Chapter 1

A hot blast of pepperoni-laden air rolled over Avra as Stavro’s Pizza kitchen door swung shut. She inched ahead in line for a table with her family.

“Yep, me and the idiot sisters are eatin’ fine tonight.”

She swiveled. That voice.

The guy from Humanities 301 thumbed through change he pulled from the pocket of his cutoffs. Cisco. And she didn’t shower and change after soccer practice—why?

Her brother’s elbow knocked into her. “It’s gotta be meat lovers,” Drew’s stuck-in-puberty voice rasped.

Cisco glanced in her direction. Her gaze skittered back to her brother. Please, God, tell me Cisco didn’t just catch me staring at him!

Her attention drifted to Cisco’s corkscrew curls that brushed the shoulders of his ancient Whitey’s Bait & Tackle—Size Counts T-shirt. The girl behind the register tracked Cisco from under dark lashes as if she were having a conversation with the back of his head.

“I want ham and pineapple.” Her brother, Kurt, shot an I’m-slumming-in-Stavro’s-with-my-family look at a couple of girls behind them.

“Veggie,” Avra said, distracted by Cisco’s gaze on her. “Let’s get three.”

Cisco’s forehead crinkled like he was trying to remember where he’d seen her.

Avra feigned fascination with the Best Pizza in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, plaques on the wall. She frowned at the reflection in the window of her droopy ponytail and unisex soccer uniform. Beside her reflection in the glass, the counter girl wore her Stavro’s polo as a second skin. What was the use? Avra turned toward her family.

Mom eyed them. “We’re celebrating Kurt’s first day of college, the beginning of Avra’s junior year, not graduation—”

Drew huffed. “What about my senior year of high school?”

Mom dropped her gaze from the illuminated menu on the wall. “We’ll get two large pepperonis.”

The girl bit a hangnail and watched Cisco. The gummy corners of “Isabel” curled off her red plastic badge. Overhead, a cardboard pizza twirled in the draft from the air conditioning vent. Isabel blinked at her customer and scrawled the order on a guest check.

Dad threaded an arm around Mom’s waist. “And spicy cheddar cheese poppers.” He batted his eyes through his glasses at Mom and made her laugh. They melted against each other and glided toward the empty bench talking in quiet voices.

I want a guy who will love me like that―forever.

She looked at her brothers. “When I’m married, my kids will have whatever kind of pizza they want. And I’ll bake cookies―”

Drew’s blue eyes brightened in his freckle-spattered face. “Make some chocolate chips tonight.”

Kurt shot her an evil grin. “Who’d marry you, Avra? Morgan?”

“Puleeese.” Avra made a gagging noise. She caught Cisco’s smirk out of the corner of her eye and stopped, mid-gag. Warmth crept into her face. Oh, great. Cisco and everyone in Stavro’s was going to see her face go apple-red under the track lights.

Cisco’s smirk widened into a smile. “I can’t remember the last time I had really good entertainment in the pizza line.”

Metal scraped across metal in the kitchen, and she looked toward the swinging stainless steel doors. Isabel gave her the L.O.D., as Kurt called it. The look of death.

She narrowed her eyes at Isabel. Trust me, sister, humiliating yourself in public is not the kind of attention a girl wants. Look at me. Look at you. Which one of us is likely to get the guy? It’s not rocket science.

Hey, what about baking cookies tonight?” Drew croaked.

Cisco pushed off the partition separating the counter area from the dining room and joined them. “That’s what I’m talking about! My half-price-plus-a-buck specials sounded pretty good till I heard you guys discussing homemade cookies.”

The corners of Avra’s mouth turned up. Dark hair curled on Cisco’s bare ankles above the loose laces of his tennis shoes. Her stomach quivered as it did when a soccer ball hurtled toward her. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, and turned away with a flutter of her hand. She shrank into herself—the result of being too tall for too many years. Just disappear. That’s what she was good at.

Cisco nudged her shoulder with his. “Thanks again for the show.”

