Mark Winkle braced himself as he pushed through the double doors of Sharkey's, ducking as a volleyball sailed over his head. Wow, even this place is overrun with them, he thought to himself, dodging through the crowds of people dressed in gym clothes with numbers pinned to their backs. Pacific Coast High was playing host to the National Volleyball Team tryouts, and hopefuls had been practically crawling out of the woodwork of late, using any and every free space around town to practice. Sharkey's, apparently, was no exception.
Mark smiled as he walked across the crowded hangout to his friends, who had arranged themselves around a table. "Hey, guys," he greeted them, sliding into an empty seat beside bandmate Jake Sommers. "What's up?"
"Hey, cuz," Sly Winkle replied, pushing a hand ever-so-suavely through his dark hair as he made eye contact with someone over Mark's shoulder. Mark suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Sly could be a real piece of work sometimes, but if not for him, Mark never would've made friends so quickly, following his big move across the country. Sly was the manager of the California Dreams, and it was at his insistence that Mark joined the band.
"'Sup, Mark," came another voice, drawing Mark's attention away from his puckered-lipped cousin and towards his friend and songwriting partner, Jake. He was the epitome of cool, clad in jeans and a leather jacket, sitting backwards in a chair and digging into a Sharkey burger. Jake was the only guy Mark knew who could look so badass even while eating. He'd often wished he had even half of Jake's confidence, especially when it came to girls.
Speaking of girls, all it took was a quick glance up to the counter to find the ones Mark considered part of his social circle. Lorena Costa and Samantha Woo were sitting on stools, chatting and giggling as they scoped out the volleyball-playing boys who'd crowded around them.
"Hey guys!" called out a new voice. The group glanced up to see Tiffani Smith coming to a breathless stop at their table. "Sorry I'm late."
"Well, well, well," Sly intoned, turning his winning smile to one of his oldest friends. "If it isn't Miss National Team hopeful!"
Tiffani just grinned, and Mark took the opportunity to study her. She was one of the nicest girls he'd ever met – petite, blonde, and pretty, and far perkier than your average bass player. She was fun to be around and easy to talk to, and had been one of the most welcoming members of the band towards him, right from the start.
Almost immediately, Mark could tell he wasn't the only one gazing intently at Tiffani as she joked with Sly. Beside him, Jake sat taller in his chair, fidgeting with his fries as he watched the sunny blonde interact with their manager. All it took was one look at Jake's expression to reconfirm Mark's suspicions that either something was going on between the rebel and the bass player, or that Jake very much wanted there to be.
The Dreams had been a band for three years before Mark came along, and it was little things like this that made him wonder about their history…
At that moment, Tony Wicks sidled up to the table, tray in hand and dressed in the familiar teal uniform of a Sharkey's waiter. "All right guys," he announced, passing around the chocolate milkshakes he'd brought, "here's one for you" – he handed one to Sly – "and one for you" – he slid one Jake's way – "and one for you" – he placed one in front of Mark.
As the guys thanked him, Tony turned, as if to move away, before swiveling on his heel again. "Wait a minute," he mused, sending a curious stare in Tiffani's direction, "do I know you?"
Tiffani laughed. "Oh, stop it, Tony," she said, pushing him teasingly. Tony was the band's drummer, and had probably known Tiffani longer than any of the rest of them combined. Everyone knew he was a big goofball, so nobody took his cutting remarks seriously. "I know I haven't been around much lately because of all the practices, but I have until two," she continued.
Tony shrugged, checking his watch. "Oh, well, it's two o'clock now," he replied.
Tiffani's smile disappeared almost as fast as it had appeared. "Gotta go!" she announced with a sigh, turning on her heel and running off. The gang called out their wishes of good luck as she disappeared through the double doors at the front of the restaurant. Mark noticed Jake visibly relax in the wake of her leaving, and furrowed his brow.
