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I spit a jaw-achingly huge gob of bubble gum into my palm and look at my watch. Three...two...one. The shrill ring pierces throughout Snowcrest High School, sending the last few students scurrying to their first-period classes.
The hall is as vacant as the library-sponsored Don't Forget to Read During the Summer popcorn-and-punch party last May. By that I mean no one's out here except for Mrs. Leonard (the librarian) and moi.
Um, yeah. I was there. But only 'cause I was trying to fix up our school's And Literacy For All chapter prez with her crush. Neither of whom showed up. Which explains why Mrs. Leonard thinks I'm some sort of superdevout bookworm who just loves volunteering in the periodicals section. I can already tell that my locker placement right next to the library is going to prove problematic. Hoping she doesn't notice me (and heaven forbid venture over for a chitchat) I pretend to be searching for something in my locker. Only it's the first day of school, so besides a tiny magnetic mirror, a tube of Kiss & Tell lip gloss, and my reserve of loose-leaf paper, the locker's empty.
Mrs. Leonard's trademark blue suede pumps clack-clack back into her bookly haven, and I relax. By now my gum has started to harden, so I pop it back in my mouth, give it a good thorough chew, and divide it in half with my tongue and teeth.
One more glance to ensure the coast is clear, and I stick the gum wads in the doorjamb of my locker, one up top and one below. Then I shut the door, squeezing it firmly closed.
After a few seconds I do the combo and try to open my locker. It won't budge. I try again, wiggling it more forcefully. No luck.
Here's the plan: Anna Black (my client's crush) will be trying to get her locker unstuck (after I've performed Operation Gum Stick to it), and right when she's starting to freak out about getting her first-ever tardy mark, Hunter Davidson (my client) will show up like a knight in shining armor to successfully open it. Naturally, she'll bat her eyelashes, swoon, and sigh a heartfelt "My hero." And they'll live happily ever after.
Okay, maybe it won't happen exactly like that, but it will definitely put Hunter on her radar and make a terrific first impression. That's a big step in the whole process. Huge, actually. And yes, maybe this whole scenario sounds a bit old-fashioned, but I've had my matchmaking business for six months now, and if you ask any of my male clients, bringing chivalry back definitely has its rewards.
I kick my locker. Still won't open. Hmmm.
"Need a hand?" It's a soft Southern drawl, and when I whirl around, I'm half expecting to see Matthew McConaughey. Had it really been Matthew, I don't think I'd be any less spellbound. The guy standing before me tall, longish sandy-colored hair, dark blue eyes with long lashes, sexy smile, a dimple in his left cheek...erm. What did he say? Oh yeah.
"Sure. Thanks." I scratch my head while he wrestles with the locker. "I have no clue why the darn thing keeps sticking on me. Guess I'll have to find the janitor."
"Naw," he says, examining the doorjamb. "I'm fixin' to get it." He takes his leather wallet out of his back pocket, unfolds it, and extracts a toothpick. Then he proceeds to poke at the top of the locker door, where I stuck one wad of gum. The gum loosens, and he continues jiggling and joggling the door until it flies open.
"Did you put that there?" he asks, pointing at the gum that's still stuck to the bottom part of the jamb. (I don't even want to think about where the other piece ended up.)
Oh, the humility. I just love admitting I'm crazy to hot new guys. "Well, it was kind of an experiment," I say, fully realizing how lame that sounds. "For a class," I add, in case he thinks I am doing the proverbial damsel-in-distress thing to meet a guy. Sure, I stage these types of things all the time so my clients can get with their crushes, but I wouldn't use such tactics myself.
And it turns out I won't be using this particular tactic to help Hunter, either. Mark Operation Gum Stick a failure.
Maybe if I stuff some paper in the jamb...?
"Well, thanks for the help," I say, realizing that The Hot New Guy is just standing there, staring at me. What, do I have something in my nose? Or lipstick on my tooth? I'm not really used to wearing lipstick, but my sister, Maddie, just got a new shade and insisted I try it out when she drove me to school this morning.
"No problem." He turns to leave, and I take this opportunity to check myself in the locker mirror. Hmm. Nose and tooth check clear.
"Hey! You're new around here, right?" I know I'm stating the obvious, but at least it might postpone his vanishing act. And boy, I could definitely use a little more of this eye candy. Besides, I'm already late, and there's no difference between a little late and a lot late on one's attendance record.
