Chapter 1

Ella: The Consequences of a Big Mac

Friday, late afternoon. To say Ella Ricardo was hungry was the understatement of the century. She felt a dire need for nothing less than a Big Mac after that epic Nat Sci exam. Who gave tests on the second day back from Christmas vacation? She was so thankful she only had a few months of college – and pain-in-the-ass exams – left.

She tapped her foot impatiently. One last person before her turn – a lady with a large bouffant, Chanel sunglasses and an energetic preschooler jumping on and off the counter. She could practically taste the burger patties from the delicious smell wafting from the kitchen. Her stomach slightly rumbled.

McDonald's was packed with kids from the private high schools along the Katipunan stretch. It was the seen-and-be-seen meeting place for the confident, the-future-is-in-their-hands fellows from the exclusive school for boys and the supposedly sweet, well-bred girls from the adjacent school. Backpacks were carelessly strewn to the floor, mobile phones littering the tabletops already jammed with French fries and half-full cups of soda. High-pitched giggles blended with low guffaws.

It's one big after-school soiree, Ella thought, irritation slowly veering away from mild. Her hunger triggered a temporary bout of amnesia, making her conveniently forget that, just a few years back, she actively participated in mating games at her own high school. Being a college senior, a few months away from unprecedented greatness, from no less than the premier university in the country, she had no time for such trivial things. Can you freaking posers just leave? I'm starving!

She suddenly grimaced as a large, warm body collided into her back, forcing her to almost lose her footing and land in Mrs. Bouffant's skinny, envy-worthy arms. She controlled the torrent of expletives that shot through her mind as the tall high school boy behind her launched into an embarrassed, stuttering apology for clowning around with his Neanderthal friends. She decided to merely shoot him a forced, phony smile.

As Mrs. Bouffant and kid bustled away with their tray of food, Ella approached the counter to give her order. "Hi," she responded flatly to the cashier's sunny greeting, trying to tune out the boy's ramblings and his friends' titters. "I'll have a Big Mac. Large fries and large orange juice."

"Ma'am, sorry, but would you be willing to wait for the Big Mac for five minutes?" the cashier chirped cheerfully.

Un-fucking-believable. "Fine, fine. Do I have a choice?" Ella muttered resignedly as she fished for some bills in her wallet. "Five minutes."

"Can I get your name?"

"Ella." She bit the word out. She could practically feel the boy breathing down her neck, still in the middle of a dramatic declamation. "And can I just have that to go please?"

Ella quickly stepped out of line, nodding away the boy's never ending attempts at explanation, and found an empty stool in the waiting area. The lines were still lengthening. The soiree was in full swing. Her hunger was bordering on primal. She sighed, took out her phone and played Tetris.

Finally, a member of the service crew scampered over with her order. Feeling a huge wave of relief, Ella offered him a smile, her mood quickly improved, as she accepted the plastic bag and stood up from her seat. She practically skipped towards the glass doors.

"Bye Ella."

Ella whirled around in confusion to look at the waiter. How'd he know my name?

But it wasn't the waiter. It was the high school boy who bumped into her a few minutes ago.

And judging from his intense, goose bump-inducing stare and the way his fingers, with the slightest hint of nervousness, twiddled with the button at the end of his blue polo uniform, Ella guessed he hadn't smacked into her accidentally.

A silly, if slightly flattered, smile pulled her lips up. "Huh?" she asked, just to be sure.

"It is Ella, right?" He moved closer to her, allowing his serious expression to soften with a slow, enigmatic smile.

She shielded her eyes with her free hand to consider him. You know how people who shared something in common seemed like they all looked exactly the same? Say, like blond Caucasian babies or the Chinese? Or in this case, high school boys in the same light blue polo and khaki pants? Well, this boy, Ella realized as her eyes focused on his face, did not look one thing like his dorky, gangly friends.

Zac Efron hair, with carefully styled wisps across the forehead. Tall, towering over her, but not too lanky. Broad shoulders and dark, smooth skin. An I-know-I'm-pretty smile. And well, really expensive-looking shoes.

"Okay," she said slowly, "so you've dislocated my arm and you know my name. But I don't know yours. Doesn't seem fair."

"It's Mickey." She had to give him credit for having the balls to meet and hold her stare.

"Mickey. Right."

He leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest. His eye traveled to the bag of junk food in her hand. "You're already leaving?"

"Uh-huh. Just really wanted to grab me a burger. This," she mused, with a quick roll of her eyes, "isn't exactly my scene."

"Oh." He ignored the subtle brush-off. "Why don't you stay a while? It's Friday anyway. Too early to say good night." His lips formed another smile. Awfully drool-worthy, she had to admit, even for a minor. "I promise I won't bite."

She raised her brows, the side of her mouth twitching. This obnoxious kid, with that ridiculous coif, designer shoes and unfair-to-a-woman's-defenses smile, obviously got everything he wanted. Spoiled and rich, getting his precious way was probably ingrained in his head from Day 1.

His overconfidence needed a whack on the head. He didn't really believe he could just pick anyone up like that, did he? She returned his smile with a wry one. She decided not to sugarcoat her words. "Mickey, fuck the small talk. I'm almost 21, you know – old enough to be your mother."

His smug stance faltered. "I seriously doubt that. But to hell with that shit – I'm almost 17," he said, his tone defensive. And like a cliché waiting to happen, he crossed his arms across his chest defiantly.

"There are tons of girls here your age," she pointed out, looking back inside the crowded restaurant. A table of boys in the same uniform, probably his friends, caught her attention. They were raptly watching the scene unfolding before them and elbowing each other violently. She fought the urge to laugh out loud.

"Who cares?" he said carelessly. He shrugged, smiling again. He shoved his nervous hands into his pockets, betraying the nonchalance of his words.

There was something in him she instantly liked. Perhaps his initial boldness that wore off as the seconds progressed? His disarming smile? His apparent crush that fanned her ego? Maybe his loafers that easily cost more than her entire wardrobe?

She cleared her thoughts. "I need to go," she said, almost apologetically. She realized she didn't really want to, not really, but she forced herself to turn on her heel and walk away.

"You do?" he asked stupidly, reminding her he was just a high school kid afterall. She twisted to look back at him. He looked rightfully forlorn, now unsure and insecure, as if she'd dumped her cold orange juice over his head.

Poor Mickey. And his rowdy friends as their audience, no less.

She walked back slowly towards him, returning his stare calmly. The next words that tumbled out of her mouth probably surprised her more than Mickey. "You could ask for my number," she said slowly, offering him a (hopefully) dazzling, megawatt smile.