She eyed his shoulder, even with hers. “Sure, Cisco, anytime.”

Cisco jutted his chin at her. “The lady knows my name.”

Heat swept back to her face. Isabel’s L.O.D. burned into her.

Cisco winked. “See you in Humanities Wednesday—Avra.” He pushed out the door, pizza boxes balanced in one hand over his shoulder. A two liter Orange Crush dangled from between two fingers.

Breathe, Avra. It was just a wink. But he knew her name.

Isabel’s gaze raked over her as though she were a palmetto bug. She tossed a boxed pizza onto the counter in front of a man in a rumpled three-piece-suit. Isabel must have been all of five-three, but in some weird way, she made Avra feel small.

Avra trailed Kurt’s faded Ron Jon Surf Shop T-shirt toward the corner table where her parents sat. She would be translucent again by Wednesday, a blur guys look through but never see. This was what she prayed for when she hit five-eleven in the fifth grade.

She scooted across the vinyl bench after Kurt, shooting a glance at the door where Cisco had disappeared. Her hand touched the shoulder Cisco had bumped—as if anything would ever come of it.

Cisco swung the Orange Crush beside him. His sisters would get into a brawl about the soda. How was he supposed to remember who liked what? If tuition wasn’t killing him, he’d be out of there.

A sea breeze rustled the moss-draped oaks overhead. The pizza warmed the palm of his hand through its box. He breathed in the pepperoni scent and thought about Avra’s family in Stavro’s who could have stepped out of Charity De Meer’s Photography window. Their banter had splashed over him, making him thirsty for more.

Families intrigued him—not his, with Mamá cleaning schools, three to eleven, Pop living on Freedom’s Call tied up behind the city marina. His kid sisters screeched at each other all day like it mattered. No, happy families interested Cisco.

He cracked open the pizza boxes in the twilight to make sure Isabel got the order right.

His mind swerved away from Isabel to this morning’s class. Avra had smirked into her Humanities book without looking up when Mr. Smythe-Rollings called him “Mr. Carter” instead of “Cisco.” His lips curled into a smile at the memory. She was the kind of girl who blended in on campus. But when you really looked at her, she was a treat—a sloppy-soft ponytail the color of caramels; ocean blue eyes; and long, toned legs beneath the soccer shorts.

He cut across the dirt yard to his front door thinking about homemade cookies, a house with two parents, and siblings that didn’t cuss each other in two languages.

He tripped on the jagged front step. What was he going to do about Isabel?

Jesse stood in the asphalt lot behind Daytona State College and locked the door of his Dodge Neon. He fanned his shirt away from his body in the muggy morning.

Someone laid on a horn.

His head popped up.

Cisco darted around the grass islands on the far side of the lot in his Geo Prism as if they were florescent cones.
Jesse shook his head. Only Cisco could make that piece of junk look cool.

Cisco cut his engine and coasted to a stop facing the cemetery where grass grew in fits and starts along Welch Drive. Sand grated under Cisco’s feet when he hopped out in front of him.

Jesse grinned. “Hey, Bro.”

Cisco bumped knuckles with him. “Bud. Where you been all summer?” Through the open window, Cisco snatched his backpack from the passenger seat, and they headed for campus.

“I’ve been nowhere at all—the whole stinking summer. You?”

Cisco thumped his chest. “At the beach all day, every day!” He stretched lazily. “It’s the life!”

Jesse widened his grin. “Still changing oil at Walmart, huh?”

Cisco grimaced. “Old man lock you up in the church all summer?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it—mowing, clipping, swabbing down the decks—cold cash for college.” Just once he’d like to hit the beach. Dad would go ballistic, spewing fire like a dragon—a sermon and a half on the sins of the flesh—gaining steam as he went. “Tunes, man. Wrote tunes all summer.”

As they walked toward the library a Votran bus pulled up to the curb.

Cisco nudged him. “You know that girl, the one on the left?”

“Sure, like forever. Avra Martin—I got a pack of ‘A’s from working on group projects with her. Why?”

