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"Did you get yours yet?" my best friend, Morgan Levine, asked, waving the gaudiest invitation I'd ever seen. It was a total glitter-splosion. An ornament-shaped invitation with enough red, green, and gold glitter to cause shortages at art stores around the globe. And that's not even getting into the velvet lettering and the rhinestones.
I let out a sigh. "Yeah, I got it."
"Why aren't you more excited?" she practically screamed as we made our way down the hall from our locker to the computer lab. "You love this party. I love this party. Everybody loves this party."
"Everybody used to love this party," I corrected her. For as long as I could remember, Noelle Hawkins held a giant party on December 26th, and it was always way over the top. Her parents owned a lavish banquet hall in town that only the ultra wealthy could afford to book, and every year on the day after Christmas it was all Noelle's. She was born on December 25th, which meant, obviously, that the day was about a lot more than just her. But she hated that her birthday got overshadowed (which I could relate to, since I was born on January 1st). So, in order to make sure their only daughter's birthday didn't go unnoticed, the Hawkinses went all out the day after. One year it was a carnival. Another, an indoor winter wonderland that made the movie Frozen look dull. The past couple of years it's been the Christmas Birthday Ball: A Holiday Extravaganza. Noelle's words — not mine. An elegant event complete with snowflake ice sculptures, enough twinkly lights to power a small city, and food that would make the judges on Top Chef salivate.
Only this year Noelle decided to go in another direction — the romance route. Ever since Lee Ampuero declared his love for her during summer vacation, everything became couple this and couple that. The invitation even called the party the Lovers' Ball. As if that wasn't bad enough, the other day she told me dates were essential. She was going to have all these little tables for two, mistletoe over every square foot of the place, and slow songs galore.
"It's going to be awful," I said, picking up my pace.
"Oh, come on," Morgan said, matching my stride. "You still talk about that chocolate fountain Noelle had last year."
"Well, they did it with Nutella," I objected. "That's impressive. I can love chocolaty-hazelnut goodness and hate a party."
Morgan stopped walking and crossed her arms over her chest. "Charlotte Donovan, please tell me this is not about Ajay."
She always called me Charlotte instead of Charlie when she was trying to make a point. She got that from my mother.
I turned to face her. "It's not entirely about him." Ajay Das went with me to Noelle's party last year — and he was supposed to go with me again. But there was no way that was happening now. Ajay and I had gone out for thirteen months and twelve days before he dumped me, but who's counting? We met at a program that was basically summer school for kids who wanted to keep learning, even over vacation. But he broke things off this past August. He was starting Yale, and even though the university was only thirty minutes from where I lived (closer than our actual houses), he said he didn't want to start college with a girlfriend. We managed to stay friends. Sort of. At least, he promised he'd still go with me to Noelle's party. That is, until last week when he informed me that he had a new girlfriend, and she wasn't comfortable with him spending time with me, so he was backing out.
Morgan waited for me to continue.
"It's just ... you know Noelle. She's laying it on about the date stuff and how important it is. And now I have no one to go with."
"You have me," she said.
"You know what I mean."
I started walking, and Morgan followed. "Charlie, you know you don't have to have a date to have fun."
That was easy for her to say. She had a boyfriend. Ira Weitz, and they had been a couple pretty much since Morgan moved to town five years ago. "Maybe for most things, but not this party. It will just be one big reminder that Ajay didn't want me."
"You didn't really want him, either."
"I did, too."
Morgan pursed her lips. I knew she was biting her tongue. We'd been over this about six trillion times. Despite my protestations that Ajay was perfect for me (I mean come on, he was cute, ridiculously smart, and a planner), Morgan claimed I only liked him on paper and that I didn't have true feelings for him. But she was wrong. Just because a girl doesn't break down into a weepy mess when a guy ends things doesn't mean she didn't like him. It just means she's able to rationalize what happened and get her emotions in check.
"Even if you're right," I told her, "which you're not, this party is going to be the longest night of my life if I go alone. And you know Zakiyah is never going to let me live it down." Zakiyah Armstead was the gossip columnist for the school paper. She was amazing when it came to finding out dirt on people. She also hated me. It probably wasn't helping my situation that when she'd made a snide comment to me about Ajay finally getting rid of me for good (and that she couldn't blame him), I lied and said Ajay and I were in a great place — and that she could enjoy the lonely losers' table at Noelle's while I danced the night away with my date. It wasn't one of my finest moments, but she caught me less than twenty-four hours after Ajay broke up with me, and I still hadn't fully processed my plans blowing up in my face.
"Who cares about Zakiyah? You two have been butting heads forever. You never let her get to you this bad before."