Those two… he considered silently, stirring his straw around his milkshake. He couldn't quite picture it, but almost? Jake and Tiffani were so different that it almost made sense. He found it amusing, at least, that it was someone as sweet and kind-hearted as Tiff that set Jake's heart all aflutter. Isn't it funny, Mark thought enviously, he could have any girl in school that he wants – and the one he wants doesn't even know it.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed the way Lorena and Sam were acting around the boys at the counter, but Sly had. "You girls are disgusting," he declared, bringing Mark out of his thoughts. "Drooling over those guys like they're pieces of meat."
"Oh, please," Lorena sighed, rolling her eyes and dismissing Sly with a wave of her hand, "you're just jealous."
Sly stood, walking over to the girls and leaning back on the counter. "And no, I'm not jealous," he barreled on, pretending not to hear Lorena's remark. "I just hate it when you think they're bigger studs than me."
Tony snorted, sending an amused glance in Jake's and Mark's direction. The two of them smiled, which only caused Tony to start laughing even harder. Sly narrowed his eyes, pushing away from the counter and walking up to his friend, who was still standing at the end of the table.
"What's so funny?" Sly asked, his hands settling on his hips.
Tony looked at him. "Oh, well, you know – you and the word 'stud' in the same sentence…" he explained, his tone trailing off into continued laughter.
"Ha ha ha," Sly mocked sarcastically. "This, from a man with a Jello butt."
Tony's laughter immediately stopped. "Oh," he drawled. "Oh, yeah? Well, why don't you check out this Jello fist?" he asked, raising his fisted free hand.
"Bring it on!" Sly taunted, puffing out his chest.
The two began to circle one another, their posturing only growing more outrageous, until they assumed ridiculous fighting stances.
Mark rolled his eyes. "You guys are pathetic," he said, pushing Tony to the ground as he stood up.
"Would you listen to this?" Sly crowed. "My cousin, the 'chick magnet'!" He air-quoted the dismissive adjective as Tony collected himself from the floor, and both of them burst into laughter.
Mark shrugged good-naturedly. "Well, I don't mean to brag," he said, "but it is common knowledge that classically trained musicians – like myself – have to fight the women off."
Sly snorted. "Then you must have a black belt, because you're all alone, cuz!" he shot back.
Mark crossed his arms over his chest, completely unimpressed with Sly's dismissal. So he hadn't had the best luck with girls since moving to California. It wasn't like Sly was doing much better, and he'd lived here all his life!
"Look," Tony cut in, glancing from Mark to Sly and back again, "you two together couldn't attract a chick at Old McDonald's farm."
From somewhere behind them, Jake choked on his burger.
"As a matter of fact," Tony continued, clasping his hands together and looking oh so smug, "I'll bet the cousin Winkles fifty dollars each that I'm a bigger stud than the both of you."
Mark looked skeptically at his friend. "And how are you going to do that?" he challenged incredulously. "Have a stud contest?"
"That's a great idea!" Sly cut in, completely missing the heavy layer of sarcasm in Mark's tone. "A Mr. Stud contest – and we'll get the girls to judge."
Sam and Lorena hopped off their stools, suddenly very interested in the posturing conversation of their friends. "Fine," Sam agreed, shooting a knowing look to Lorena, "but we get to make up the rules."
"Oh, no way, uh-uh," Tony argued, shaking his head dismissively.
Lorena shrugged. "Oh, that makes sense," she sighed, curling her arms together over her ample chest. Tony swallowed hard as his eyes followed the movements of her limbs, but he worked hard not to let the move get under his skin. "You'd have to be a real man to pass our test," she purred in challenge.
Tony, Sly, and Mark exchanged a glance. "I'm in," the three announced simultaneously.
Sam and Lorena's grins grew wide and wicked as they drew back to confer.
Sly glanced down the table towards their bandmate. "How about you, Jake?" he asked.
Jake snorted. "Are you kidding?" he replied. "I don't have anything to prove – or anyone to impress."
