“I was thinking more like your room, but if you have a thing for public exhibitionism, who am I to argue?”
“That’s it. You need to leave.” I pull my hands away and reach for the hand sanitizer sitting on the counter next to the register. God only knows what I could catch from having my fingers anywhere near this guy’s pants.
“You still haven’t gotten me my drink. Plus I need three Power O’s.”
I sigh. “Do I really have to go over the whole no-shirt thing again?” I glance around the room, praying for someone—anyone—to come up to the counter so I can switch my attention off Z and to an actual customer. But either no one’s thirsty or they’re having too good a time watching the show to want to interrupt it.
“You’re not actually serious about that, are you?”
“I’m always serious.”
He looks like he’s got something to say to that, but before he can get the words out of his mouth, he gets rushed by the girl from earlier and two other guys. They look vaguely familiar, and after a minute of staring at them like a moron, I realize it’s because my aunt introduced me to them on my first day here. They’re part of the group of snowboarders and skiers Lost Canyon partially sponsors.
It’s no surprise that it takes me a minute to place them. I’d felt like I’d fallen into an alternate universe that day, one where my whole life had gone topsy-turvy batshit crazy. How could I not when things had changed so fast? When what I wanted—needed—most had ceased to exist in the blink of an eye?
“Dude, what are you doing?” the tall blond guy demands, interrupting my pity party. “Put your clothes back on before you scare the new girl away.”
“Yeah, man,” the dark-haired one chimes in. “Walk around like that long enough and some of the snow cougars are going to start shoving dollar bills in your pants.”
Z flips them off, but when one of them hands him a T-shirt, he takes it and shrugs it on. I feel an instant of regret. Though I hassled him about being shirtless, it’s almost a shame to see all that beautiful skin get covered up again. Almost.
“Hey. I’m Cam.” The girl waves a hand in my face, and I immediately jerk my gaze over to hers. I’m embarrassed to be caught gawking at Z, but she doesn’t seem mad. In fact, she looks amused as she thrusts a hand out to me.
I shake it automatically. “I’m Ophelia.”
Not really. “Thanks.”
“This is Ash.” She points to the tall blond guy with the floppy hair. “And this is Lucas. And you’ve already met Z. We all ride together.”
“It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too. It’s hard not to like a girl who doesn’t take Z’s shit.”
“Hey! Whose side are you on?” Z demands.
She ignores him, looks at me curiously. “So, where are you from?”
“No way! I love that city!” Lucas tells me. “How come you don’t have an accent?”
“Who says I don’t?” I lay the southern girl on thick.
“That’s better,” he says with a nod. “I’ve always wanted to go for Mardi Gras, but it’s always in the middle of competition season.”
“How ’bout you?” Z speaks up for the first time since his friends came over. I turn to look at him, then glance quickly away. I don’t like the way he’s staring at me, all intense and predatory, like a jungle cat playing with his food before he devours it. “You’ve probably been doing Mardi Gras for years.”
“Nope. It’s not really my thing.” The lie almost sticks in my throat, because for years no one loved the two weeks before Fat Tuesday more than I. The parades, the crowds, the music, the beads, the booze. What’s not to like? Everything, it turns out.
“What?” Now they’re all looking at me like I’m crazy. “Who lives in freaking New Orleans and doesn’t go out for Mardi Gras?” Z demands.
By this time, memories are swamping me and my muscles are so taut that any sudden movement on my part might snap them right off the bone. I try to keep calm, though. Nothing good will come from dredging up the past. Or from letting them see how much this subject stresses me out. Annoyed with myself, with him, with the whole damn situation, I tilt my head up and give him my best I’m-sorry-annoying-little-gnat-did-you-have-something-to-say-to-me look. “Me. Is that okay with you?”
“No.” He looks bemused. “Not really.”
I have no answer for that, so I don’t say anything, and neither does anyone else. An awkward silence descends. Once again I look desperately around for customers, but there’s still no one. So I just wait it out, pretending I don’t hate awkward silences. Pretending I know why Z and his friends are standing around watching me.
Finally Lucas says, “We’re going to a party tonight. You want to come?”
I’m not sure who’s more surprised by the invite, me or Z. I guess it doesn’t matter, because I’m not going. I have to work. Plus, I have no interest in sitting around in a room of strangers all night, watching while every girl in the vicinity hits on Z like he’s some kind of sex god on parade. I’d rather eat a bug—or twelve.
“Thanks,” I tell him. “But I have to work.”
“You can join us later if you want.” He pulls out his phone. “Give me your number and I’ll text you the address.”
“I, uh—” I look to Z for help, but he’s just grinning at me. Like he knows there’s no way uptight little Ophelia would ever give a snowboarder her digits, let alone meet him at a party somewhere.
Before I can think better of it, I rattle off my new number. Luc enters it into his phone, and seconds later my own phone dings to alert me that I’ve got a text message. I glance at Z and this time the smirk is gone from his face. Instead, he looks pissed, and I can’t figure out why, unless he doesn’t want me at the party.
