.”

She frowned, making her wrinkled skin look like a crinkled piece of paper. “I don’t think so, Beatrice. My students need to have their full attention on music. Besides, isn’t Mr. Robarb helping you with that?”

“There’s only so much help you can give to someone when none of the other kids wants to be her partner.”

“Well, I’m sorry about that, Beatrice, but the answer is no.”

“I don’t understand why you won’t at least let me ask them,” I insisted. “Some of them may be interested in being my partner. I mean, I’ve led my team to win state for the last three years. They may want to be on a winning team for a change.”

Uh, yeah. Probably not the thing to say to win over Mrs. Whittaker. Her eyes grew hard and her thin lips tightened. I could tell she was having problems restraining herself. “I don’t appreciate that remark, Beatrice. Perhaps you need to evaluate why the other debate students don’t want to be your partner.”

With that, she snapped the door closed in my face. Mrs. Whittaker had been the music teacher for over twenty years at the school. Most of the teachers were weak in the school. Oh, some acted like they cared, but most were there to just collect a paycheck. All the kids knew that. With such a stern attitude, I decided Mrs. Whittaker probably needed to retire. Only it wouldn’t help me find a debate partner.

I didn’t even bother going out to the football field where every kind of athlete was meeting. They would be so involved with practice that they wouldn’t have any time to devote to debate. Not that any of them would be interested anyway. Athletes were off limits.

I passed the foreign language clubs without even bothering to check. I needed someone who could speak English coherently. Math club was a mystery. They had their own language and their minds thought differently. I barely passed my required math classes and didn’t want someone approaching the debate topic with that mentality anyway.

I popped my head into the art class and decided not to approach that group. They were all wearing oversized T-shirts and were moulding clay into some odd shapes. I didn’t get that and I wasn’t convinced enough that they would get debate.

I had one group left. The Aggies. That was the name for the kids interested in agriculture. Not that I held any hopes, but desperation will drive a person to extreme measures. They were meeting in a metal building on campus. I’d never been to the building because, go figure, wood working and cow patties are not my thing.

I peeked inside the building. A long hall stretched before me with several doors to try. I crept in, feeling like I was an intruder breaking into a place I didn’t belong. The whole place smelled like oil. Car oil, not the kind we use in the restaurant.

I could hear banging in one of the rooms so I thought I’d try that. It was dark except for a flame of fire coming from behind a glass partition that lit up silhouettes of kids gathered round. I waited by the door for a minute. Suddenly, the lights came on to blind my eyes. I rubbed them, trying to make out what was happening.

“Hey, you shouldn’t be in here without protective gear,” a voice yelled from the other side of the room.

“Pardon me,” I said as I stumbled into the room full of–frankly, they looked like scraggly cowboys. Some even wore cowboy hats. There were a couple of girls who stared at me with scowls.

“My name is Beatrice,” I began in my debate tone. “I’m on the debate squad here and, this may sound crazy, but I’m looking for a debate partner.”

“I don’t think there’s any debaters in here,” one scrawny guy drawled. I didn’t know people talked like that here in Illinois. Maybe it was a farmer thing.

“No, you don’t understand. I need a debate partner,” I tried to explain.

“You got the wrong place,” the scrawny guy drawled again. “I think they meet in Building C.” He turned to the group. “Is that right, guys? Building C?”

I smiled politely and took a breath. “I am on the debate squad. And we meet in Building E. We debate in teams and there are no partners left. I can’t debate without a partner. Is there any of you who would consider being my partner?”

The guys looked at each other. A couple looked down at the ground and shuffled their feet, grins spreading across their faces. I stood like an idiot in front of those weed-sucking Aggies. The sweat was starting to drip between my bra again. It was a lost cause. I turned on my heel and started making my way to the door to escape. A voice in the back of the room stopped me.

“This debate stuff. Does it look good if you’re going to be a lawyer?”

I turned around to face a skinny guy with pimples. It was bizarre to hear that question from someone wearing Wranglers and a plaid shirt. And a cowboy hat. He swiped his nose with his hand as he waited for my reply. I tried not to judge him–you know, that don’t judge a book by it’s cover? I’d been a victim of that a time or two.

“Are you going into law?” I asked.

He nodded. “Yep. My dad wants me to. Too many farms getting the bad end of the straw dealing with the banks.”

I didn’t want to hear about his personal life, but I needed to be careful. I actually had a human being in front of me that had a spark of an interest in debate. I didn’t want to mess it up, so I carefully chose my words.

“Debate is almost mandatory if you’re pursuing law,” I told him. That wasn’t true, exactly, but I consoled myself with the thought that debate could only help someone like him be taken seriously.

“All right,” he drawled. “I’ll do it.”

“Okay, great. You do realize it will take time, right? I mean, you’ll have to help me research and prepare for the school year.”