"It's just everything. I know I don't need a boyfriend, or even a date, I just ... want one." I pretended to look through my papers as we continued on. This was the best time of year to be a couple. The snow, the cold, Christmas, New Year's Eve, my birthday. And with Morgan spending so much time with Ira lately and my mom taking on more hours at the hospital, I just thought it would have been nice to have someone special to spend the holidays — and Noelle's party — with. "It doesn't matter. It's not like I have time for a boyfriend anyway."
"Hey," she said, sensing my mood like she always did, "if anyone can juggle it, it's you." She elbowed me lightly. "Just add 'new guy' to your calendar. You can fit him in between 7:15 p.m. snack break and 7:33 p.m. newspaper layout design."
I laughed and shook my head, my long titian braid swatting me in the face. "I'm not that bad."
"Right," she said. "And tell me again why we couldn't stop at the vending machine to grab a drink?"
"Okay, fine," I relented. "I like to be on time. I like schedules." That may have been a slight understatement. I had my whole day planned out on my phone, which I synced to the calendar on my iPad and computer and then printed out as a hard copy every day. I even allocated time for "unplanned holdups." It may have been a smidge obsessive, but it kept me focused and made me much more productive.
"So let's schedule you time to find a guy. We have four weeks before the party," she said, her brown eyes lighting up. "This will be fun. A boyfriend by Christmas. It can be like one of those holiday Hallmark movies! We can call it Countdown to Christmas or Jingle All the Way to Noelle's Christmas Ball or All I Want for Christmas Is a Boyfriend. Wait, wait, wait, wait. I got it. The Twelve Guys of Christmas!"
Morgan loved holidays. All holidays. And cheesy TV. She couldn't get enough of either.
"Try more like A Christmas Miracle," I said. "There aren't twelve guys for me. If I could find even one in the whole junior class, I'd be shocked. Believe me, I've looked. There's no one."
"That's not true," she objected. "Sean McGinn."
"Can't differentiate between their, there, and they're," I shot back.
"Todd Murphy," she said.
"Didn't know Canada was part of North America."
"Jason Sohn," she tried.
"Late to first period at least twice a week and is always finishing his homework from the night before during class."
"Charlie!" Morgan threw up her hands. "People make mistakes. No one is perfect."
Well, Ajay was pretty close. He had it all. The Seans, Guses, Todds, and Jasons of the world were fine to talk to in school, but not to date. Not for me. I wanted someone that wowed me.
Morgan and I neared the computer lab for our school paper meeting. We coedited the Sandbrook High Sentinel (four print editions and weekly online updates). As we were about to go inside, someone came barreling down the hall.
"Watch it," Morgan yelled out.
But it was too late. Teo Ortiz ran right into me, knocking all of my papers to the ground.
"Whoa," he said, and I almost laughed at the stunned expression on his face. He bent down to help me pick up my stuff. "I didn't see you there."
"Sorry," I said.
"Why are you apologizing?" Morgan asked, her voice rising. "He bumped into you, not the other way around."
Teo gave me a sheepish grin and handed me a pile of my papers. "She's right. I'm really sorry. Was mid-text and wasn't watching where I was going. I was just in a rush to get out of here. I hate being late."
"Me, too," I said as we both stood back up. He hadn't broken eye contact with me, and I felt a little light-headed. I had never been this close to Teo before. Wow, he was good-looking. Short dark hair, the same color as his deep-set eyes, those lashes that stretched to eternity, square jaw, full lips, and that V-shaped torso with muscles you could see even though he was wearing a sweater. Not to mention, he acted like a gentleman helping me gather my things and he was into being on time. There was a distinct possibility he was perfect. "I'm Charlie."
"Teo," he answered. "I should get going, or I really am going to be late. Sorry again about before." He gave me another one of those smiles of his and jogged the rest of the way down the hall.
I was starting to get that wow feeling.
"Do you know who that is?" I asked Morgan, once he was out of hearing range. "That's Teo Ortiz."
"Yeah, so?" she said.
"So?" I tried not to shriek. "You're the one who wants to turn my life into a TV movie, and you don't realize I just had my meet-cute!" Meet-cutes were where a future couple "meets" for the first time in a "cute" way in TV shows and movies. What was better than literally bumping into the guy/girl of your dreams? "I can't believe I didn't think of Teo before. I was so focused on the guys from our class, when I should have been focusing on the seniors. Teo's going to be valedictorian, and he's the quarterback of the football team. He's never had a losing game, he's in the National Honor Society, and he plays chess."
"Since when do you play chess?" she asked.
"You're missing the point." I twisted my braid through my fingers. "Teo is perfect. He's the one. I can feel it. I hope he's not seeing someone. A guy like that is bound to have a girlfriend. Right?"
"What? Why are you getting that voice? I'm finally excited about somebody."
"But that somebody is Teo."