"Just moved here from Texas," he says, walking backward so he can face me.
"Cool." I twirl my hair around my finger. Does it look as cute when I do this as when Maddie does it? Probably not, since her gorgeous auburn mane doesn't know the meaning of Bad Hair Day, while my just-long-enough-for-a-ponytail brown hair not chestnut or nutmeg or pecan or hazelnut or walnut or espresso or chocolate or any of those deluxe (and suspiciously yummy-sounding) colors could very well be the founder and president. Of Bad Hair Day, that is.
"I guess so," The Hot New Guy says. "Well, I'll see ya around. Gotta get to class. And next time you need a place to put your gum, try a trash can."
"Right. Of course. No problem. See you. Bye." Please tell me that dreadful giggling isn't spewing out of my mouth.
He swaggers (he actually swaggers!) down the hall and disappears into the east wing. Which is just as well, because I should probably be getting to class myself.
I gather my chemistry book and folder and scurry down the hall to room 116. Mr. Foley is writing something on the blackboard, and for a split second I frolic in the belief that I'm getting off scot-free. But as I slip into an empty seat in the back, he twirls around and pegs me with an I caught you glare. I swallow and then smile, hoping I'm the essence of innocence. Mr. Foley glances down at a piece of paper on his desk the class roster, I presume? and says, "And you are...?"
This is my second semester with Mr. Foley (he also teaches driver's ed), so you'd think he'd know who I am by now. But I guess I'm not surprised. I'm pretty good at blending in. Maybe that's why I'm so good at my job. A flamboyant, center-stage type would have a hard time keeping her identity under wraps, I'd think.
"Sasha Finnegan." I don't have a perfect record like Anna Black does at her school, but still, it's a little embarrassing to be put on the spot like this. And the instant I catch a glimpse of a familiar sandy-haired, blue-eyed, Texas-A&M-T-shirted guy in the second row, my embarrassment modifier jumps to totally.
Mr. Foley makes a gross guttural noise and says, "If it's okay with you, Sasha, I'd like to start class on time from now on."
"Yes, sir," I say, squirming in my seat.
Mr. Foley launches into a lecture, but it's impossible to concentrate on all those formulas and definitions. Didn't he get the memo that today is all about fun and games? Who ever heard of a teacher who makes his students actually work on the first day of school? While he yammers on, I keep looking out the window. Not that there's anything interesting happening in the juniper bush out there, but if I tilt my head just so, I have an excellent peripheral view of The Hot New Guy.
My faith in the minute hand is restored when the bell rings and we all gather our folders and backpacks. "Go directly to the gym for the back-to-school assembly," Mr. Foley calls over the din.
I look for The Hot New Guy in the hall. (I'll just call him THNG until I figure out his name.) But, apparently, the swarm of high schoolers has swallowed him whole. Any other day I'd skip the gaudy spectacle of school spirit otherwise known as the pep rally, but Maddie's been working really hard on her routine, and what kind of sister would I be to miss her debut as varsity cheerleader? And since THNG is new and naive and everything, he'll probably be at the pep rally. Not that I'm stalking him.
Squinting, I leave the fluorescent-lit hallway and enter the sunshiny brightness of the gymnasium. The freshly buffed wooden court gleams, and a collage of hand-painted banners scream Snowcrest Rams Rule! and SHS is #1! from the walls. The enormous room is buzzing with first-day-of-school exuberance.
"Sasha! Over here!"
Twisting around, I spot Yasmin waving frantically from the tip-top of the bleachers. As usual she's dressed to thrill, her first-day-of-school ensemble consisting of pin-striped trouser shorts and a red satin wraparound top à la Hilary Duff at the Teen Choice Awards.
I muscle my way up the steps and "excuse me, pardon me, ouch!" my way to her side. "Why do you always have to sit in the nosebleed section?" I ask, slightly out of breath. How she climbed all those stairs in three-inch heels, I'll never know.
"'Cause I get to scam all the hot guys," she answers, not even caring that the boys sitting around us are all listening in. She tucks her shiny black hair behind a thoroughly adorned ear and says, "Oh my God, Sasha. You look darling. Where'd you get that skirt?"
I have to look to remember what I'm wearing. Right. It's Tommy Hilfiger, and it flares out a little on the bottom. The flare part makes my thighs look a little less...well, a little less. "Maddie's closet," I say. "But it falls off of her, so she bequeathed it to me." Sure, I can fit into a few of Maddie's sweatshirts and shoes, but it's not every day I can say I'm wearing something of hers. I should be psyched about scoring a brand-new, this-season skirt, but what I wouldn't give to be the Skinny Sister for once.