“All right,” he repeated.

“Really?”

It’s not that I didn’t believe in the amount of time spent preparing for debate tournaments. It’s just that I didn’t expect someone, especially an Aggie, to just agree to it that easily. I had to make sure he understood the commitment and wouldn’t leave me hanging in the middle of the year.

“You understand that you are making a commitment, right? I mean there’s no backing out–not even for all your agriculture stuff.”

He nodded. “I’ve never backed out of anything my whole life. I just need you to teach me.”

I smiled and held out my hand. “That’s great. I’m Beatrice.”

“Jared,” he replied and shook my hand. “Since we’re talking about making commitments, I just want to make sure you don’t back out on me. This is for my future, after all.”

I felt a gleam of excitement enter me. This guy was committing. More than I had hoped for. I nodded my head vigorously. I wasn’t sure if he wanted us to spit in our hands and shake on it, but I was all in and if he was all in, I had a chance to win state again.

“That’s great,” he said. “When do we start?”

Talk about ambition. This guy could be the real deal. “You want to meet me at the library tomorrow morning?” I asked tentatively.

“It’ll have to be after I milk the cows,” he said. “I could be there about ten.”

That’d give me three hours before I had to be at work. The library opened at nine. If I got there early and put an hour in before he got there, that would probably work out. I wasn’t much of a morning person–at least I didn’t like to be around people in the morning, so that hour would help me be nice to him when he got there.

“Jared, let’s do this,” I said in a loud voice, trying to show enthusiasm.

There may as well have been crickets in the room with the response I got. Everyone just stared at me. I shrugged. I bet if I had a steak in my hand I would have gotten a better reaction. Jared wiped his nose again and held out his hand. I pretended I didn’t notice and started backing out the door. I didn’t want to shake his snotty hand.

“I’ll let you get back to what you were doing,” I said with a flash of teeth. “See you tomorrow morning.”

I closed the door with mixed feelings. On one hand, I was thrilled I had a debate partner. On the other, I was taking a big risk with someone who knew nothing about debate. Although, he did say he wanted to be a lawyer, I mused. Perhaps he had already started looking into law practice and had some kind of idea about opposing arguments.

I shook off my doubts and made my way back out into the hot sun. I was crossing the campus when–wouldn’t you know it? Brody was carrying his helmet to the side of me, still dressed in uniform. It was the first time I’d actually seen him away from the restaurant. We’d gotten comfortable with each other, sharing laughs and cracking jokes. I’d actually started looking forward to going into work.

Right now, though, I wished I could be in some other part of the world. Lanie was keeping pace with him, chattering and flashing her pearly whites. I couldn’t escape. He caught sight of me and stopped, waiting for me to catch up with him. I gave him a quick wave and ducked my head, staring at the ground as I passed them.

“What’s up?” he asked, tapping me on the arm as I strode by.

“Hey, Brody,” I said quietly. I didn’t stop until I reached the parking lot and climbed into my car. It was an old Volkswagen Beetle that had started showing signs of the blue disease–the paint was slowly being eroded by rust.

I glanced in the direction where Brody still stood with Lanie. He had a puzzled look on his face and Lanie seemed oblivious to it. Her hands rested on her hips as she continued talking, not missing a beat.

I gave another short wave and pulled out, wanting to kick my stupid car as it sputtered and shook as I drove away. No use trying to act cool in a car like mine. I should just be happy it didn’t stall on me like it had done on various occasions. That would have been embarrassing.

I sped off to work. I was almost an hour late and knew my dad was going to ream me. It was worth it. I had a debate partner–sort of. My father wouldn’t understand that, however. I licked my lips nervously as I entered the restaurant.

Aunt Roma met me at the door. “Get yourself together before your father sees you,” she whispered.

“Have we been busy?” I asked worriedly.

“Not too bad. Go.”

I made it to the bathroom without my father seeing me. Quickly, I pulled my hair into a ponytail and splashed water on my face. No one was in the bathroom so I wet a couple of paper towels and wiped at my armpits. Yuck. I really needed to get some new deodorant.

I scurried out to the floor. Aunt Roma handed me a clean apron and I swiftly tied it around my waist. I loved my aunt. She was always trying to cover for me. Dad knew this and seemed to have some sixth sense because he walked out of the kitchen and planted himself by the register to watch me.

“Hi, Daddy,” I said with a big smile. He wasn’t budging. “Whew, lots of school stuff to take care of today.”

“You know I needed you here, Bea.”

“Sorry, Daddy. I really am. I just had to take care of some stuff at school.”

“Mm hmm.”

“Really,” I insisted. “I even saw Brody there.”

“I’ll let it go, Bea, if you really were at school. I need you to work your schedule.”

“Aunt Roma can handle it–”

“You have to stop depending on Roma to cover you,” he said loudly. The few customers in the restaurant were watching us intently.

