Chapter 1

1477 Words

"Ryann, oh my god, you won!"

I turned to face the voice and found an ever-peppy Carlie bouncing on her toes, her high black pony jumping in time with her.

Carlie was not someone I enjoyed speaking with anymore. She was too peppy, and I hadn't liked her ever since she accused me of trying to steal her boyfriend last year. I didn't want a boyfriend, let alone hers. The issue was resolved quickly, and she'd apologized, but no, thank you. Life was too short to hang on to people who hurt you.

I smiled at her and pulled my massive textbooks into my chest. "What now?"

"You won the contest!" she shouted at me.

"The giveaway?" I pulled a candy bar out of my pocket and started unwrapping it.

"Yes!" Carlie squealed, practically vibrating with excitement.

I glanced away and found myself staring at a poster for said giveaway on the billboard mounted on the brick siding of the library, its snowy image taunting me. Ava made me enter the stupid thing months ago. I didn't particularly like snow or cold. I was terrified of just the thought of being strapped into skis and shoved down a mountain.

"Awesome." I barred my teeth in some sort of grin before taking a bite that was twelve sizes larger than my mouth.

"Oh, I'm so excited for you. You'll have to take lots of pictures." With that, Carlie skipped off, and I was left to glance at everyone else in the courtyard.

Did everyone know I'd won? Would they all hate me now? I didn't have many friends due to being twenty-five with a double major, double master's, and working towards my doctorate in education. Not only did I not have a lot of time for them, but I was younger and... different. I wasn't the weirdest girl on campus by any means, but I was different enough that we didn't connect when someone did speak to me. People weren't my priority. Everyone had been so excited about this stupid giveaway. Would this be the spark that ignited the Ryann-hating bonfire? That sounded stressful.

I finished my candy bar and resumed my walk across campus, fighting against the cold and wind while chewing my upper lip. Above me, the sky was bright and blue and lying its ass off while pretending to be a warm summer day.

Today was the last day of class for the fall semester, and I was so ready. My brain could take a lot, but it had finally turned to mush. Wind shoved a clump of wildly wavy sandy blonde hair across my face, and I spit it out of my mouth. I wrangled one pale hand free from my books and tucked it behind my ears.

With a little growl, I leaned forward and charged through the wind. I made it off campus and headed a few blocks over towards Ava's shop. By the time I reached it, I was a popsicle. I shoved open the door with my butt and stumbled into the shop, shivering against the sudden onslaught of warmth that radiated throughout.

"Well, don't you look a mess," a husky voice said.

I regained my footing and glared at one of my best friends. Ava stood there in all her heavily patterned glory, and my lips couldn't help but tip up.

Her dark brown complexion was flawless and creamy, and her hair was just a little longer than bald. Ava's lack of hair wasn't a look I'd recommend for most people, but on her, it made her dark, slightly cat-like eyes stand out in the best way possible. Her shapely lips were painted a deep reddish-purple and framed perfect white teeth. Ava was a few inches taller than me, built with big top and bottom curves, but athletic and trim in all the right places to accentuate them. She may have been around 5'9" but she constantly wore heels of varying kinds to push her closer to 6'. Ava was a stunner, to be sure. She was always put together in patterns that shouldn't ever mix on anyone else, but on her looked like the most perfect blend of artistic-professional. Today it was a zebra print skirt that hugged her curves, paired with a breezy tie-dye blouse.

Ava strode up to me and took my books. "Go get cleaned up."

I grinned at her and took her advice. I shuffled my way to the bathroom in the back, passing rows and rows of flowers and vases and artful arrangements that smelled so fresh and summery that I could cry.

I shoved into the bathroom, locked the door behind me, strode over to the mirror, and promptly cringed.

My hair was a frizzy mess around my head. My pale green eyes were red and watery, leaving tracks down my tomato red cheeks. My nose was super red and runny, making me look even more attractive.

With a sigh, I pulled off my coat, hung it on the door, and got to work cleaning myself up. I was average height, thin and petite with small boobs but a decent flair to my hips. I definitely didn't have Ava's fashion sense, and you could tell by my ratty skinny jeans, hunter green flannel, and converse sneakers.

Once I'd cleaned the cold off me, I reentered the shop refreshed and warm. I sucked in a deep breath of flowers and headed for the front counter.

Ava's flower shop looked like an explosion of spring, and it always made me feel welcome and happy. Soft acoustic music strummed through the speakers. Flowers covered every inch of the place, even the high ceiling. Ava had arranged them so that the colors made a sort of flowy wave as they transitioned through the rainbow. ROY G BIV all the way, baby.

"Apparently I won the giveaway," I said by way of greeting, leaning on the front counter.

Ava glanced up from the bouquet she was arranging. "Won what?"

"That stupid ski trip giveaway you made me enter." I ran my fingers over the silky petals of a pale pink rose.

Ava squinted at me before her eyes widened. "No s**t?"

I nodded.

Ava screamed and jumped up and down, a fantastic feat in her heels. "You're taking me, right?"

I glanced around the shop. "Can you take off? It's for a week."

Ava waved away my comment. "I'm the owner, aren't I? It's the slow season, anyway. The girls can handle it for a week. I'll take care of everything else through e-mail."

I smiled. "Isn't Christmas a busy time?"

Ava shrugged. "Yes, but people buy prearranged flowers for it. By now, the girls should be experts at making them."

I nodded, choosing not to comment on her contradicting herself. Because best friend rules.

"How many people can you bring?"

"The flier said two plus me."

"So, who's coming with us?" Ava's grin spread wider.

"Dan."

Ava arched a brow at me. "Have you invited him?"

I shook my head. "Not yet, but he needs this more than me."

"Ain't that the truth. When do we leave?"

"A week from Saturday. I need to see the official notification to figure the rest out."

"You haven't seen it?"

I shook my head again. "No, Carlie just stopped me to let me know."

"Are you headed home now?" Ava snipped off an overlong stem.

I nodded.

"Well, check your e-mail and let me know when I get home. I'll help you convince Danny Boy if you haven't won him over yet."

I grinned at her. "I'm sure I'll need all the help I can get." I grabbed my books off the counter and struggled back toward the door. "See ya."

"See you later," Ava called before going back to her arrangement.

Still grinning, I left the shop and headed for my car, shivering in the cold. Tossing my books in the passenger seat, I took off for home. Heating up your car was for people who enjoyed freezing their butts off.

It was early-mid afternoon, so the regular Brinklynn City traffic wasn't too bad. That was a win in my books, but I couldn't get over my stone-like stomach.

I couldn't believe I'd won and hadn't anticipated how guilty I'd feel for it. Someone interested in spending a week at a ski resort should have won, not me. Then again, I was in desperate need of a vacation. If I stayed home over Christmas break, I'd spend my time studying. This way, I'd at least be forced out.

Ava and Dan normally spent the holidays with their families. I felt selfish for being happy about stealing them away, but otherwise, I'd be alone, and I knew how lonely that would be.

I was used to being alone at Christmas, but that didn't mean I had to like it.

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