Which is fine. I’m not planning on going anyway. I ignore the instinctive twinge of hurt that I’ve got absolutely no reason to feel. It’s not like I thought he was hitting on me because he actually liked me or anything. More like I’m female and breathing. He probably doesn’t know any other way to talk to women.
I keep my answer noncommittal. “Thanks. Maybe I’ll see you there.”
“You should come,” Ash tells me. “We’ll take care of you.” Z’s scowl deepens.
I’m saved from answering when—finally—a woman with two little kids approaches the counter. “Do you make hot chocolate?” she asks, staring up at the menu above my head.
I turn to her like the lifeline she is. I’m more than ready for Z and his friends to leave me alone. In fact, all I really want to do is finish this shift and head back to my room. I’ve got research to do. Sure, there’s no hurry, since I have a few months before transfer apps have to be in, but still. The sooner I get started on them, the sooner I’ll be warm again. I might not be able to handle going back to New Orleans again, but there’s nothing keeping me from Arizona. Or New Mexico. Or Hawaii, for that matter. I’m not picky. As long as it’s somewhere warm and is handing out a buttload of financial aid, I’m up for pretty much any school. Especially if it means I never have to make another latte or sweep up another floor again.
Ignoring the little voice inside me that’s calling me a coward for ditching the party, I give the lady my most professional look. After what happened earlier, I can’t afford to make a mistake. Not unless I want to blow the chance to save money that comes with working—and living rent free—at Lost Canyon during the busy season. “We do. Regular, peppermint, and caramel.”
The little boy at her feet starts to bounce in excitement. “I want caramel. With lots of whipped cream.”
I can’t help but grin at him. “I can do lots of whipped cream. And chocolate shavings on top, if you’d like.”
“Ooh, I like. I like!”
I glance up to see Cam waving good-bye to me. Lucas points to his phone and mouths, “Text me,” as the four of them drift back to their table. They’re laughing and joking around, completely comfortable with each other in a way only true friends can be. It makes me ache a little, makes me think of Remi and the way things used to be with him. With us.
I curse myself as I take the rest of the woman’s order, then get started on her drinks. I try not to think about him, about the way things used to be. About the way they were supposed to be. What should have been doesn’t matter, only what is.
Pushing the past out of my mind, or at least to the back of it, where I don’t have to think about it every second, I top the three hot chocolates with extra whipped cream and chocolate shavings, just like I promised. As I slide them onto the counter, I watch Z and his friends gather up their stuff and head for the door without a backward glance.
Which is exactly how it should be, I remind myself fiercely. I’m not here to make friends or go to parties or hang out with hot guys. I’m supposed to be healing, getting my life in some semblance of order, making plans for a whole new future. It’s the smart thing to do. The right thing to do. Something tells me Z and the rest of them don’t know the first thing about the kind of desperation that’s riding me hard. Just one more reason for me to stay the hell away from them.
I reach into my pocket for my phone and delete the text Luc sent me with the party address so I won’t be tempted to go anywhere but back to my room after my shift is done. And still, as I watch as the four of them tumble, laughing, out into the snow, there’s a little part of me that wishes I could go. That wishes I could be like everybody else up here.
But I’m not, and I’m afraid I won’t be, ever again. It’s my own fault, and still it bothers me. Not missing the party, because it’s not like I’d have anyone to talk to there anyway. But the realization that there’s still a part of me that cares, that hopes, that wants to be normal. I thought I’d left that girl behind in New Orleans, and finding out that I didn’t …
Yeah, finding out that I didn’t sucks all the way around.
I can’t sleep.
I should be able to. I drank enough tonight—last night, this morning, whenever—that I should be passed out cold with the rest of them. But my buzz wore off sometime in the last couple of hours, and without it there’s no chance I’m going to be able to sack out. At least not anytime soon.
I push off the couch, pick my way through Luc, Cam, Ash, and some random girl Ash brought back here with us after the party. Usually I’m the one with the random hookups, but tonight I wasn’t interested in anything but getting good and f**ked up.
Not knowing what I want to do, knowing only that if I stay in here much longer I’m going to flip the f**k out, I head to the mud room. Pull on some boarding pants and a ski jacket before moving into the garage and take one of my favorite boards off the wall. I should wait until someone’s awake to spot me—boarding on your own is a suicide mission, especially with the effects of last night’s binge drinking still making my head a little foggy. But boarding while I’m a little drunk is nothing I haven’t done before, and besides, I just don’t have it in me to wait. Not right now. Not today.
Not to mention the fact that if I wait for Cam or one of the others, they’re just going to want to talk about shit, and I definitely don’t have it in me to do that. Touchy-feely crap makes me break out in hives.
After slipping into my boots, I head out to the side of the house, where I had a half-pipe built pretty much the second the snow started sticking to the ground. It’s a far cry from boarding the backcountry, but it’ll do for now. Maybe if I do enough runs, I’ll finally be able to sleep.