“I get it, Dad,” I said with a roll of my eyes.

“Feisty just like your mother,” he replied with a grin. “Must be that Scottish blood in you. Right, Joe?”

I looked over and there was good old Joe at one of the tables. He was grinning from ear to ear. “Scottish and Italian blood–whew! Not many men would be willing to marry that.”

“Cool it, Joe,” I warned. I flashed him a smile to let him know I was joking.

“Make Joe a fresh pot of coffee,” Dad said. He crossed over to Joe and sat down at the table to talk with him.

I went into the kitchen. Dean was chopping tomatoes to prepare for the dinner rush. He looked up and gave me a small smile. Something seemed to be bugging him. He’d never confided in me before about his issues, and quite frankly, I had my own drama to take care of.

One of the coffee pots was plugged up with coffee grounds. And it was hot. I used a knife to try to scrape them out when someone came up behind me and cornered me at the pots. It was Brody. And he was standing uncomfortably close to me with his arm resting on the wall. There was no way of escape.

I turned slightly to look at him. His face was somewhat flushed and he wore a serious expression. “Hey, Brody. What’s going on?”

“I’d like to ask you a question,” he said. “Did I do something to make you mad?”

I was thrown off balance at his reaction. I knew he was talking about the incident at the parking lot. “Of course not,” I told him. “It’s just, you know, you were with Lanie and I didn’t want to make you feel like you had to talk to me.”

“Aren’t we friends, Bea?”

I wouldn’t exactly call us friends, but it was nice to feel comfortable around him at work. Right now, he was pressing into my bubble and that same old uncomfortable feeling being around a cute guy started coming back with a vengeance. I couldn’t even move out of his way to put some space between us.

“Yeah, of course. It’s just different at school. You know that. You’re one of–you hang around different people than I do.”

“So we can’t talk at school? Are those the rules? We can be friends here at work, but pretend we don’t know each other at school?”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I sighed. “Look, I’m sorry. I was just trying to save you some embarrassment by not making you feel like you have to talk to me, okay?”

His eyes softened and he stared into mine. I could literally drown in the deep blue in those eyes. I felt like I was going to pass out for a second. The tell-tale heat rushed into my face. Brody seemed to sense my discomfort and took a step back.

“I’d never be embarrassed by you, Bea.”

I forced a short laugh. “Okay, then. Now I know. I’ll say hi next time, okay?”

“You’re beautiful,” he said unexpectedly.

Wipe me up from the floor because I think I just melted. I was so surprised by his remark that I didn’t know how to respond. I know he wasn’t flirting because his face was just sincere.

“I’m not beautiful,” I stammered.

“Don’t let other people make you feel like you’re not,” he said softly.

Guys didn’t talk like that. I mean, this is what you want to hear, but you only read about in books. I tried to pass off the remark with a shrug and turned back to the coffee pot. My hands were trembling.

“Look, I gotta clean up before my shift,” he said. “Do you close with me tonight?”

I nodded. He grinned and walked away. Aunt Roma was standing at the end of the counter and had watched the whole thing. She pretended to be busy when Brody passed her, but immediately turned to me with a huge smile when he was out of sight.

“That boy is different,” she whispered.

“Don’t get so excited,” I cautioned. “He’s only trying to be nice.”

“Brody is different from most boys, Bea. He’s got substance. He’d be a good catch–your first date.”

“Stop! He doesn’t want to date me. He’s only being nice. Besides, he’s dating Lanie.”

Her face fell with disappointment. “Too bad. I still like that boy.”

I finished cleaning out the coffee pot. The restaurant was starting to get full by now and Aunt Roma picked up her pace. My mom even came to help out. She usually did on Friday nights.

“Hi honey,” she said breezily as she tied an apron around her waist. “You have a good day?”

“Yeah. I got a debate partner,” I said, throwing my arms triumphantly in the air.

She smiled politely. She didn’t like debate consuming so much of my life. “Who did you get?”

“His name’s Jared. He’s new to debate.”

She suddenly got interested. Any mention of a male’s name and I had her full attention. I hated getting into this conversation with her about dating. Believe me, it was coming. It always came.

“Is he a senior?” she asked. I knew where she was heading.

I decided to have some fun with this one. “I don’t know. He looks like one. He’s so cute, Mom–and smart. And does he know how to rock a hat, or what?”

Mom’s was puzzled by that remark. “Rock a hat? What does that mean?”

“You know, he looks great in a hat,” I said.

She smiled. “Well, when do we get to meet him?”

“I meet him at the library tomorrow morning. How about I bring him over to the restaurant when we’re done?”

“Tomorrow morning? Well, I was getting my nails done, but I’ll wait till after.” She rubbed her hands together excitedly.

I started a fresh pot of coffee and changed out the other. Aunt Bea came around the corner to grab some dessert out of the fridge. Mom cornered her.