Yas nods understandingly. "Yeah, that super-stretchy denim can be totally misleading. She should've bought one two sizes smaller than what she normally wears." Then she faces forward and says, "Oh, look. It's starting!"
First, the student body is treated to the procession of teachers and teachers' aides, who march solemnly across the court and file into the front few rows. Next, this year's starched-and-pressed student council parades in, treating their subjects to a sequence of waves, thumbs-up, fist pumps, and one particularly jarring fingers-in-mouth whistle. I feel a headache coming on. And when the marching band makes its big entrance, banging and clanging out something that sounds roughly like the Snowcrest High School fight song, I wonder: Can a headache spread to one's whole body?
Yasmin elbows me and gestures (not very subtly) at a potential hottie. He's sitting on the ground level, so it's not like I could see what he looks like even if he were facing us. But the back of his head looks pretty cute, so I smile and nod, wishing there were a volume control on the band. Yasmin bites her lower lip as that I'm gonna get him gleam settles in her exotic eyes.
The JV cheerleaders take center stage in their new black-and-red uniforms, doing round-offs and aerials and complicated twisty-tricks as they shout, "Goooooo, Snowcrest!" Then they reach out their arms and give the spirit-fingers salute to the varsity squad, who's hot on their trail. Launching into their routine, which is thankfully accompanied by a CD and not the marching band, the varsity cheerleaders fling their tiny bodies around in perfect time.
They're...good. Great, even. I can't take my eyes off of them.
And Maddie looks the best of all. She's zipping through her back handsprings like she has actual springs growing out of her feet. Oh my God, did she just do a whip back? And now she's being launched to the tip-top of a pyramid. All those cheerleader camps have really paid off!
"Maddie looks amazing," Yas says, pointing at my sis as if I need help locating her. Just look around. Everybody is checking her out.
Then I notice him. THNG. He's sitting four rows in front of me, two o'clock. I can see from here that he's zeroed in on Maddie. Is that a trickle of drool on his chin? Well, I shouldn't be surprised. I mean, Maddie is drop-dead gorgeous all silky auburn hair, green eyes, and freakishly long legs. If she weren't my sister, I'd definitely hate her.
Maddie does a dead man, falling backward into three other cheerleaders' hands. Then they pitch her up and she does another dead man, forward. The student body goes wild as she pops up and flings her hair back into place. She joins the others in their little "Go! Fight! Win!" cheer. It looks like Maddie Finnegan has given Snowcrest High a terrible case of school spirit. I just hope the whole place doesn't have to be quarantined.
As soon as Yasmin drops me off at my house, I grab a snack and run up to my room. I shuck my sweater and sprawl out on my bed. I get out my laptop and write a quick update e-mail to Hunter, letting him know a brilliant plan is in the works and to hang tight for further direction. After I hit send, I notice there's a message in my inbox waiting to be opened.
Date: Sept. 9, 2:47 PM Mountain Standard Time From: 66Chevy@kmail.com To: MissMatch@MissMatch4Hire.com Dear Miss Match, My friend Caden Baxter told me about you. You really came thru for him and I'm hoping you can work the same magic for me? Here's the deal. There's a girl at my school. Not just any girl she's a goddess. I want to ask her to the homecoming dance, but I doubt she even knows I exist. Anyway, homecoming is only a month away, so I know I'm asking a lot. I'll pay you extra. Let me know. Thanks, Derek Urban
Subj: Request 4 Help
Date: Sept. 9, 2:47 PM Mountain Standard Time
Dear Miss Match,
My friend Caden Baxter told me about you. You really came thru for him and I'm hoping you can work the same magic for me?
Here's the deal. There's a girl at my school. Not just any girl she's a goddess. I want to ask her to the homecoming dance, but I doubt she even knows I exist. Anyway, homecoming is only a month away, so I know I'm asking a lot. I'll pay you extra. Let me know.
Derek's e-mail isn't anything out of the ordinary. I get e-mails like this every week. It's all part of the job. But when I start reading the Miss Match Questionnaire he so kindly filled out in full, I about fall off my bed. I blink three times and reread the first line:
NAME OF CRUSH: Maddie Finnegan
This Derek guy wants me to fix him up with my sister!