We entered the computer lab. No one else had arrived yet, but they still had a little time. Classes ended only a few minutes ago. "Don't you think he's a little 'all about Teo'?" she asked.
"Why? Because he didn't say sorry first?"
"First? You shouldn't have had to say it all!" she objected.
"Okay, fine, but I did. That's not his fault." I sat down and powered up the computer. "And yes, I know some people think he's self-absorbed, but people say that about me, too. And you. They say it about everyone who's focused on a goal and works hard to make it a reality. It doesn't mean it's true. You are the least self-centered person I know."
"Maybe," she conceded.
"Definitely," I told her. "Now are you going to help me win him over or not?" I hoped my excitement would transfer to her.
She looked at me for a moment and then broke into a broad smile. "Like I'd let you do this by yourself? Of course I'm going to help you," she said and logged into the computer next to me, pulling up Teo's GroupIt page.
I clapped my hands together. "I knew you would. Now tell me everything you know about him."
"Not much more than you do. Did you know he's J.D. Ortiz's cousin?"
"What? NO!" I tried not to cringe. J.D. was the photographer for the Sentinel, and he drove me crazy. He was always trying to be artsy instead of getting the shots I needed him to get, and he acted like deadlines were suggestions instead of actual deadlines. I could only handle him in small doses, so he primarily worked with Morgan. It helped that they were neighbors. I couldn't believe someone like J.D. was related to someone like Teo.
"He is," she said, and then pointed to the computer screen. "Hey, look. Teo's relationship status says single!"
"Yes!" I said, and looked over on her screen. "Wait? Does that say Sandbrook High Sentinel under activities?"
"It does, but I don't remember him doing anything for us. Do you?"
"No," I answered.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" she asked, her voice perking up. "Pull up the archives."
I did as instructed. And there they were — my way of getting closer to Teo — four articles that he had written last year. Teo was part of the paper. This I could work with.
"That's pretty much it for the business side of things," Morgan said to the group seated in front of us. "Anyone have anything else before we move on?" Morgan and I were editors in chief of the paper, and we met biweekly with the heads of each section. We had already gone over the number of hits we received on last week's online stories, assignments for next week, and the big holiday print edition.
"I do," Zakiyah said. "I want extra time for my column, just in case there's any last-minute gossip about who's going with who to Noelle's party. Or who winds up all alone. You know what I mean, right, Charlie?"
Unfortunately I did, and I was regretting not putting up a bigger fight to keep Zakiyah out of my meeting. She wasn't supposed to be there because she wasn't an editor, but she popped in whenever she wanted a ride home from Katie Boon, the head of features. And Morgan always insisted we keep the peace and let her stay.
"Your deadline is the same as everyone else's," I said. "Unless, of course, you don't want to be in the issue. That can be arranged."
"Okay," Morgan interjected before Zakiyah could respond. "Is that it?" she asked, turning toward me.
"Actually no." I had one more idea that had been percolating since I found out Mr. Right used to be involved with the Sentinel. "Next week is the big football game against Laurelwood. We should get the quarterback to do a firsthand report, make it more relatable. I think he wrote for the paper last year. What's his name? Tom, Taye ...?" I asked, playing dumb.
"Teo," J.D. Ortiz said, sauntering into the room like it didn't matter that he had missed the majority of the meeting.
"You're late," I told him.
"You are correct," he said and winked at me. Then he flipped a chair around and sat on it with his arms resting on the back. He was so completely smug. He obviously thought the paper was a joke. He hadn't been on time for one meeting all year, he didn't take direction or critiques well, and he always wanted to do his own thing. But there wasn't much I could do about it. Firing him wasn't an option. It wasn't like there was a line of people waiting to be photo editor, and Morgan seemed to have a soft spot for him. So I had no choice but to just deal.
"Anyway," I continued and directed my attention to Bobby Williams, the sports editor. "Do you think you can reach out to Teo and get him involved?"
"Sure," he said.
"Great. Then I guess we're all set for today."
"Not so fast," Morgan interjected and stood up. "The holidays are almost here, and I think we need to celebrate!"
I tried to subdue a groan, but it managed to escape anyway. Christmas was a month away, and with everything going on I was already holidayed out.
If Morgan heard me, she chose to ignore it. "We need a party. We can do it right before vacation, the day the paper comes out. What do you say? We can all bring stuff in. It'll be the perfect way to end the marking period." When she didn't get any reaction, she added, "I'll be baking, and I'm taking requests."
"In that case, count me in," Bobby said.
I guess I couldn't blame him. Morgan did make killer desserts. It was pretty much the only reason we got such big turnouts at our monthly full-staff meetings. She tempted everyone with her unique chocolaty creations.
Excerpted from "My New Crush Gave to Me"
Copyright © 2017 Shani Petroff.
Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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