Sly rolled his eyes in response, and Tony snorted, but Mark thought he detected a slight flush in the drummer's cheeks. Jake's right, of course, Mark considered, tightening the brace of his arms. He was still reeling a bit from how quickly this had all happened – he was not generally someone who competed in such silly contests as this, and only someone as dumb as his cousin would consider it a serious challenge – but he wasn't ready to fold his cards and drop out, either. For some bizarre reason, he was suddenly feeling fed up with constantly being the butt of Sly's jokes. So what if he was quiet and sensitive and nerdy? Maybe it was time to prove that sometimes, nice guys could finish first.
Even without Jake's charisma or self-confidence, both of which he'd certainly like to borrow right about now.
"All right, guys," Lorena called out, rejoining their huddle at the table near the counter. "We've decided on the challenge."
"What – just one?" Sly questioned skeptically.
"Just one," Sam clarified drolly. "We don't want to drag this ego contest out any longer than necessary."
"The first one of you who successfully makes a date with a girl wins," Lorena explained. "The only catch is – it has to be right now, and it has to be with a girl already here at Sharkey's."
Tony and Sly exchanged worried glances, each knowing full well they'd already dated – or, more likely, struck out – with most of the regulars at the popular after school hangout spot.
"Preferably with someone who isn't aware of your reputations," Sam continued, her eyes sparkling with mirth.
"What?" Tony protested. "How is that fair?"
Sam gave him a daring stare. "What, you want to try for someone who already knows you're an overblown egomanic?" she replied sweetly, before turning her attention to Sly. "Or a ferret-faced weasel?"
Sly shrugged, allowing the teasing insults to roll off his back. "At least we have reputations," he countered, undeterred. "I don't think the ladies of PCH even know Mark exists."
Ha, Mark thought sarcastically, his eyes roving over the crowd at Sharkey's. His heart was beginning to sink a little. This was exactly what he wasn't good at – just asking a girl out, on the spot, with no preparation. He preferred to let his feelings build a little, although that had its pitfalls as well. There was only a small window of opportunity that was perfect for asking a girl on a date – but, unfortunately, he missed it every time, going straight from Who is that? to OMG so in love can't speak.
From the end of the table, Jake cleared his throat. "How about her?" he suggested, nodding discretely into the far corner of the restaurant. There, at a small corner table, sat a striking girl with long, sleek, blonde hair and equally long, sleek, gorgeous legs, clad in a short black mini-dress, sipping a soft drink and writing in a notebook.
The others glanced over. "Goo-ga-moo," Tony growled, just as Sly let out a low whistle. "Who is this lovely creature of sculpted perfection, and why haven't I seen her before?"
Sam rolled her eyes. "Because she's new," she replied.
"Well, obviously," Tony mused. "She's trying to do her homework at Sharkey's. Poor thing."
The others laughed, conceding his point. Sharkey's was many things, but a quiet place to plow through loads of homework? Not exactly.
"Do either of you know her?" Mark asked, directing his question to the girls.
Lorena nodded. "She's in my English class," she supplied. "I think her name is Stacy? She just moved here from New York."
New York? Mark thought, suddenly not feeling so down and out. He hadn't yet met anyone from his home state out here, and knowing that had that much in common bolstered his spirit.
Lorena sent a covert glance in Stacy's direction. "She's really nice – once you get to know her."
Tony cleared his throat, smoothing his hands down over his work shirt. "Oh, this will be a piece of cake," he announced. "After all, you all are looking at the Picasso of pick-up-a-tude – the Michelangelo of make outs – the da Vinci of pinchy." He smiled smugly. "Stand back, wannabes."
He crossed the room with an air of confidence, his expression carefully arranged to appear light and airy, as if he didn't have a care in the world. He turned just as he approached Stacy's table, wiggling his eyebrows at his friends. "Hey, baby," he greeted her, his voice unnaturally deep and painfully suave.
Stacy glanced up, her brow furrowed with annoyance. "Drop dead," she replied, her tone a mix of sweet and sarcastic.
Tony appeared absolutely amazed by her quick dismissal. He turned and made the long, shameful trek back across the restaurant, looking completely crestfallen.
"Hmm," Sly mused as the defeated one drew closer, "you look more like the van Gogh of no-go to me."