I've worked wonders with beauties and beasts, princes and paupers, city mice and country mice, angels and devils...but never anything so close to home. Literally.
Sure, since I work locally (it's not like I can jet set all over the world) there's always the chance I'll know or recognize a client or the person he or she is all into. But I never thought I'd see the day that a guy would pay me to fix him up with my own flesh-and-blood sister.
Who is this Derek guy, anyway? Am I going to like him enough to help him get a date with my sister? And who's to say Maddie will even give him the time of day? Does he realize that she's dated the dreamiest guys from Provo to Logan, and one who just left for his sophomore year at Yale? Or that Maddie changes boyfriends as often as she changes her Abercrombie & Fitch jeans?
Then again, he did offer to pay me extra, and after six long months I'm only one gig away from clearing my debt to Mrs. Woosely once and for all. Besides, when have I ever backed down from a challenge? I guess I can always refund his money and refuse to make the match if I don't feel right about it...right? So really, what's to lose?
I'll just have to get to know this Derek Urban before I fix him up with Maddie.
I hit reply and type:
Date: Sept. 9, 10:03 PM Mountain Standard Time From: MissMatch@MissMatch4Hire.com To: 66Chevy@kmail.com Dear Derek, Greetings, and congratulations on finding Miss Match. You're about to embark on a romantic adventure, and I'm here to provide the magic to get it all started. Meet me at Subway at noon on Friday. Since homecoming's just around the corner, every minute counts. I'll be wearing a red T-shirt with a white heart. Ciao for now, M.M.
Subj: Important Message from M.M.
Date: Sept. 9, 10:03 PM Mountain Standard Time
Greetings, and congratulations on finding Miss Match. You're about to embark on a romantic adventure, and I'm here to provide the magic to get it all started.
Meet me at Subway at noon on Friday. Since homecoming's just around the corner, every minute counts. I'll be wearing a red T-shirt with a white heart.
Ciao for now,
It's Friday, 11:54 a.m. I'm sitting in the far corner of the hard yellow booth at the Subway across the street from Snowcrest. It smells like yeast and onions in here. The September sun blares through the window and penetrates my scalp. High schoolers roll in and out, but no one pays any attention to me.
My cell phone rings. It's Yasmin. "Where are you?" she asks.
Ugh. I'm such a bad friend. "I'm sorry, girl. I totally spaced eating with you. I'm actually having a working lunch today."
Ever since the day she suggested I turn my matchmaking hobby into an actual moneymaking profession, Yasmin has been my loyal and fabulous sidekick. Not only is she the reigning yearbook editor, she has a flair for digging up everything and anything that's scandalicious. She's an expert secret- and gossip-miner. Seriously. I'm floored with all the "news" she's privy to. Plus, while I tend to blend in, she's a hottie with a look-at-me attitude, and that proves useful from time to time. Miss Match wouldn't be such a success if it weren't for Yas.
"Sure, just stand me up. What, am I supposed to eat alone?" she says with a slight whine in her voice. "Might as well banish me to Loserdom."
"Maybe you can go with Hilary and Sami?" I suggest. "They're probably at Arctic Circle."
"Okay. Oh, wait. Brian's waving at me. Maybe he'll split his PB&J with me."
"Yeah, I love peanut butter."
"No, I mean Brian." I've always thought Yas and Brian would make the perfect couple, and I'm even more sure of it now. Long gone are the lanky limbs and pimples of yesteryear. The summer's been good to him, and Yas noticed too. "Did you know Brian's the hottie you were checking out at the pep rally?" I ask.
After a pause, she says, "Really? That's weird."
"There's no denying he's looking good these days, Yas."
"Yeah, I guess you're right." Her voice sounds a bit distant, like she's holding her phone away from her mouth. "Well, I'd better let you go, so you can work."
We hang up just as someone slides up to the booth, hovering over me. Oh my God, it's THNG. "Hi!" he says, putting his hands on the table and leaning forward.
I'm sure I've got some major red-face issues just about now. Man, he's cute. He's wearing baggy, olive-colored shorts and flip-flops. I can't help but notice what nice legs he has: long and muscular with a leftover summer tan. He leans down and whispers in my ear, "So, what's up, Miss Match?" Oooooh, that accent!
Did he just call me...? No way. THNG is Derek Urban? THNG wants me to fix him up with my sister?
My jaw falls to the floor.
Copyright © 2009 by Wendy Toliver