“Did you know Bea has a new debate partner?” she asked her.

Aunt Roma looked at me and grinned. “Let me guess. It’s a cute guy. No wonder you’re not into Brody.”

“Into Brody?” Mom said loudly. “Our new cook?”

“Cool it, Mom,” I said between clenched teeth. “There’s nothing going on with Brody. He’s dating Lanie.”

“Too bad,” she said with a sigh. “He’d make a great prom date. Now this Jared. You can’t mess it up with him, Bea. You have to–what advice can I give, Roma, that I haven’t said a thousand times?”

“You need to be soft and sweet,” Aunt Roma said.

I laughed out loud at that one. Soft and sweet, I was not. Mom didn’t like that. She tightened her lips and placed her hands on her generous hips. Then she gave me the look. Anymore, I was unaffected by that look.

“I wish, for once, that you’d listen to me, Bea,” she said sternly. “Don’t you want to go to your school dances–with a boy, not your friends? Don’t you want a date before you graduate?”

“You know, Mom, it’s not really that important to me. I need to concentrate on debate. I want to win state again this year.”

“Debate, debate,” she said, throwing her hands up in the air. “If you focused that much energy on dating, maybe you’d have one. How am I going to have grandchildren if you don’t date?”

Okay, she had crossed the line. “Grandchildren? Seriously, Mom? I’m in high school. It’ll be twenty years or more before I even think about getting married.”

She gasped and clutched her shirt. Mom had big boobs like me and they always shook when she took in deep breaths.

“You gonna stand around here talking about Bea’s love life?” Dad asked from behind us. “We’ve got customers pouring in out there. Besides, I already have Bea’s husband lined up.”

All three of us looked at him with surprise. My dad had joked about me dating before, but had never really participated in trying to hook me up with anyone.

“Who,” Mom asked. She was just happy to have him looking for a guy for me too.

“Roma, watch the floor,” he said, and Roma reluctantly left. “Before I tell you who it is, I want you to consider that I’m thinking about your future, Bea. You’re not getting any younger–”

“Dad, I’m only seventeen.”

“Like I said, you’re not getting any younger. My father arranged my sisters’ marriages; my grandfather arranged his daughters’ marriages, and so on.”

“Dad, you are not arranging my marriage,” I protested.

“Let your father talk,” Mom said, slapping my arm.

Dad took a deep breath. “It’s for your own good, Bea. You may not see that now, but I think it’s time I intervene. Joe has asked for your hand in marriage–”

“Joe!” I screeched. I didn’t care that my voice had gotten loud. “Are you kidding me? He’s an old man.”

“Not so old, Bea,” Dad said quickly. “And he makes a good living.”

I shook my head vehemently and started frantically pouring coffee into cups. I don’t know who the cups were going to, but I had to keep my hands busy. Slimy old Joe. Dirty old man. What was that about?

Even Mom was looking at him like he was crazy. “Joe? I’m not giving my sweet daughter to Joe–”

“Darned right you’re not,” I retorted as I placed the coffee cups on a tray.

“Keep an open mind–” Dad started to say, but I waggled my finger in front of his face. He knew by my reaction that the conversation was over. Forever.

“Aye yi yi,” my father muttered, rubbing his face. “How am I ever going to get you married if you have such a closed mind?”

I grabbed the tray of coffee cups and moved past him. “You’re not,” I said firmly.

My legs were shaking when I went out to the floor. I just started placing cups of coffee down in front of people, telling them that it was complimentary. Old Joe still sat at his customary table. I could feel his eyes intently watching me. I was so angry that I wanted to scream. When I sat down the last cup of coffee, I made my way to Joe. His looked changed to uncertainty as I approached.

“Look, Joe,” I uttered in as low a voice as I could muster, “my dad just told me about this marriage thing. I’ve been nice to you all these years, but I’m not going to be nice anymore. That’s just gross for an old man like you to ask my father for permission to marry me. You should be ashamed of yourself. I am going to make this clear so that you have no misunderstanding. Any time you come in here, I will be rude to you. You can either face my anger or never come back. Do I make myself loud and clear?”

Old Joe was too shocked to even say a word. He nodded his head and cleared his throat. I stood with my arms crossed over my chest–waiting for him to leave. He took the hint. He slowly stood up from the table, avoiding my eyes. I know he was embarrassed, but no way could he feel any more embarrassed than what I just went through. I didn’t feel one bit of pity as he walked to the front door, trying to maintain his dignity as he left the restaurant. Okay, maybe I felt a little bit of pity, but he deserved that.

I looked over to see my father on the other side of the room. He had witnessed the exchange. He shook his head with disappointment when I caught his eye. I wished that he and Mom would get a clue and stay out of my love life. All right, I don’t have a love life. But they sure weren’t helping.

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