Even Mark had to crack a smile at that, though Tony grumbled as he took a seat again. "Like you could do any better," he muttered as Sam and Lorena patted him sympathetically on the shoulders.
"I can, and I will," Sly replied. It was his turn to puff out his chest as he swaggered across the room, his hips swaying in an exaggerated strut. He shot a triumphant grin across the room to his friends as he circled Stacy's table, finally drawing to a halt beside her and leaning against her chair.
"Hey, sweet thang," he said, treating her to an inviting leer, "I think it's time you changed your boyfriend."
Stacy glanced back at him, picking up her soda and promptly pouring it down the front of his pants. Sly looked pained as the ice cold liquid soaked through his jeans.
"I think it's time you changed your pants," she responded, shaking her head as she turned back to her books.
Sly's face was flushed as he tip-toed back across the room, holding his sopping wet pants as far away from his body as he dared.
"Smooth, Wimple," Jake drawled as Sly moved within earshot. "Real smooth."
Sly scowled. "Oh, shut up," he muttered, taking the towel Sam offered him and sinking into the seat beside Tony. "You're not even in this contest."
"That's because I'm not stupid," Jake reminded him with a grin.
"C'mon, Mark," Sam said brightly, sliding into the seat beside Jake. "You're up!"
Well, I can't do any worse than the two of them, Mark thought to himself, stuffing his hands in his pockets as he glanced at his defeated friend and cousin. But it looks like lines won't work on this girl. What to do, what to do…?
"Come on, cuz," Sly ground out as he patted his lap dry. "What are you waiting for? This was your idea, after all. Show us what you're made of – or are you too chicken?"
Mark frowned. Sly was at his worst when his pride was wounded. "I'm not chicken," he replied, unable to keep the trembles of self-doubt from his tone. He searched his friends' expressions as he tried to come up with a plan as fast as humanly possible. The more he dawdled, the worse the guff that was going to come from Sly, and maybe Tony, too.
Before either of them could open their mouths, Mark set off, crossing the room quietly and at what he hoped was a relaxed pace, even though his heart was hammering against his ribs. Stacy was absolutely gorgeous, and the closer he got to her, the more intimidated he felt. He wondered if she was used to guys hitting on her, or if his friends' sorry attempts would blow his chances before he even made it to the table. Think, Mark, think, he commanded himself, slowing his pace as he approached. He quickly scanned the titles of the books that cluttered her table, inspiration suddenly hitting him from out of nowhere.
"Hi," he said, pressing his hands into his pockets. "Are you in Mr. Rizzoli's English class, too?"
Stacy glanced up at him, her brow furrowing with curiosity. "Yeah," she replied. "Are you?"
Mark nodded. "This assignment is killer, isn't it?" he asked, swallowing hard.
To his relief, Stacy's expression melted into a smile. "It sucks," she agreed with a sigh, tapping the eraser of her pencil against her open notebook. "Do you have any pointers?"
Mark smiled back at her. "Maybe," he said, moving a bit closer and glancing down at her books. "I'm Mark, by the way."
Stacy's eyes followed him. "Stacy," she returned. "Would you like to sit down?"
A wave of relief washed over him. "Sure," he said, pulling out the chair beside her. He shot a covert glance in the direction of his friends as he sank down, noting with some amusement the shocked looks on both Sly's and Tony's faces.
He turned his attention back to Stacy, startled to find her studying him intently. Suddenly, recognition dawned across her features. "Oh, I know you!" she cried. "You're in that band – the one that plays here on the weekends, right?"
Mark nodded with surprise. "Right," he concurred, "the California Dreams. You've heard us play?"
"Yeah," Stacy enthused, "I stopped by last weekend." She shrugged, suddenly looking sheepish. "Actually, I used to be in a band myself, back in New York. Seeing you guys made me miss them even more."
"Oh, really? That's pretty cool," he replied, his eyes widening as he realized what he was saying. "Not the missing your friends part, though – the being in a band thing…" He winced, heat flooding his face as his voice trailed off with embarrassment.