Cisco headed toward the gym. “Saw her in Stavro’s last night.”


“That’s all.”

He narrowed his eyes at Cisco. “Yeah, right.” He tossed his backpack onto the sun-warmed bricks on Echo Plaza, and planted a foot on a bench.

The undergrad girls headed toward them, their soft roundness barely camouflaged in store-starched clothes. He rapped on Cisco’s chest with his knuckles. “Look alive!”

“All right!” Cisco fended himself up from the bench and rubbed his hands together. “Come to Papa.” He waggled his eyebrows.

Jesse laughed. He had missed Cisco’s humor, the hero-worship in the younger girls’ eyes. This was living. The girls’ breathless chatter, their short shorts, captivated him.

Billy stepped into the group, hit knuckles with Jesse, then Cisco. The girls giggled. Billy’s shower-damp hair curled on top of his six-foot frame. His cheeks glowed pink as if he’d over-scrubbed his acne.

The crowd swelled beyond Jesse’s group. Students gathered under the clock tower, shouting to friends headed across Echo Plaza. Others milled on the grass, squinting into the sun. Some guys tossed a Frisbee around. A peal of laughter erupted from the cheerleaders’ bench.

Ah, Sleeping Beauty Kallie. Jesse shot a smile at the girl wedged on the wrong end of the cheerleaders’ bench. Her face was pale, her body rigid. Her gaze clamped on his like a lifeline in a sea of unfamiliarity. If she was trying to disappear, she failed―in those traffic-cone-orange jeans and green Converses. But she looked smokin’ hot just the same.

The basketball team camped around the cheerleaders. Jesse frowned. Jocks. He nodded at Kallie and settled his gaze back on the faces in his circle. “It was so boring in New Smyrna Beach this summer…”

Cisco, Billy, and the girls glanced curiously at the cheerleaders’ bench and back at Jesse.

He ignored their interest. “…that the Hometown News ran a half-page article on mosquitoes…”

When Jesse’s crew scattered for their classes, he shot a glance at Kallie’s cascade of straight blonde hair that slipped over her shoulders like silk. Eyes averted, she clenched a salmon-colored class schedule in her hand. He should welcome her to Daytona State, but he hadn’t recovered from meeting her last Thursday when he caught her eavesdropping on his solo jam session. In three minutes, she’d slipped into his soul.

Someone jostled into Avra as she funneled through the doorway after Humanities. She pushed a tress of hair behind her ear and looked up. Cisco. Oh, great. He was going to think she ran into him on purpose. “Sorry.” Feeling the heat rush to her face, she ducked her head.

“Make cookies the other night?” Cisco asked as they pressed into the hall and melded with the stream of students.

She resisted the urge to look around to see if he was talking to her. They walked in step, shoulder to shoulder. “Yeah.”

“Chocolate chip?”

She nodded. The hottest guy in Humanities 301 was making polite with her. What was wrong with this picture?

“Quite the conversationalist, aren’t you?”

She shrugged. She wasn’t practiced up on small talk.

“Have it your way.” He held the glass door open for her. “Next time you bake cookies, invite me over.”

Her eyes popped open like Garfield’s Odie. Her mind whirled. He was kidding, right? “You don’t know where I live.” That was inane.

“If you invited me,” Cisco said in a singsong voice, “you could tell me your address.”

She laughed. “We’ll see.” She shuffled away in a fog. Maybe there was something to “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Who’d a thunk it? She should have tied a chocolate chip cookie around her neck eons ago.

She glanced back over her shoulder. Cisco’s dark curls, bleached white in the sun, bobbed away with the current of students flowing toward the theater building. I guess he remembered me.

Cisco threaded through the flotsam of students toward the theater building. We’ll see? I don’t think so, Avra Martin. He didn’t get maybes, only yeses. The girl had family, cookies, and legs you’d have to be in a coma not to appreciate. He bet a lot went on under those blue eyes of hers. Suddenly, he wanted to find out.