~ EMMA ~
THE ALARM CLOCK hammers ice picks into my brain. My freshman year of college, I swore Iâd never do another eight oâclock class, but here it is my junior year and I am torturing myself with English Lit after staying up until three in the morning to finish a paper.
I try to peel my eyes open, but theyâre glued shut. I rub them and squint at the clock, trying to read the red numbers swimming in circles, but nothing makes sense.
Letting my eyes drift shut, groping for the right button with my hands, I punch snooze and roll over.
Itâs Thursday. Valentineâs Day.
My twenty-first birthday.
And all I want is the pounding headache to go away.
It seems like no time at all before the alarm goes off again.
âEmma, either get up or turn it off.â My roommate Maggieâbut we all call her Magpieâkicks the thin wall separating our rooms.
With a groan, I turn off the alarm, roll out of bed, and pad into our kitchen, still in my cotton panties and T-shirt. Sleepwalking, I fill the coffee pot with water, scoop one tablespoon of coffee grinds into the filterâno, two, because Mr. Linden likes to drone on about eighteenth-century poetryâand hit the start button.
Coffee. Breakfast of champions. And sleep-deprived college students.
A knock on our apartment door, and my sister trills a happy, âGood Morning, Emma,â and begins to sing me Happy Birthday, along with several embarrassing verses we wrote when she was five and I was seven. It includes something about monkeys slipping on banana peels.
âSomeone shoot her.â Magpie grumbles from her doorway and slams her door shut.
Still in my skimpy sleep-clothes, I open the door to find my sisterâlong, blonde hair curled to perfection, not a strand out of place, red hair band matching her flouncy short skirt and the red hearts on her too-cute-for-words tights. Glimmering strands of silver lace peek through her pink sweater. As always, Angelinaâs the image of vomit-inducing school-girl perfection.
And standing behind herâ
My best friend from childhood. The boyâer, manâwho should be ten hours away in Kodiak, Alaska, rather than here in Anchorage.
The man staring at my naked legs.
And Iâm standing here in my panties and baby-doll T, which clearly shows Iâm not wearing a bra, especially as Alaska is cold in February and the door gapes wide open.
I cross my arms over my chest to hide my breasts and duck my bottom half behind the door. âJason, what are you doing here?â
âTo take you out for the day. Itâs your twenty-first birthday. Did you think Iâd let you celebrate without me?â He grins and slips into the room before I can stop him. His eyes travel up my bare legs (thank goodness I shaved last night) with the ugly wool knee-high socks, the black T with the pink Batman symbol, and ending with my short, blonde hair, sticking up in all directions on one side, matted on the other.
I glance out the door. A few girls, gawking at the man who is too handsome for his own good, stand out on the landing and whisper. I grab Angelinaâs hand and drag her inside and slam the door.
âWhat about whatâs-her-name? Sarah? Sally? Mandy? Whoever your latest thrall is. She really let you come out and play? I thought sheâd have your Valentineâs Day booked.â
âI broke up with her right after Christmas.â He shrugs.
For the first time in about ten years, neither of us has a significant other. Once upon a time, when I was twelve, I decided Jason was the one for me, and I set about trying to get him to kiss me. He was clueless, and I settled for Mark Jameson, a boy down the road. Three years later, Mark moved to Ohio somewhere. Or was it Idaho? And I never heard from him again.
By then, Jason had a girlfriend, and though he never took her fishing with him or mountain biking (my role in his life), they went to homecoming together and then to the prom. And I went out with Troy Simmons up until the middle of our first year of college when I caught him in another girlâs dorm room where heâd sacked out for a week.
Troy was so pissed about the breakupâbecause I should just forgive and forget the cheating, since it was my fault because I refused to sleep with himâthat he spread rumors about our supposed sexual escapades.
Whenever I tried to date since then, the guys I went out with only wanted me to put out, so Iâve been single ever since. Whenever I consider dating him now, I remind myself of all the ways we are incompatible. We would fight over everything as weâre both too stubborn for our own good.
Angelina tucks her hand through his arm and smiles up at him. âIsnât he sweet? You have the best friends.â
Not even a note of jealousy in her voice, even though sheâs had a crush on him ever since third grade when he put a band-aid on her skinned knee.
My sister Angelina is too perfect. Straight-A honor student. Motherâs sweetie pie. Fatherâs angel. Never snuck out of the house to go partying. Always kept her curfew. Never broke her leg jumping out of trees while trying to chase squirrels or ramping bikes on the homemade ramps. Always prissy and clean. Never leaves anything out of place.
Always the perfect lady in her cute little outfits.
I canât hate her for it because she doesnât even act superior about it. Sheâs never been the goody-goody. Never lectures me on my messy room, sloppy hair, torn jeans, or skipping classes.
Jason grins. âIâd never miss your birthday. Remember last year?â
âUgh! I thought Iâd never thaw out after we went skiing in a blizzard. We were stranded for three days in that cabin we found in the woods.â
âAw, come on, you didnât even get frostbite. I took care of you.â
âAt least I didnât end up with any broken limbs. That time.â
âI still canât believe we went snow-boarding on East Pillar Mountain Loop. Thatâs a tough trail, and then you broke your arm slipping in the parking lot on the way to the truck.â
My muscles were exhausted, and carrying my board on my shoulder, I wasnât watching where I was going. I didnât see the patch of ice. âRemember when you took me spelunking?â
âI had no idea that bear was in there.â
âI canât remember ever being that scared.â
âBut it was fun! Come on. We canât break tradition.â
âWhat are you planning this time?â Angelina smiles up at him with a glimmer of wistful longing.
âItâs a secret.â He extricates her hand from his arm and takes a step away from her, and her hand falls back to her side.
For a moment, her smile falters, but then she bounces from the room. âSee you! Tell me all about it later. Emma, Iâll tell your professors and coach that you are sick today, and Iâll collect your notes and assignments.â
âThanks, Angelina. Youâre a sweetie.â
She gives me her smile, cheeks dimpling in the cute china-doll way she has, and blows us kisses. Sometimes I wish she could be a real human being for onceâthrow a royal temper tantrum, break a rule, or actually make a messâbut either she keeps all negativity bundled up deep inside or she really is incapable of baser emotions.
Iâm left alone in the apartmentâs tiny entryway with Jason.
âEmma,â he says, stepping closer, his head leaning down toward me. He is way too close, and I remember Iâm not dressed.
Tall with wide shoulders, Jason is muscular from hard labor (construction and welding) and athletic adventures (kayaking and mountain biking). The perpetual scruff movie stars work hard to perfect shadows his jaw, and his tousled black hair kept short. He cuts it every week because it grows too fast, like at least a half inch a day. With the smoky blue eyes and the confident grin he usually wears, heâd make any girl swoon.
Well, any girl but me. Iâd more likely hit him upside the head with a broom than swoon over him.
âCoffeeâs in the kitchen. I need to get dressed and showered; then we can go for pastries at the bakery around the corner.â Just off campus, thereâs a scrumptious little shop, but I never have time in the mornings. I turn back to my room but then stop. âOh, how do I need to dress for the day?â
âSure.â He runs his hands through his hair, but his eyes are too busy following my ass to pay attention to anything I said.
âJason.â I snap my fingers. âUp here. What do I need to wear?â
His gaze shifts to my face, and he grins, not even having the decency to flush. âDress warm.â
Good. So weâre going to have an adventure.