Stacy didn't seem to notice his discomfort, however. She was busy flipping through her English book, as if searching for something. "It's silly, I suppose," she conceded, drawing a couple of snapshots from the pages, "but the band was my life, and it's just not the same without them." She showed the pictures to Mark.
A small, sad smile pulled at the corners of his mouth as he gazed at the smiling bandmates. He could certainly relate to that special bond that formed between people who loved making music together. He glanced up at his friends across the way – and, noticing the disbelieving stares Sly and Tony were giving him, leaned a bit closer to Stacy, wrapping his arm around the back of her chair in the process. As he let his eyes drift back to the pictures, he thought he saw Jake giving him a tiny thumbs-up.
"Tell me about them," Mark prompted, glancing up at Stacy and smiling shyly. He couldn't help but notice how pretty her blue eyes were, sparkling with surprise and excitement as she stared back at him.
"Well, the group is called Kids Inc," Stacy explained. "I was one of the founding members, actually – my sister and I both tried out for the band when we were in elementary school. We played a regular gig at this local soda shop, the P*lace…" She glanced around the bustling front room of Sharkey's, her smile soft and reminiscent. "It was kinda like this place."
Mark's eyes never left Stacy's face. He was completely in awe of her, and it was probably showing. "So you're a singer?" he inquired.
She nodded happily. "Well, we mostly played cover songs," she admitted, "but it was still a lot of fun. We covered everyone from the Beatles, to Michael Jackson, to Bruce Springsteen, to Madonna." She sent a sly look in Mark's direction. "I was especially good with Whitney Houston. Our ranges match almost perfectly."
"I love to hear you sing sometime," he murmured, propping his elbow on the table and resting his chin in his hand.
Stacy blushed. "Oh, stop," she huffed, averting her eyes, "you're just putting me on."
Mark's eyes grew wide. "No, I'm not," he protested, his expression quite serious as he sat up straight.
She frowned with confusion as she glanced back at him. "Well, it wasn't the singing that was important," she responded, allowing the failed flirtation to drop. "It was the friendships." She heaved a heavy sigh. "We were all so close…"
Mark glanced though the pictures – some of the Kids performing, some of them goofing off, and a still shot. Stacy was standing with her arms wrapped around a dark-haired boy, both looking quite somberly into the camera as their younger bandmates grinned around them. "So I see," he mused, his hope beginning to fade.
Stacy noticed the way his eyes lingered on the picture. "That's from last year," she said softly, plucking the photo from his hands. "The last incarnation of the band that still included me. Sometimes, when I look at this, it's like we never split up, you know?"
He nodded silently. He wasn't sure what he'd do if anything ever happened to the Dreams.
Stacy cleared her throat, shoving the pictures back into the pages of her English book. "That's enough about me," she said abruptly. "Maybe we should get back to the assignment?"
The assignment! Mark swallowed hard, suddenly at a loss for words. He wasn't actually in Mr. Rizzoli's English class, and thus, had no clue what her killer homework assignment was about. Think, think, think! he commanded himself, though thinking was just about the hardest thing to do at the moment, considering he was sitting just about as close to his dream girl as he'd ever thought possible. Lorena's in her class! he reminded himself, she can clue me in on this! He shot a desperate look across the room, reality crashing down on his head like a ton of bricks. Oh, yeah, the contest, he thought. He could feel his insides twisting into knots. This is the perfect chance to ask her out – it'll buy me some time to figure out the assignment, and I'll have bested Sly and Tony at their own game!
He closed his eyes momentarily, gathering every last shred of courage he had. When he looked up, he was nearly startled out of his skin to notice Stacy staring at him, her brow laced with concern. She opened her mouth to speak, but he rushed ahead instead.
"Why don't we talk about the assignment later on tonight, like, say, maybe at dinner?" he burst out, the question nearly ending in a squeak as his heart crowded into his throat.
Stacy's expression melted into a gentle smile. "You're sweet, Mark," she replied, "but I already have a boyfriend, back in New York."
Disappointment flooded through him, but he did his best not to let it show. "Let me guess," he said instead, reaching into her textbook for the still shot and pointing to the dark-haired boy with his arms around her.
Surprise lit Stacy's features. "How'd you know?" she asked guiltily, drawing her bottom lip between her teeth.
Mark shrugged. "Just lucky, I suppose," he replied. "You two look inseparable." He took a closer look at the picture, furrowing his brow as something niggled at the back of his mind. They look so familiar, he mused to himself, and so comfortable with each other. The guy had a real air about him, piercing green eyes and a leather jacket, belaying confidence with a single glance…and Stacy, so pretty and blonde and beautiful, a real girl next door.
Finally, it dawned on him. They look like Jake and Tiffani, he realized. Opposites, but obviously attracted to one another anyway, maybe even because of those differences. Even though he'd never met any of the other kids in the picture, he instinctively knew that Stacy and this mysterious boyfriend had been the leaders of the group.
"His name is Ryan," Stacy said, drawing Mark out of his thoughts. "And we were inseparable, especially last year…but I'd liked him for far longer than that." She looked up, fixing a thoughtful gaze on her companion. "Actually, you remind me of him."
Mark couldn't stop his jaw from dropping. "Me?" he echoed disbelievingly. I remind her of this dude that looks like Jake? he thought wildly. How is that even possible?
Stacy laughed. "Yes, you," she contended. "You're sweet, and cute, and you're one of the songwriters for the Dreams, aren't you?" When Mark nodded wordlessly, Stacy smiled. "Ryan's a classically trained musician, and a songwriter, too. He may look like a tough guy, but on the inside? He's a total nerd."
Mark sat up a bit taller in his seat. "You find nerdiness attractive?" he queried, sending a smug look across to his friends. Sam and Lorena were grinning at him, while Sly and Tony whispered furiously behind their hands. Jake, on the other hand, just looked amused by the whole endeavor.
"Well, not exactly 'nerdiness,' per se," Stacy clarified. "But being intelligent is definitely a plus."
Why do you have to be so perfect? Mark thought longingly, unable to keep himself from smiling at her again. And so taken? He averted his eyes, guilt washing through him as he thought about the real reason he was sitting at her table. "Listen, Stacy," he sighed, "you seem like a really cool girl…so I'm going to tell you what's really going on here."
Stacy's expression faltered. "What are you talking about?" she asked abruptly, narrowing her eyes and drawing way from him slightly.
Mark shook his head. "I got dragged into this stupid contest with a couple of dimwit friends of mine," he explained, his tone remorseful. "You see, they think they're real studs with the opposite sex, and one of them is constantly teasing me about my, um, lack of studlyness." He averted his eyes. "The goal was to see who could successfully ask you out on a date."
Stacy frowned. "Have I met these other two chuckleheads?" she questioned sharply.
Even though he could feel her opinion of him plunging with each passing second, Mark nodded, a wry smile rising to his lips. "Yeah," he informed her. "You poured soda down my cousin's pants."
Stacy snorted, slapping her hands over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. "Those two goons?" she mumbled, finally putting two and two together. "Why would you ever feel the need to compete with them?"
"Wait a minute," Mark said, holding up one hand. "You mean – you're not mad at me?"
"What you did was jerky," Stacy coneded, "but at least you're being honest about it."
Mark gazed at her hopefully. "I'd still like to hear you sing sometime," he ventured. "Strictly as friends, of course." The last thing he wanted to do was bring down the wrath of her boyfriend on his head, especially if he managed to escape this situation alive.
Stacy considered his offer. "Okay," she agreed. She leaned closer to him, glancing from side to side. "Are your jerky friends watching us from somewhere around here?"
Mark flushed, unable to stop his gaze from wandering over to his cluster of friends. "Yeah," he admitted softly.
Stacy's eyes glittered. "Good," she declared, pressing an impromptu kiss to his cheek. "I hope you win your stupid bet."
Mark could only smile as he watched Sly and Tony reluctantly pull out their wallets, only to have them confiscated by Sam and Lorena, who promptly placed a wad of cash each into Jake's waiting hands. "I think I just did," he murmured.